When it comes to the Angels and the Bullpen of Perpetual Sorrow, the fans have had an assful. There is plenty of blame to go around, but the goat du jour is Ernesto Frieri thanks to his most recent meltdown.
It is hard to blame people for that. Frieri has been the closer for parts of three seasons now, but his grip on the job has always been tenuous. The reason for that is Frieri being so prone to these two-week stretches where he can’t protect a lead of any size. He’s in one of those stretches right now, having blown two saves and surrendered a staggering five homers in his first 10 appearances this season. Because he has been almost exclusively awful this season, people are calling for his head.
That might ultimately be the right decision, but let’s at least figure out if Frieri is salvageable. After all, we’ve seen this before and it usually ends with Ernesto straightening himself out and pitching well for a few months before he hits the skids again. That isn’t a great goal to strive for, but given the current bullpen personnel, it might just have to be good enough.
The easy answer to the question of why Ernesto sucks so hard is command. He’s admitted that himself:
“It [stinks], because we’re playing really good baseball,” he said. “I’m mad at myself, because I keep missing pitches, and if I keep doing that, I’m going to keep getting hurt like that. I don’t know, man. I’m fighting, I’m trying to get better. But if I don’t make my pitch, I’m going to get hurt.”
Frieri is most definitely not hitting his spots with his main (only?) weapon, his fastball. As good as that pitch has been at generating whiffs over the years, it is the pitch that has been the guilty party in all five of the homers he has surrendered this year. It also hasn’t been all that great at missing bats this year. His two-seamer has missed bats 9.3% of the time this year and his four-seamer only 6.3% of the time. Compare that to last season when he was generating 16.5% and 17.6% whiffs, respectively.
When you aren’t hitting your spots, you aren’t going to get those bad swings. Instead, you get guys squaring up the ball when you miss your spots and getting both more homers and more hits, in general. The homers get much of the attention, but Frieri has surrendered 14 hits in 8.2 innings this year. That’s a major problem for a guy who has allowed 6.5 H/9 over his career.
So, yeah, Frieri has been bad, but has he been that bad? By that I mean that command has never been a strong suit for Frieri and he has gotten away with it more than it has hurt him. The thing that really appears to be hurting him now is that terrible command combined with him being completely and utterly predictable.
This is an issue, again, Ernesto is cognizant of. He worked hard this off-season to develop his changeup, a pitch he has worked into his repertoire 9% of the time this season after only throwing a handful of them earlier in his career. The goal was to give hitters something else to think about instead of keying on Frieri’s fastball, which he had thrown 87% of the time in 2013. Thus far, Frieri achieved his goal of using his heater less, it is only 78% this season, but he has quite obviously not gotten the desired end results.
That should add up to Ernesto being less predictable, like he hoped. The devil, as they say, is in the details.
Where Ernesto has completely failed to keep hitters guessing is when he falls behind in the count. Basically, once he starts getting in trouble, hitters know that the fastball is coming. This season, Ernesto has yet to throw anything but a fastball in a three-ball count, be it 3-0, 3-1 or 3-2. Even in two-ball counts, Ernesto is pretty much all heaters. In 2-0 counts, he is 100% fastball. In 2-1 counts, he has thrown a fastball eight out of nine times. Even in a 2-2 count, he has gone to the fastball 13 of 15 times. The three times he has thrown a different pitch, it has been the slider. So that changeup, which he throws exclusively to lefties as it is, he worked so hard on essentially gets put back in the bag the instant the count goes to Ball 2.
As you can imagine, when you fall behind hitters a lot due to bad command, this puts Ernesto into a lot of bad situations where hitters can sit dead red and hope for a location mistake. That doesn’t leave much room for location error, and as we’ve seen, he’s making a lot of errors.
Now it is up to Scioscia to figure out what he wants to do with Frieri. The predictability problem is a very quick and easy fix to make. Scioscia can give Ernesto another chance or two with a more varied approach to see if it helps and pull the plug if it doesn’t. Or maybe Scioscia thinks the command problem is too much for a pitch mix change to chance another blown save, there is no choice but to demote him to middle relief. Who replaces him and how the changes to bullpen pecking order is a whole different problem to solve.