Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 39
Bob Toth | On 16, Feb 2020
Baseball takes little time off in between seasons, so neither can we. Follow along at Did the Tribe Win Last Night as we count down to March 26, when the Cleveland Indians host the Detroit Tigers for game one of the 2020 season. – BT
Countdown to Opening Day – 39 days
After becoming a reliable matchup reliever in the Majors, Oliver Perez will be tested this season with the Indians.
Rule changes made by the evil dictator Rob Manfred, who is trying to singlehandedly destroy baseball with ridiculous rule changes designed to trim mere minutes off of the total length of games, will drastically affect Perez and other LOOGYs around the game. The commissioner has mandated that during the 2020 season that relief pitchers must pitch to a minimum of three batters or pitch to the end of the inning, with the exception for injuries and illness.
Sometimes the frequent swapping of pitchers to play to the matchups can be exhausting and can slow the momentum and game action to a halt, but it has long since been a cerebral part of the game. Players like Perez have made their careers on being able to come in and shut down a batter or two before getting the quick hook, and this decision by the commissioner targets these players heavily.
Perez, who has worn the number 39 for the Indians during each of the last two seasons, had worked as a starter for parts of his first nine big league seasons from 2002 to 2010, but he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2008 that cost him much of that season and the one that followed. After being cut by the New York Mets at the end of spring training and spending all of 2011 in the minors for the Washington Nationals, he made his return to the Majors in 2012 when Seattle converted him to relief work.
Working in his 17th big league season, Perez was a workhorse once again for the Tribe, one year after helping save a disastrous bullpen from ruining the season when he was scooped up as a free agent during the season. Perez put up a 1.39 ERA and a 0.74 WHIP in 51 appearances for the Indians in his first year with the club, which he was able to roll into a one-year, $2.5 million deal for 2019 with a vesting option for this coming season. As he surpassed 60 appearances in 2019, the option vested at the max value of $3 million.
In 2018, Perez handled both sides of the plate effectively. He faced 65 left-handed hitters, holding them to a .194 average and .215 on-base percentage with a 22-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing just 12 hits (three for extra bases). Right-handed batters struggled even worse against him, hitting just .104 with a .218 OBP with five hits (all singles) in 55 plate appearances, but he did issue six walks while striking out 21.
Perez’s numbers in 2019 were not nearly on the level of his first year in Cleveland. He made 67 appearances (his highest since pitching in 70 games in 2015) and finished the year with a 2-4 record with one save, a 3.98 ERA, and a 1.23 WHIP. The biggest difference was in his splits, as he held lefties to a .207/.274/.333 slash in 95 plate appearances with 18 hits (including two doubles and three homers), 26 strikeouts, and seven walks allowed. Righties found better success, boasting a .286/.346/.543 line in 78 plate appearances with 20 hits (12 doubles and two homers), 22 strikeouts, and five walks. His numbers plumped up more in the second half, when he earned a 5.40 ERA and walked nine of his 12 batters for the year. The final month of the season was his undoing, as he worked just five and two-thirds innings in 12 September games, but allowed seven runs and nine base runners with an 11.12 ERA.
The Indians, moreso than just about anyone, have used their relievers by the splits to attack opposing lineups in matchup situations. Manager Terry Francona looked to Perez often in 2019, calling him into action on back-to-back days 19 times and on one day of rest or less 36 times. Perez has proven up to the task and durable, but his numbers may have taken a hit due to the workload. Francona turned to him 17 different times to face one batter, accounting for 25% of his appearances on the year (Perez was successful in these situations just 53% of the time). Nearly half of his outings saw him face two batters or less (33 of 67), and he was effective at getting both men out in these situations eight times in 16 trips. Thirty-seven times on the year Perez made fewer than ten pitches in a ball game and he capped out at two innings and 30 pitches thrown on May 29 against Boston.
Francona will be counting on the 38-year-old southpaw to do some heavier lifting than normal in 2020 while providing some depth and balance to the Indians bullpen as the lone lefty on the staff besides closer Brad Hand. Now in the twilight of a long and productive career, the Indians will hope that Perez still has some innings left in his arm.
The Indians have had plenty of representation on the field in the number 39 during the Jacobs Field and Progressive Field era of their club, but the best years by players in the digits came during some very down and lean years in Tribe history.
Gary Bell joined the Indians as an amateur free agent ahead of the 1955 season. By June of 1958, he was in the middle of the diamond, just 21 years old. Bell put together a solid rookie season, earning 12 wins with a 3.31 ERA. He appeared in 33 games, starting 23 of them, and threw ten complete games on the way to a third place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting.
