A Familiar Face Returns to Cleveland, but is Pestano Back for Good?

It was a welcome sight for Indians’ fans last week, as they watched Vinnie Pestano perform his signature sprint from the bullpen to the mound on Friday, June 21, versus the Detroit Tigers. It was 72 days since his last appearance on the big league stage, having tossed his last pitch for the Tribe on April 8 against the San Diego Padres.

Pestano has long been a fan-favorite for Clevelanders, based on both his performances on the mound and his interactions with fans. His strong numbers – like allowing 20 runs throughout the entire 2012 season and posting a 2.57 ERA – attracted fans, but it was his jokes on Twitter were won what them over. He was a constant for Indians’ fans, a pitcher they could count on, both on and off the field.

However, that love wore thin towards the end of last season and the beginning of 2014, as the Pestano that fans came to know and rely on on the mound seemed to crumble before their eyes.

Last season, Pestano tossed 35.1 innings for the Tribe, allowing 18 runs on 37 hits, walking 21, and striking out 37 batters. He gave up eight home runs on the season and posted a 4.08 ERA before he was shut down following his appearance on September 16 in Kansas City. In that outing, Pestano faced five batters and threw 19 pitches. He threw a two-seam fastball that topped out at 92 mph, a four-seam that reached 91, and a 79-mph slider.

Pestano used to be the set-up man for reliever Chris Perez, coming to the mound late in the game to set the stage for a save. However, he showed signs of faltering in that role last season, making the team – and fans – question Pestano’s future.

Pestano struggled upon his return at the opening of the 2014 season. He appeared in three games, compiling a 13.50 ERA in 2.2 total innings. He faced 17 batters in those three games, throwing a total of 68 pitches. Pestano gave up one home run, walked one batter, and struck out four batters while allowing six runs (four earned) on eight hits. Following his appearance on April 8, when he allowed three hits in .2 innings, including the one home run, Pestano was sent to Triple-A Columbus, where he stayed until last week.

While in Columbus, Pestano worked to refine his mechanics to return his old form. The effort paid off in Triple-A, as he went 2-3 with a 1.78 ERA in 25 relief appearances. He gave up 17 hits and allowed seven runs (five earned). He walked seven and whiffed 32 batters. Perhaps most impressively, upon his recall to Cleveland, Pestano had not allowed a run over his last 13 appearances in Columbus dating back to May 18. He allowed seven hits, walked two, and struck out 12 in that time. He was brought back to Cleveland on June 20, when Zach McAllister was optioned to Columbus after coming of the DL with a sore back. The Indians will not need a fifth starter until they begin July games, thus making the Pestano/McAllister switch possible for the time being.

In his return, Pestano retired the three batters he faced on June 20 and 21. He also appeared during Tuesday night’s 14-inning melee, facing two batters. He struck out one and allowed one hit in .1 innings of work, though the hot allowed a run to score that put the Diamondbacks on top of the Tribe 6-5 in the sixth inning. His ERA is down to 9.00 in 4.0 innings.

The success of Vinnie throughout the rest of the season can equate to the success of others, as well. His presence is certainly needed in the overworked Tribe bullpen, as relievers Marc Rzepczynski, Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, and John Axford are among the American League pitchers with the most game appearances. Rzepczynski is tied with Oakland’s Luke Gregerson for most appearances with 38, while Shaw has appeared 37 times, Allen is at 36 appearances, and Axford is at 34. To give the bullpen a sold option for relief such as Pestano would allow these pitchers more time to rest, revive themselves, and pitch at a higher potential.

His mechanics seemed to be the factor of his performance that was proving difficult to harness during his periods of struggle. Hopefully, for Pestano, the trip to Columbus did its job in allowing him time to improve and reestablish the tools that brought him prior big league success. His velocity is in the low-90s right now, down from the mid-90s speed he threw at during his strongest seasons but up from where he was during his lowest periods and Spring Training. The velocity is also something he has mentioned as continuing to improve.

The question remains, though, of what will happen if Pestano can’t return to close to his old form? The pitcher is 29 years old, and should be moving into the strongest time of his career. If he can’t up his performance now, however, just how long will the Indians keep him around to wait for the improvement?

From a fan perspective, it would be sad to see Pestano go. He is engaging and maintains an active presence with fans, making his a name and a face that is easily recognizable. It would be a shame to lose that. Hopefully, it won’t come to that but, as happens with this game, nothing in guaranteed – especially when the pitcher himself cannot guarantee his performance.

Photo: Otto Gruele Jr./Getty Images

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