Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Plugging the Leaks

Now two and a half weeks into the season, with the Indians preparing to make up some ground at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario against the 1st place Kansas City Royals, the biggest disappointment of the young season, in terms of what was expected when the season started against what we’ve seen thus far, has been far and away the performance of the re-worked bullpen.

Obviously, the starting pitching has been more than concerning as no Indians’ starter has thrown a pitch in the 7th inning and the starters are averaging just over 5 innings per start, but isn’t this what we kind of expected out of the rotation? Wasn’t the sense that the rotation would evolve on the fly and experience some growing pains (some being very painful) in the process the prevailing notion coming out of Arizona?

To me, the starters looked to set up as a trial-and-error sequence, where the names and the arms changed until the right mix was found, hopefully before the season got out of hand. And while the season certainly hasn’t gotten out of hand, the starters are culpable for a good deal of the issues with this team as C.P. Lee and Fausto have thrown decently, but certainly not well and Pavano and Reyes have been an inconsistent and frustrating duo, whose leashes should start to tighten with a few rough outings, while Aaron Laffey attempts to make an impression in SLewis’ absence to make the case to stay topside. Among the five starters, the progression and the evolution is underway…but we knew that was coming.

Not so in the bullpen, where the Indians’ addition of Kerry Wood was supposed to settle the bullpen by immediately slotting the relievers below him on that “Ladder of Progression” into their roles as set-up relievers, mop-up guys, long men, and specialists. The idea was actually quite simple as the Indians’ two best relievers last year (Stomp Lewis and The Scarecrow, Rafael Perez) would alternate their roles in the 7th and 8th innings, depending upon the opposition’s lineup as the RH Lewis and the LH Perez could be used in tandem to maximize their effectiveness as the bridge to Wood in the 9th, depending upon the handedness of the scheduled hitters for the late innings.

The idea continued that, with Wood locking down the 9th and Lewis and Perez sharing duties in the 7th and the 8th, that Rafael Betancourt could re-build his confidence that eroded in 2008 in the 6th inning or as needed to work himself into a more meaningful role while Joe Smith would find work in strategic match-ups with tough RH hitters from the 6th inning on. With the track records of the pitchers involved, the idea wasn’t too much of a leap of faith as, past Wood, all four had two or three year track records that seemed to imply that their success could and would be sustained.

Unlike the rotation, the bullpen out of Goodyear looked pretty solid and pretty set in terms of who did what, and when:
9th – Wood
8th – Perez/Lewis
7th – Perez/Lewis
6th – Betancourt
ROOGY – Smith
Mop-Up – Kobayashi
Long Man – Jackson

As much confidence as that progression gave so many that the ugliness of the 2008 bullpen was safely behind us…well, look out:
2008 bullpen in April
4.54 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 6.99 K/9, 4.05 BB/9, 1.72 K/BB in 27 games

2009 bullpen in April
6.49 ERA, 1.75 WHIP, 6.49 K/9, 6.09 BB/9, 1.07 K/BB in 13 games

That’s right, kids…the 2009 bullpen has been statistically worse than the 2008 bullpen, who assisted in the sabotage of the season that we’re trying so hard to forget.

In fact, when you take Kerry Wood’s dominant performances out of this year’s numbers, the rest of the relievers have walked more batters (29 without Wood) than they’ve struck out (25 without Wood). This year’s bullpen has already given up 32 earned runs in 13 games, while last year’s incarnation gave up “only” 37 earned runs in 27 games.
Knowing what the 2008 bullpen did to the season, it doesn’t feel “too early” on the bullpen anymore, does it?

Unfortunately, the idea that the additions to the bullpen (Wood and Smith) coupled with the maturation and continued development of Lewis and Perez as set-up men would settle the bullpen simply hasn’t come to fruition. Look at those two links of results again and see how Kobayashi, like last year, has been among the Indians’ most effective relievers while the pitchers thought to be the back-end relievers when each season started dot the bottom of each links.

That is to say, the pitchers that struggled in April of last year were the assumed set-up man in Betancourt, who was striking a lot of people out (10.24 K/9), but giving up a lot of HR (3 in 9 2/3 IP) and Perez, who was walking a lot of people (6 BB in 12 IP) and giving up a lot of hits (14 H in 12 IP).
Sound familiar?

