Tuesday, August 11, 2009

As the Dust Settles – R-O-L-A-I-D-S Edition

Having looked at the position players and the rotation going forward in this Brave New World at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, it’s time to take a look at what has apparently become the most important part of the Indians’ success (or lack thereof) in the last five years...I speak, of course, of the bullpen. How is it, you ask, that the bullpen has apparently become the most important aspect of the Indians since 2005?

Take a look at how the cumulative ERA of the bullpen relates to how the team finishes, in comparative terms to the rest of MLB
2005
Bullpen ERA – 2.80 (1st of 30)
Team Record – 93-69 (6th of 30)

2006
Bullpen ERA – 4.73 (25th of 30)
Team Record – 78-84 (18th of 30)

2007
Bullpen ERA – 3.75 (6th of 30)
Team Record – 97-66 (1st of 30)

2008
Bullpen ERA – 5.13 (29th of 30)
Team Record – 81-81 (17th of 30)

2009
Bullpen ERA – 5.08 (29th of 30)
Team Record – 48-63 (25th of 30)

Great bullpen, great final record.
Bad bullpen…I know this is oversimplifying things more than a little while pouring salt into an open wound and certainly isn’t breaking any new ground, but with these results in behind the Indians, where does that leave the Indians, attempting to learn from the mistakes of their past?

The Indians have tried the veteran retread route (with success in 2005 with Howry and Sauerbeck, among others…and nearly complete failure in every instance since then), they’ve succeeded with the riding the hot hand route in 2007, they’ve been burned by the idea that past success means anything in 2008, and they’ve failed with the idea that a “lock-down” closer settles a bullpen in 2009.

Anyone coming up with any other ideas?
Apparently the Indians think they may have, as the recent trades of veterans has resulted in an influx of power arms, all seemingly boasting a fastball-slider mix, in an attempt to finally build a self-sufficient bullpen, not dependent on relative unknowns or reclamation projects.

Given the volatile nature of relievers, not knowing what can legitimately be expected from day to day, much less year to year with some of these guys, the Indians are attempting to build a brand new mousetrap in their bullpen strategy. Not necessarily a better mousetrap (because how can they be asserted with any degree of certainty at this point given what we’ve seen in the past few years), but one that represents a stark contrast from what they’ve attempted to cobble together in the past, with only two years of success to show for it out of the last five.

Before getting into what they look to be assembling for 2010 and beyond, let’s think back a few short months ago when the bullpen was thought to be a strength of this team. And as somebody who thought that Perez and Lewis would be perfect 7th and 8th inning complements to Wood all year, allow me to bring back the promise of the bullpen that broke camp in Goodyear with the Indians:
Kerry Wood
Rafael Perez
Jensen Lewis
Rafael Betancourt
Joe Smith
Masa Kobayashi
Zach Jackson.

The thought was with Wood locking it down, Lewis and Perez maturing into legit set-up guys after 2007 and 2008, Betancourt returning to some form of even his pre-2007 form and Joe Smith to serve as the ROOGY, the last two spots could be augmented from within when (not if) Masa and Zachson got their walking papers. That depth, if you’ll remember, was thought to be Tony Sipp, John Meloan, Rich Rundles, Juan Salas, and the cast of off-the-scrap-heap arms like Vinnie Chulk, Matt Herges, Greg Aquino, Tomo Ohka, Jack Cassel, and Kirk Saarloos.

You can mock that last group of names all you’d like, but it was pretty much assumed that if the Indians made it to Matt Herges (still second on the team in ERA+ among relievers, behind only Betancourt) on this list, so much had gone wrong in front of him that the season would likely be lost at that point anyway.

Unfortunately, we all now know of the deep regressions of Perez and Lewis, the injuries to Smith and Betancourt, and the wild inconsistency of Wood deep-sixed the season as a result of being asked to shoulder too many innings because of a thin rotation as well as seemingly all of them floundering in whatever situation their manager put them in.

