Half bullpen savior, half part of the problem, Ernesto Frieri enters 2013 looking to prove that he is more the dominant late-inning guy he was when he first arrived in Anaheim and less the guy who gave away two crucial games for the Halos last September.
2012 Stats: 66.0 IP, 5-2, 23 SV, 2.32 ERA. 3.58 FIP, 35 H, 30 BB, 9 HR, 98 SO, 0.50 GB/FB, 0.6 fWAR
2013 ZiPS Projections: 66.0 IP, 4-2, 3.00 ERA. 3.61 FIP, 48 H, 32 BB, 7 HR, 85 SO, 0.5 fWAR
2013 Bill James Projections: 68.0 IP, 5-3, 36 SV, 3.04 ERA. 3.53 FIP, 49 H, 33 BB, 6 HR, 79 SO
2013 CAIRO Projections: 69.0 IP, 4-4, 2 SV, 3.80 ERA. 4.07 FIP, 57 H, 34 BB, 8 HR, 73 SO, 0.5 fWAR
2013 MWAH Projections*: 60.0 IP, 4-2, 6 SV, 2.85 ERA. 3.10 FIP, 34 H, 29 BB, 5 HR, 79 SO
*The MWAH projections are simply my best guess based off my own personal opinion and research (my wOBA and FIP calculations are approximate)
2012 in Objective Review:
Acquired in May from the San Diego Padres, Ernesto Frieri was in many ways the savior of a struggling bullpen. Thanks in no small part to his amazing 13.1 inning hitless streak to start his his Angel career, Frieri quickly earned himself a prominent late inning role with the team and the nickname Ernasty.
It wouldn't be until later in the year when he was already entrenched at closer that the inconsistency in Frieri's game would come into play. He didn't allow a single run in the month of May or June, but the league slowly started to catch on to him by July and August where he was still racking up eye-popping strikeout numbers, but starting to show that his command could sometimes get him in trouble. He even saw his grip on the closer's role nearly slip away when in two consecutive appearances in mid-September, he first allowed two homers on four pitches to blow a save in Kansas City followed up by a home run allowed in a crucial game in Texas that cost the Halos the game. As good as he had been all season, that brief blip quite possibly cost the Angels a playoff berth and lost Frieri a lot of trust from both the fans and coaching staff.
At the end of the day though, Frieri still looked like a bargain of a trade acquisition having finished the season with a 2.32 ERA and a 13.36 K/9 rate that was good for the sixth-best in all of baseball.
2012 in Revisionist History:
It looks like Frieri may very well become a victim of his own success, or at least his early success. He came on the scene like the second coming of Mariano Rivera and was dominating hitters at a level that was simply unsustainable using essentially one pitch, an absolutely wicked two-seam fastball. That pitch was absolutely unhittable early on for batters who had never seen it before and only slightly more hittable once hitters did get used to it. The problem was that eventually batters realized that Frieri didn't always know where the pitch was going when it left his hand.
Slowly but surely, hitters laid off the two-seamer, got the count in their favor and waited for him to resort to his much friendlier and straighter four-seam fastball. That's when the problem began. Frieri was still pretty good, but it became obvious that he was one of those Jekyll and Hyde pitchers. He was either going to come out and mow everyone down 1-2-3, or he was going to need a map to find the strike zone in what would be an adventure of an inning. It was so obvious too that within the first two pitches of an outing, or even during his warm-ups, you'd know if it was going to be a visit from Ernasty or Ernest-NO!
What killed Frieri in particular was the longball, which isn't a huge surprise given how much he works up in the zone. What is a surprise is that with his strong stuff he could allow a staggering nine homers on the season. Then factor in that he only allowed 35 hits overall and it becomes even more head-scratching that a guy that was so unhittable could also get so hard at times. It is that anomalous home run rate that the Halos likely felt compelled to sign Ryan Madson rather than go into the season with Frieri as their ninth inning guy.
Three Lingering Questions for 2013:
1) Is Frieri really "closer" material?
