Take a look around the league and you’ll see few, if any, bullpens that couldn’t use another arm. We’ve come to recognize relievers as the most volatile entities in baseball. Because they pitch so few innings it becomes difficult to gauge their true talent level, and so we see production fluctuate from one year to another, sometimes to a high degree. Even teams with solid bullpens could do worse than sign a high-potential reliever to a minor league contract. Yet, Kiko Calero remains unemployed.
I’d ask why this is the case, but the answer stares us in the eyes. Over the past three seasons Calero has missed time due to shoulder injuries. The most severe came in 2008, when he strained his rotator cuff and missed the first two months of the season. Upon his return he pitched reasonably well, allowing three runs (two earned) on just three hits and three walks through 4.2 innings. The only runs came in a single appearance against the Yankees, and it was actually Alan Embree who allowed the runners to score. One two-inning scoreless appearance later, the A’s designated Calero for assignment, releasing him 10 days later.
Why would the A’s release a reliever like Calero, who had pitched so well for them in the past? I’m not quite sure, but his performance in Triple-A later that season put that question to rest. He got roughed up in the hitter-friendly PCL, allowing four home runs and walking 12 in 21.1 innings. The sample was short, but the results were anything but encouraging. Calero had to settle for a minor league deal with the Marlins, though he broke camp with the team.
Despite again missing time with shoulder issues, this time inflammation, Calero managed 60 innings with the Marlins, posting a 2.56 FIP on the strength of 69 strikeouts and just a single home run. Not only was his FIP an excellent 2.56, but his tERA checked in at an even lower 2.29. As R.J. noted in September, Calero’s contact rate was among the lowest in the league. He finished 10th lowest among MLB pitchers with at least 50 IP.
Beyond injuries, one concern is that Calero’s ridiculously low home run is unsustainable. His 1.4 percent HR/FB ratio in 2009 was the lowest of his career, despite his fly ball rate being the highest. Any ERA predictor that normalizes for home run rate would have pegged Calero a bit higher than FIP and tERA, and we saw that in his 3.92 xFIP. Even so, that’s a decent number for a middle reliever.
He performs especially well against righties, a plus for any interested team. Over his career he’s faced 787 same-handed batters, striking out 223 of them, 28 percent, and walking just 62, or 8 percent, both better than his career averages. Perhaps most importantly, he’s allowed just 13 home runs, or one every 60.5 right-handed hitters faced. This is in spite of his fly ball rate, which sits at 52 percent against righties. Yet he pitches well enough against lefties that having him face a pinch-hitter, or a lefty between two righties, isn’t a huge concern.
It doesn’t appear a major league offer is in the cards for Calero. He was reportedly in negotiations with the Cubs last month, but nothing came of that. The Marlins have expressed their concerns with his shoulder, and that might have warded off other potential suitors. But in a league where a team’s best non-closer one year can rank among their worst the next, Calero presents an excellent option.