Heading into the 2013 season, there were plenty of questions about the Cleveland Indians’ roster. The starting rotation was full of uncertainty and would need to bounce back as a whole. There were fewer questions about the offense, which on paper looked to be considerably better than the previous incarnation. Big free agents signings, several under-the-radar moves, and a couple of trades looked as though they instantly upgraded the club.
The Bullpen Mafia though, the consistent relief corps of the last several seasons, was thought to be a strength coming into the campaign, as the back end of Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano, and Joe Smith remained in their respective roles and the team added several veterans to compliment the existing roster.
Unfortunately, while both the offense and starting rotation have put together good seasons overall at the quarter pole of the year, the bullpen has gradually grown inconsistent and unreliable, especially pitchers of the left-handed variety.
Plenty had been written about the struggles of closer Perez in the last week after he blew a save under a chorus of boos against Seattle after giving up back-to-back home runs last Saturday. He then followed the outing by allowing the go-ahead run to exit the yard on Monday in the ninth inning on another solo home run.
He has not been alone in the struggles. Teammates Smith and Pestano also had similar outings Monday, each allowing solo home runs in the matinee as the Indians held on to win it in the bottom of the tenth.
Concerns abound regarding the health of setup man Pestano, who has not quite seemed himself both before and after a 15-day disabled list trip due to right elbow tendinitis. His velocity is down still, even though manager Terry Francona thinks it is just part of returning to the game and kicking off some rust.
“I think it is more command,” Francona said following Saturday’s 7-4 loss to the Boston Red Sox. “We pitched him [Friday] just to try to keep him sharp. I think he is…trying to get comfortable and getting confident. His breaking ball is not quite where it will be.”
Just as big of a problem for the Indians bullpen has been the ineffectiveness of the left-handed relievers. In addition to giving up several more home runs than hoped for and runs in bucketfuls, they have struggled to get left-handed batters out.
The lead veteran lefty on the roster right now is Rich Hill. Hill gave up three earned runs on a pair of hits in two-thirds of an inning in Friday’s loss to the Red Sox. Two days prior, he gave up two earned runs in mop up duty in two innings of work against the Tigers, despite striking out a season-high four batters. Two other times in the month of May he has allowed runs, both on solo blasts.
Hill had been one of the more reliable arms in the bullpen for Francona for a lengthy period of time this season. After being hit for three runs (two earned) in the home opener against the Yankees, he made eight consecutive appearances without being charged an earned run. It is, however, a deceiving stat, as he walked in a run on April 27th against the Royals when, called on in relief to face the left-handed hitting Eric Hosmer, he threw the young first baseman five straight mid-70’s curveballs and walked in Alex Gordon, Kansas City’s third run on the night.
The Indians lost that night, 3-2, after a two-run ninth inning rally against KC closer Greg Holland.
Needed as a left-handed specialist, Hill has not been marginally better in his splits. Left-handed batters are actually batting better against him (.241) than right-handed batters (.208). Hill’s WHIP figures favor lefties, 1.64 to 1.14. Two of his three home runs allowed this season have been to lefties.
He has allowed eleven runs (nine earned) in 14 1/3 innings of work, good for a 5.65 ERA. Four of the 12 base runners he has inherited this season have come around to score.
Sadly, his numbers are some of the best in the bullpen from the left side.
Southpaw Nick Hagadone has blazed a path back and forth between Cleveland and Columbus in the early 2013 season.
He was an early roster casualty as the Indians attempted to complete the suspension of starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco at the beginning of the season. After being optioned on April 2nd, he was recalled on the 12th as reliever Matt Albers went on the paternity list. He finished the month, but was optioned to make room for Trevor Bauer on the first day of May.
The injury to Pestano sped Hagadone’s return to Cleveland, as he rejoined the club just five days later on May 6th. But on the 16th, he was again optioned out to Columbus to create a roster space for the returning setup man.
Three times already since Spring Training, Hagadone has been shipped out to Triple-A Columbus. In each return trip, he has not been able to secure a bullpen spot strongly enough to prevent another drive down I-71.
As expected, he entered the season with better career splits against left-handed hitters than right-handed hitters. Lefties had struck out almost as many times as righties and were batting over 100 points lighter, despite 44 fewer plate appearances. He has maintained a 3.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio against left-handed hitters, the best of his young career.
Right-handed batters seem to again be getting the best of the hard-throwing lefty. Right-handed batters have struck out five times while walking eight and are batting .211 against him. While this has been a stark improvement from the .327 batting average against him by righties in his injury-shortened 2012 season, it illustrates his problems perfectly.
In seven of his 13 outings, he has appeared in a full inning or less, giving an impression that maybe Francona was using him as a left-handed specialist (LOOGY) out of the bullpen. But in two of those seven appearances, he was removed after allowing three earned runs and retiring just one batter or less.
While Hill has a history of consideration as a loogy, Hagadone is often credited with a strong enough arm and a mid-90’s fastball good enough to retire batters regardless of what side of the plate that they hit from. But given his numbers, he has only had that kind of success against the lefties.
