There has been a lot of discussion lately about Chris Perez, his personality in general, and fan ire toward him when he performs poorly. On the contrary, it seems like Vinnie Pestano has escaped much of the fan ire, despite the fact that he’s had a number of bad outings himself lately (and may be nursing an injury). I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes people direct their hatred toward Perez, while giving Pestano a pass for the most part. I’m sure that personality, and Perez’s comments from last year, have some influence over these emotions. I started to wonder if it was something else though; something embedded deeper into Indians fans’ psyche that also connects to the recent past. When was the last time that we had a closer that we could rely upon unconditionally? There’s obviously only one Mariano Rivera, but there are a lot of closers that inspire confidence in their team’s fans when they enter the game. I can’t really remember any time in the past 10-15 years that the closer ran onto the field from the bullpen where I thought to myself “Oh…this game is over.” It’s always been more of a situation where you cross your fingers and hope for the best, as you watch your blood pressure climb higher and higher.
I can’t speak for other fans, but for me a lot of this started with Jose Mesa in game seven of the 1997 World Series. Over the years I’ve heard people question whether or not Mike Hargrove should have even brought Mesa into the game, but he’s your closer – that’s what your closer does. He comes in to finish out a tight game and get the win for his team. But he let Indians fans down, on the biggest possible stage. They should have been celebrating their first World Series title in nearly 50 years, but instead they were watching a team that had only existed for four years win their first World Series. I don’t even hear people discuss the fact that Charlie Nagy was the one that actually took the loss for the Indians in the bottom of the 11th; this was Mesa’s fault because he didn’t do his job. I don’t know that I’ve ever really felt “safe” when an Indians closer entered the game after that moment. I don’t think it helps that the Indians haven’t really had many closers since 1997 that make the job look easy. Mike Jackson had two good years in 1998 and 1999, but once you move into the 2000s you have closers that tend to drive you nuts, mixed with short-term fill-ins.
I’m not necessarily saying that all of the closers for the Indians over the past 10-15 years haven’t managed to get the job done most of the time. I’m just saying that even when they do well, they still manage to make you watch the ninth inning with your hands over your face, peeking through your fingers. Take Bob Wickman for example. He battled injuries for much of his time in Cleveland, but got results when he was healthy; he even saved 45 games in 2005. At the same time, I never felt comfortable when he came into a game, particularly if it was only a one-run lead. He could save three dozen games in a row, and I’d still be paranoid at the end of every single one of them. Maybe this was just me; maybe I just have some weird kind of trust issue with closers after 1997. They always get my ire though, despite the fact they may not be the only responsible party for the loss. Maybe the Indians missed seven or eight different opportunities at the plate. Maybe the rest of the bullpen let their opponent slowly chip away at the lead. That closer is really the last person that you see, and therefore, the one to whom you direct most of your anger.
The Indians used a mix of closers while Wickman was injured, and after his departure. The player that had the most saves during the Wickman years (other than Wickman) was Danys Baez. The Indians primarily used Baez as a starter, but eventually moved him to the back end of the bullpen. In 2003 he saved 25 games, and had 10 blown saves. The 2003 Indians weren’t exactly chasing any pennants, but 10 blown saves is an extremely high total. After the season, the Indians let him walk; he had some success in the bullpens of other teams after that. One of the other memorable closers from this time period was Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez; memorable because it was such a complete disaster. I still remember a game from 2006 where he tried to close out a game against the Red Sox (not completely unlike yesterday’s mess of a game). David Ortiz hit a ball off of him that I still don’t think has landed yet; it’s just orbiting Earth somewhere in the stratosphere. When Carmona/Hernandez was moved to a starting roll in 2007, I remember thinking “it can’t be any worse than that closer experiment.” For the most part that was true; as terrible as he was at times, my mind would always go back to that failed closer’s experiment in 2006.
By 2007 the Indians used Joe “Joe Blow” Borowski in the closer role. Like Wickman, he always made it interesting, but still managed to save 45 games (with 8 blown saves) during the regular season in 2007, and earned a save in the ALDS and ALCS. Despite his constant ability to make the ninth inning “interesting,” you had to hope that he would continue to use smoke and mirrors to save games in 2008, the final year of his contract. It was a complete disaster though; the 2008 Indians were pretty disappointing to begin with, but Borowski was an absolute mess. When he was finally released in July, he had just 6 saves and 4 blown saves. It was his last appearance in the major leagues. For the remainder of 2008, the Indians basically were willing to use anyone with a pulse in the closer’s role, hoping that someone could stick. They used Masahide Kobayashi for a while (who had closed games in Japan) but eventually settled on Jensen Lewis, who had 13 saves that year (the most of any Indian). I always had a soft spot for Lewis after his gutsy performance in the ALCS in 2007, and for taking the ball and actually closing games in 2008.
