The Angels bullpen has been in constant flux over the first two months of the season. First, it was Jordan Walden, the young All-Star fresh off a breakout rookie season which had some rough patches, like leading the league in blown saves. The closer job was named his during the offseason and the team brought in some reliable veterans around him in LaTroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen to mentor the young fireballer. But Walden came out of the gates shaky this season, and the Halos were forced to go to Plan B.
Plan B involved demoting Walden to a middle relief/setup role as he continued to work on his secondary pitches in less high-pressure situations. They moved their lone reliable arm from the early part of the season, Scott Downs, back to close, hoping the shuffling would bring about some different results. To add a little more help, the Angels front office struck a deal with the San Diego Padres, sending them infielder Alexi Amarista in exchange for reliever Ernesto Frieri. Plan B has gone exceedingly well.
During his time with San Diego, Frieri was used as a middle reliever and setup man. Control issues always kept Frieri from moving into the closer’s role despite his excellent stuff. GM Jerry Dipoto targeted Frieri because of his good movement on his fastball and his tendency to “miss bats,” which was something that was severely lacking from the Angels pen early this season. Deception is the key for Frieri, as he uses an unorthodox across-the-body motion to deliver a lively 93-mph fastball. Since the trade, Frieri has made a commitment to attacking the zone, rather than nibbling the corners, which has drastically reduced the control issues that plagued him in San Diego. Now, he throws it down the pipe and lets the natural movement take the pitch to the corners.
The results have been phenomenal. Over 8.2 innings in nine games, Frieri has yet to surrender a hit, striking out 19 and walking six. Of the 32 batters he’s faced so far as an Angel, only six have put the ball in play. Combined with Downs, who hasn’t given up a run in 13 innings, and Walden, who has responded well to his demotion and is bouncing back nicely, and the major weakness of this team in April suddenly looks like its biggest strength.
Frieri has been such a strong addition to the bullpen, he may force Mike Scioscia to amend Plan B (Plan B-2 maybe?) and install the newcomer as the closer. Downs has been good, but Frieri has been sooo good, Scioscia may want to put Frieri as the stopper at the end of games. He did it on Wednesday, giving Downs the ninth and bringing Frieri in for the save in the 11th.
Scioscia won’t officially name Frieri his closer, saying that he would also like to keep Downs as an option for the end of games, but his actions and Frieri’s performance seem to indicate the move has already taken place, even if unofficially. Whether it’s Frieri or Downs, though, teams are going to have a hard time mounting late rallies against this Angels bullpen. Who thought we’d be able to say that a month ago?