He’s like manna from the baseball heavens, a pitcher who seemed to come out of nowhere — or the back of the San Diego Padres’ bullpen, maybe the same thing — to fortify an Angels relief corps that appeared on the verge of collapse one month ago.
Ernesto Frieri was relegated to middle relief for three seasons in San Diego, where he was buried on the depth chart behind such pitchers as Heath Bell, Mike Adams, Andrew Cashner, Huston Street and Luke Gregerson.
But there was something about the right-hander with the lively 93-mph fastball and across-the-body delivery that caught the eye of Angels General Manager Jerry Dipoto, who got his fill of Frieri while working for the Arizona Diamondbacks, a National League West rival of the Padres.
“He was that middle-relief guy who wasn’t pitching in high-leverage situations and was always airing it out,” Dipoto said. “Watching him, there’s a lot of swing-throughs when Ernie is pitching — he’s always been able to miss bats.”
Dipoto inquired about Frieri during spring training, and when every Angels reliever not named Scott Downs began hitting bats far too frequently and loudly in April, the pursuit intensified.
On May 3, Dipoto and Padres GM Josh Byrnes agreed on a deal that sent Frieri to the Angels for triple-A infielder Alexi Amarista and Class-A pitcher Donn Roach.
The Angels’ bullpen — and the team, for that matter — has not been the same since.
Frieri, 26, has been a notch above dominant, opening his Angels career with 12 hitless innings in which he has 25 strikeouts, two saves and three holds.
Including the 11 2/3 innings Frieri threw for the Padres, batters have made contact on only 61% of the pitches they’ve swung at, according to https://www.fangraphs.com. That’s the third-lowest rate among major league relievers behind the New York Yankees’ Boone Logan and Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman.
With Downs, the veteran left-hander, not giving up a run in 18 innings and demoted closer Jordan Walden regaining his form, a bullpen that blew six of its first seven save opportunities has a 1.83 earned run average in 44 1/3 innings during the team’s 11-5 surge entering Friday night’s game against the Texas Rangers.
“We looked at Ernie’s makeup and got glowing reports,” Dipoto said. “What we didn’t know was how quickly he’d catch on here. He brought an energy to the team.”
Frieri’s impact for the Angels makes it hard to believe he had such a limited role with the struggling Padres.
“This guy couldn’t pitch meaningful games in San Diego?” Angels reliever LaTroy Hawkins asked, incredulously. “I don’t know how to explain that.”
The Padres can. San Diego had a surplus of proven, reliable relievers, and Frieri, despite averaging 12 strikeouts per nine innings over his career, has had problems throwing strikes, averaging five walks per nine innings and hitting nine batters in 2011.
“I would say that his strike-throwing was the biggest issue standing in the way of eighth- or ninth-inning use,” said Byrnes, the Padres executive who dealt him. “Obviously, he’s been fantastic for the Angels. The walks don’t seem to matter when he never gives up a hit.”
Frieri is sharing closing duties with Downs, but Tuesday night’s game against the Yankees was a reminder of why some might hesitate using Frieri in the ninth.
With a 5-1 lead, Frieri walked Russell Martin and Derek Jeter and hit Alex Rodriguez with a pitch to load the bases with two outs. He struck out Robinson Cano to finish off the win, but he has 10 walks with his new team.
“Ernie has the walk in his game, and those can come with some extra adrenaline,” Dipoto said. “But if the price we pay for missing more bats is a few extra walks, we’ll take them.”
Frieri’s talent emerged when he was a boy in Sincerin, Colombia, 60 miles south of the coastal city of Cartagena, where he now lives.
He is one of 10 children raised by his grandmother, Zoila Gutierrez. Frieri’s mother, Ena Luz Gutierrez, worked as a shopkeeper outside the country, usually in Venezuela or Spain, to support the family.
Zoila made tamales for a living, and when Ernesto was 10, he went to work, rising at 4 a.m. every day to grind corn and later sell tamales on the streets.
“I started playing baseball when I was about 12, and I always threw faster than everyone else on my team,” Frieri said. “My arm got stronger from grinding all that corn, and I think that’s why I have such a healthy arm today.”
Frieri was 17 when he received $12,000 to sign with the Padres in 2003. He learned a grip in Class-A ball that added considerable movement to his four-seam fastball, and in 2009, despite his command problems, he reached the big leagues.
“I’ve been blessed with a good fastball that is hard to pick up, but I couldn’t always throw it for strikes,” Frieri said. “I tried to slow my pitches down, and that didn’t help. Now, I’m not afraid to throw it down the middle and let my natural movement take over.”
Frieri holds no ill will toward the Padres, who signed and developed him.
“It was hard to make it to the big leagues there because they have so many good pitchers,” Frieri said. “I’m always going to be thankful they gave me so many opportunities.”
Another benefit to the Angels’ acquisition of Frieri is he makes only $489,000 and won’t be eligible for arbitration until 2014, keeping him under club control through 2016.
His salary is minimum wage in baseball but a fortune to Frieri, who came “from a really poor family” but was able to build a new home last year for his grandmother, whose previous home suffered so much water damage it collapsed two years ago. Frieri plans to bring his mother, who has never seen him pitch in the U.S., to Orange County in June.
“I’m lucky, I’m blessed,” Frieri said. “The Angels have given me a chance to pitch deeper in games, they trust me a little more. I really love it here.”