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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.

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Behemoth
2/13
One thing that isn't clear to me is why it's possible for Pestano to be a competent set-up man with his arsenal (which he was last year) but not a competent closer. I accept managers may pinch-hit more in the 9th, but American league bench players are often not the best hitters in any case, so I'm not sure that there's a huge difference. Another thing that I'd be curious about is whether there is data on his minor league results against left-handed hitters. I did look after you last mentioned this, but didn't see anything.
derekcarty
2/13
It's not just a matter of pinch-hitters. It's that managers have the benefit of being flexible with a non-closer's usage. If three lefties are coming up in the eighth, Manny Acta can got to Tony Sipp or Rafael Perez or someone else. If Pestano is the closer and three lefties are coming up in the ninth, well, tough cookies. In a setup role, he can also be used for less than an inning, removed when a tough lefty comes up. 2010 at Triple-A: 50 K in 28.2 IP vs. RHB 16 K in 23 IP vs. LHB According to: http://mlsplits.drivelinebaseball.com/mlsplits/playerinfo/502260
Behemoth
2/13
If the Indians wanted to be progressive, would the best solution not be to use Pestano as the closer most of the time and work in a LOOGY-type when they have someone like Prince Fielder coming up? I guess if I was Manny Acta, I might not mind leaving him in against weaker left-handed hitters, or if he was only likely to face one lefty in an inning. Given his AAA numbers as well, he seems very likely to continue to be lethal against right-handed hitters, and you would presumably want to use that in as high-leverage situations as possible.
derekcarty
2/13
Yes, it's certainly a possibility and would make some sense, but that sort of ninth-inning arrangement may well be unprecedented. I can't recall another example of such a setup. He still pitches high-leverage innings in the eighth (just not quite as high as the ninth), and managers do tend to worry about fixed roles and such. Even a progressive manager like Acta displays some traditionalist tendencies. I suppose this could qualify as a fixed role, though, so it would definitely be an interesting experiment.
Behemoth
2/13
One other thought - Vinnie Pestano against left-handers is pretty close to Chris Perez last year against hitters.
derekcarty
2/13
Interesting observation, although platoon splits are trickier than that. We can be misled if we just look at how a player performed versus a particular hand. What's more important is how much worse we was against lefties, and in some a small sample, more important still is the side-arm and repertoire stuff. Additionally, while it's interesting to make that comparison, chances are Chris Perez is a better pitcher than his numbers 2011 numbers indicate.
Behemoth
2/13
Yeah, that was more me being snarky than anything useful. I do take the point that you make about Pestano's extreme splits. Obviously, the good side of that is that he's elite against right-handers, and looks likely to continue to be so, given the 2010 stats that you found. How much would he have to improve against lefties to be the best closing option in Cleveland right now?
APer930
2/13
I clicked on the link and Mila Kunis was not standing next to Danny Devito... I feel cheated.
yadenr
2/13
Actually, Mila Kunis standing next to Danny DeVito would make a pretty good Super Mario movie poster.
Scott44
2/13
Derek - What are your early thoughts of the closing situations (favorites) in Oakland and Houston? Thanks.
derekcarty
2/13
Well, it seems like Balfour, De Los Santos, and Devine are the candidates in Oakland, and I'd put Balfour as the favorite right now. In Houston, probably Lyon and Carpenter (with other possibilities like Abreu and Lopez) with Lyon the favorite.
jfranco77
2/13
So who WOULD be the logical choice to hedge a Perez pick? Sipp or Perez? Joe Smith is also a sidearmer, isn't he? Or maybe the sneaky signing of Dan Wheeler looms large?
derekcarty
2/13
The Indians don't have a lot of really appealing or obvious options. I would think the top candidate right now would be Tony Sipp. Rafael Perez could be another option, although he's a lefty and his velo and K% have been slipping. Smith is indeed a side-armer. Wheeler might be more of a ROOGY too, as he's struggled some with lefties in his career. Chen-Chang Lee and Nick Hagadone are interesting if they come up from Triple-A, but they might need more experience before they're given a chance to close. Ultimately, I think Chris Perez gets a good deal of rope.
shmooville
2/13
Thanks, I love looking at future closers as long as we have to deal with the Saves category in roto. Speaking of De Los Santos, last year he had a pretty big split between lefties and righties on admittedly limited innings, (15 L, 18R). The weird thing was that his xFIP was 2.00 against Lefties and 4.29 against Righties. All small sample stuff aside, do you know of any reason why he might of had such odd splits since he is a Righty himself? If legit then definitely makes Balfour the guy given he's pretty much the same to both sides.
derekcarty
2/13
I wouldn't worry too much. Very small sample. He's not a side-armer (not really over-the-top either--looks like more of a low three-quarters--but not so low as to cause concern), and he throws a fastball and a hard curve with a change-up mixed in occasionally, so I wouldn't worry all that much about platoon splits with him.
JoshShep50
2/19
Interesting stuff Derek. It seems like a best case scenario with Pestano as a closer would be Octavio Dotel like results then? Dotel is the most notable ROOGY I can think of that once found some success in a closer gig.
derekcarty
2/19
That's probably a good comp (in a broad sense), Josh, minus the control issues Dotel was sometimes plagued with.
JoshShep50
2/19
Thanks for reading through my vague post, I did mean in a broad sense, but didn't express such.