Today we continue the IPI postseason awards with the announcement of the Relief Pitcher of the Year. The starting pitchers often get most of the focus, so this award gives an opportunity to showcase and recognize some of the top relief pitching performances over the course of the 2011 season. Because there are so many worthy relief pitcher candidates who had good seasons this year, to be nominated for the award a reliever had to have made at least 40 appearances.
Burns once again was one of the top save men in all the minors as his 35 saves were tied for 2nd most in all of Minor League Baseball. He was 35-for-37 in save opportunities and broke the single season save record at Double-A Akron. He finished 2nd in the Eastern League in appearances (54), 1st in saves (35), 1st in games finished (52), 5th among relievers in batting average against (.220), 3rd among relievers in K/9 (10.6), 1st among relievers BB/9 (1.9), and 1st among relievers in fewest baserunners per nine innings (9.4).
Guilmet picked up this season right where he left off last year in Low-A Lake County with another dominating showing out of the bullpen. He tied with former University of Arizona teammate Cory Burns for 2nd in all of baseball for saves and on the year was 35-for-36 in save opportunities. He was the Carolina League Reliever of the Year and finished 1st in the league in appearances (52), 1st in saves (35), 1st in games finished (48), 3rd among relievers in batting average against (.202), 4th among relievers in K/9 (9.3), 1st among relievers in BB/9 (1.5), 1st among relievers in fewest baserunners per nine innings (8.3).
Hagadone had a nice bounce back season as his command finally returned. He ended last season at Double-A Akron and in 19 games went 2-2 with a 4.50 ERA (48.0 IP, 44 H, 5 HR, 34 BB, 44 K), and in a return trip to Akron to start year his numbers all improved significantly as in 12 games he went 2-1 with a 1.59 ERA (22.2 IP, 14 H, 0 HR, 7 BB, 24 K). Overall this year he slashed his walk rate from 6.6 BB/9 in 2010 to a very healthy 2.8 BB/9 this year. The hot start and better command helped pave the way for his big league debut and as a possible permanent fixture in the Cleveland bullpen going forward.
Judy has been one of the more steady relievers in the Indians’ system the past few years and once again had another banner year at the highest level in the minors. The walks are somewhat of a concern, but he continues to have success getting hitters out via the strikeout and limiting the damage when hitters connect. He made his Major League debut this season and should be a bullpen option for the Indians over the next few seasons. He finished 2nd in the International League in saves (23) and 1st in games finished (45).
One of the best stories of the year was the return to the mound of right-hander Kyle Landis. He missed all of the 2010 season with a rare nerve traction injury in his right arm that occurred in May of that year. He had missed the start of that season with a lat injury and during a rehab outing in May somehow overtaxed the right musculocutaneous nerve in his arm which resulted in numbness and weakness. It is a rare condition that took several months of treatment via ice, ultrasound, stretching and massage over the course of about seven months to get over. After all the rehab he actually saw a spike in his velocity this season as he was up to 94 MPH.
It is no secret that the Indians’ biggest strength in the upper levels of their minor league system right now is their depth of relief pitching prospects. If not for all of that depth the right-handed Langwell would probably get more attention and rated higher as a prospect in the organization. All he has done is dominate since converting to a full time bullpen role in his first full season in 2009. This season was much the continuation of his success in 2009 at Low-A Lake County (45 G, 1.97 ERA, 68.2 IP, 68 K) and 2010 at High-A Kinston (45 G, 2.41 ERA, 56.0 IP, 58 K).
Lee came into the season as arguably the Indians’ top relief pitching prospect and he did not disappoint. His numbers were Nintendo-like out of the bullpen this year with a 12.5 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9. After a very good 2010 season at Double-A Akron he surprisingly returned there to open the 2011 season and pitched half the season there until a promotion to Triple-A Columbus, a sign of the bullpen depth in Cleveland and Columbus. Assuming he remains healthy he is going to get a shot in Cleveland at some point in 2012 and could help impact the team as a shutdown reliever in a 7th or 8th inning role.