A cursory look at Jensen Lewis’ pitch mixture, strike to ball ratio, and hit percentage doesn’t reveal much other than that Lewis is giving up more fly balls than he ever has, although it’s really not THAT much more than his career averages. What has happened is that those fly balls have been depositing themselves in the bleachers of stadiums instead of in the gloves of his outfielders. There may be a correlation as to where Lewis has allowed HR, as 3 of the 4 HR against him have came in the notorious launching pads in Texas and NY, but against nearly half of the batters he’s faced (34), he’s either struck them out (8), walked them (4), or given up a HR (4). I’ve heard of Three True Outcomes, but that’s pretty ridiculous, even when you consider the small sample size.

All told, I think that Lewis will likely be in the mix throughout the season in the back-end of the bullpen and may just be pressing, just missing a few spots that have been costly, or may be overextended in terms of when and how he’s being used instead of being used strictly as a 7th or 8th inning set-up reliever.

As for Perez, obviously something has changed with Perez as a noted strike-thrower whose induction of swings-and-misses has not only seen a wild divergence in the number of walks he’s given up and the damage done when contact is made is positively horrifying.
Consider the slugging percentage against Perez over the last three years:
2007 - .292 SLG against
2008 - .353 SLG against
2009 - .630 SLG against
That’s not OBP against, that’s Slugging Percentage against, meaning that when opponents did get on base against Perez, it was usually via a single. If that doesn’t make sense to you, how about this:
2007 – 12 extra base hits allowed in 60 /23 IP
2008 – 17 extra base hits allowed in 76 1/3 IP
2009 – 4 extra base hits allowed in 7 IP

Now throw that on top of his walk totals and how different 2009 looks and you can see that there’s a serious problem:
2007 – 15 BB in 60 /23 IP
2008 – 23 BB in 76 1/3 IP
2009 – 9 BB in 7 IP

Yes, it’s 7 IP and, yes, Perez can still rebound from this dreadful start as he’s always struggled out of the gate. But what has always made Perez so effective – pounding the strike zone, minimizing BB, inducing weakly hit balls – seems to be completely reversed in this 2009 incarnation of The Scarecrow and that development throws the whole “Ladder of Progression” for these relievers into flux as his status as a late-inning reliever is simply not valid right now and the rest of the bullpen needs to adjust accordingly, however that may be.

What’s so concerning about that hole in the 7th and 8th innings, though, is that the Indians are inexplicably unable to find consistent success in any of their relievers outside of Wood. Even the guys who have looked good at times (Kobayashi, Smith, Betancourt) have been far from confidence-inspiring. With 8 relievers in the bullpen instead of the normal 7 (presumably because of the stretch of games without an off-day and the concerns in the rotation), you would think that somebody would be able to log some meaningfully effective innings for the bullpen.

But that hasn’t happened and the Indians have now played 13 games and to exacerbate the problem, beyond Wood and Smith, no reliever has a set “role” because of the issues in the back-end with Lewis and Perez and at that front-end with the starters not contributing enough innings to the cause. Certainly some of it can be traced to the starters and their short outings, but at the end of the day, the relievers (regardless of the inning) have to come in, protect leads or keep games close, and get batters out. To date, outside of Wood and Kobayashi (and to a lesser degree, Smith), that just simply hasn’t happened.

The difficulty, of course, with relievers is that their exposure to MLB hitters is so limited that to “work through” any issues generally need to occur in game situations, meaning that if the Indians believe that a pitcher like Perez simply needs to work out the kinks that he’ll do it for the Indians, but maybe in some lower pressure situations or in games in which the game’s outcome has already seemingly been decided.

Unfortunately, the problems go deeper than just Lewis and Perez, though, despite the fact that the failures of those two have been the most surprising and have affected the bullpen the most; so the question needs to be asked of whether help or new arms is anywhere to augment this bullpen and perhaps provide the Indians with a consistent reliever other than Wood?

If you’re going off of Shapiro’s quote from yesterday’s conference call (via Castro), it doesn’t look like they think so:
(On possible roster moves)
”We'd consider any move that would make our team better. No one at Columbus has made themselves a clear, better alternative to the guys up here. We need to balance the importance of making us better and understanding there's some urgency with also understanding the long schedule and respecting what players have done and giving them the opportunity to get on track.”

