Less than five months ago, Vinnie Pestano was at the very top of the baseball world. He was the Indians set-up man, coming off of back-to-back dominant seasons out of the bullpen. He was also set to represent the United States in the World Baseball Classic, the event that every four years takes the game’s best players away from their team’s spring trainings to compete for world-wide bragging rights.
Pestano had a difficult time on that international stage. Unfortunately, for both he and the Tribe, those struggles have followed him into a disappointing regular season. Rather than setting up closer Chris Perez in August games with postseason ramifications, the right-handed reliever will now be trying to figure out where his issues lie on the relative obscure stage of Triple-A Columbus.
In a matter of months, one of Cleveland’s best players from the 2012 season has gone from potential future closer to minor leaguer. It is as shocking of a development as any this year. That is especially so considering the Indians are squarely in playoff contention without the bullpen stalwart providing anywhere close to what was expected.
The move to option Pestano to the Clippers was made Tuesday, when Cleveland traded for left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski. The southpaw gives the Tribe a second lefty in the pen to go with Rich Hill. Pestano, having his worst Major League season at 1-2 with a 4.05 ERA, can try to reclaim his command in less-pressurized situations.
For Pestano, the ERA is not horrible, but it is nowhere close to the 2.32 and 2.57 he posted in 2011 and 2012, respectively. His biggest issue is with his control. He has walked 19 batters in 34 innings. The past two seasons, he walked 24 each year total. Those were in 67 and 70-game campaigns. His walks per nine innings are 5.1 this year. That is up by two per nine from a season ago.
After a disastrous month of May, Pestano actually seemed to be righting the ship in June. For that month, he had a sterling 2.08 ERA in 13 appearances, 13 innings. However, July has seen the former set up man be removed from that role as he has struggled with a 4.91 ERA this month. The fact that he has not allowed a run in his past five outings masks the fact he has still struggled with command and allowing base runners over that time, even throwing in lower-pressure moments that he had as the set-up guy.
Pestano’s fall could be a result of a couple different things – both physically and mentally. The mental side could be coming from his WBC experience all these months later. On March 15, in an elimination game against Puerto Rico, Pestano was called upon in the sixth inning with the U.S. trailing 1-0. The situation saw a runner on first with two out. Cleveland’s bullpen ace proceeded to walk two batters and allow a pair of hits. Puerto Rico led 4-0 en route to sending the U.S. home in a 4-3 defeat. Pestano took the loss hard, tweeting about letting his team and country down.
He would likely deny still being affected by a game four and a half months ago, but it could have been the beginning of the down season. Situations like that are not uncommon. Many times we have seen a closer in a close out game of a league championship series or World Series get lit up and blow the game, along with his team’s title chances. Often that closer is so rattled that it takes him a year or more, if ever, to get back to the point they were at before that outing. Pestano’s turn on the hill in the WBC was the biggest moment of his big league career, having never pitched in the postseason. It is not unthinkable that he could be going through the shellshock that relievers before him have suffered from.
Physically, Pestano spent about two weeks on the disabled list in May with elbow tendinitis. At the time, his ERA was 2.25. However, there was no question his velocity was down from where it had been. Again, this could have been a result of throwing in the WBC. He lost a couple weeks of spring training, as well as time to get his arm into peak regular season shape. It’s possible he has not been quite right from Day 1.
Now, he will get a chance to get things corrected in Columbus. Without the bright Major League lights on him, he could get himself righted both mentally and physically. A loss or a run given up in Triple-A is not as damaging to the psyche as one in a pennant race. He can also work on getting his velocity and command in synch without the watchful eyes of 20,000+ fans on him.
It is likely that Pestano will be back in the majors before the season is over. If nothing else, he should be a September call-up when rosters expand. Of course, the Indians could use the old Pestano before then. After two years of the bullpen being the backbone of their team, the Tribe has seen the relief corps falter this season. It is currently the weakest part, though getting better of late.
Perez, after a shaky start, has come around the pitch like the closer of old. Pestano’s fellow late-inning reliever of past years, Joe Smith, has taken the set-up role but has not been as consistent as he once was. Cody Allen, a rookie in 2012, is being counted on heavily in big moments this year. You have to wonder how a young player will hold up in the late-season pressure cooker of a postseason push. Matt Albers has been good, has never been a late-inning reliever before. Bryan Shaw has been up and down. Lefties Rzepczynski and Hill have been shaky.
Without a significant upgrade via trade (now would have to be by the waiver deadline of Aug. 31) or someone else in the farm system, the Indians need Pestano to get righted in Columbus. In a best-case scenario, Pestano could take the demotion and regain his lights-out stuff in a matter of weeks. With a newfound confidence he could come back in mid-to-late-August as a key cog again in the Cleveland pen. Worst-case is that he comes back in September, makes a few appearances and then gets left of the playoff roster if the Tribe advances that far.
Both Cleveland and Pestano need the best-case or close to it. Before the season, if someone had told said Pestano would be in the minors by August, most fans may have thought the season would not be going well. It is going well, but postseason baseball does not happen very often for teams with questionable bullpens. The easiest and most efficient way for the Indians to get theirs back into shape would be to have Pestano throwing like the guy who was tabbed to pitch in the WBC. The Indians could still reach the playoffs without him, but would fare better off with the Pestano of old.
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