As the Cleveland Indians ripped off 14 wins in a row to seize firm control of the AL Central and set a club record, one thing fans weren’t really shown was a large sample of the bullpen. Until the very last game that is, which is fitting that they finally got a chance to chip in and it was a starter, not one of the relievers, that gave the Tribe that victory.
The next day Corey Kluber lasted into the fourth and the Indians were shellacked. Through that whole run, and throughout the whole season really, incredible starting pitching has kept the relief corps on their butts in left field. For a team with postseason and more aspirations, especially after this incredible couple of weeks, that won’t be the case for too long. It makes one wonder - how good is the Indians bullpen, really?
In researching this piece, I discovered something amazing: Only six relievers have thrown more than 30 innings. Even more impressive, only eight have pitched more than 10, and two of those are Trevor Bauer and Joba Chamberlain, neither of which will see the pen anytime soon for whatever reason.Terry Francona has a reputation for loving that walk to the mound, so much so that he set a record for pitching changes in 2014 with 573. I guess I just figured it would be considerably more, but that’s what having five guys go six and seven innings with regularity will do for you.
Chamberlain is gone, as is Tom Gorzelanny -- to be replaced by Mike Clevinger and TJ House -- which throws a bunch of interesting unknown into the mix. Clevinger throws hard and showed flashes of excellence in his cup of coffee in May, and House reportedly has had a jump in velocity and also brings lefties, a weird arm angle and the ability to go several innings. Who knows how they’ll work out, but it’s cool to have them back in the club.
As for the guys who have been around, it’s hard to convince yourself they’re truly great, or even good enough for the roles bequeathed to them at times. Two of the most-used guys, Bryan Shaw and Zach McAllister, are essentially one pitch pitchers. Shaw has his cutter and McAllister a too straight four-seamer which they throw 77.5 percent and 80.5 percent of the time respectively, though PITCHF/x suggests McAllister does two-seam it now and again. But they both make me nervous because they nibble, they dance, and they seem to be so stressed out on the mound.
Shaw’s struggles this year have been plain as day and in too big moments as he’s the go-to eighth-inning guy, and it’s resulted in all the wrong numbers. He’s got a 3.51 SIERA which isn’t horrible but for his role it could be better, and he’s walking 11 percent of batters while striking out 25 percent. While the cutter should be generating a lot of grounders to this very good infield since he generally throws it down in the zone and it should move off the sweet part of the bat, he’s only getting that outcome 47.2 percent of the time. The seven home runs he’s given up in his 32 innings is glaring too though, that’s two less than Corey Kluber, in 82 fewer innings. That’s a 25.4 percent home run to flyball rate, and for a guy without the sky-high ground ball rate, that’s going to go real bad, real quick.
McAllister is in the same vein, and when it’s a pitch that doesn’t even have the movement of Shaw’s cutter, he’s even more scary to watch. He’s striking out 23 percent of batters but walking 10.6 percent of them, too. His 4.24 SIERA is uncomfortable, but admittedly, and this goes with Shaw that I mentioned earlier, it’s not everything. It’s that McAllister is so dependent on that fastball, it’s a daring move to trust him for more than a couple batters. If anything, with his 50 percent fly ball rate on batted balls, only 8.3 percent of those becoming home runs is great luck for him. He had a curveball once, it was his best pitch before the Indians got him from the New York Yankees farm system, but he threw it less than 12 percent of the time last year and 14.2 percent this year. A reliever doesn’t have a lot of time to set batters up with one pitch then trick them later on, but there needs to be an out pitch of some kind, particularly when you rely only on velocity and middling movement like McAllister. He leads the bullpen with a 39.2 percent hard-hit ball rate, and that is the crux of the whole issue. He throws a pitch that you can square up and launch, and throws it a lot.
Which brings us to Cody Allen, and really the question that comes about when you think about bullpens in general. Allen has 18 saves, and while his ERA as low as you’d like, he’s still striking out basically 30 percent of batters. His walk rate has leapt nearly four points to 12.5 percent, though, and his home run to fly ball ratio is a career worst 14.3 percent. He led all relievers in all of baseball with 2.6 fWAR, but with the homers and walks, at least FanGraphs isn’t going to be as friendly there. But he’s being effective as ever, in that the job is getting done even if it’s a roller coaster. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better closer, at least one available.
There arises that aforementioned question. How does one actually judge a bullpen? If a general manager’s plan is to have Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman emerge, or fall ass-backwards into the Kansas City Royals’ collection of laser cannons and frisbee throwers, he’ll be fired in a year or two. It’d be nice to just have a group of guys that strikes everyone out, but that’s not how it actually works unless you’re super lucky or direly willing to part with valuable assets. The Indians have several guys who strike out more than a man an inning, and Dan Otero is right under that number, but they have effectiveness beyond that. Jeff Manship had that absurd sub-1 ERA last year, and this year is at 2.22. His FIP is 4.81, his SIERA 4.84, but he gets results due at least in part to a 50.7 percent ground ball rate and a team-high 24.1 percent soft contact rate. Maybe he’s been lucky, maybe he makes his own luck, but he gets the job done. It’s like this with many of the Indians relievers, benefiting or suffering from the fickle attentions of Lady Luck.
When the calendar flips to October, though, and if the Indians’ dreams come true and they're still playing, is that enough? Starters don't go seven and eight innings regularly, you need a clutch of good arms to rely on late in the game. It’s not always going to be the miserable bottom half of the Detroit Tigers order, or Not Mike Trout on the Los Angeles Angels. They’re going to see the Boston Red Sox, who kill baseballs. Or the Baltimore Orioles or Toronto Blue Jays, who have a handful of guys each that can assault the bleacher creatures. What if the Houston Astros pull it off? They love fastballs, they'll adore McAllister. Having only an overworked Jeurys Familia and starters is what sunk the New York Mets in the end. Perhaps seeing the Royals do their thing, and the Tigers fail for not having the same in previous years, has just painted my impressions, but it'd be nice to just have a lockdown guy or two, just an inning off from hear palpitations.
The Cleveland 'pen was a bit of a question mark coming into the season and hasn’t really had the chance, because of that dominant rotation, to quell worries. If anything, Shaw in particular combined with Francona’s continued reliance on him has only made it worse. It could be that we just remember their failure more than anyone else since the game is routinely on the line, but that is the name of the reliever game. While not bad, it must be said they’re the weak link on a generally excellent squad, at least until further notice.