The Indians bullpen has been it's greatest asset for at least the last three seasons and for most of the years since 2005. There has been some transition among players over the years, but the current incarnation of the relief corp or "Bullpen Mafia" started in 2011 with the rookie year of Vinnie Pestano, the moniker being named mostly after him and Justin Germano. Since then, Joe Smith and Pestano have essentially become the greatest duel set-up men in team history, making three of the top ten single season hold records in the past two seasons. Chris Perez joins them as the final member of the trio, and has in the past three years become one of the greatest closers in Indians history.
Despite fantastic results in each of the past two years, the statistics have dropped off in 2013 (even though the wins have not slowed down). Nine times in 2011 the trio (Pestano, Smith and Perez) pitched in a game together that culminated in Perez getting a save. After learning the winning combination, the Indians used the three successfully 18 times in 2012. Overall during this two year stretch, Perez earned 75 saves, Pestano took 59 holds and Smith grabbed 37 holds of his own. This marked three consecutive seasons of at least 20 saves for Perez and 16 holds for Smith. There was no reason to think this wouldn't continue in 2013.
Newsflash: It didn't. Things started fine with the Indians making use of the trio in each of the first two games of the season, with Perez and Smith earning saves in games one and two. The Indians didn't get another save opportunity for the next 15 games, then again got two in a row (although the whole trio only pitched in the first game). Before another opportunity came around, Pestano went down with elbow tendonitis and missed 17 games in the first two weeks of May. As soon as he came back, Perez's shoulder exploded and he allowed three home runs with seven runs overall over his next three appearances while pitching through the injury. He then went on the DL for himself, missing 28 games in the process.
During Perez's time on the DL, Pestano became the closer and appeared to get over his injury, earning five saves during Perez's last ten days on the DL. Since his return, Chris Perez has been lights out in three games. Finally, in his third game back the Indians were able to get the band back together and throw out Smith, Pestano and Perez in consecutive innings, ending with a save. The first time this had happened since April 21st and just the third time in 2013.
While injuries have had a lot to do with the Indians bullpen not aligning correctly, the rest of the team is to blame as well for what has been a very odd dichotomy between wins and losses. Since saves are impossible in losses, we generally need to just focus on the 45 games the Indians have won so far. In these games, the Indians have averaged 6.7 runs per game (compared to 4.8 RPG overall) and allowed just 2.8 RPG. This has been largely because of the 14 Indians wins by at least five runs already this year. Overall, the Indians have had just 33 save opportunities (this includes blown holds) and are fourth from last in the Majors in team saves (17). Of those 33 chances, 14 were blown by non-closers and four were saved by non-closers, meaning there have really just been 15 save opportunities by the active Indians closer. Of these, Perez was saved 8 of 10 and Pestano is a perfect five for five.
In addition to the Indians scoring too many runs during wins, the non-mafia part of the bullpen struggling has also cost the team in close games. The combination of Rich Hill, Bryan Shaw and Nick Hagadone has blown five holds while completing just 12 successfully. The lack of hold opportunities for Pestano and Smith are largely to blame on the early relievers who have lost the lead before the Indians set up men get into the game. As of now, Smith leads the team with just eight holds while Pestano comes in third with five.
Prior to this season it seemed self evident that by the end of the year, Pestano and Smith would rank first and second in career holds as an Indian, surpassing Rafael Betancourt's 84 with just a modicum of effort. Now, this looks like a pipe dream. Smith currently ranks second and Pestano ranks fifth, with the top position having to wait at least one more year. Chris Perez was also poised to take over the historical lead in saves with a great season of at least 40 saves, but now will be lucky to get into second all time. He still needs 22 to catch Doug Jones, which he could possibly do if he can stay healthy and the Indians stop using Rich Hill to pitch with the lead.