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One simple way to improve the Indians bullpen

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Or, send Matt Belisle away for a long while.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Los Angeles Angels Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

I did not need to watch Matt Belisle throw a pitch to Miguel Sanó in Puerto Rico last Wednesday to know what would happen. The sinking feeling in my gut told me. And, sure enough, Belisle came into the 14th with a lead and promptly erased the only offense the Indians could muster with a grooved pitch.

MLB Advanced Media

Belise blowing the game was unsurprising simply based on recent results: he was coming off a disastrous appearance four days prior in which he allowed three earned runs on three hits over 1.1 innings against the Jays. But is there more than just recency that biased me against Belisle?

Let’s look at how often the eighth reliever got used in 2017. I’m going to exclude starters from this right away, even those who appeared in relief (Bauer once, Clevinger six times, Salazar four times, Merritt once), and also (to my great sadness) exclude Michael Martinez and his perfect ERA. With that in mind, we have 12 players who logged innings out of the bullpen. Cleveland never had more than eight relievers on the 25-man roster, so by using their body of work and common sense (Andrew Miller ranks higher than Bryan Shaw because duh) we can rank them one through eight.

  1. Cody Allen
  2. Andrew Miller
  3. Bryan Shaw
  4. Dan Otero
  5. Zach McAllister
  6. Nick Goody
  7. Joe Smith/Boone Logan/Tyler Olson
  8. Shawn Armstrong/Craig Breslow/Kyle Crockett

The top six in this list were more or less untouchable and the last six guys fill two spots because they worked abbreviated stints in Cleveland due to lack of performance, injuries, or trades or because they specialized (e.g., LOOGY). To figure out how much responsibility actually comes with each slot in the bullpen, I found the percentage of innings available (by subtracting the innings taken by starters from the total innings pitched = 489.1) that each slot accounted for over the season.

Reliever usage

2017 bullpen IP % (/489.1 Inn) pLI
2017 bullpen IP % (/489.1 Inn) pLI
1. Allen 67.1 13.7 1.99
2. Miller* 62.2 12.8 1.63
3. Shaw 76.2 15.6 1.2
4. Otero 60 12.2 0.5
5. McAllister 62 12.6 0.44
6. Goody 54.2 11.1 0.66
7 59.1 12.1
Smith 18.1 3.7 1.03
Logan 21 4.3 0.63
Olson 20 4 1
8 30.2 6.2
Armstrong 24.2 5 0.13
Breslow 4.1 0.8 0.45
Crockett 1.2 0.3 0.16

By breaking it down this way, you see that the seventh and eighth spots in the pen were used pretty much according to plan over the season as a whole, at 12.1 and 6.2 percent, respectively. This is about what could be expected from those positions and the leverage index for each pitcher (where higher means a more crucial moment, with below 0.85 being low leverage and above two as high leverage) seems to align as well.

Looking at this season, it is a reasonable expectation for the last man in the pen to account for just six percent of appearances. By the team’s account, Belisle should be the last man (Note: this originally said “8th man,” thanks to RabbiHick for pointing out the Indians currently only have 7 relievers), as he was the last man rostered before the start of the season, but he’s thrown 12.2 percent of the relief innings this year. Belisle’s been trusted more than McAllister (10 percent), Olson (11.6 percent), and nearly as much as Goody and Otero (12.8 and 14.1 percent, respectively). But, by last year’s numbers, even Belisle’s level of appearances should not be the kind of high-leverage situations the best relievers are on the roster to handle (the sixth and seventh slots had pLI below or at 1). By giving Belisle an appearance in the highest leverage spot of the night on Wednesday (2.67 pLI was the highest of any Tribe pitcher save for Cody Allen), Francona was making a mistake.

We have to acknowledge that the bullpen was getting thin at the time, as Allen, Miller, Otero, McAllister, Olson, and Goody had already been used. But Belisle was relieving Goody after just 10 pitches, eight of which were strikes (!), with Goody on five days rest (!!). Likewise, Josh Tomlin was clearly an option, as he entered in the 15th, and Trevor Bauer was on five days rest (and is always up for pitching) and Mike Clevinger was on four days rest (and, therefore, seem logically available, too).

Francona’s said before that every game matters, and you could make a case that every game against the Indians’ best division rival matters even more. So the fact that he felt comfortable inserting the guy who should have been his last reliever in an extra-innings save situation does not speak highly of his decision making that late in the evening. Last season Craig Breslow, who was added to the roster as cover for an injured Miller, was thrust into similar situations, but his poor appearances came after the division was wrapped up; Belisle is making poor appearances while it matters.

