Here’s something obvious: Cody Allen has been miserable this year. His ERA is a career-high 4.53 and it’s deserved, as his FIP is also at a career high (4.92) thanks to his worst HR/9 ever (1.7).
How to fix him remains an open question.
In terms of velocity, Allen is a bit down from his hardest-throwing days of 2014, when he averaged over 96 mph. In August of this year he was down to 93.66, but that’s not different from his yearly average in 2018 (94.35) or from 2017 (94.58). Likewise, his horizontal and vertical movement are still within his yearly confidence intervals.
Whereas the speed and shape of his pitches are not different, the release is, if only incrementally. Horizontally, the difference is -0.2 feet off last year, but it’s exactly in line with Allen’s release from 2014 and 2015. Vertically, Allen’s release is at its highest since 2013, but still less than 0.09 feet from his average in any individual year.
More than any mechanical measurement, however, Allen’s heatmap shows a more distinct difference. Though still subtle, there is a clear trend showing Allen’s pitches crossing the plate higher in the zone than ever before.
Elevating pitches, particularly fastballs, might be a good a strategy to try and neutralize the threat of players who have changed their swing profile to elevate the ball more frequently; but elevating a curveball, such as Allen’s signature knuckle-curve, is a recipe for disaster. Like, say, a rate of 1.7 home runs per nine innings.
Thus, perhaps Allen is not far off the mark by trying to make small adjustments, like breaking his hands later in his delivery, in order to rediscover consistent success. If breaking this adjustment helps him time everything better and helps him keep the ball down more, particularly the knuckle-curve, Allen might be a lights-out option at the back end of the bullpen again rather than the homer-happy risk he’s been.
Something less obvious: Adam Cimber is pitching pretty miserably as well. In the first half of this season, Cimber was a lights-out option for San Diego, with a FIP of just 2.33 thanks, in part, to a HR/9 rate of just 0.37. In the second half, however, he’s turned into a pumpkin, with a FIP of 6.90 and allowing an Allen-esque 1.69 HR/9. Worse, in San Diego/Cleveland (first half/second half) splits for K/9 sunk from 9.5 to 0.5 and his BB/9 rose from 1.86 to 3.38. Because he pitches in lower-leverage situations, his homer-prone tendencies have not always mattered to the same degree as Allen. Getting Cimber fixed, though, should be a priority.
Cimber’s problem, however, is the opposite of Allen. Through the first half of the season, Cimber located mostly through the middle of the zone, but since being traded he has located much lower in the zone. As a pitcher that relies on his sinker 73 percent of the time, it makes sense that Cimber should keep his pitches low in the zone based on conventional wisdom.
Of course, there’s nothing conventional about Cimber’s delivery. Whereas Allen’s vertical release point has been 6 feet above the mound this year, Cimber averages a vertical release at 2.01 feet above the mound thanks to his submarine armslot. From this delivery, the “sinker” actually crosses the plate, on average, higher than it leaves Cimber’s hand.
This faux rising action is a large part of the deception that made Cimber so successful with the Padres. By locating lower in the zone while with Cleveland, however, that rising effect has been neutralized and might be why Cimber has been less effective. Perhaps this is a mechanical issue, but Cimber, unlike Allen, has not identified any tweaks that might help him regain his effectiveness to my knowledge. And with a lack of career data to look at for the rookie, it’s hard to see anything obvious on his Brooks Baseball page or otherwise that might be the problem.
Thus, for the Tribe to get both relievers right in the last month of the regular season, it might require getting them going different directions — Allen getting down in the zone and Cimber moving up. Hopefully it lifts the Indians up, as well.