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Improved control helped Nick Wittgren overcome a surge in dingers

Maybe a new baseball will help him do both?

Cleveland Indians v Minnesota Twins Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

Nick Wittgren joined the team in the offseason after the Marlins kind-of-inexplicably designated him for assignment. The trade cost the Indians very little — yet another low-risk, moderate reward move the Indians made to help bolster the bullpen. Another such addition — Tyler Clippard — came with a lot of sustainable trends that help disperse the fog that often surrounds the performance of relievers. Is he really that good (Cody Allen, 2013-2017) or did he just have an unusually effective season (Nick Goody, Jeff Manship, Oliver Pérez)?

It’s a little bit tough to say

Like Clippard, Wittgren out-performed his xFIP by a more than a run in 2019. This is the second consecutive season in which that’s been the case, though he traded one problem for another when compared to 2018. Then, Wittgren struggled with walks, giving away first base 10% of the time, leading to a BB/9 greater than 4.00. He cut that number nearly in half this season struggled but with the long ball instead. His success in 2018 relied on an unsustainable 2.7 % HR-FB.

Does his newfound control mean he can succeed moving forward despite his relatively high exit velocities? Is the spike in HRs allowed simply due to the stupid, stupid baseball? Would the Umayyads have successfully conquered Europe if not for Charles Martel’s victory at the Battle of Tours? Again, we just don’t know enough to be certain.

We can say the following about Nick Wittgren: he represented a consistent option when the Tribe set the table for Brad Hand in 2019. Out of all Indians relievers he led the team with a 1.78 WPA on the year, also the 18th-best mark among relievers in baseball. For those unfamiliar, WPA measures how a pitcher’s performance affected the chances for a team to win. In short, the actual outcomes of Wittgren’s appearances set the Indians up for success.

The one area that might cause some concern for the Indians is that Wittgren’s changeup got tattooed in 2019. Hitters produced a 0.355 wOBA against it, compared to 0.282 for his Fastball and 0.271 for his slider. The key here is that he reserves the changeup almost exclusively for left-handed hitters, and the slider almost exclusively for righties, as they tail away from those respective hitters.

Nick Wittgren’s Pitches vs. LHH

Nick Wittgren’s Pitches vs. RHH

A league-average wOBA is about 0.320, and lefties produced 0.318 against him in 2019. It’s not as stellar as the 0.261 to which he limited righties, but it’s serviceable. To continue as a late-innings reliever it would be ideal for Wittgren to improve the changeup or find another way to execute against opposite-handed hitters.