For as remarkable as their performance has been this year, there’s nothing obviously remarkable about the Indians’ bullpen.
Brad Hand has an amazing slider, but for a fanbase spoiled by Andrew Miller’s own offering the last few years it’s simply a nice reminder of something great. And Adam Cimber just has an insane motion and release point. But the numbers are excellent, especially those of emergent setup man Nick Wittgren. In an era where tickling 100 seems like an everyday thing for a reliever, Wittgren is throwing throwback velocities. And dominating.
A 1.46 ERA in just over 18 innings could be waved away through mentions of sample size. But extend that to his last two years of work, and you get to a 2.41 ERA in 52.1 innings, striking out 24.1% of hitters and allowing a .252 wOBA over that time. All this while his 92.2 average fastball velocity this year ranks just 136th among qualified relievers. It’s a bit confusing, because his ground ball rate (43.8%) is basically league average for relief pitchers over the last two years, and that K rate is a smidge above average. More than that, according to FanGraphs he’s giving up hard contact 44.2 %of the time, nearly 10% above the league rate for bullpen arms.
Is it all a ruse? It could be. As much as a two-season sample could count for something, it’s still only 52 innings. A couple sudden bad outings could nuke his numbers. And like I said, it’s not like he’s blowing up the radar gun. Yet he’s throwing that fastball 69.5% of the time. And that’s no ta a mix of two-seamers and four-seamers like some guys, that’s just the one pitch. He does have two other pitches, a changeup he tosses 11.4% of the time and a slider hitters see 19.1% of the time. Obviously if it’s real there’s something to this mix that’s working for Wittgren, as he’s working off that fastball.
If that’s the case, what does it look like? Here’s his pairing of a fastball and changeup:
This resulted in a groundout to first (the change you see is actually the final of the at-bat). Wittgren is getting a ground ball 83.3% of the time his change is put into play this year. It’s not some kind of Strasburgian doom pitch of a change, but it works when paired with his fastball. Same with his slider, as Oakland’s Josh Phegley learned.
It’s a nice pairing, nothing overly mind-blowing, but it suggest that if he gets ahead with the fastball - which he throws to open an at-bat 63.3% of the time — he has a lot of fun with hitters. Not that he deviates from the fastball of course, throwing it in an 0-1 count 65.7% of the time and 75% of the time in an 0-2 count. In fact, the only count batters have seen a fastball less than half the time on average is 1-1 this year. Which is weird.
It’s hard to say what’s going on. Wittgren certainly commands the zone pretty well, his 51.4% zone rate more than eight points above the league reliever 42.2% average. He’s like a relief version of Shane Bieber. Interestingly, Bieber has a 2.77 ERA over the last two years when he’s going through the order for the first time, striking out 30.7% of hitters. So maybe there’s something to solid velocity and great control. It’s not ideal - I’d prefer the Indians have Jordan Hicks, Tayron Guerrero or Seranthony Dominguez, just to change the pace - but it seems to work. Wittgren is a nice surprise, and in a season like this the Indians are certainly happy to have found this diamond in the rough.