The Cleveland Indians are very much in a pennant race and yet they have a huge question mark in the back of their bullpen.
Last night, Chris Perez came into a critical game with a 3-2 lead and allowed two solo home runs to turn it into a 4-3 deficit.
Jason Giambi titanic pinch-hit dinger saved Perez, but it is not a secret that the Tribe’s closer has struggled in the last two months.
After the game, Terry Francona expressed confidence in Perez, but that’s what the skipper does. He never questions his players in public. He is the ultimate players’ manager in that regard.
Secretly though, Francona and his coaches have got to be mulling over alternatives the next time there is a save situation for Cleveland, and that could come as early as tonight.
The problem is Perez’ sudden propensity to give up the long ball. He has now allowed 10 homers in just 53 innings. That’s a lot for a closer.
By comparison, the American League leader in saves; Baltimore’s Jim Johnson has allowed just five long balls in 67 innings pitched.
Kansas City’s Greg Holland, who has a 1.25 ERA for the year to go with 45 saves, has allowed three home runs in 65 innings of work.
Future Hall of Fame closer, New York’s Mariano Rivera has given up six homers in 62 innings pitched.
Perez has allowed four more blasts than any of these relievers haven’t outstanding seasons and has pitched less than all of them.
One other startling statistic: Justin Masterson has allowed just 13 circuit clouts despite throwing 140 more innings (189 thus far on the season).
Closers who give up a lot of home runs are liabilities in one run games because the lead can be lost with one swing of the bat.
As Perez has shown before, you can pitch around a walk or a base hit with the closest of margins. It may not be ideal for the health of his manager or the Tribe fan base, but it can be done. Allowing a single by itself doesn’t cost your team the lead.
It is also Perez’ second half performance in total that should give Francona pause to put him in with a one run lead. He has a 4.39 ERA since the All-Star break and has allowed six bombs in 26 IP. Opposing hitters are batting .276 against him.
This compares to a 3.04 ERA before the Midsummer Classic and he was holding opponents to a .225 average.
It gets worse. Since the first of August, Perez has a 5.95 ERA.
So this isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to him blowing a save in a game the Tribe needed with the playoff hopes on the line. He’s been bad for two months. His statistics as a closer are always repeated (he’s only blown five saves), but clearly he hasn’t been effective for almost two months.
We understand there is a tremendous difference in what Francona says and what he does. If the Tribe is leading 5-2 going into the ninth tonight, he may very well go with Perez.
However, if the Indians do play in the wild card game and go to the last inning with a one run advantage, will it be Chris Perez’ game?
Only Francona knows that for sure.