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Zach McAllister, better the second time around

Francona suggested the Tribe reliever is better the more he pitches. Let’s explore the idea’s validity.

MLB: Spring Training-Cleveland Indians at Milwaukee Brewers Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week before their game in Vegas, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona talked Zach McAllister. Having fully transitioned to the bullpen, the Indians are leaning on the big fireballer to pick up some of the slack left by Bryan Shaw’s departure. McAllister has been pretty goo the last couple years, even if he only has one and a half pitches at this point, a four- and two-seam fastball.

Francona did say that he felt McAllister is actually better, the more he pitches. That getting stretched out in multiple inning outings makes McAllister improve:

When he goes out for three innings, he’s got to pitch and it also builds up his stamina and it builds up his arm strength. It’s really good for him.

How true is that?

Over the last two years, McAllister has 13 appearances where he pitched two full innings, or at least recorded the equivalent six outs. This is out of a total 103 appearances and 114.1 innings. In that stretch overall, McAllister owns a 2.99 ERA and 3.88 FIP, while striking out 24.9 percent of batters and walking 9.1 percent. That’s a good number of innings and some solid numbers for a fourth best reliever, though he’s likely to be expected to be more of that in 2018.

Anyway, to those 13 appearances. Yes, more than an inning doesn’t just mean two full innings, but over the last two years McAllister has about 50 appearances where he recorded at least four outs. I’m simply trying to get a suggestion of whether Tito was actually saying something true, and simply don’t want to dig through the play-by-play of 54 games looking for four outs. So here’s how McAllister looked in those outings, split by inning:

McAllister multi-inning performances, by inning

Inning Hits Walks Strikeouts Runs
Inning Hits Walks Strikeouts Runs
First 5 6 12 2 (Bauer responsible)
Second 9 3 18 2 (Earned, Otero gave up hits)

This also included two wild pitches, one in each inning. So he struck more people out, gave up more hits and allowed less walks. The runs he allowed to cross in the block of first innings were charged to Trevor Bauer, and it was Dan Otero who gave up the hit that resulted in the runs McAllister was charged with.

This is just a small sample. Again, I didn’t look at partial innings, which might help a bit. However, Baseball Reference does at least give splits for how a pitcher did based on pitch count, broken up by 25’s. McAllister in 2017 was as such:

McAllister 2017 splits by pitch count

Pitch 1-25 221 19 45 19 56 2.95 .225 .295 .330 .625
Pitch 26-50 28 6 8 2 10 5 .308 .357 .654 1.011

It’s unsurprising, but he looks worse as he throws more pitches. This makes sense. Every pitcher has numbers like this. Rather than facing six or seven batters as in his two-inning outings, in this case he’d be seeing the order twice. He throws a fastball of some kind about 78 percent of the time, so obviously he gets more predictable.

So maybe he does get better in that second inning, while avoiding a lineup turnover. Is there any way to really replicate it though? One thing Francona noted was that McAllister has to really “pitch” deeper in games, rather than just raring back and throwing gas.

Since I’ve been here, when he gets stretched out, he’s a better pitcher. When he comes in for one inning in Spring Training, he may have an eight-pitch inning where he doesn’t necessarily have to execute pitches. He may execute pitches, but he may not and still get out of an inning -- let’s say you get a first-pitch lineout.

That’s confusing on its face, because the idea of “pitching” rather than just throwing makes you think of pitch sequencing, mixing speeds and movement and the like. Most of which McAllister doesn’t do much at all, though the curve did start to show up a bit more in 2017, 19.2 percent of the time being a four year high. Though, as Francona said, perhaps McAllister focuses more in those longer outings to “execute” his pitches, which helps with location? It’s hard to delve into that mental side without starting to get all guessy. Danny Salazar said some of his early inning struggles in the past were due to his lower half needing to catch up with his arm, that could be a problem McAllister has. If this is something the team has noted though, you’d think they’d take steps to get the rust knocked off earlier, and thus have a more effective pitcher.

Or maybe 26 innings divided into two chunks is simply not enough information. More K’s and less walks is all he can control though, and both stats went in the right direction when he came back out of the dugout. He’s a big guy, and we’ve seen him start, albeit poorly. That tweener long or late kind of reliever who only throws one pitch is hard to place in a strategic plan, but the Indians figured it out once with Bryan Shaw.

Might as well give it another go with McAllister.