For about a month up until Monday night in Kansas City, Cleveland Indians eighth inning man Bryan Shaw was on quite a run. From June 17th to July 16th, Shaw was nearly untouchable, allowing five hits with 16 strikeouts while facing 51 batters in that span. Opponents had a .372 OPS against him. He was everything Tribedom had grown used to over the last few years, and he put a rough couple of outings prior to that run firmly in the rear-view. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
What kind of hitters was Shaw facing in that run? Was he just lucky for a month, seeing the bottom of the order among bottom-feeders? Was his early scuffling rather was this month of dominance the ruse? I decided to take a look.
Baseball is the long game, where everything a player is shakes out in the end, but it’s also a game of instances. A hot streak can illegitimately buoy stats, just as a cold run can make a player look worse than he is. Every player, whether a hitter or a pitcher, is a slave to the moment. So rather than just taking all the current stats of every batter Shaw had faced as of right now, I decided to see where they stood leading up to the day they faced Shaw, to get a better idea of what he was actually facing. I used OPS because it does a decent job of amalgamating the offensive impact, even if it’s not as exact as wOBA, they generally are similar enough where it makes little difference. Combined, the 51 batters Shaw faced logged a .766 OPS over more than 10,000 combined at-bats.
Basically, Shaw has faced the equivalent of Adrian Beltre 51 times in a row, on average, and allowed only five hits with 16 strikeouts. Beltre isn’t the MVP candidate he once was, but he’s still a fine hitter and definitely not the kind of guy you want to face late in the game, and certainly not 51 times in a row. For more clarity, .766 is right around what a league average hitter produces, or the combined offensive output of the Seattle Mariners. Average isn’t bad, it’s an 81 win team. Certainly, they’d typically do better than 5-for-51 normally. If you look at it like that, Shaw did quite a job handling this theoretical combined mega-Beltre.
More broadly, Shaw was rather unlucky in who he ended up facing. He had to dance through fire. He started with the White Sox and saw the top of their order twice in two days, allowing one hit. He saw the middle of the order for the Tigers, including Victor Martinez and Nick Castellanos twice each and Miguel Cabrera, and allowed two hits in two appearances. He faced Josh Donaldson and held firm, he silenced the three best hitters on the Rays including Evan Longoria, and Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury were afterthoughts. There are some All-Stars, a couple MVPs and future Hall of Famers on his list, and Shaw stood firm throughout the entire odyssey.
Bryan Shaw is not as good as he showed the last month. He’s not as bad as his line score was Monday night, either. Contextually, that was a silly inning anyway - a dribbler, a bloop, and a bad play by one of his outfielders was what did him in, not line shots off the bat or sky-scraping home runs. You could point to that night as proof of something, but if it’s that he isn’t good at his job, you’ be wrong. It’s merely that baseball is an evil harlot sometimes, tearing you down after writers spilled ink praising your late excellence. He spent a month living in the middle of the order, often giving Cody Allen a much easier row to hoe and improving his stats, and yet he escaped unblemished. It’s nobody’s fault that some dark magic is wielded in western Missouri by those devils in blue.
This all tells me something most of us already know, and yet keep forgetting. Just because Shaw, or any reliever doesn’t have Mo Rivera or Craig Kimbrel numbers is no sign that he is terrible. They throw so little, and one misstep and dose of bad luck can ruin weeks of great work and hurl you back in the doghouse. The Indians do need relief help, but that was true in the middle of Shaw’s hot run, it was true when Joba Chamberlain and Tom Gorzelanny were in the pen, it was true when the season started. It’s a fickle life, being a relief pitcher, because nobody talks about your good days, and if it goes bad you get hung out to dry.
Even if Tribe fans will get heart problems from it, the best thing Shaw can do is get back out there and try again. And avoid the Royals in KC, but that’s just good advice.