Any sort of help in the Indians bullpen is greatly welcomed. The defending American League Central Champions’ perceived weakest unit has not been as horrible as expected through just over 10 percent of the season, boasting the league’s third-lowest bullpen ERA, eighth-best FIP, and the sixth-highest WPA.
By WPA, right-handed Nick Wittgren barely trails closer Brad Hand, 0.45 to 0.49, even ahead of starters Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco.
The 27-year-old, acquired from the Marlins for well-traveled minor league righty Jordan Milbrath on Feb. 4 was not even promoted until Mike Clevinger went to the 60-day injured list on April 9.
In six innings spanning over four outings, Wittgren has allowed just two hits, walking zero and striking out eight. More importantly, the fourth-year major leaguer was given the opportunity on Wednesday to earn his first career save, a six-out effort in a 1-0 game against one of the hottest teams in baseball.
Granted, Hand had the day off, but Cimber was available, and warm. The lefty specialists and he-who-shall-never-lose-trust, Dan Otero, were also available. Yet, Terry Francona rode with the hot hand in Wittgren, and was rewarded.
Much of what Wittgren has done is unsustainable, or at least an outlier, in 2019 and prior.
He suffers a high rate of hard contact, surrendering a career-high 41.7% mark through those six innings thus far. That number generally settles around the mid-to-high 30s, yet Wittgren surrendered just one home run in 33 2/3 frames in 2018 on a 37.6% hard-hit mark.
Wittgren spams his fastball despite having below average velocity and spin rate on the pitch. He uses the four-seamer at 71.3%, and is his put-away pitch to the tune of 22.6% thus far, 18.9% last year.
Favoring his glove side, Wittgren has already picked up six whiffs on 24 pitches on that side of the plate and up in the zone.
As the Marlins continued to angle themselves more towards controllable, velocity-heavy pitching (Milbrath tops out in the upper-90s, for example), the MO on Wittgren has always been what he is currently.
Take for example, his 2015 player profile at MLB Pipeline:
Wittgren may not have traditional closer stuff, but everything he throws plays up due to his deceptive delivery and excellent control. The right-hander commands his low-90s fastball to both sides of the plate and has a similar advanced feel for an average curveball.
He is practically surgical with fastballs up in the zone, which makes it perfectly confusing/perfectly Wittgren that he struggled with walks in 2018, at a rate of 10.8%. All the while, he was the Marlins’ best reliever a year ago with a 125 ERA+.
The only thing that makes sense is that he was good enough for the Marlins to practically be required to trade him. Thems the rules.
As long as Wittgren continues to avoid walks, his approach has worked so far, and that is technically good enough for the Indians bullpen. He may actually be somewhat of a king in the ‘pen of misfit toys.