After the disaster of 2008, the Indians went out and spent big bucks on a closer for 2009 – Kerry Wood. One of their larger free agent acquisitions (in terms of dollar amount) of the past several years at 2 years, $20.5 million, the Indians hoped that he would finally stabilize the bullpen. Personally, I don’t always agree with going out and spending a bunch of money on a closer. A lot of bullpens (and closers) can be volatile from year to year, and success is never guaranteed (just use Wood as an example). In 2009, Wood earned just 20 saves, and had 6 blown saves. If you break that down, it means that the Indians paid Wood about $500,000 per save that season. In 2010, Wood had 8 saves and 4 blown saves with the Indians before he was traded to the Yankees for a player to be named later. That was the same season that you had the emergence of Chris Perez after he came to Cleveland in the Mark DeRosa trade with St. Louis.
If you think about it, Perez has held the closer’s role longer than anyone since Bob Wickman. I feel less stressed with him on the mound than I did with Wickman, but there are still many times that I feel my stomach lurch as the ninth inning unfolds. One thing you have to consider with both Perez and Wickman (as well as the other closers of the past 10-15 years) is that they often get the job done, but create a mess doing it. Take yesterday for example; I honestly thought at one point the Indians would manage to escape that game with a 5-4 victory. If that would have happened, Perez still would have earned the save, despite the fact that he gave up 2 runs and almost lost the game. That’s what has driven me so nuts about Indians closers over the years – maybe they get the job done, maybe the team still wins the game, but it was so ugly and painful.
Because I was honestly curious about the success rate of Indians closers, I decided to look at most seasons from 1998 to the present and see how many games Indians closers saved, and how many they blew. I also looked at a few years of Mariano Rivera as a comparison, since he’s probably the best closer in history. I also counted all blown saves as blown saves; regardless of whether or not the Indians still managed to win the games.
1998 – Mike Jackson – 40 saves, 5 blown saves
1999 – Mike Jackson – 39 saves, 4 blown saves
2000 – Bob Wickman – 30 saves (14 with Cleveland), 7 blown saves (3 with Cleveland)
2001 – Bob Wickman – 32 saves, 3 blown saves
2002 – Bob Wickman – 20 saves, 2 blown saves
2003 – Danys Baez – 25 saves, 10 blown saves
2004 – Bob Wickman – 13 saves, 1 blown save
2005 – Bob Wickman – 45 saves, 5 blown saves
2006 – Bob Wickman – 33 saves (15 with Cleveland), 4 blown saves (3 with Cleveland)
2006 – Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez – 0 saves, 3 blown saves
2007 – Joe Borowski – 45 saves, 8 blown saves
2008 – Joe Borowski – 6 saves, 4 blown saves
2008 – Masahide Kobayashi – 6 saves, 3 blown saves
2008 – Jensen Lewis – 13 saves, 1 blown save
2009 – Kerry Wood – 20 saves, 6 blown saves
2010 – Kerry Wood – 8 saves, 4 blown saves
2010 – Chris Perez – 23 saves, 4 blown saves
2011 – Chris Perez – 36 saves, 4 blown saves
2012 – Chris Perez – 39 saves, 4 blown saves
2013 – Chris Perez – 6 saves, 3 blown saves (counting yesterday)
Mariano Rivera (I picked seasons that were career highs for him, and seasons that were career lows. I also picked 2009 since it was more recent and the Yankees won the World Series that year.)
2001 – 50 saves, 7 blown saves
2002 – 28 saves, 4 blown saves
2004 – 53 saves, 4 blown saves
2007 – 30 saves, 4 blown saves
2009 – 40 saves, 2 blown saves
So as you can see, Danys Baez had the most blown saves of the past 15 years with 10 in 2003, and Joe Borowski was second with 8 in 2007 (although at least Borowski managed to save 45 games that year, compared to Baez’s 23). When you look at Chris Perez’s blown save totals, they’re fairly reasonable; they’re lower than many of the other Indians closers from that time period. In fact, they’re on par with Mariano Rivera’s blown save totals from many of the years during the 2000s. Perez is on pace for that blown saves figure to climb in 2013, but there’s also obviously something wrong with him physically.
Now that Perez has been placed on the DL, and Vinnie Pestano will be taking over as closer, it will be interesting to see if fans behave differently toward Pestano now that he’s in a different role. Maybe fans will be forgiving, because it seems like something is also wrong physically with Pestano at this point. It seemed like Brett Myers could be an option at the back end of the bullpen, but since he’s been shut down in his minor league rehab, I’m not optimistic that he can contribute any time soon.
Maybe there is something with Perez’s personality that just rubs fans the wrong way. Maybe it’s because some of his mound failures were such spectacular disasters (I’m thinking of Opening Day 2012 against Toronto). Or maybe it’s just because fans are haunted by the recent past; a past where closers let us down and could never really be trusted.