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The Indians have a problem with fire-balling firemen

Despite a historic pitching run the last few years, Cleveland has yet to produce much in the way of hard-throwing relievers.

MLB: ALDS-New York Yankees at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

I wanted to write about relief options for the Indians going into 2018, and moves they could make. With a team as put together as they are, the only real available improvements are in the relief corps and a platoon bat or two. According to the depth chart, Cleveland has six relievers in the ‘pen. That is simply too few toys for Terry Francona to play with. They’ll likely sign some other arms, marginal guys that don’t move the needle. But they have to. In recent years the Indians have just done a terrible job of finding raw pitching talent for the bullpen.

This doesn’t hold true for the rotation, of course. Apart from first rounder Trevor Bauer, most of their rotation was put together with rando’s and nobodies. Corey Kluber was just some guy. Mike Clevinger came over for Vinnie Pestano. Carlos Carrasco is a bit of a happy accident after Jason Knapp flamed out. He’s not even mentioned in this article reporting the deal. Danny Salazar came from nowhere, and if a decently sized subset of the Indians fanbase got their way, he’d end up in that ‘pen. The Indians have developed starters very well, and that’s a good thing. Starters are more important than relievers. But with what they’re chasing in October, they sure could use a couple flamethrowers waiting in the wings.

The average reliever threw a four-seam fastball at 93.4 miles per hour in 2017. Of Tribe relievers that threw at least 20 innings — a total of nine guys — five crested that mark. If you include Bryan Shaw’s cutter (MLB reliever average was 92.8 mph) that gives you six. That sounds nice on paper. But most of these pitchers weren’t exactly blasting past that mark:

Indians reliever fastball velocity

Name IP vFA vFC
Name IP vFA vFC
Zach McAllister 62 95.8 86.8
Cody Allen 67.1 94.6
Andrew Miller 62.2 94.5
Boone Logan 21 94.3
Shawn Armstrong 24.2 93.6
Nick Goody 54.2 92.1
Dan Otero 60 91
Tyler Olson 20 89.2
Bryan Shaw 76.2 94.6

In total, the team threw an average 93.8 mph fastball out of the bullpen. Barely above average. In fact, it’s below average among teams — the Indians were 25th in baseball in reliever four-seam velocity.

Not that this doomed them or anything in 2017. They threw the second least amount of innings of any bullpen in baseball behind only the Nationals and yet were worth a combined 10.4 bWAR and 9.7 fWAR, both second in baseball. Wins Above Replacement is a compiling stat (more work means more WAR) so this is especially impressive. But it’s hard to figure that Tyler Olson will have a 0.00 ERA again, even with his weird arm angles. Same with Nick Goody — he only throws about 92 and has a decent slider. Luck will only get you so far.

Cleveland is sure to have a great bullpen again in 2018. Losing Bryan Shaw hurts, but Andrew Miller and Cody Allen are still there, Dan Otero is a fine pitcher (in fact worth the most wins of any Indian non-starter last year, if that matters for relief pitchers), and both Goody and Olson comported themselves well in their debut seasons. But deception is much harder to project than sheer power. It’s a part of why the Yankees’ ZiPS projection of 8 WAR is as high as it is. Last year they were worth 10 Wins, and were projected for only five. They develop fastballs better than anyone in the game, and throw harder than anyone in the game. Aroldis Chapman helps of course, but between him Chad Green, Dellin Betances and even Tommy Kanhle, they all sit comfortably above 95.

My admittedly minor problem here is, the Indians are forced to do this dance around the edges hoping to strike Manship-esque gold because they just don’t have the raw arms coming up. The ones that are — Triston McKenzie of course, and to a lesser degree James Karinchak and Julian Merryweather — are slated to be starters. This probably isn’t a real problem, because worst case they just move Salazar to the ‘pen and suddenly they have all the fireballers. After your top three or four relievers it doesn’t really matter who’s out there anyway, especially if all your starters regularly go six or seven innings as the Indians’ do. I just figured that as smart and good at pitcher development as they are, they’d pop out a few more good relief guys.

Maybe it’s because they’re just too good at building starters, they don’t have the chance to have failed ones make the transition to shutdown relief ace as Miller or Green in New York have done. Or they just focus on breaking pitches and location with minors pitchers. It would just be nice to be able to reach down into the minors for some random guy that sits 95 now and again. I guess that’s what Zach McAllister is for, without having to burn options. If only he ever threw something besides fastballs.