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February 13, 2012

Resident Fantasy Genius

The Saves Sleeper That Isn’t

by Derek Carty

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Guys, it’s inevitable. Vinnie Pestano is going to be a trendy late-round draft pick this year as a potential saves sleeper. On the surface, it seems obvious why he would be. Cleveland’s closer entering 2012 will be Chris Perez, whose numbers were bad by middle-relief standards last season, much less by those of a closer:

Chris Perez – 2011 Season Stats

IP

K/9

BB/9

GB%

ERA

xFIP

59.2

5.9

3.9

28%

3.32

5.01

Of course, Perez isn’t as bad as all that seems to indicate; he was serviceable enough in 2009 and 2010 as the Tribe’s closer, and even a poor closer with a solid hold on the job entering the season is a favorite for 25 saves or so. Still, with peripherals that suggest a defense-independent ERA over 5.00, it’s natural for fantasy owners to start searching for the guy who’ll be next in line should Perez finally sink his own ship.

And that search leads to most to Vinnie Pestano, who looks the part when you begin to put his résumé together:

  • 27 years old (oh, that magic age 27)
  • Right-handed
  • 88 percent of his appearances came in the eighth or ninth inning in 2011
  • Pitches in front of a shaky closer
  • Second-highest leverage index on the team in 2011 (behind Perez)
  • Throws 93 mph
  • Induces whiffs at a rate of nearly twice the league average
  • Fantastic peripherals

That last one is the cincher. Just look at those 2011 stats. Put them next to Perez’s numbers, and the difference is starker than Mila Kunis standing next to Danny DeVito in drag (I don’t know what’s stranger: that that’s the image that came to mind, or that someone actually Photoshopped what it would look like):

Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez – 2011 Season Stats

Pitcher

IP

K/9

BB/9

GB%

ERA

xFIP

Chris Perez

59.2

5.9

3.9

28%

3.32

5.01

Vinnie Pestano

62

12.1

3.5

39%

2.32

2.80

As a result of all this, Pestano’s future closer candidacy is being heralded across the blogosphere. Here are a few examples:

…Combine the possibility of Perez’s results imploding and Pestano’s sustaining… and you get a player that should at absolute worst be drafted as Perez’s handcuff…

...A repeat performance of incumbent closer Chris Perez’s meager 1.5 K/BB rate… could open the door for Pestano to build on his two saves from 2011…

…Say what you will about Perez — and I’ll join in — but he’s still the incumbent closer. If this draft had a bench, I would have drafted Vinnie Pestano and felt good about my three closer situations, as I think Pestano is the clear number two…

…If you draft Perez, it would be wise to select Vinnie Pestano shortly after…

…Pestano very quietly became one of the top arms in the Indians' bullpen, notching 84 strikeouts in just 62 innings. He also had 23 holds last year, and I believe that he could be in line for saves if the Indians decide to replace Chris Perez at some point during the season…

Despite all of this—if the title of this article didn’t give it away—I disagree with the notion that Pestano would be given first crack at the ninth-inning gig should Chris Perez the closer go the way of the dodo. True, Pestano’s numbers are fantastic, but there are several warning signs and caveats to consider.

While Pestano throws a perfectly acceptable 93 mph fastball and induces plenty of whiffs, he does not fit the mold of most strikeout-heavy relievers. Pestano has a fatal flaw that will likely prevent him from inheriting the closer role or, if he does get it, succeeding while in the role: He’s a side-armer. Yes, I know that for years sabermetricians have railed against those who discriminate against pitchers because they don’t succeed in a traditional fashion, but I’m not saying Vinnie Pestano can’t be a great pitcher; I’m saying he can’t be a great closer. You see, side-armers often show extreme platoon splits, and Pestano is no different:

Vinnie Pestano’s 2011 Platoon Stats

vs. Hand

TBF

K/9

BB/9

GB%

xFIP

Left

103

5.6

3.2

46%

4.50

Right

147

16.0

3.7

31%

1.82

While we’re obviously dealing with a small sample size here (one relief pitcher’s season, split in half), knowing that Pestano throws side-arm with a fastball/slurve arsenal still allows us to say with reasonable accuracy that he will always struggle when facing lefties unless he makes changes to his delivery and/or repertoire. Newly-initiated BP colleague Max Marchi, while on break from saving princesses in the Mushroom Kingdom (I’m trying to get the nickname “Super Marchio” to stick for our Italian-countryside-residing PITCHf/x guru), once showed that the sinker and the slurve are the two pitches with the most extreme platoon splits in baseball; Pestano throws one of those two pitches more than one-third of the time*. The rest of the time, he throws a four-seamer that is the key to his strikeouts, but it too shows a significant platoon split (albeit one that’s less dramatic). He used a changeup—the pitch most commonly used to combat platoon issues—sporadically in 2010, but he didn’t throw a single one this past season. If he ever actually closes, that’s a pitch he’d likely have to develop to perfection.

*Pestano’s slurve is a bit curvier than the one Max describes, but that’s the category it would likely fit into best.

If you’re going to have a platoon split, it’s best to be a right-hander, but a closer doesn’t get to choose which batters he faces. He comes in at the start of the ninth inning, and whoever is due up, he faces. When 48 percent of at-bats against right-handed closers (defined as pitchers with 20-plus saves) were taken by hitters batting from the left side in 2011, and since Pestano could see even more than that if managers decide to exploit his weakness, it’s hard to imagine Pestano finding success in such a role. He’s an outstanding pitcher and a (much) more than capable set-up man when deployed the right way, but making him a closer would be a huge mistake if he’ll struggle against more than half of the batters he has to face.

Plus, there’s always regression to the mean to deal with. Yes, Pestano was amazing in 2011, but he’s barely thrown 100 innings above Double-A. I happen to like his stuff, and his delivery has some deception, but a repeat 12.1 K/9 would be a tall order.

Given that Manny Acta is one of the smartest managers in baseball and surely knows all of this, I simply can’t see him trying to give Pestano a permanent home in the ninth inning. If you’re going to speculate on a saves sleeper on draft day, there should be plenty of superior options.

18 comments have been left for this article.

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