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Cody Allen’s troubling trends

The Indians closer has been rock solid for years; less so in 2018.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Cleveland Indians Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

Cody Allen has been tragically overlooked the last few years. In an era with ever more incredible relief pitching, with velocities sitting comfortably in the triple digits from a host of guys and breaking balls that seem to spit in Einstein’s face, Allen’s conventional mix of a mid-90’s fastball and snappy curve seem almost quaint. Plus for the last twoish years he’s had the second best relief pitcher of the decade on his team.

Now, with the bullpen in shambles, with that other amazing arm on the shelf, Allen has his chance to be great, to assume a place of honor among the absolute elite. Instead, he’s in the midst of his worst season.

In a season where so little has broken right for the Indians, Allen’s downfall is the most distressing.

Allen has been a rock in a bullpen since he became closer. Or at least, a larger rock among a nice quartz garden of pitching. We forget how hard that is to come by, but before Allen the big names in the ‘pen were Chris Perez and Vinnie Pestano, and before that a latter day Kerry Wood, Joe Borowski, and Raphael Perez. All had good runs here or there, but barely approached the consistent dominance Allen has shown the last five years.

Even ignoring the glaring image of his blowing the game last weekend, it just hasn’t been pretty. His 27.4 percent strikeout rate is a career low and places him 61st among relief pitchers. Any time a guy’s strikeout rate drops it’s a harbinger of bad tmes, but especially with strikeout rates league-wide being up, it’s very troubling. His walk rate is also up from last year at 9.4 percent, though not his worst — in 2016 it was 10.2 percent. He’s just not striking out a third of the batters he’s faced, and his fly ball rate has soared to 52.3 percent, a career high and, dovetailed with the second highest HR/FB ratio of his career at 13.5 percent, is very bad for the reliever.

It’s frustrating to watch because, at least in watching him and looking at his PitchFX info, he doesn’t seem to have lost much of anything from when he was his best self. His fastball velocity is down from his best years, but not far off where he’s been the the last couple very good seasons:

Perhaps that’s enough to jump from great to bad. Meanwhile the break on the curve is, if anything, sharper than we‘ve seen previously:

Despite a sharper curve, he’s logging some of his worst lows in every Plate Discipline percentage that you want high, and worst highs in what you want low:

Cody Allen Plate Discipline rates

YEAR O-Swing% First Strike% Contact% SwStr%
YEAR O-Swing% First Strike% Contact% SwStr%
2016 29.9 55.3 70.1 14.0
2017 31.6 58.9 67.5 14.9
2018 29.0 50.4 71.7 13.0
Career 31.4 47.5 71.2 13.1

Which is more troubling than just the simpler batted ball rates. Despite the negligible changes in his velo and movement numbers, this tells a story of being figured out, or of his stuff beginning to fading. Relief pitchers, seemingly more so than any other position or role, have a limited shelf life. He’s been so good for so long, it’s weird to think of Allen as being something less than excellent. To even consider that what he has been so far this year — downright bad — is a new normal is just depressing. Between not getting ahead of hitters and not getting swinging strikes, it’s worrisome. Adding to that, his fastball location is way off this year. From 2016-17 he worked the edges a bit better:

Baseball Savant

Whereas this year, there’s an awful lot of middle of the plate to his heat map:

Baseball Savant

This could be stemming from his not getting ahead of hitters so he has to throw into the zone more, but whatever it is, that’s too hittable for a good batter, too often.

We’re seeing the bullpen turn a bit of a corner. Maybe it’s luck and the law of averages, maybe it’s Neil Ramirez and Dan Otero figuring it out. But Cody Allen remains a troubling figure. Since May 1 his strikeout rate has fallen further, down to 26.9 percent, and he’s walking 10.1 percent of batters. You’d hope that law of averages comes back to help him out, because as destitute as the Indians are in relief arms he remains a vital figure. If Miller can return at full health, or they make a move in the trade market and he gets a break, that could help fix his season. But right now, Allen is looking something like broken.