But with an eye cast towards 2010 (as I don’t think I can bear to look back at the first half of the 2009 bullpen) and with players like Betancourt and Masa no longer options for this team going forward, what does the 2010 bullpen look like, even from this far away?
If I had to venture a quick guess, it would look like this:
Wood
C. Perez
Sipp
Smith
R. Perez
Lewis
Todd

If you want to put Sowers and Zachson in there as potential long men because they’re out of options, that’s fine; but the list should also include the likes of recent starters-turned-relievers Zach Putnam, Steven Wright, Frank Herrmann, as well as some of the newer acquisitions like Bryan Price or Connor Graham.

Looks OK to me, watching these guys shake themselves out over the past couple of months, right?
I guess, but remember what the overwhelming consensus was going into this past year in terms of the bullpen.

Looking at that list though, there does seem to be a sharp departure from the “put the ball in play and hope for the best” crowd and a shift to strikeout pitchers, with “stuff” (even if control issues come as a by-product) who ideally minimize damage by not giving up too many walks and preventing HR.

Let’s make that the starting point on some of these guys – high K rates while minimizing BB and HR – something that looks to be a relatively sound base camp if you look at the K/9 leaders (min – 40 IP, all as a reliever) for this year, the K/BB leaders for 2009 (min – 40 IP, all as a reliever), as well as the lowest HR/9 leaders for the year (min – 40 IP, all as a reliever), at least if you’re looking at some of the names on those linked lists.

When the names that dot the top of the K/9 list are Broxton, Nathan, and Aardsma (this year at least), you know that there is some merit here in terms of a pitchers’ repertoire being as such to stack up the K. The top of the K/BB list is Rivera, Qualls, Nathan, and Street, who have 110 saves between them this year and 7 of the top 25 on the HR/9have 24 saves or more. Thus, these three numbers seem like a decent place to examine what exactly the Indians are looking to go into 2010 with.

For most of these guys, I included both MLB and MiLB numbers as many are young enough that their MLB service clock really just started ticking. For the old man in the bullpen (whose service clock is starting to resemble a gold watch at the ripe old age of 32), I only included his time as a reliever the last two years:

Kerry Wood – Age 32
MLB (2008/2009 only) - 10.9 K/9, 3.49 K/BB, 0.8 HR/9

Chris Perez – Age 23
MLB – 9.9 K/9, 2.05 K/BB, 1.0 HR/9
MiLB – 12.0 K/9, 2.01 K/BB, 0.6 HR/9

Tony Sipp – Age 25
MLB – 9.9 K/9, 1.38 K/BB, 1.8 HR/9
MiLB – 11.7 K/9, 3.78 K/BB, 0.7 HR/9

Joe Smith – Age 25
MLB – 8.2 K/9, 1.86 K/BB, 0.6 HR/9
MiLB – 9.8 K/9, 2.68 K/BB, 0.2 HR/9

Jensen Lewis – Age 25
MLB – 8.1 K/9, 2.30 K/BB, 1.2 HR/9
MiLB – 9.2 K/9, 3.62 K/BB, 0.8 HR/9

Rafael Perez – Age 27
MLB – 9.4 K/9, 2.88 K/BB, 0.9 HR/9
MiLB – 7.2 K/9, 2.57 K/BB, 0.5 HR/9

As for the guys who have little to no MLB numbers, here’s what they’ve done this year in MiLB, including only this year as all of the following are making the transition from starter to reliever for the first time in their careers:
Jess Todd – Age 23
2009 AAA – 11.2 K/9, 5.08 K/BB, 0.5 HR/9

Steven Wright – Age 24
2009 AAA/AA – 7.5 K/9, 2.92 K/BB, 0.2 HR/9

Frank Herrmann – Age 25
2009 AAA/AA – 5.58 K/9, 3.08 K/BB, 0.2 HR/9

Zach Putnam – Age 21
2009 AA – 8.6 K/9, 3.00 K/BB, 0.4 HR/9

Yes, I could include Sowers and Zachson, who are both out of options after this year and could fill the role of the long man for the team, but they don’t exactly fit what looks to be this “new mold” of relievers that the Indians are targeting – these power arms that rack up the K’s, but also have the control issues that will often accompany young power arms still looking for consistency in the bullpen.

