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Trend Spotting: Bullpen problems and avoiding risk

Trend Spotting: Bullpen problems and avoiding risk
July 27, 2013
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It is 7-1, Kluber is pitching well as usual, the Tribe seems to be rolling, winning a very important first game of the series. This is exactly the shot in the arm they needed, a big win making it two in a row, and then all of the sudden it happened. The Tribe had to go to the bullpen.

Yes they had a four run lead with three innings to play, and yes it was against a middle of the pack offense but the Tribe’s back end collapsed, shockingly Rich Hill and Chris Perez were the only ones to keep it together.

Simply put, the Indians really have just one maybe well-functioning reliever this season and one of them was having weed shipped to his dog. So obviously I am using high function loosely. Digressing, a case could be made for Allen in stretches and perhaps Albers of late, but in reality it has been a complete fracas of underperformance.

Therefore, we are going to take a quick look at two guys specifically who have underperformed this season and been absolutely vital to past success. The two I am referencing are Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith.

Pestano’s collapse has been the most poignant and most destructive. Many including myself entered this season with the belief that Pestano was in all likelihood the best high leverage reliever on the team. Vinnie’s swagger, intensity and blue collar competitiveness aside, he was downright dominant the past two seasons without really any indication of the struggles that lie ahead.

A couple of quick tables on Pestano to isolate any possible issues:

Year HR/FB K/9 BB/9
2011 8.60% 12.19 3.48
2012 9.10% 9.77 3.09
2013 14.60% 9.19 5.01

While the consistent K/9 decrease is concerning, the number itself is still pretty impressive and he has done an impressive job continuing to get it past guys.

The walks per nine is what really jumps off the page, I mean it is trending towards Hagadone-esque struggles with limiting free passes. Pestano’s location has been a really underrated piece of struggle so far this season because most fans are caught up on a possible velocity decrease which I will touch on in a moment.

One other issue is Pestano’s fastball location inside the zone; he has seen major increases in both line drive and fly ball frequency with a huge decrease in groundballs. Which has caused his opponents BABIP to elevate to .302, a career high by a wide margin.

Let’s for a moment return to Pestano’s fastball velocity:

Year Fastball Average Velocity Fastball Movement Slider Movement
2011 92.6 7.9 9.9
2012 91.7 6.8 10.6
2013 91.2 8.1 9.9

What we see is that Pestano’s average velocity decrease is half what it was from 2011 to 2012. In fact, the decrease while not negligible is hard to highlight specifically as the major flaw. The fastball velocity is much in the same vein.

The slider movement is also not particularly insightful either which lead us to a couple of different assumptions all of which or none of which could be true.

The fastball velocity could have an effect; however, it appears that two things could be at the root of the problem. The first is the control issue which I believe is really a large portion of the struggle both in terms of additional base runners and eliminating damage inside the zone.

The second has to do with his arm slot; Pestano has always been reasonably deceptive because of the arm slot. If Pestano ever gets inconsistent or shifts the slot he can become more inconsistent and also easier to pick the ball up from.

This is not rocket science but I think the most important note is that control wise Vinnie is struggling, and struggling mightily. Pestano also seems to have lost his confidence which creates issues going after hitters inside the zone.

An injury is possible but it is also possible that Pestano is just struggling to repeat his delivery which is causing an increased struggle with walks and control as a whole. Not an altogether unfixable issue.

Joe Smith and One Horrific Month

April:0.00 ERA.
May:1.80 ERA.
June: 3.65 ERA.
July: 6.75 ERA.

If one was to remove July, Joe Smith would be performing at a truly impressive level. Of course ERA has its flaws and Smith’s FIP has him as a much more mediocre pitcher in both May and June.

One of the problems with evaluating relievers is that one is constantly fighting with limited samples, especially when one looks at batted ball profile. The imperfections are obvious and have been stated/disclaimed.

However, Smith’s ground ball percentage kind of sticks in your eye. Smith is a guy who was tremendously ground ball prone because of the life on his fastball. Smith has a heavy fastball because of his release point and the arm action/spin imparted.

Smith has had over a 10% decrease in groundballs which are the backbone of his success as a pitcher. Add in an inflated HR/FB and you see how destructive the increased fly ball rate has been.

Scanning other key landmarks or key statistics we see relatively stable strikeout and walk rates. The strikeout rate actually increasing this season.

In generality, I think Smith has done a very solid job this season except for the tumultuous month of July. The “Bullpen Mafia” may have gone underground for the short haul but once they get Eliot Ness (elevated walk rates) out of the way this pen could strengthen and be an asset in the final months.

Which is not even including internal additions like C.C. LeePreston GuilmetMatt LangwellAustin Adams or Trey Haley.

Say no to Garza

Finally we will play a game called guess the xFIP. (xFIP: Expected Fielding Independent Pitching on an ERA scale assuming a 10.5%  HR/FB rate)

1. 3.01
2. 3.33
3. 3.75
4. 3.79
5. 4.23
6. 4.66

1. Corey Kluber. 2.Justin Masterson. 3. Matt Garza. 4. Scott Kazmir. 5.Ubaldo Jimenez. 6. Zach McAllister.

The point being that while Garza is a good starter he probably would perform akin to a three starter in the Tribe’s rotation. Obviously Kluber or Kazmir’s current rates could be unsustainable but Garza is pretty unimpressive.

Would two months of a three starter be worth a package like Chisenhall, Cody Anderson and one other piece? In all likelihood no, which is why the Indians made a good choice laying off the best starter on the market.

The Cubs got incredible value for Garza which is impressive, but the Indians did a good job by not biting and protecting their long term window. Garza was just not the right fit and offered little marginal value barring an unforeseen injury to a Tribe starter.

After Friday night’s bullpen display all I can say is serenity now! Serenity now!

Interact with Michael by email at and on Twitter @MichaelHattery

User Comments

July 28, 2013 - 9:12 AM EDT
Rich Hill didn't exactly "keep it together" Friday night. He was brought on to get one batter out - Pierzynski - in a tight situation with two on and two out. It was a classic lefty-on-lefty matchup. AJ ripped a vicious line drive right at Swisher and that ended the inning.

Hill sucked again, but got lucky this time.

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