For the translation from ShapiroSpeak, that means that the alternatives in AAA may be better suited to stay in AAA to have them ready to step into a meaningful role once these bullpen roles (hopefully) shake out after the next couple of weeks. He’s saying that he doesn’t want to call a guy like Meloan or Sipp up and burn him out with overuse because of the struggles of guys with a track record of success that may simply need to work out the issues that they’re having against MLB hitters. To me, he’s saying that he still feels that the 8 guys that make up the bullpen are the best relievers in the organization right now. Maybe that “best” 8 or 7 changes in their eyes…but that day isn’t today.

Actually, if you do look deeper into what’s happening with the Columbus pen, the thought process does hold some merit. Probably the first reliever that we’ll see topside, John “Mayday” Meloan has a 1.20 WHIP, 8 K and 1 BB in 8 1/3 IP as a reliever in Columbus as he transitions back to the bullpen, but his outing on Monday night resulted in 3 ER in 2 IP. That’s just one outing though, right? Technically yes, but of the 9 hits that Meloan’s given up this year, 7 of them have been extra-base hits (6 2B, 1 HR), so when he gets hit…he gets hit hard. Don’t we already have that cause-and-effect (high K rate, high XBH rate) with Jensen Lewis going on?

The other impact young pitcher that would get a look, Tony Sipp, has performed fairly well in Columbus, notching 10 K in 7 IP, but he has 5 BB to go against those 10 K and, if we’re looking for a LHP that can walk people at an alarming rate – that position is currently filled. Sipp has experienced a good amount against LH hitters in the short time he’s been in Columbus, striking out 3 of the 10 LH hitters he’s faced, but the Indians see Sipp as more than just a LOOGY and calling him to Cleveland right now essentially slots him into that LOOGY role, which may stall his development as a reliever who is effective against both RH and LH hitters. Hitters aren’t hitting the ball hard against him (only 14% of balls struck off him are line drives) and he’s only given up one extra-base hit in his 7 IP.

But, like all of these guys in Cleveland, you’re talking about making judgments on 7 IP and 34 batters faced. If guys like Mayday Meloan and Sipp are legitimately going to contribute for the Indians this year as the bullpen continues to reveal itself, doesn’t it stand to reason that getting them steady work in Columbus, to allow them to work on things outside of the bright lights of an MLB stadium is preferred to throwing them into the smoldering fire that is the Indians’ bullpen right now?

I suppose if the Indians REALLY want to add an arm from within, one intriguing name would be LHP Rich Rundles, who has never been sold as anything more than a LOOGY. Assuming that Perez will get outings against LH and RH hitters to rectify himself and that Zachson is going to remain the long man, the Indians really are without a pitcher effective primarily against LH hitters. Into that void, Rundles could emerge given his numbers over the last two years against LH hitters in AAA:
2008 vs. LH hitters in Buffalo
1.01 WHIP, .165 BA Against, 42 K, 14 BB, 18 hits allowed in 123 LH batters faced

2007 vs. LH hitters in Buffalo
1.08 WHIP, .158 BA Against, 13 K, 1 BB, 6 hits allowed in 31 LH batters faced

He’s on the 40-man, and I guess he’d fill a hole - but does calling Rich Rundles up really feel like that “one move” that’s going to make this bullpen whole again?

No…and neither does calling up any of the other Chulkesque options in AAA, Matt Herges and Greg Aquino, who are a step below The Regrettable Chulk on the food chain…which is saying something. And, unless you’d like to report a Juan Salas sighting, that’s what you’re looking at for immediate in-house options for this team.

Could they make a trade for a bullpen arm, like the Cardinals who traded our dear old friend Brian Barton to the Braves for Blaine Boyer? I suppose, but at this point in the season, it’s not like teams are looking to jettison effective relievers with so many games in front of them.

Ultimately, the Indians almost have to play the cards in their hand right now as the track record on most of these relievers suggest that better results are possible, as difficult as that may be to believe now. What remains unbelievable is that the Indians, for the second straight April, have experienced what is nearly a bullpen-wide meltdown with relievers that they felt comfortable going into the season relying upon.

