World Baseball Classic a Problem for Relievers
Bob Toth | On 13, Apr 2014
This week’s demotion of fan favorite reliever Vinnie Pestano by the Cleveland Indians was hardly a surprise after the once steady arm at the backend of the Tribe bullpen had faltered out of the gate for the second straight season.
Pestano’s issues on the mound have been thrust more and more into the limelight. This season, he appeared in three games, allowing earned runs in each appearance. In his last outing against San Diego in an 8-3 game, Pestano coughed up three runs in the ninth inning and was unable to finish the frame. At the time of his demotion, he was the only Indians reliever to allow an earned run and had given up six runs in total in two and two-thirds innings. Opposing hitters were batting .500 off of him.
Last season, the once-reliable setup man appeared in just 37 games between ineffectiveness and his demotion at the end of July to Triple-A Columbus. He posted a career-worst 4.08 ERA with six saves in nine opportunities. He averaged a strikeout per game (9.4 per nine innings) but his strikeout rate was down from 9.8 per nine innings in 2012 and 12.2 in 2011. He had nearly as many walks in 2013 (21) as he had in each of the previous two seasons (24 each year), despite making more than 40 fewer appearances in the center of the diamond.
Pestano’s problems were thought to emanate from his time as a member of Team USA during the World Baseball Classic prior to the 2013 season in spring training.
“I think we took the approach of what happened with Vinnie was his mechanics changed a little bit because of the WBC,” said Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway in January at the Lake County Captains Hot Stove Dinner event. “He got a little bit of a tired arm. From that being tired, his mechanics changed a little bit, especially his arm action.”
Pestano’s ERA for the World Baseball Classic event was the worst of the 15 pitchers on the roster, equaling the 9.00 ERA of Minnesota’s Glen Perkins. He allowed two earned runs on three hits, walked two, and struck out two in two innings of three games. In a key spot in their elimination game against Puerto Rico, he entered the game with the team trailing 1-0. He allowed a single to Mike Aviles and issued a walk to load the bases. He proceeded to walk in a run and allow a two-run double to break the game open, one that Team USA would lose 4-3.
Pestano was not the only reliever on the Indians roster scheduled to participate in the tournament and he was not the only one to have struggles throughout the season.
Former Indians closer Chris Perez was expected to be a part of the team for the United States, but a strained subscapularis muscle in his right shoulder shut him down before his participation could begin.
Like Pestano, Perez’s problems were obvious and detrimental to the Indians throughout the season. Perez’s, though, were a little more noticeable, as his struggles occurred both on and off the field, highlighted by an unpleasant and well publicized involvement with the legal system.
Perez appeared in just 54 games for Cleveland in 2013, his fewest appearances since joining the Indians at the trade deadline in 2009. He was 5-3 on the year with a career-worst 4.33 ERA. He saved 25 of 30 games over the course of the season, but his late season struggle in the closer position forced him to be removed from the role altogether.
He spent a month on the disabled list in May and June after leaving a save situation in Boston early with a right shoulder injury.
Could the problems of both relievers have stemmed from the World Baseball Classic? It is tough to say, but it is certainly a fair assumption that for both men, having to amp up for competitive games so early in the conditioning and training process of the spring may have taken an unexpected and undesired toll on their bodies.
Had both been the only two pitchers in baseball to have season-long complications after being involved in the tournament, it would be easier to rule it out as a possibility. But neither were.
“I felt quite a bit more amped up than I do during other Spring Training games,” Axford said last March in a story on MLB.com. “It’s the first time in ten years for me, putting on this uniform, so I’m really excited.”
After returning to the Brewers, Axford struggled quickly. Beginning his fifth season in the Major Leagues in Milwaukee, he blew his first save opportunity in the team’s season opener, giving up a two-out ninth inning home run to Dexter Fowler to tie the game. Two games later in a non-save situation, he gave up a pair of home runs to make a 4-3 deficit a 7-3 disadvantage. His velocity was notably down, sitting in the mid- to high-90’s during the tournament but in the low-90’s with the Brewers.
“I pitched in the WBC and loved the experience. I loved pitching for my country,” said Axford after joining the Indians. “I went from throwing 98 miles per hour against Team USA to throwing 91 to 92 miles per hour when the season started. My velocity was down. I don’t know if it was a dead arm or what.”
In his next opportunity in a tenth inning tie, he gave up a two-run home run to Arizona’s Eric Hinske, costing his team the game and costing him his closer’s job. Henderson replaced him in the role.
In less pressure situations, Axford settled in over the rest of April but struggled early in May, giving up five earned runs over his first five games while earning a loss and a pair of blown saves. He improved over the rest of the month and on into June, but faltered again in July, giving up earned runs six times in an eight game stretch. He was dealt to St. Louis at the end of August, where the coaching staff pointed out flaws in his mechanics that were causing him to tip his pitches. After making an adjustment, he allowed a 1.74 ERA with the Cardinals in 13 games and appeared in six postseason games for the National League champions.
“I don’t like to make excuses. I really enjoyed pitching for my country, but I really don’t think my arm was ever ready for the start of the regular season,” Axford said in December. “I had a dead arm and my velocity was down in those first few games of the regular season. But when you give up four home runs and have an ERA of 22 after four games, you can’t be surprised that you’re not the closer anymore.”
There were others as well.
