It’s hard to overstate how important Nick Wittgren has been to the Cleveland Indians this year. In a season that looked to face so much indecision and worry beyond Brad Hand, Wittgren emerging along with Nick Goody into something like a lockdown setup man has resulted in a top five relief corps. He doesn’t do anything super amazing in terms of velocity or movement with his repertoire, but the results — whether the 2.73 season ERA, the 1.86 post-break ERA, above average (for relievers) strikeout rate at 25.1% also a four-point spike from last year — are there to speak for themselves.
Unfortunately for the Indians and for Wittgren, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes, underneath those numbers that spell a looming trouble for Wittgren. The general tragedy of the reliever is simply that in dealing in their small sample sizes, they can trick fans and probably some less learned front office types into thinking they’re actually pretty good. Wittgren’s ERA is strong. His FIP (3.94) is considerably less so, much closer to the 4.55 reliever average than his ERA is to the league’s 4.52. It’s somewhat to be expected, he doesn’t have the hyper-elite velocity, he isn’t getting the hyper-elite strikeout numbers that other bullpen guys record, and his 6.3% walk rate is good but not great. Like with the strikeout rate he’s made a four-point improvement from a year ago, so that’s encouraging.
What isn’t encouraging is this:
Through his career Wittgren has had ebbs and flows in terms of xwOBA, as any pitcher does, and it’s going to look more stark for a reliever. Luck is part of the job, bad or good. All the same, there’s been a settling the year at right around (if not above) the league average mark, with an uncomfortable spike towards the end there. Sooner or later those batted balls are going to become hits and runs. Pairing that chart with one that shows his Hard Hit Rate, as seen below, is decidedly more unnerving.
Seemingly all year he’s been getting clobbered compared to the rest of the league, and it’s been a growing problem since he debuted. This wouldn’t really be a huge problem if Wittgren was a good ground ball pitcher, but the 37.6% grounder rate he’s logging this year is barely above the league’s 34% rate. Unlike his strikeout and walk rates, that’s headed in the wrong direction, down from 46.6% a year ago.
The most surprising thing about Wittgren considering his box score success is that he’s got merely a mediocre fastball. Mentioned before is that he doesn’t have that hyper-elite velocity. In fact it’s barely even average. He sits around 92.6 mph this year, which ranks in the 40th percentile, and it’s not like it’s got something weird going for it like teammate Aaron Civale and his spin rates, with Wittgren’s four-seam sitting in the 32nd percentile in overall spin rate at 2184 RPM. Adding to the fact that he throws it 67.5% of the time, you start to wonder if he’s just not optimizing himself.
See, it’s not all garbage in his bag of tricks. Despite that nothing-special fastball, Wittgren has a couple neat pitches. He just doesn’t’ throw them enough. His changeup averages 33.5 inches of drop, 3.3 inches more than the average changeup (a 12% difference over average) which rates in the top ten in baseball. His slider has similarly strong vertical break, at 40.9 inches is 8% better than average. It just doesn’t have much horizontal run, somehow. So he has the ability to pair pitches together with that middling fastball — I even wrote about the possibility of that a couple months ago — he just doesn’t throw his better offerings nearly enough.
Think about this: Jordan Hicks, before he got injured, threw the ball 101 miles an hour, on average. He only threw a fastball 61% of the time. Brad Hand has a way better slider than Wittgren and similar velo on the fastball, and throws the slider 53% of the time. He doesn’t have a third pitch like Wittgren does. Is this a trust issue for Wittgren? Is it a catcher problem or a sample issue or what? Whatever his reasoning, it’s resulting in more, easier to hit pitches, and is creating a lurking problem down the line. Baseball in general is getting less fastball-heavy, with relievers throwing them an all-time low 53.9% of the time. Wittgren is throwing them more than he did a year ago.
Again, maybe it’s a problem of just short stints and low workloads. It’s still easily fixable by throwing pitches that are simply harder to hit. We don’t want the other shoe to drop right when it doesn’t need to. Right now, that’s what the Indians are facing.