If the bullpen’s recent struggles seem familiar, that’s because they are.
Let’s rewind the clock to 2007. The Indians had one of the best bullpens in the American League. Rafael Betancourt, Rafael Perez, Aaron Fultz and even Jensen Lewis all had ERAs under three. Despite his 5.07 ERA, Joe Borowski led the AL with 45 saves. The team even got surprise contributions from the likes of Tom Mastny. With the entire cast (sans Fultz) returning for the 2008 season, hopes were high that the bullpen would help win more games than lose them.
It wasn’t the case.
First and foremost was Borowski. His season was a disaster. The then-37-year-old Borowski started the season 1-3 with a 7.56 ERA in 16.2 innings. After recording only six saves in that time, the team released the defending saves leader on July 10 and began platooning the job when Borowski was injured in late April.
First, they tried putting Betancourt in at closer. That experiment was a disaster, as “Raffy Right” went 3-4 with a 5.07 ERA while recording a mere four saves. Then the team tried thrusting its newest signing into the role in Masahide Kobayashi. He did better, but not well enough to secure the job, sporting a 4.53 ERA with six saves. Finally, the team settled on giving the job to Lewis, who gave the team some reason to believe he was a viable option in the closer’s role. He had a 3.82 ERA while recording a team-high 13 saves.
Overall, the 2008 Indians had a total of 31 saves – 14 fewer than what Borowski alone had the year before.
Unfortunately for the Indians, that game of bullpen musical chairs left more than just a void at the back end of the bullpen. Suddenly, the guys who were with the team from the year prior and had their roles established had no idea what they’d be called into a game for next. For example, 2007’s eighth-inning specialist was Betancourt. He was tremendous in that role despite annoying hitters and umpires with his pace. Next thing he knows, he goes from pitching the eighth one week to pitching the ninth the next and then the seventh the week after that.
It wasn’t just Betancourt either. Rafael Perez, Mastny and even Lewis – who had the most success with the bouncing roles – struggled to get a firm grasp on what to expect the next time they entered a game.
Fast forward five years to the present day. Those roles are once again available to the highest bidder; in this case, whoever happens to be doing well. Chris Perez and Vinnie Pestano have been fighting injuries that have severely hurt their effectiveness. With Perez being shut down for a week or so beginning Tuesday, someone will need to fill the closer’s role once again. Whoever it will be may not be able to adjust. Whoever it will be may not be able to smoothly transition between roles.
Should Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, Joe Smith or maybe some unexpected player step up as closer, it will be interesting to see how it plays out in both the short and long term. Will one player turn into the 2008 Betancourt? Are the days of Smith-Pestano-Perez as the 7-8-9 tandem coming to an end? Those questions should all be answered in the coming weeks.
That leads to the next similarity between the ‘08 bullpen and the current one. Neither group had/has a solid lefty who they can count on to shut down the opposition. While it’s true that Rafael Perez was a solid option, his ERA still jumped almost a full two points from the year before. If that wasn’t bad enough, Rafael Perez had virtually no support. There wasn’t any other reliable southpaw in the bullpen. In fact, the only other lefties the Indians used out of the bullpen that year were Craig Breslow, Rich Rundles and Zach Jackson, the latter of which didn’t even arrive until the Indians waved the white flag by trading CC Sabathia.
The 2013 club is in a similar situation thus far, just without a Rafael Perez to turn to. Inconsistency from youngsters Nick Hagadone and Scott Barnes, the struggles from Rich Hill and the continued implosion of David Huff which ultimately led to his release have the Indians in dire need of a lefty arm.
This isn’t the first time the Indians bullpen has been a bit of a mess. History repeats itself, and it’s up to the team to learn from the mistakes from five years ago.
Photo: AP Photo
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“It wasn’t just Betancourt either. Rafael Perez, Mastny and even Lewis – who had the most success with the bouncing roles – struggled to get a firm grasp on what to expect the next time they entered a game.”
What happened to the quaint notion that someone calls down the bullpen, tells a guy to get loose, they summon him in, and he gets OUTS?
Is that really too complicated?
What has gotten into ballplayers today? Or us? The idea that everyone has to be assigned rigid roles or complete chaos results is nonsense, and yet everyone seems to buy into it when it comes to bullpens.
Allow game situations, match-ups, recent performance, rest, and other factors dictate who comes into games, not fixed roles. There’s nothing sillier than watching a manager bring in his closer with a save-qualifying three-run lead in the 9th, but go to a mop up man with a four-run lead. (Even worse is watching said closer engage in a slow motion train wreck without ever having anyone warm up because, well, you just don’t show any lack of confidence in your man, not ever. You’d rather lose a game first before doing THAT. But that’s a different topic…sort of.)
Baseball is not a game conducive to automatic responses; it is a game of matchups, one-on-one confrontations, and ever changing circumstances, particularly in the latter stages of a contest. Unfortunately, when it comes to bullpens, some people cling to the belief that it should be a push-button world so we can seal away the criticism. (“But…but…I brought in the 8th inning guy!)
Sorry, the world’s more complex than that. Trying to always simplify it doesn’t change things. Everyone knows time to get smarter and more flexible to survive in today’s world, especially if you’re Cleveland.