Indians minor leaguer Giovanni Soto appeared in two games in the tournament for Puerto Rico, walking two and striking out two in three and two-thirds innings. The oft-injured lefty missed all but nine games of the 2013 season in Triple-A after a back injury shut him down in May. He starts 2014 back in Double-A.
Henderson’s numbers were the best of his short MLB career last season. He spent 15 days on the disabled list at the end of May and the beginning of June with a strained right hamstring.
Philadelphia’s Phillippe Aumont was a member of Team Canada in 2013. He appeared in 18 games with the Phillies in 2012, earning an 0-1 record and 3.68 ERA while saving two games in three opportunities. The opposition hit just .189 against him and he had a WHIP of 1.30. Last season, he was 1-3 with a 4.19 ERA in 22 games. His WHIP for the year was 1.91 and the opposition hit .308 against him. His numbers in the minor league saw some similar regression.
Pittsburgh’s Chris Leroux was on Team Canada’s staff. He began 2013 with the Pirates and was cut loose after allowing three runs on four hits in four innings. He walked six. He signed with Yakult of the Japan Central League and gave up 22 earned runs in 22 innings pitched in five games as a starter.
Toronto minor leaguer Trystan Magnuson was also on the Canadian staff. After starting the season 1-1 with a 9.00 ERA (12 earned runs allowed in 12 innings of 10 games) and a 2.08 WHIP, he was released. He had a 3.20 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 38 games the previous season in Toronto’s farm system.
Even one of the Canadian starters, Pittsburgh prospect Jameson Taillon, saw increases in his ERA, WHIP, walk rate, and batting average allowed from 2012 to 2013. He will miss this season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Team USA left-handed reliever Jeremy Affeldt posted his worst ERA since 2010 last season and racked up five losses with the San Francisco Giants. After averaging more than 68 appearances per year over the last six seasons, he was limited to 39 with the Giants. Three weeks into the season, he was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right oblique. He was activated at the beginning of May. He returned to the disabled list on July 21st with a strained left groin and missed nearly two months.
Heath Bell, another Team USA reliever, pitched for his third team in three years with Arizona in 2013. He had a 4.11 ERA, improved from his 5.09 with Miami the previous season, but was charged with seven blown saves in 69 appearances. His 12 home runs allowed were double his previous career high.
David Hernandez, Bell’s teammate in Arizona and with Team USA, saw his ERA increase from 2.50 in 2012 to 4.48 in 2013. He appeared in ten fewer games than the previous season, blew six save opportunities, and gave up the most home runs he had allowed while used exclusively as a reliever. His strikeouts were down, and he is shut down for 2014 after undergoing Tommy John surgery as well.
After a 4-1 record and 2.21 ERA in 78 games for St. Louis in 2012, Mitchell Boggs started 2013 with the Cardinals after competing in the tournament for the United States. He was purchased from the Cardinals by Colorado midseason and finished the year a combined 0-3 with an 8.10 ERA in 27 games. He allowed as many home runs last year as the year before, but did so in 50 fewer innings of relief. Opposing batters hit 90 points higher against him (.301) and his WHIP climbed from 1.05 in 2012 to 2.06 in 2013.
Kelvin Herrera, who pitched for the Dominican Republic’s team, was optioned to the minors by the Kansas City Royals twice last season because of his ineffectiveness. After a 4-3 campaign in 2012 with a 2.35 ERA in 76 games, he was 5-7 with a 3.86 ERA in 59 games in 2013. He allowed a career-high nine home runs and had walked as many batters as the previous season, despite logging 26 fewer innings.
Reliever Pedro Strop worked in six games in the tournament and struck out seven batters while allowing just three hits, no walks, and no runs. He started the season 0-3 with a 7.25 ERA and 1.70 WHIP in 29 games with three blown saves before being dealt to the Chicago Cubs in July. He finished the season with his worst record and ERA since 2010.
Star closer for the Dominican squad, Fernando Rodney, blew only two saves in 50 opportunities in 2012 for Tampa Bay in 76 games with an unbelievable 0.60 ERA, .167 batting average against, and 0.78 WHIP. Those numbers escalated to eight blown saves in 45 chances in 2013 in 68 games with a 3.38 ERA, .211 batting average against, and a 1.34 WHIP. He appeared in eight games in the World Baseball Classic, posting saves in seven games while giving up just one hit and not allowing a run.
To some extent, the World Baseball Classic is an unnecessary risk for players and teams alike. The athletes put their bodies on the lines in order to represent their countries in the only tournament available to them, since the exclusion of baseball from the Olympic games. The teams themselves are taking a calculated risk as well, knowing that their players could come away from the games injured or otherwise impaired, as is the case with the partial list of participants mentioned above.
Injuries and inconsistencies can occur for any player over the course of the year. Numerous situations could play in to a player showing some regression from season to season. But it is certainly a sizable list of players with professional playing experience to all see significant declines or injuries affect their ability to contribute to their teams.
It could all be coincidence. It is extremely difficult, if not bordering on impossible, to draw a conclusive correlation for the decline and/or injury of some players to their participation in the tournament.
As for the pitchers who represented their countries while being employed by the Cleveland Indians organization, all three suffered last season. For Pestano, he has yet to fully recover, whether it be due to the World Baseball Classic or just general misfortune.
Photo: David Santiago/Miami Herald