Here is a scary thought, Kevin Jepsen. That's it, just the idea of him.
That probably seems like an awfully mean thing to say about the one member of the Angel bullpen who wasn't a greasefire in the second half of the 2012 season. But the fact of the matter is that we've all been fooled before by Jepsen. Let's not forget how great Jepsen looked in 2010. Back then, he had caused many to forget about his rough rookie season, instead making people think he might have what it takes to be the Angels' closer of the future. Then, as we all know, he imploded in 2011, leaving the Angels without a critical part of their bullpen.
One knee surgery and a few trips to the minors later, Jepsen was back with a resurgent second half in the 2012 season. His velocity was back, his control was better than ever and his status as a key cog in the relief corps restored. In other words, he is right back where he was coming into 2011, which is great for him, but terrible for the Angels if he ends up falling apart again.
Yes, the Angels are once again in the uncomfortable position of possibly having to trust Kevin Jepsen. One would like to think Jerry Dipoto would upgrade the bullpen's talent and thus minimize Jepsen's role, but we know he isn't looking to spend much money on relievers and that same philosophy led him to go into the 2012 season with a clearly under-manned bullpen. So, yeah, Jepsen could be back in a big way for the Halos. The question is will his regained talent be coming back with him?
There is a lot to like with Jepsen. He cut his walks down dramatically, just 2.42 BB/9 in 2012 and his fastball was back to averaging over 96 MPH leading to a career-best 3.02 ERA. But that doesn't even tell the whole story. Kevin's numbers could have been even better if not for his ugly month of April that led to him being sent down to the minors. It was that fateful trip to the minors that seemed to turn him around as he returned July as almost a new pitcher. And I do mean that. The new Jepsen pounded the strike zone, besting his career BB/9 by over one walk. The new Jepsen also is suddenly a flyball pitcher rather than the groundball pitcher he had been previously in his career. He even got his cuttery-slider thing to final settle into being more of a true cutter (not one of his cutters was classified as a slider after his return in July, whereas it was about 50/50 before that in his career). So, yeah, this isn't just Jepsen getting lucky over the course of a few months.
Or is it? A lot of the improvements Jepsen made almost seem to good to be true. Recovering velocity is always a good thing, but Jepsen actually has come back throwing a full mile per hour harder than ever. That's great if he can sustain it, but given how wildly his average fastball velocity has varied throughout his career, it is far from a guarantee. The same goes for the aforementioned cutter/slider disparity. I'm not nearly enough of a pitching guru to say whether or not the erasure of that disparity is because Jepsen cleaned up his mechanics, was using two different versions of the pitch intentionally or if Pitch F/X classifications just got better. My hunch is that it is the first option, which is problematic because, as we've seen, Jepsen's mechanics are far from a well-oiled machine.
So which version of Jepsen will show up in 2013? I don't know. You don't know. The Angels coaches and executives don't know. Kevin Jepsen doesn't even know. And that's why Jerry Dipoto could be playing a very dangerous game of chicken if/when he starts playing hardball in contract talks with free agent middle relievers like he did last off-season. If he sticks to close to his guns and doesn't spend to add more talent to the bullpen, then he is left crossing his fingers that Jepsen's breakthrough was real. If he is smart and hedges on Jepsen, adding a reliable arm or two, then the team won't get burned badly if Jepsen collapses and will end up with what could be a stellar bullpen if Jepsen can sustain this new level of productivity.
Huh? Imagine that, the Angels with a strong bullpen. That sounds like something that might pay big dividends for them.