Putnam had another very good season in his second season as a full time reliever in the Indians’ minor league system. He returned to Triple-A Columbus this year and used the time there to finish himself off as a prospect and ended up making his Major League debut in late September. He has the stuff to be an impact reliever at the big league level late in games, and should get strong consideration for a bullpen role in Cleveland to start next season.
Sturdevant will turn 26 years old this December, so he is old for a prospect. But he had another banner year pitching at three different levels of the Indians organization from High-A Kinston (21 G, 1.98 ERA, 41.0 IP, 31 H, 8 BB, 44 K) all the way to Triple-A Columbus where he made two appearances. Even with the callup to Double-A Akron (19 G, 3.30 ERA, 30.0 IP, 30 H, 9 BB, 34 K) there was barely any adjustment required as he settled right in and pitched as good as he has in his two and a half seasons in the organization.
And the Tony Award goes to….Chen-Chang Lee
There were certainly a lot of good bullpen performances this season up and down the Indians’ minor league system, and by some players not even listed. The group listed above all have varying levels of prospect value to the organization, but they all certainly performed at an elite level and are deserving of the award. In the end, for me, it came down to Guilmet, Lee and Burns.
All three were very close to one another in all the key stats in determining the award. Burns had the best ERA (2.11), but Lee (2.40) and Guilmet (2.16) were right there. Guilmet had the best batting average against (.202), but Lee (.210) and Burns (.220) were not far behind. Guilmet had the best walk rate per nine innings (1.7), but Burns (2.3) and Lee (2.9) were good as well.
The one area where any pitcher had an advantage was in the strikeouts per nine innings rate as Lee had a decided advantage with a 12.5 K/9 while Burns had a 10.6 K/9 and Guilmet had a 9.3 K/9. By the same token, both Burns and Guilmet racked up an impressive 35 saves while Lee had just 1 save. So it was very close and very much a tie among all three as far as performance goes.
Looking at things a little deeper, Guilmet is close to four months older than Burns yet pitched at a lower level this season. This is not his fault as he can only pitch where he is assigned, but when looking at the raw stats it is more impressive to see a 23-year old reliever like Burns perform like he did in Double-A versus what a 24-year old reliever like Guilmet did in High-A. When considering this it canceled out Guilmet from further consideration for the award and left it up to Burns and Lee.
It should be noted that Lee is almost a full year older than Burns (their birthdays are two weeks apart) and Lee did pitched some of the season at Double-A and already had a year of Double-A under his belt coming into the season. That said, the age thing becomes moot in this case because Lee went up to Triple-A for roughly half of the season and continued to dominate.
Both offer unique styles with their delivery as Burns uses a Hideo Nomo-like delivery which gives hitters fits while Lee has a low sidearm slot which is extremely tough on right-handed hitters. As far as stuff and prospect standing goes, Lee is clearly the better prospect as he throws harder and has better secondary pitches.
In the end, while Burns had the 35 saves and another outstanding season, I chose Lee as the reliever of the year. It is hard to use the save stat since Lee pitched in a different role, and in all honesty, the save stat is not a very highly regarded stat when evaluating performance or potential in the minors. On top of that Lee pitched at a higher level than Burns for half the season.
When looking at the raw stats at things like ERA, BAA, K/9, BB/9, HR/9, H/9, etc, Lee had the better year statistically as he pitched more innings (almost two innings an outing) and had a better BAA (.210 to .220), H/9 (6.7 to 7.1), HR/9 (0.4 to 0.5), and K/9 (12.5 to 10.6). The only two areas Burns was better was ERA (2.11 to 2.40) and BB/9 (2.3 to 2.9), but it was not enough to offset the other numbers and a decided advantage in both strikeout rate and innings pitched per outing.
Both have areas in need of improvement as Lee needs to continue to work on keeping that arm slot of his consistent, while Burns needs to continue to improve the command of his pitches since he relies so much on location and he also needs to get better at reading hitters swings. But both are certainly two of the Indians’ best pitching prospects and very likely will be in the same bullpen to start next season at Triple-A Columbus.
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