Two guys that fit the role more obviously would be two of their most recent acquisitions, who remain starters…if only for now:
Connor Graham – Age 23
2009 AA/High A – 9.8 K/9, 1.94 K/BB, 0.3 HR/9

Bryan Price – Age 22
2009 High A – 8.8 K/9, 3.12 K/BB, 0.6 HR/9

What does all of that mean?
Does it mean that Chris Perez or Tony Sipp can be legitimate set-up guys as early as next year with the idea that either can ascend to the closer role?
Is it possible that one of these young converted (or soon-to-be-converted) starters adjusts quickly to the bullpen and surprises everyone by entering the fray?

After the precipitous fall from grace for Rafael Perez just as one example, who looked nearly bulletproof in the bullpen for about 2 ½ years (2.89 ERA, 156 ERA+, 1.09 WHIP from 2006 to 2008), I’m done trying to predict what’s going to happen with relievers. I’d like to convey how much I like Jesse Ray Todd, but I fear that it will serve as the kiss of death that felled Fernando Cabrera, Edward Mujica, and Tom Mastny in years past.

Will this group of young players fare any better than guys like that, once so full of promise, even only with the idea that they could fill out the bullpen as competent middle relievers for a time?

Honestly, I’m too busy keeping my eye on the number of games finished by Kerry Wood to really have a strong opinion on most of those guys, an opinion that will likely end up being wrong.

As for that vesting option that guarantees Kerry Wood’s $11M option in 2011 if he finishes 55 games either this year or next when he’s currently on pace to finish 53 games with the pace increasing (he’s finished 5 of the last 12 games with only a blown save last Friday preventing that number from being 6 of the last 12) in an unquestionably lost season?
Yeah, that one…

Beyond watching that and being ready to scream bloody murder if Wood comes in to finish his 55th game with the Indians, it does seem that the Indians have loaded up on power arms (Hurricane Perez and Todd, closest to MLB-ready, and more beneath them) in these trades to go along with some of the more promising pieces that looked to be in place when the season started, whether 2009 has affirmed that promise (Sipp and Smith) or cast serious doubt on it (Scarecrow Perez and Lewis).

Beyond that grouping, it would seem that the Indians should have more palatable in-house options sitting in AAA or AA, whether they be the players who were converted from being starters this year (Putnam, Wright, etc.) or guys that could make that transition next year (Graham, Price, etc.) to the bullpen. Regardless of who figures in as that depth, it would seem that the days of looking for “lightning in a bottle” in terms of trying to ply some effectiveness out of a off-the-scrap-heap option may be mercifully coming to an end, as the system now looks to be stocked up and down with power arms.

Certainly a number of the power arms are high risk/high reward type guys, but if this is the new mousetrap that the Indians are constructing in an attempt to remedy the disease of ineffectiveness of the past few incarnations, I’m all for it. Looking up and down the list of potential relievers and watching these guys work over the past few weeks, I’m starting to become cautiously optimistic about the future of the bullpen in that it finally seems to be a point of focus at all levels.

“Cautiously optimistic” though is a few rungs down from where my feelings stood on the 2009 bullpen…and we all know how that ended up.

3 comments:

Hyde said...

Re Wood and finishing 55 games, last night's game is the type where we have occasionally seen Wedge bring in the closer, even with a 5-run lead. I wouldn't be surprised if the option is already factoring into the manager's thinking.

I almost never have anything positive to say about Wedge, so I want to commend him for his recent use of Sipp as a regular ol' setup man and not simply to get the one out. I think that's a tough role for any pitcher to adjust to, and especially a young pitcher (I'm convinced that the Indians' choosing to use Ricardo Rincon in the typical one-out way you see lefty relievers used in the AL instead of the way Pittsburgh used him contributed to his ineffectiveness here). Sipp closed in the minors, which requires one to be able to retire RH batters. There's no reason he can't also do that in Cleveland.

Tyler said...

I'm not so sure they'll move Graham and Price to the 'pen. With Hagadone and Barnes, I think you're looking at the core of the 2010 Akron rotation there. Let's face it, when the GM says that Rohn-DOHN was "the only bright light" in the system's pitching depth before the trades, it's safe to assume that there's nobody blocking them.

Rockdawg said...

First off, props PTC on this whole series of articles.

Second, I just read Jason's statement from last week where he claims that Paul using the word "slot" keeps this from being the best Tribe blog?? Did I read that right? What you are saying is, using the word "slot" is the difference here? Jason, have you ever broken up with a woman because she ate her peas one at a time?