Aceves is something of a mystery, and the own key to unlocking his utility
Alfredo Aceves has the ability to be a useful member of the 2013 Red Sox. The problem is getting him to pitch in a way where this ability can be something more than just wasted potential. This isn't even to talk about Aceves' now well-publicized history of behavioral problems, but simply in terms of what he could do with a baseball versus what he has chosen to do with one.
In 2011, Aceves tossed 114 innings, 90 of them coming in relief, and thanks to an ability to throw lots of strikes and throw them in the lower portions of the strike zone, was able to produce a season better than his component stats -- strikeouts, walks, etc. -- suggested he should have. Was he always going to have a batting average on balls in play in the .230 range, as he did in 2011? That's unlikely, but you can see where some kind of lower-than-normal BABIP could occur, given his pounding of the strike zone, and, more specifically, where and how he pounded it: with pitches that moved in areas of the strike zone where hitters couldn't do a whole lot with them. Red Sox fans should know this is a thing that can happen, given the existence of Clay Buchholz.
Even if you consider that his ERA probably should have been a bit higher than it was, having someone in the pen who can do what Aceves did often -- throw a ton of innings in relief, both in terms of frequency and length -- is valuable. Despite FIP's focus on strikeouts, walks, and homers -- i.e., the areas the right-handed did not excel in -- Aceves was credited with a win above replacement as a reliever because of the sheer volume of his innings. By Baseball Reference's measures, he was closer to three wins. There's value in either of those figures out of the pen, as well as whatever is in between, where the truth often lies.
How did Aceves manage to pitch so often, anyway? He managed his workload within appearances well, not gunning the ball as hard as he could, allowing him to rear back when he had to catch the batter off-balance, but, for the most part, sitting in the lower 90s with his heater while similarly utilizing his sinker and cutter. When he moved to the closer role, that changed, with Aceves focusing more and more on pure velocity for all three pitches rather than the command that earned him the gig in the first place.
While this worked out at first, things unraveled, and did so quickly. We covered this around the time Aceves lost his closer's gig in Boston last year, after a series of unfortunate appearances:
In many ways, this jump in pitch speed has worked out. Aceves is striking out 8.2 batters per nine, nearly two whole hitters more per nine than he did in 2011 and in his career before 2012. When he's been on, as shown above, he's been phenomenal. But there are issues here that didn't exist in his past. Aceves still has roughly the same control he did, but his command isn't quite as good as it was at lower speeds. Missing his spots has resulted in more hard-hit balls from the opposition, and it's also forced him to throw some hitter's pitchers in hitter's counts. Because of this, his split-adjusted OPS+ with the batter ahead has jumped from 2011's 80 (.246/.436/.426) to 127 (.273/.515/.591) in 2012.
While he's still been better than average in an even count, he's also had issues there, with his sOPS+ jumping from 58 to 92. His ground ball percentage dipped slightly, his homer rate nearly doubled, and his pitches per plate appearance went from 3.7 to 3.9. That might not seem like much, but over the course of 474 batters faced (his 2011 total), that's a difference of about 100 pitches -- more chances for mistakes, more opportunities for hitters to walk or find their pitch to drive.
Then-manager Bobby Valentine and pitching coach Bob McClure were aware of the fact that Aceves is a better pitcher when he's used often, and said as much after the April 21 shellacking at the hands of the Yankees that saw the Sox bullpen give up 14 runs in three innings. Aceves' command has been sharper in a regular relief role than it was as a starter or a closer, in part because he could work that much more regularly, and wasn't attempting to give it his all with every single pitch as he did while closing. There also wasn't a public feud with his manager that began essentially when the season began and Aceves wasn't a starter, either, but that's another topic entirely.
Will Aceves ever replicate his 2011? Probably not, at least not exactly -- consider that year the ultimate fluke ceiling for a pitcher with Aceves' skill-set, the kind of thing that you're lucky to see happen once. That, of course, is not the same thing as saying he can't ever be useful. The more important question, then, is whether Aceves Is going to repeat his 2012 instead? That question has a lot more to do with Aceves than it does luck, as he'll have to go back to what worked for him for nearly 900 professional innings prior to becoming a closer in order to avoid an unnecessary sequel to those events.
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