Belisle should not get much (any?) more of a leash from Francona because there is no reason to trust him, even this early in the season. If a replacement is only taking Belisle’s 12 percent or less of the available innings, the Tribe still has a responsibility to find the best arm for the situation. Ryan Merritt is obviously available, as he’s been on the 10-day disabled list more than 10 days and thrown in extended spring training. But even if the Indians want to keep him stretched out there are decent options available. (Small sample size warning for the table below and to-date stats for Belisle replacement options.)

Last reliever candidates

Pitcher (age) IP ERA K/BB BABIP FIP xFIP
Pitcher (age) IP ERA K/BB BABIP FIP xFIP
Matt Belisle (37 y)
2018 (MLB) 6.1 5.68 2.00 0.261 5.48 5.11
Majors Career 900.2 4.20 3.03 0.273 3.80 3.80
Ben Taylor (26 y)
2018 (AAA) 8.2 3.12 12.00 0.177 1.06 1.90
Majors Career 17.1 5.19 2.00 0.340 4.89 5.31
Evan Marshall (28 y)
2018 (AAA) 5.2 0.00 6.00 0.450 1.90 2.38
Majors Career 85.2 4.94 2.11 0.378 4.11 3.90
Neil Ramirez (28 y)
2018 (AAA) 8.1 2.16 6.50 0.143 2.65 2.29
Majors Career 113.0 4.22 2.19 0.290 4.42 4.49
Jeff Beliveau (31 y)
2018 (AAA) 8.2 0.00 14.00 0.143 0.95 1.58
Majors Career 60.2 4.90 2.37 0.314 4.91 4.33
Jordan Milbrath (26 y)
2018 (AA) 6.0 1.50 1.00 0.235 4.22 4.69
2018 (AAA) 1.0 0.00 1.00 0.667 4.24 4.92
Minors Career 410.1 4.30 2.01 0.286 -- --

First, and most interesting, is Ben Taylor, whom the Indians claimed from the Red Sox the same day they signed Belisle. Taylor is still fairly unproven at the big league level, but has been pretty good at Triple-A for the Sox and now for the Tribe as well. Last year, FanGraphs ranked him the 11th best prospect in the Sox system, with a plus fastball and a fringy slider that needs big league coaching (or perhaps just hanging with Miller).

Evan Marshall is another young-ish pitcher that has not gotten a long look in the majors. His numbers have been good in Columbus, working with a mid-90s fastball complemented by a changeup and slider. He has been known to pitch better against righties, however, the opposite of the reliever performing best in Triple-A, Jeff Beliveau. Though known as a LOOGY, Beliveau has decent career splits to batters on both sides, and this year he has been very effective, running a negative FIP until last weekend. Also doing well in Columbus is Neil Ramirez, who has a bit more experience at the top level with numbers roughly equivalent to Belisle.

Another Triple-A pitcher that could be considered is Alexi Ogando, the last pitcher cut in spring training. He’s excluded from my table and this discussion, however, because his specific goal in accepting an assignment to Triple-A was to stretch out for a starting gig. And his numbers have not been very good so far (4.50 ERA, 1.33 K/BB, 6.74 FIP), so I wouldn’t consider him at this point.

One final name of interest is Jordan Milbrath. A Pirates Rule 5 draft pick after showing good velocity following an arm slot change, Milbrath was returned to the Tribe after a poor spring and sent to Akron again. In addition to increased velocity, Milbrath has seen his ground ball percentage spike since dropping his release, at 75 percent in High-A and 69.4 percent in Double-A last year and 71.4 percent this year. Milbrath made a spot appearance in Columbus on Sunday, and his one inning of work is his only at that level, but if he’s a guy who has discovered something that could play up he deserves a shot. As our Brian Hemminger notes, he has decent strikeout stuff, so maybe he’s worth calling up again.

Of course, the best option, period, has not been mentioned: Danny Salazar. No roster move could be more beneficial for Cleveland than activating Salazar. But we learned over the weekend that he still has no timetable for returning, so his arrival is not forthcoming.

It would be nice for something to change, however. Perhaps the team evaluators see something I don’t see in Belisle, but the numbers aren’t there and seemingly deserving candidates are.