So, if these are the cards in their hand and they’re going to have to play them, what do the Indians do now?
First and foremost, I think you move Perez out of any situation to pitch in meaningful game situations and try to build his confidence back up gradually, maximizing his effectiveness by putting him into situations that he SHOULD be able to succeed without the pressure of the game being in the balance being at play.

Secondly, let’s summarily dismiss the idea that Kerry Wood should go more than one inning, regardless of how nice it would be to see that nastiness for more than three batters. It is still April and it is unwise to tempt fate at any time in a baseball season…much less April.

Beyond that, I think that the Indians have to balance past track record with current results and start to develop that “Ladder of Progression” in the bullpen based not only on who’s been there before, but also who’s succeeding now. If pressed to take a stab at it, I suppose this is how I'd build it:
9th – Wood
8th – Betancourt
7th – Lewis
6th – Kobayashi
ROOGY – Smith
Situational LHP – Perez
Mop-Up – Chulk
Long Man – Jackson

Of all of the pitchers with a track record of back-end success, Betancourt has been the most consistent performer despite his recent predilection for BB. He was victimized by Choo’s non-catch in New York (although he put himself in that jam with the walks) to see his ERA rise from 2.45 to 6.14, so if there’s going to be someone to get that “next first crack” at the 8th Innings, Senor Slo-Mo is probably the best in-house option.

Beyond him, I'd give Lewis and Kobayashi some work in the 6th and 7th innings with Smith complementing them accordingly to get RH hitters out. Perez needs to find work in games without meaning, while Chulk continues to mop-up and Zach Jackson stays at the ready for the imminent long man work that’s going to come.

Of course, even this alignment could go bad quickly the way that things are going, but if the Indians starters begin to go at least 6 innings and hand the lead to the bullpen, Monday’s off day should have given them sufficient time to slot these relievers into some semblance of a progression.

The way that the season is going for the bullpen, let’s hope that these relievers replace their gas cans with fire extinguishers to put out some fires on the mound before the bullpen, thought to be an area of relative strength entering the season, becomes the season’s undoing.

UPDATE – Obviously, less than an hour after I posted this, the Indians’ bullpen let up 6 runs in 2 IP to make a game out of what should have been a nice, relaxing evening at home. After the game, in which the Indians only needed 3 outs in the 8th to get the lead to Kerry Wood and were forced to use 3 pitchers to get the aforementioned 3 outs, the Indians optioned the Zach Attack to Columbus (mainly because he has options remaining) and called up Tony Sipp.

As I mentioned above, Sipp has always been seen as more than just a LOOGY and calling him up now could be a cause for concern in that it might slot him into that role instead of allowing him to develop as a reliever capable of getting out both LH and RH hitters. But, desperate times call for desperate measures, and after last night and the past 5 days or so, the Indians have no reason to slot Sipp into facing only LHP as he suddenly looks like as viable an option as there’s going to be in that bullpen.

Sipp struggled with his control in Columbus, but at this point, I wouldn’t have any problem putting him right into that 6th inning mix and seeing what he can do. It can’t be much worse than what we’ve seen.

Whether this is the move that settles the bullpen remains to be seen, but it’s pretty telling when the second guy called up from AAA before the end of April immediately looks like he could be one of your 4 best relievers on the team.

At this point, somebody (ANYBODY) needs to record outs in the 6th, 7th, or 8th innings with any regularity in front of Kerry Wood to make this bullpen work. Maybe it’s Sipp, maybe it isn’t…but the auditions for the bullpen are now fully on.


POJO_Risin said...

Hey Paul...

This was a pretty appropriate piece considering tonight's rather lackluster performance.

Talk about a pen in disarray. Joe Smith got his chance to nab an eighth inning job, and I'd say he pretty much didn't. No Mas'a...ouch...

Lewis didn't look all that bad finally...

Wood looked dominant in his outs. Sure, he gave up a two-run jack, and will have some praying to the same heart paddles that Joe Borowski made famous...

but he's definitively not Joe Borowski, as his 97 MPH fastball that closed the game would attest to.

I look forward to the day when an Indians team doesn't have more questions than answers...

csusi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
csusi said...

anybody seen wickman?

am i the only one that is shocked to know that bobby is still throwing the ball? its true. for the dbacks.

we've got trade bait coming out of our ears, and i personally feel its time to starting "SHOPPACH'ing" it around if you know what im saying. fill some bullpen gaps.