We are just over two weeks into the 2016 campaign, and it’s hard to get too worked up or depressed over really much of anything going on with the Cleveland Indians. Sample sizes are too small and they’ve faced seemingly every single lefty in the American League. Seeing what the Chicago White Sox have done, it’s almost like they’ve purpose-built their team just to beat the Tribe.
But relief pitchers never approach real sample size confidence, so getting worked up over them is perfectly fine. To whit, three members of the Cleveland bullpen have drawn my eye -- Trevor Bauer, Bryan Shaw, and Cody Allen. Two are old hands at it while one is new to entering late, two are doing well and one is a hot mess.
Shaw has been a rock in the leadup to Allen Time (Tool Time?) the last few years, and even as Bauer has struggled he’s made the Shin-Soo Choo deal something you can stomach. Since coming to Cleveland he’s struck out 21.4 percent of batters, walked only 7.7 percent, gotten the first pitch strike 58.1 percent of the time and in all has held a 3.47 FIP. Not fantastic, but consistent and you felt like you could generally trust him. That cutter of his was savage to both lefties and righties, a destitute man’s Mariano Rivera.
This year though, it’s been nothing short of hideous. His ERA is in the 24’s, he’s walking 10 percent of all hitters even if he is getting more strikeouts to go with it, and he’s constantly behind in counts, getting ahead to start the AB only 45 percent of the time. He’s getting bombed. But why? He’s effectively a one-pitch pitcher, though he does mix in a slower slider once in a blue moon. But by the numbers everything looks as good as previous years, if not better.
|Shaw Cutter||Velocity||Vert. Movement||Horiz. Movement||Vert. Location||Horiz. Location|
*Data courtesy of Brook's Baseball
The pitch is doing what it’s supposed to out of his hand, and location-wise it’s holding steady to where he’s been placing it vertically. He’s drifting a bit too much over the plate according to the horizontal location numbers. One thing I discovered among MLB’s new StatCast information, Shaw’s spin rate on his cutter is 2262 rpm. We don’t have information on what it was in years past, but league average is 2208 rpm. That means he only gets 2 percent more spin than average on his cutter. Could it be that he just isn’t getting around on the ball, that it’s less biting to hitters than in years past and just kind of floats over the zone instead? That would allow them to square up better, rather than having to deal with darting, late movement. It’s what happened here against Robinson Cano in the eighth on Tuesday night:
See how the ball just sort of eases in there, rather than the darting we're used to? Immediately prior to this he tried to backdoor Cano twice to drive the count full. He doesn't have the touch he needs right now. It’s definitely something to watch as we move forward. Whatever it is, he needs to figure it out or he’s going to lose his job sooner than later and ruin some games. Maybe he’s just losing his ability to do it it like relievers do over time. His FIP has slowly climbed the last three years from 3.01 in 2013 to 4.01 last year.
Some were happy, some were sad, some confused when Bauer was shipped to relief when camp broke. Maybe he gets Carrasco-ized, maybe he just finds his way in the ‘pen, we’ll have to see. Whatever happens in the future, so far it’s been great. Through 26 plate appearances he’s got a 22.6% swinging strike rate, has yet to see a 3-0 count while walking a career low 7.7 percent of hitters, and he just looks good out there. He doesn’t fiddle as much which has always been an issue with him, and he’s been focusing on mostly just cutters and four-seams, though his curveball has been the putaway pitch, throwing it 11 times in the 31 two strike counts he’s faced, and only once when it was 3-2. He gets a swing and miss 27 percent of the time. It’s a great pitch, what can you say.
This is not what Bauer should be doing though, not where he should be. He simply didn’t have the polish that Tomlin did, and is admittedly more effective as a reliever than Tomlin could ever be simply because he can throw 97 mph. Who knows, maybe hanging with a bunch of guys away from the eyes of the big bosses and talking pitching or not will calm him down, get him to pitch and not just try to dance about. Being a reliever means he doesn’t have room to walk people quite so much, and he has the stuff where he can just blow people away if he wants to use it. The control will come, in time. He’s going to be interesting to watch develop as a 'pen arm and hopefully redeem himself.
Remember last April, when Allen was the hottest of garbage? He was walking 16.7 percent of hitters, had a 2.86 WHIP, and a .556 BABIP. He couldn’t find the zone and everything was terrible all the time as he took a pair of losses. Batters logged a 1.036 OPS against him. But it all evened out and he ended up being as good as Aroldis Chapman by the end of the year, believe it or not. This year has started off a bit better, though his numbers are inflated mostly from a non-save situation against the Tampa Bay Rays where he gave up a capstone home run in a game that had gotten out of hand. Beides that he’s given up a hit with two strikeouts in three innings of work.
What troubles me, and again it’s a bit early, is his velocity is down from this time a year ago. He was throwing 95.3 mph last April, that’s down to 93.9 this year.It’s only a tick amidst cold days and the radar guns could have had some dust on them, so there’s no real reason to worry yet. He’s still getting a considerably higher than average 2494 rpm spin rate on his four-seam, where league average is 2239 rpm. But even Tuesday night there were lasers coming off his bat, they just didn’t quite have the juice to make it a real problem but the sound was unsettling.
* * *
Three men, three key arms in the Indians’ future. All three need to be good and even if their replaceability is varied, having all three succeed paints a pretty picture for 2016 and beyond. It’s Shaw I’m most worried about, the drifting location and barely above average spin rate on a pitch that need to bite and dart and dive is only going to lead to more hard hit balls. Right now I don’t trust him to face the Miguel Cabreras or Lorenzo Cains or Jose Abreus of the division. Those guys will tee off on him. Bauer just needs to find his mind, and Allen, who knows. The man is a roller coaster. He definitely makes a one or two run game an adventure in the ninth inning. The way he was the last couple years, there’s no reason to doubt him. The most important thing to remember, though, is that it's only April. Its time to get worked up and then remember it’s all ridiculous.