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Zach McAllister, high-leverage reliever?

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The Indians reliever has shown something new this year.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Bryan Shaw has assumed the role of whipping boy for Cleveland Indians fans the last couple years. Admittedly, he's had some bad moments that just sort of sear into the brain, but the thing about Bryan Shaw is, he's also been really, really good. Before Andrew Miller showed up, he was as close to an ace setup man as you can get without being Wade Davis circa 2014. But nothing is forever, and it's important to keep searching for solutions before there's a problem, especially with relief pitching.

So what about Zach McAllister?

As pilloried as Shaw is among Indiansdom, he at least doesn't have the garbage man reputation of McAllister. He has sought a role in the Indians pen for what seems like years now, vacillating between long man, mop-up guy and guy that gives fans heart attacks and hitters line drives. He turned from a pretty bad starter (4.30 ERA when he was a regular in the rotation, 3.96 FIP and averaging about 5 2/3 innings per start) to a pretty good reliever. He's bumped his fastball velocity up to the mid-90's since fully converting to the bullpen, hitting as high as 98.2 mph this year. This speed bump, which occurred in 2015 when he was able to go truly max effort every time out, has led to a leap in strikeout rate. Prior to moving to short relief his highest strikeout rate was 20.3 percent. Since 2015 that number has been 28.1 in 2015, 23.2 last year and now 29.0 percent in 2017. Aside from the improved velocity, this year in particular he’s gone back to what made him a major league prospect in the first place.

Way back when McAllister was a New York Yankees prospect, he was rated as having the best curveball in their system. This was not something that ever really showed up with the Indians. From when he debut whit the Tribe in 2011 to last year he never threw curves more than 14.9 percent of the time. And that was last year. He’s tried mixing in a slider, a change, everything but the thing he was once best at. It always bugged me a bit. This year he must have heard my mental complaints, or listened to his pitching coach or just started doing what all Indians pitchers do (seriously, all their starters and most of their good relievers throw a good curve, it’s a real thing they’re doing) but he’s throwing more than 20 percent curves. IN essence, he’s become a two pitch pitcher, like a good reliever. Not that he didn’t mix a bit in the past, it’s just that this year it’s actually working.

The vital part to his curveball being more effective this year is where he’s letting it go. He’s actually dropped his release point a bit:

TexasLeaguers.com

Here’s this year:

TexasLeaguers.com

This has led, at least in part, to his being able to locate the curve down more, where it’s less crushable:

This allows him to pair it with a high velocity fastball and to get hitters uncomfortable and chasing. It’s made him quite a bit better.

As for why he should replace Shaw, or at least work in tandem with him, there are no good situational numbers to point to. McAllister has not been in a high leverage situation all saeson. Shaw has though, and has a .319 wOBA against him. It’s not super bad, but it’s about league average. That’s not a good thing for a key relief pitcher. Shaw has never been a big strikeout guy - 21.2 percent for his career and 22.5 percent this year. He instead gets ground balls at a strong rate (58 percent this season, 50.3 for his career), which does play into the Indians’s strength this year. But grounders have a mean tendency to squirt through and become hits at a higher rate than fly balls, which McAllister forces about 45 percent of the time compared to 33 percent ground balls. Both pitchers have a 20ish percent line drive rate. Fly balls turn into home runs, which is why McAllister’s HR/FB rate is 10.5 percent, twice that of Shaw but still about league average.

So they’re two roughly opposite pitchers. One gets a lot of strikeouts, one a lot of grounders, and they both walk 10 percent of batters. McAllister is more prone to homers, which is bad for relievers. But Shaw’s style does allow for more hits on average, even if they’re singles. They also find themselves used in diametrically opposed situations lately:

That shows the leverage index for each appearance each pitcher made this year. They’ve been sine and cosine of each other the last few weeks, but McAllister has been finding himself in more and more consistently important moments. It’s plain the coaching staff sees something in him, more than just an arm to use when it’s a blowout one way or the other, or a losing game in general. He’s shown he’s more than just meh. Maybe he shouldn’t replace Shaw, but he’s got a place in vital moments, and will get a chance or two this season. For the first time in years, this doesn’t feel like a really bad idea.