He won 16 games the next season and was an All-Star for the Tribe in 1960, but after a 12-16 season in 1961, his role with the club shifted. With a crowded starting rotation featuring Dick Donovan, Pedro Ramos, Jim Perry, Mudcat Grant, Barry Latman, and young phenom Sam McDowell, Bell worked instead late in games more often than not, closing out 37 games and earning 12 saves and ten wins. He remained almost exclusively in the bullpen through the 1965 season before he jumped back into the rotation in 1966, putting up a solid 14-15 season in 40 games (37 starts). He threw 12 complete games with a 3.22 ERA and was back participating in the Midsummer Classic for the second time in his career.
Joe Adcock took over the club for 1967 and saw the bulk of the rotation return (Bell, Sonny Siebert, Steve Hargan, Luis Tiant, and McDowell). Bell, the longest tenured player on the Tribe, made three starts in April and five for the club in May with mixed results. After a rough showing on June 3 against Boston, he was traded to the same Red Sox two days later for young first baseman Tony Horton and Don Demeter. It brought an end to three years of speculation that Bell would be on the move, as his name was a frequent one in trade rumors.
“I kind of guessed I’d be traded – everybody did – and I’ve been guessing for three or four years,” said the veteran Bell in The Plain Dealer on June 5, 1967. “But when it happened, I’ve got to admit I was a little shocked.”
“Bell was the guy they always wanted,” Tribe general manager Gabe Paul in the same edition. Boston pursued Bell during the winter meetings and had tried to get Tiant the previous season. “We talked about him and Horton in Boston two weeks ago, but it wasn’t until now that Demeter came into the discussions.
“Dick O’Connell [vice president of the Red Sox] came to town unexpectedly Saturday and we talked during the game. Then we sat down this morning [Sunday] and decided upon the deal before the game.”
Bell jokingly added after the move, “I just hope the Indians continue to hit against me the way they hit for me.”
The new location did Bell some good, as he went 12-8 with a 3.16 ERA in 29 games for Boston and returned to the All-Star Game for the third and final time of his career in 1968. He was selected by the Seattle Pilots in the expansion draft following the ’68 season and was traded to the Chicago White Sox midway through the 1969 campaign in what would be the final games of his 12-year big league career.
The number made occasional appearances on the mound for the Indians over the next dozen years on the backs of five different hurlers before the team acquired Len Barker in a trade with the Texas Rangers.
Barker was a third round pick by the Rangers in the 1973 draft, but following the 1978 season, he was traded with outfielder Bobby Bonds to the Indians for infielder Larvell Blanks and reliever Jim Kern.
After working almost exclusively as a reliever in his first three MLB seasons with the Rangers, Barker finally got a chance to start regularly with the Tribe. After going 6-6 in his first season with the club in 1979, he put up an impressive 19-12 campaign with a 4.17 ERA while doubling his previous career-best for strikeouts in a season with 187. Working solely as a starter, he led the American League in strikeouts, but also was the league leader in wild pitches.
The next season was a memorable one for the right-hander, despite the strike that cut short the season. He went 8-7 with a 3.91 ERA and was selected to the AL’s All-Star team, but the highlight of his season was on May 15, when he threw just the second perfect game in franchise history (ending a more than 70-year drought dating back to Addie Joss’ perfecto on October 2, 1908) in defeating the Toronto Blue Jays.
The perfect game and no-hitter remain the last ones thrown by an Indians pitcher to date.
Barker was 15-11 the next season with a career-high ten complete games. But after a tough 8-13 start with a 5.11 ERA in 24 games the following season, he was traded to the Atlanta Braves with cash for three players to be named later – Rick Behenna, Brett Butler, and Brook Jacoby – in a move that would help the Indians for much of the rest of the 1980s.
Barker would spend parts of three seasons in Atlanta before signing with the Montreal Expos in 1986, but he missed the season with injury. He returned briefly with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1987, going 2-1 in eleven starts, missing much of the year again with injuries before ending his career.
Gio Urshela had been the most recent 39 in Indians history prior to Perez, wearing the number in 2015 and 2017 for the Tribe before he was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in May of 2018 for future cash or player considerations.
The door at third base had been wide open for the taking, but Urshela’s strong glove work and arm were not enough to make up for a lacking bat, causing the young corner man to spend more time suiting up for the Triple-A Columbus Clippers than for the Indians. Putting more pressure on Urshela was his teammate from the state capital, Yandy Diaz, who was lurking in the shadows waiting for his own shot. Instead, Urshela moved north of the border to Toronto and later was purchased in August by the New York Yankees, while Diaz was dealt last offseason by Cleveland to another AL East club, the Tampa Bay Rays. Urshela had a breakout season in the Bronx in 2019.
In 148 games split between the 2015 and 2017 seasons, Urshela slashed .225/.273/.314 with 15 doubles, one triple, seven homers, and 36 RBI for Cleveland.
Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
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