For nearly five years now, Bryan Shaw has been a reliable part of the Cleveland Indians bullpen. He's consistently given the team somewhere around 70 innings a year, appearing in no less than 70 games. He led the American League in appearances in both 2014 and '16. He's been a mainstay, the sidekick to Cody Allen before the arrival of Andrew Miller, and a vital piece of one of the best 'pens in baseball a year ago.
But that was before. This year is not going well for him. He has a career-high ERA (3.51), OPS allowed as an Indian (.700), as well as walk rate (7.6 percent), and a career-low strikeout rate (16.8 percent). Bryan Shaw is broken.
It’s not all bad, of course. I dug up two small bits of good news with Shaw despite his struggles — he has a career-high grounder rate at 57.3 percent this year, always a good thing for a relief pitcher. Especially when he has the infield defense behind him that the Indians possess. He's also been inflicted with the highest BABIP of his career at .306.
Of course, these two things are intertwined. Ground balls turn into base hits more often than fly balls, but have less chance of damage. Francisco Lindor is dazzling, but he can't field everything. Giovanny Urshela apparently can. If only he could hit. But that is the nature of the beast when it comes to grounders. One would think it's preferable to have a higher grounder rate, it just looks real bad when they dart under the glove of an infielder. If this is who Shaw is now, this is going to be a problem for him. It's not a bad thing, it can just be frustrating when the ball goes the wrong way. Hitters aren't hitting the ball much harder off him than before — his 22.9 percent hard hit rate is exactly his league average — he's just found a way to redirect batted balls into the ground. Some days it'll be an easy 1-2-3 inning as he forces a few grounders to second or shortstop. Other days things will get hairy real quick. But those days should be fewer than the good ones.
Shaw is essentially a two-pitch pitcher. He throws that cutter and a complementary slider about 10 mph apart, and apparently threw a change-up earlier this year. For several years, especially last year, this blend of cutter and slider worked magic.
In 2016, Shaw had a career high 25.1 percent strikeout rate with a then-career high 52.7 percent grounder rate, though he was also walking 10.2 percent of batters. That slider was vital to his operation, as he got a swinging strike on 20.6 percent of them. That's not happening this year — that number is down to 10.8 percent of sliders. This graph shows why:
He's still getting the same velocity split between his slider and cutter, but not the same break on the slider. If you'd prefer a better visualization, TexasLeaguers.com has you covered. Here's how Shaw's slider moved the last two years:
And here's this season:
It's missing its good late life. Hitters aren't flailing at air anymore. At this point, if it's not darting out of the zone before moving on the same plane as the cutter, it's merely a crappy, slow cutter. That's going to get crushed. It also makes his cutter more hittable simply because batters don't have to prepare for a ball that's going to just disappear on them. His spike in grounder rate speaks to the power of his cutter to get off the sweet spot of the bat,but he's not getting the strikeouts he once did, even before his 2016 peak.
The real question is whether it is fixable. It could be that Shaw is having trouble with his grip because of the reports that balls these days have lower seams. But the new lower seams were reported more than a year ago, and he got just fine break back then and struck out more batters than ever. It could just be overuse of the pitcher. Maybe he's not getting the right snap from his elbow or wrist anymore to make the slider effective because he's thrown several hundred innings the last couple years. He isn't having velocity problems, and he is getting the same movement off his cutter, he just seems to have lost the touch that makes the slider, slide.
It doesn't sound like an unfixable issue. It's not arm trouble or a strength problem, just something mechanic or grip-based perhaps. Our cameras aren’t good enough for me to analyze how he holds the ball, sadly. Whether he becomes a destitute man's Kenley Jansen and throws only cutters from here on out (he's getting similar whiff rates, velo and movement on it with it as in years past, but he wouldn’t be super effective long-term) or figures out the slider, something probably needs to change.
In the short term that means limiting his high leverage appearances. In the long term, who knows. This is a contract year. This could be the swan song for Bryan Shaw. Ground ball pitchers are apt to have sudden runs of scoreless and hitless inning streaks. Maybe he'll hit one come October as the ball goes the right way on the ground, and he goes out on top. He's facing uncertainty every time he’s on the mound, and that is bleeding across the team because he's been such a vital cog to the late inning machinery. For a contending team, this is the worst time possible for yet another swoon.
The next couple weeks will sure be interesting.