On the year, he has pitched ten innings, allowed nine runs (eight earned), walked ten, and struck out a dozen. After a 2.45 ERA in April, he has a 20.25 ERA in five May appearances. Batters have hit .385 in the month with a 3.38 WHIP, after an April with a .091 batting average against him and a 1.09 WHIP.
When pitching with runners in scoring position, which he has done for nearly half of his ten big league innings this season, he has allowed all of his runs on the year on just three hits, good for a 15.43 ERA. He has walked three and struck out eight while allowing the opposition to hit .200 during these opportunities.
In three appearances in Columbus since this most recent demotion, Hagadone has pitched five innings, allowing three hits, two runs, four walks, and ten strikeouts. Half of those strikeouts came in his last outing, when he was hit with a loss against Syracuse after allowing two earned runs on three hits in a pair of innings.
Cleveland has already parted ways with another lefty, David Huff, this week.
Huff did not make the club, as expected, out of Spring Training. He passed through waivers unclaimed and rejoined the Columbus ball club and got a surprise call up to replace Lonnie Chisenhall on the roster on May 13th.
Huff had displayed some above-average numbers in his first nine games (two starts) for the Clippers. While his WHIP was right around his minor league career average at 1.23, he was allowing nearly one full hit less per nine innings and was averaging more than ten strikeouts per nine innings. He had earned a 3-1 record with a 4.07 ERA at the time of his recall.
The long-time Indians pitcher, a first-round draft pick in the 2006 draft, was brought back north to pitch in his fifth season in an Indians uniform. In his first outing, he looked sharp, striking out the first two batters he faced and allowing just one hit in one and two-thirds innings of work in a 7-0 loss in the second game of the doubleheader with the Yankees on May 13th.
A week later in a pair of games against the Tigers, the results were not quite as good. The reliever, a former starter, came on in the ninth and struck out the first batter he faced before issuing a walk, a pair of singles, and an RBI and getting hooked from the appearance. Another of his runners scored against Albers. A 3-1 game turned into a 5-1 loss.
The next night, he relieved Ubaldo Jimenez in the fifth inning with the Tribe trailing 6-2. He issued four straight singles before a pair of strikeouts that sandwiched a caught stealing. In just one inning, he allowed four hits, three earned runs, and the deficit swelled to 9-2. The Indians scored five runs in their next two innings.
That night, he cleared out his locker as he was designated for assignment formally on Thursday and has since been claimed on waivers by the New York Yankees. He ends his 2013 season with Cleveland with no record and a 15.00 ERA. While he enjoyed a 15.0 strikeout/nine inning ratio, he also suffered a bloated 2.67 WHIP.
Side-arming lefty Scott Barnes was recalled from Columbus to replace Huff on the roster and may be the best of the southpaw bullpen bunch so far this season.
He was limited to just one outing his first time up, becoming the 26th man on the roster for the team’s first doubleheader of the season in Kansas City. Appearing in a 7-0 shellacking by the Royals, he walked the first batter he faced before giving up a home run to Alex Gordon. Two groundouts and a fly out followed to end his afternoon and he was on his way back to join the Clippers.
He was recalled on May 5th to replace Ezequiel Carrera on the roster when he was designated for assignment. He left the Cleveland roster again just four days later when Michael Bourn was able to rejoin the club. In his two outings this trip, he threw three hitless innings, allowing just one walk and one hit batter while striking out four of the eleven batters he faced.
After rejoining the Indians last week, he has saved the bullpen a bit of extra work and continued a nice little hitless string to five consecutive innings. He tallied three innings of work in the win and earned his first major league save while striking out four again.
While Barnes has been successful in three of his four outings in the Majors this season, he had not been as effective in Triple-A. He was 2-2 with a 5.74 ERA in twelve games. He had allowed ten earned runs in just under 16 innings of work.
If Barnes cannot hold down the role in Cleveland, one other option may remain at Columbus.
Giovanni Soto is on the club’s 40-man roster and is a left-handed reliever. He has a 4.91 ERA in eight games in relief, but has unusual numbers against lefties. In two and one-third innings of work, he has not allowed a run, hit, or strikeout, but has walked five. Righties are batting .320 with five runs scored (7.11 ERA) on eight hits and four walks.
For all of the good work done by the starting rotation so far this season, some members of the bullpen have done little to be of service. In particular, the lefties out of the bullpen have done little more in the last few weeks than fuel the fire. Instead of being firemen, a nickname long attributed to relievers, whose jobs often can resemble those who come to the rescue to put out fires, several members of the bullpen have been more like pyros, igniting some smaller fires started by their teammates into five-alarm blazes.
While the left-handers in the bullpen have been rescued time in and time out by some of the other players on the roster, they have hurt the team by not keeping some games closer to allow the offense a chance to catch up.
If the Indians plan to remain in the mix atop the American League Central and in the Wild Card race, they will need to fix this issue in the bullpen as soon as possible. Their inability to keep runs off of the board and to not get outs will do further damage to the rest of their bullpen teammates and to the team as a whole.
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