For the last four years, the Indians have had a workhorse in the pen and Indians fans have had a tasty scapegoat to rant about at the bar and on social media. Bryan Shaw was equal parts excellent in relief and in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a problem with sub-elite relievers - they’re simply not consistent enough to always dominate in an Andrew Miller way, and the microscope is on them because of the major impact their few actions have. And Shaw’s best attribute, a rubber arm, meant we saw way more of him than other pitchers. Shaw is gone though, and the Indians will miss him. But as both workhorse middle reliever and potential scapegoat, in steps Dan Otero, the perfect pitcher for this era and the future focus of fan ire.
Otero has been quietly excellent out of the bullpen for the Indians for two years now. It’s a routinely unglamorous method of course, leaning on the sinker on a quest for grounders and rarely getting a big strikeout. He’s the type of guy that’s brought in with guys on base and the last reliever handing over a jam, throwing one pitch and ending the inning. Over 130.2 innings the last two years he owns a 2.14 ERA and a 63.9 percent ground ball rate. He did see his ERA shoot up from 1.53 in 2016 to 2.84 in 2017, but the corresponding 40 point leap in BABIP to .302 can make sense of that. In fact, outsdie of a hideous year in 2015 with the Athletics(6.75 ERA, 48.5 percent grounder rate) he’s got a career 2.07 ERA, and even with that bad season his grounder rate ias still an excellent 58 percent. He’s everything a sinkerballing reliever should be. In case anyone is worried 2015 might rear it’s ugly head, it’s likely what happened was he tried to mix a new pitch in, a cutter:
He learned quickly to avoid non-sinkers, and since then he’s been excellent, with the fifth highest ground ball rate in baseball. He learned the benefit of maximizing on what he does best. That’s a lesson the Indians have preached to all their pitchers, as I touched on in a recent article.
That’s why he should be able to readily replace Shaw. He has some kind of excellence to lean on. Unlike Otero, Shaw’s numbers present a guy who was pretty good at everything, but great at nothing. Up until 2016 his grounder rate sat around 45 percent, his strikeout rate in the low 20’s and a solid 7-8 percent walk rate. From 2016 in the K’s leapt to 25 and 23 percent respectively, and his grounder rate sat above 55 percent from 2016 through 2017. These are all very good, though not elite numbers. But they worked As much guff as he got, he was pretty solid, even if he had no real supurlative.
That last, at least, separates Otero. His ability to force grounders places him in elite company. But it could also create situations that end up with him as the goat. Ground balls are good. They have a very hard time going for extra bases, much less over the fence. And the Indians infield defense is very good, if just short of stellar. But Otero stepping into Shaw’s shoes means he’s going to see higher leverage moments, and more often. Over the last two years Shaw has pitched 35 innings worth of High Leverage innings, as measured by Fangraphs’ Leverage Index. That accounts for 23.7 percent of his total innings. Batters have a .303 wOBA against him in that stretch, and he had a 56.6 percent ground ball rate with a .259 BABIP.
In that same stretch of time, Otero threw 130 1/3 innings, with just 8 2/3 of them High Leverage. Batters posted a .129 wOBA against him, but he induced a grounder only 52.6 percent of the time and was much luckier than Shaw’s much larger sample, a .105 BABIP. A grounder that leaks through in these big moments just hurts way more than one in some random sixth inning, and Otero will catch the fire for it. Suffice to say, Otero is going to have his mettle tested in these moments. He’s never had the K numbers that Shaw does, so he’s going to rely on the guys behind him to do the heavy lifting. if it’s a consolation, the worst career walk rate of his career is still nearly three points better than Shaw’s best. Free passes in big moments are a killer, especially when you can’t get the K.
In terms of physical ability, Otero should be perfectly capable of taking up the mantle Shaw has laid down. He’s demonstrated similar durability and has a great sinker. He’s going to blow games because the ground ball he worked to force went the wrong way, perhaps more than Shaw ever did. But as long as he can exhibit something resembling the bovine-like serenity Shaw exuded in even the most tense moments, there should be little hiccup in the transition. He’s really a perfect pitcher for this era though - everyone is looking to launch high and far, and he only exists to get them to drill the ball into the ground. So the Indians lucked into a great pitcher for their run, and the fans get their scapegoat back. It couldn’t have worked out any better.