Starting pitching arguably is the most important part of baseball. Dominant pitching can silence any offense, as we’ve seen the Indians do countless times over the last five or so years. Whether by luck, training, an organizational focus or something more dark and sinister, Cleveland has compiled the best starting rotation in baseball, all at an incredible value. It’s been great; it’s led to the best record in baseball over that stretch and a bunch of October baseball. But what about the relievers? What is it with Cleveland and not being able to develop a dominant reliever corps?
It probably sounds like the starkest of First World Problems, but outside of Cody Allen, have the Indians really popped out much in the way of a great reliever? The guys who really powered things — Andrew Miller and Bryan Shaw along with Allen — were acquired via trade, and neither has shown much in the way of development with the Indians. They just both had savage stuff already. Shaw perhaps honed his over the years, but he brought that cutter of his with him and just kept throwing it. Other relievers like Chris Perez or Vinnie Pestano were good for a minute but flamed out quickly. Now we’re left with Zach McAllister, who throws very hard and nothing else, and perhaps Ryan Merritt once he gets off the disabled list as homegrown relief pitchers? That’s not that impressive.
Amid all this is the development of Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, and Mike Clevinger from seemingly nowhere and the molding of Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco’s raw talents into truly great starting pitching. But what is missing? What’s the difference between a great starter and a reliever? It can’t just be durability and stamina, though that’s plainly vital. My main thought was just that a reliever, be it Shaw or Miller or Mariano Rivera, they have that one pitch that can do amazing things for a short stint. Among the starters, only Kluber has a pitch that is as great as Miller’s slider, and it took him a couple years to hone that slurve of his into the razorblade it is now. These guys are all excellent, even if only one of them is truly superlative at one specific thing.
That’s what starting pitching is though — the sum of the pitcher’s total parts. The ability to mix pitches and keep hitters off balance. Relief pitching is not that at all. As said before, it’s doing one thing well, or else two things for a very short time. It’s overpowering the batter, the removal of hope. What are the Yankees with Dellin Betances and Chad Green and Adam Warren(?) or the Astros with Chris Devenski doing differently? Are they just failing at producing starters? Devenski was apparently an on-purpose thing, but that failing at starting is the tale of many great relievers, apocryphal or not. Of course, if that were the case then what’s the deal with McAllister?
Even as I write this it’s hard to not feel silly. The Indians since 2014 are second in bullpen WAR, first in FIP at 3.52 and ERA at 3.26, they own the fifth-highest strikeout rate at 24.4 percent and the eighth-lowest walk rate at 8.2. Obviously this whole article is driven by the recent struggles of the relief corps and the loss of both Bryan Shaw to free agency and Andrew Miller to the disabled list. But so too are those great stats, along with finding Jeff Manship and guys like him on the scrap heap. The Indians do have to work that way, which does restrict the plethora of choice they have, and it’s likely not a good idea for them to dangle more top prospects for another Miller. But where is their Joba Chamberlain type, that flies through the minors and blows major leaguers away? Is that who Shane Bieber is? Even if they haven’t gotten many guys to come up, Allen did come through the system. They seem like they’re due.
It’s hard to find good players, no matter the position or role. So Cleveland’s “merely” being able to dredge their farm system for All-Star third basemen and Cy Young winners they developed is pretty impressive. But this relief thing won’t stop confusing me, not when the starters are so good. They do need more bullpen depth, even with Miller coming back. He and Allen can only throw so many innings. A savior isn’t obviously in the offing in the minors, but neither was their current ace when he was younger, or most of their rotation for that matter. You have to trust the organization because of the track record, But it’s still a bit of a head-scratching deficiency amid all the developmental brilliance.