Since 2013 the back end of the Cleveland Indians bullpen has featured Cody Allen in some role or other. His first full year when he gave the club 70.1 innings, he worked with Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith to lock down the seventh and eighth innings in preparation for the fickle Chris Perez, and was handed the closer role in 2014 after Perez was handed his walking papers. Since then he has been a fixture as the Indians close out teams, whether blowing batters away with 96 mph of pure flame or dropping silly knuckle-curves on unsuspecting, flailing fools. While it would be nice for the Tribe to pick up a pitcher that is so lock down that you can just turn off your TV and expect the win to just happen a few minutes later, it’s hard to say that Cody Allen isn’t one of the best, and probably most exciting, closers in all of baseball.
Maybe it’s just recency bias, or that I watch a lot more Tribe games than other teams. But Allen has a knack for two things: closing games and making it interesting. Somehow his numbers just don’t seem to support the heart attacks he gives Tribe fans on a near-nightly basis. One thing that stats don’t tell you is just how hard some of these outs he gets are hit. Just this past Friday night he closed out the Oakland Athletics after a furious and downright lucky comeback, and the last out was just absurd
Literally a gust of wind or the ball being hit in a slightly different direction, and that ball turns into a blown save and possible loss for the Indians and an extra metric ton of hate mail in Allen’s locker the next day. Instead Tyler Naquin just reeled it in. With two men on in a two run game in the ninth, a ball soaring to deep center is a heart stopper, but the end result was a win. It’s just as effective as the 1-2-3, 10 pitch outing in terms of end result, but the ride there is something else entirely. The front office definitely likes Allen for his comparatively cheap effectiveness (5.6 rWAR since starting full-time pitching) but he definitely makes it a show for the fans, too.
For all the ups and downs within seemingly every start, by the numbers Allen is a remarkably consistent pitcher. From 2013 to 2015 he averaged 70 innings and 74 appearances, and since 2013 has struck out 32 percent of batters while walking 9.2 percent. His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) has fluctuated a bit, hitting a low fo 1.82 last year, but that’s an outlier as he logged a 2.99 FIP in both 2013 and ‘14, and 3.35 this year. Seeing as FIP measures effectiveness using only homers, walks and strikeouts, giving up only two homers last year certainly helped. While an FIP around 3 isn’t exactly sterling, it’s just a bit higher than Craig Kimbrel’s 2.84 and a quarter of a run higher than Wade Davis’s 2.75. He’s probably not as good as Davis, maybe as good as Kimbrel though I’d take Kimbrel over Allen if I had the choice, but he’s still got an ERA in the low to mid-2.00’s and strikes out a third of all batters he faces. Results matter in the closing game.
As FanGraphs writer August Fagerstrom noted when writing about the Aroldis Chapman deal the other day, the measuring stick of relievers is much different than that of starters. Peripherals are nice, but the number going in the win column is all that matters at the end of the day. In that way, Allen’s 90.9 percent is up there with the best of them. It’s uncomfortable to me to rate a guy based on such a flawed stat, but he does get it done. So did Joe Borowski in 2007, of course. But at what cost?
The closer is placed under a savage microscope because everything is on his shoulders, and while Allen has demonstrated that rare ability to fail and come back without it slowing him, but he’s also an expert in creating his own trouble. He gets the important first-pitch strike 58 percent of the time in his career, below the league average, and in the pressure cooker of the ninth going down 1-0 just feels suddenly so dangerous. And when his curve isn’t working particularly well and he turns into a one-pitch pitcher, it’s a good idea if you’re a Tribe fan to put a pillow over your head.
The thing of it is though, even if he creates a harrowing situation, he is able to tap-dance out of it. Plainly this is a dangerous road to walk, but he has shown a knack for finding freedom. He is blessed with an electric arm and that gives a decent realm of error for him to live in, and is forcing a career high 45.4 percent groundball rate, so he’s not relying on FIP to do his work, he’s relying on real, actual defense. And it’s comforting to know Francisco Lindor is a central part of your plans for winning. Allen has made that adjustment, as has the whole staff.
With Allen it’s important to remember we are watching an entertainment source, and the greatest entertainments play with your heart and yank your emotions all over the map. He does make the ninth inning interesting at least, without ruining it inopportunely like Bryan Shaw apparently does. It helps Allen to have a scapegoat like that in the eighth inning, even if he has blown a couple games in hideous fashion this year. A walk-off home run to Nolan Reimold, I ask you.
Is Cody Allen a great closer? The stats say so, but the context he creates now and again make one wonder otherwise. But as I mentioned before, the closer that slams the door on 12 pitches and no baserunners is a unicorn. Even the greatest of all, Mariano Rivera, had a WHIP around one. He routinely got the flyout, walked a guy, got a strikeout and a groundout and finished it with ease. If Allen was the guy taking the ball in the ninth in October though, is that faith-inducing or troubling? Having lived through the Borowski Era and its own insanities, seeing Allen trot out there he at least throws hard and gets strikeouts. I feel confident in his ability to get the team the win come hell or high water. But again, Nolan Reimold.