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Nick Wittgren, secret fireman

Nick Wittgren was just clutch enough to be good in 2020

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

For obvious reasons, rookie James Karinchak led all Indians relievers in innings pitched this past season with 27. But not far behind him, with 23.2 innings under his belt, was the right-handed and often unheralded Nick Wittgren.

In Wittgren’s second full year as an Indians reliever, the 29-year-old reached a new high with a 28.6% strikeout rate, walked fewer batters (6.1%) than he has since his rookie campaign, and finished with a 3.42 ERA, 4.42 FIP, and 74 ERA-.

His baseline stats are the epitome of good but forgettable, and his Statcast peripherals are borderline bad.

Wittgren’s fastball velocity sat about dead center of the league and opponents squared him up for barreled balls 10.2% of the time, which puts him in the 15% percentile. Digging deeper, His xwOBACON (i.e. opponents’ expected effectiveness off of contact) was .416 — also nothing great.

But non-contextual stats do not seem to tell the whole story of Wittgren, which makes him such an interesting case for the Indians. You see, despite relatively pedestrian numbers all around, the Indians turned to Nick Wittgren in clutch spots more than just about anyone. And, for the most part, he performed well in them.

According to FanGraphs’ leverage index, which is a measure how crucial each at-bat is based on the context of the situation, no Indians relief pitcher had a higher gmLI (average leverage index on the line when entering the game) than Nick Wittgren. Seven times he was called into a game with a leverage index over 2.00, which is considered high leverage. On average, he entered the game with a leverage index of 1.81, the 11th highest among all relievers in baseball.

The highest was against the Brewers, a 5.23 on the leverage index on Sept. 5 when he was called upon to face Daniel Vogelbach with a two-out, bases loaded situation and his team with a 3-2 lead. He struck Vogelbach out looking and went on to pitch the eighth inning as well, ultimately gave up a lead-off home run to Orlando Arcia but got the next three outs. But in that very specific instance of getting out of a bases-loaded jam that he didn’t create; he was just as advertised.

His next high-leverage situation was another crazy 5.14 on the leverage index, when he entered the game tied 5-5 with one out and runners on the corners against the Cubs on Sept. 15. Virtually an impossible task against any team, let alone the Cubs. Wittgren was simply bad in this one, hitting the only two batters he faced to give the Cubs a walk-off walk win.

On Aug. 29 he came in to face Kolten Wong and the Cardinals in a 1-1 game in the bottom of the tenth with a runner on third — 4.76 leverage index. Wong was intentionally walked, Dylan Carlson reached on a fielder’s choice, and Tommy Edman was hit (which seems to be a running theme with Wittgren?), and eventually Paul DeJong flied out to third. Once again Wittgren went on to pitch the entirety of the next inning, shutting out all three batters and setting up Tyler Naquin’s double to score the ghost runner on second in the top of the 12th.

You can kind of see in these examples why Wittgren averages out as a pretty mediocre pitcher on paper. Nothing is ever pretty with him, but when effective he is the definition of a “grinder” when he needs it most.

This is all a terribly small sample size, so take with a grain of salt, but Wittgren came to play when it mattered most. Not to get too cliched old baseball writer on it, but Wittgren was overwhelmingly a better pitch when coming into high-leverage situations. Call it a small sample, or Wittgren amping himself up when it matters most, but what limited data we have points makes for a fun little observation.

Take this over-simplified look at it, for example, where each of his starts are plotted by his leverage index entering the game and how many runs he allowed in said game:

Wittgren had just one start in 2020 where he allowed an earned run after entering the game with a leverage index over 1.00 (considered an average leverage situation) — the majority of his outings came as somewhere between above average and high leverage, in the 1.00 - 2.00 range. If we want to count the walk-off walk as a “earned” run, he had two clunkers in high-leverage situations. But all the rest of his runs came when he entered the game in lower-leverage situations and got himself into trouble.

For example, his worst outing of the year came on Sept. 12 against the Twins when he started the eighth inning with a 5-4 lead. After getting two quick outs he walked Nelson Cruz and allowed back-to-back home runs. The situation started with a leverage index of 0.59 that should have allowed him, and the Indians to cruise to a victory. For whatever reason — maybe because he was facing, I don’t know, the Twins — he didn’t come through in a low-leverage situation where all he had to do was not allow a runner to touch all the bases.

The only other time he allowed multiple runs in a game was against the Pirates on Sept. 27. There, again, he entered a clean inning — the sixth this time, down 2-4. He quickly dispatched old friend Erik Gonzalez the allowed three-straight hits and walked Andrew Susac, then Adam Frazier doubled everyone home.

Wittgren also finished the season leading the Indians in win probability added at 1.49 and he added the second-most win probability behind only Brad Hand.

What does all this mean going forward? Absolutely nothing! These kind of stats are not typically predictive, and serve more as a way to look back at a glance at how a player performed in certain situations. Moreover, this is a miniscule sample size, even if a shortened season. We’re talking just a handful of games where he imploded or performed well.

While I doubt Terry Francona and Sandy Alomar had spreadsheets with the leverage index and win probability charts pumping, Wittgren’s team-leading gmLI might show that they had a lot of trust in the veteran. And, for the most part, he hasn’t let them down.