His strikeout rate screams "yes," but his home run rate sobs "no." Because he allows so few hits, you can live with the walks, but not if he allows dingers at such an alarming rate. That really begs the question of whether or not his gopheritis is permanent. To that end, it is worth noting that he only served up three homers in 63 innings in 2011 (though he did play his home games at Petco) and allowed just two double and one triple on the 24 non-homer hits he allowed.
2) Should we be concerned about his struggles down the stretch?
It is hard not to be, right? He coughed up seven homers and a 4.50 ERA in the second half of the season to go with a 4.92 FIP. There were signs of hope though as he reined in the walks to a more acceptable level at 2.89, though it did come at the expense of him "only" fanning 30.7% of batters, down from 40.7% in the first half. If he can maintain the lower walk rate and get the home run problem under control, the he should be fine.
3) Should we be excited or concerned with Ernie trying to add a cutter and maybe a changeup to his repertoire?
Maybe it is both, because Frieri would obviously be better off with another good pitch to complement his two-seamer. However, we also don't want him to go away from such a great pitch in favor of a vastly inferior pitch because of some misguided sense of evolving his game. Too often these new pitches that guys develop in one off-season are pretty crappy but the pitcher is just so excited to have a shiny new toy to play that they overuse it to start the season before they realize how bad the pitch is and scrap it. The only reason I can see to be in favor of his cutter is that it gives Frieri a potential pitch he can use against righties who have a much easier time against him.
Three Irrelevant Questions for 2013:
1) He is listed as Ernesto, but apparently he goes by Ernie. Why doesn't he change it?
I just feel like that is being pretentious. Besides I miss the days when Bengie Molina kept changing his name to Benjamin and maybe even Ben for a short time. I feel like Ernie can pick up this name change mantle now, especially with Kendrys "Don't call me Kendry" and Ervin "Don't call me Johan" Santana no longer around filling the name change quota.
2) Does he throw a slider or a hard curve?
Even Pitch F/X can't seem to decide and I'm pretty sure that means that, whatever it is, it probably isn't very good.
3) Are we so sure that Bud Black is the pitching coach genius many believe him to be?
As legend has it, Frieri never curried much favor with the Padres because the coaching staff absolutely hated his delivery and tried to get him to clean it up. The result was that his cleaner delivery took away from the movement on his best pitch. He eventually won out and reverted to his current delivery, but still never managed to be more than "just a guy" in the admittedly deep bullpen. Sure enough, he comes to Anaheim and is given a chance to shine and he looks great. Shows what Bud knows, right?
2013 in Subjective Projection:
I'm probably projecting through rose-colored glasses here, again, but I have to think that the home run problems were an outlier, at least to a certain extent. As mentioned before, he is an extreme flyball pitcher who works up in the zone quite a bit, so the long ball is always going to be an issue, but a 12.9% HR/FB is kind of preposterous. That is where traditional indicators like HR/9 fail us. For Frieri, a 1.23 HR/9 is not out of the question, definitely a little high but within the realm of normalcy for most pitchers. The issue is that it assumes that he allows contact like most pitchers, which he definitely does not. Factor in that he fans over a third of the batters he faces and it becomes pretty clear that he just can't sustain that high of a home run rate, which can only mean good things.
It isn't all an optimistic outlook for Frieri though. The league is wise to him now, so some of his problems in the second half will remain. That is why I understand his desire to add a new pitch. I just think it is the wrong strategy. I'd much rather have seen him spend the off-season refining his two-seamer so that he can consistently spot it, which would mean he could throw it more and the more he throws it effectively the better he will be. Alas, that isn't what he did, so we are stuck crossing our fingers that he can develop his cutter or change to be a little better than a "keep 'em honest" pitch.
There are mechanical issues at play that will always limit Frieri from a control and consistency standpoint, but I feel about as confident as one can be confident in a reliever, which is not very much, that he will iron out the kinks and put together a very strong season for the Halos, helping the bullpen return to its former glory.