Should the Indians Have Kept Chris Perez?

The Indians had to answer an important question about their bullpen make-up this off-season, what to do with Chris Perez: Keep and pay the increase in millions the arbitrator is sure to grant him, re-sign him to an increase to avoid arbitration or cut ties by trading or releasing him. The Indians made their decision very quickly to release their closer, but was it the right one?

Let's start with Perez's strange 2013 season to try and isolate what went wrong. From a statistics standpoint, Perez was an enigma. Among qualifying relievers with 48 or more innings pitched, Perez had the second-worst FIP (5.08) in all of baseball trailing only the wild Carlos Marmol. He "earned" this by also finishing second-worst in HR/9 (1.83) and worst in allowing 20% of all fly balls to leave the yard. These outrageous HR allowed totals certainly skewed his FIP numbers as his 9 K/9 and 3.50 BB/9 score under his career average for those categories. 

Here is the good news. FIP measures what a player’s ERA should have looked like over a given time period, assuming that performance on balls in play and timing were league average. xFIP is a regressed version of FIP, developed by Dave Studeman from The Hardball Times. It’s calculated in the same way as FIP, except it replaces a pitcher’s home run total with an estimate of how many home runs they should have allowed. This estimate is calculated by taking the league-average home run to fly ball rate ( around 9-10% depending on the year) and multiplying it by a pitcher’s fly ball rate.

Home run rates are generally unstable over time and fluctuate around league-average, so by estimating a pitcher’s home run total, xFIP attempts to isolate a player’s ability level. A pitcher may allow home runs on 12% of their fly balls one year, then turn around and only allow 7% the next year. HR/FB ratios can be very difficult to predict, so xFIP attempts to correct for that.

Since Perez's xFIP was far lower than his actual FIP, we can expect his home-run allowed rate to regress closer towards his career average of 10% in 2014. Since closers usually make their appearance in the 9th inning in high leverage situations, a home-run given up could be devastating. Fans and media tend to remember those home-runs more because of the magnitude of the moment. If he can reel in that home run allowed total as xFIP suggests, he could be a valuable closer again.  

Here’s the problem, closers and relief pitchers in general, are simply not worth building around. Today’s asset is tomorrow’s liability, and the Indians should learn from the mistake that the Royals made with Joakim Soria. From 2007 to 2010, Soria was one of the game’s true elite relievers. He became the Royals closer in 2008, saving 42 games, and the Royals had the foresight to sign him to an extension in May of that season, getting him under team control at bargain prices and getting several team options that gave them cost certainty without the risk of guaranteed salaries. Combined with his performance, Soria’s contract made him highly valuable as a trade chip, but Kansas City preferred to keep him instead.

During their period of rebuilding, the Royals put some bad teams on the field, but they had a dominating closer to finish out the games they did manage to win. In 2011, Soria regressed, seeing his strikeout rate fall while his hit and home run rates jumped. In the spring of 2012, doctors examined Soria and found that he needed Tommy John surgery, which sidelined him for the entire season. After the year ended, the Royals declined their final two options on Soria’s contract, making him a free agent. When he signed with Texas, the Royals had nothing to show for letting Soria leave besides the memories of some good saves for some bad teams.

Soria is not the exception. He is the rule.

Dave Cameron at Fangraphs did a wonderful study on the top relievers according to WAR from the 2010 season. Here is what he found what happened after:

Carlos Marmul, +2.8 WAR: DFA’d, traded in salary dump, in minors
Brian Wilson, +2.5 WAR: Surgery, hasn’t pitched since start of last year
Hong-Chih Kuo, +2.3 WAR: Surgery, inability to throw strikes, out of baseball
Neftali Feliz, +2.0 WAR: Surgery, hasn’t pitched in 2013
Sean Marshall, +1.9 WAR: Has pitched 7 innings this year due to sore shoulder
Joakim Soria, +1.9 WAR: Surgery, hasn’t pitched since 2011
John Axford, +1.8 WAR: Lost closer job, pitching middle relief, likely non-tender
Daniel Bard, +1.6 WAR: Lost strike zone, sent to AA, now on DL
Jonny Venters, +1.6 WAR: Surgery, out for the season
Juan Oviedo, +1.4 WAR: Surgery, out for the season

This is the top 10 under-30 relievers by WAR just a couple of years ago. There isn’t a single pitcher on that list that had any real value in 2013. The Brewers traded Axford to the Cardinals for a pittance, as they took a shot on him finishing strong as a setup guy, but everyone else was either rehabbing or trying to get back to the big leagues in some form.

What this indicates is that while relievers, as a whole, are very fickle, they are also very valuable when you have one. Unlike Soria, Perez's strike-out rates did not decline with his increasing home-run totals. As mentioned before, his home-run total will likely regress towards the mean in 2014.

A look at early projection figures from Steamer has Perez with the following numbers for 2014:

Chris Perez SV K/9 BB/9 HR/9 ERA FIP
2014 28 8.45 3.41 1.05 3.68 3.97

Steamer also predicts that his home-run total will decline as well thus lowering his FIP. These are all strong indicators of a rebound season.

The question is he worth the guaranteed increase in pay he is expected to receive from either taking the team to arbitration or the club avoiding that by extending him. The short answer is: It depends.
Has the front office identified a new closer to turn to?  Can it be Cody Allen? A less expensive and re-signed Joe Smith? A trade piece? Does the organization want to put up with his off-the-field antics? Was he a cancer in the clubhouse? 
As Cameron put it: "Relievers, even really good young relievers, should be viewed as ripe fruit. They are great for a while, but you don’t store ripe fruit for the future planning on having a healthy snack later. You consume it now or waste it."

The Indians, in the long run, made the right move. Since they were not going to sign him to a multi-year deal and they couldn't find a trading partner at any point during the past two seasons, there were few options left. Rather than stringing the Perez along for the next two months, the Indians knew what they had to do and did it. It was just surprising to see it happen so quickly.

Chris Perez

The Rage is out of Cleveland.

Mike Melaragno

About Mike Melaragno

A 2010 graduate of Lee University, Mike loves writes about the game he loves most-- baseball. From an early age, he learned to live and die with the Tribe-- mostly die. Died a little when they lost the 1997 World Series in extra innings; died a lot when they were one game away from advancing to the fall classic in 2007 but fell to the Red Sox in game seven of the ALCS. He currently resides in Northeast Ohio.