What makes a reliever great?
So often, their career is a fleeting moment, so max effort and so limited in their repertoire that any loss of that margin that lets them dominate hitters effectively ends their career.
Sure, we all want Mariano Rivera with one unhittable pitch for two decades or whatever — that’s not normal, though. Typically you get a hard fastball and a sick breaker and go from there for a couple of seasons.
For eight years, that’s what Cleveland was granted by Cody Allen. Time and again he was called, and he usually succeeded. Ultimately it earned him a place in the pantheon of Cleveland relievers. In fact, he sits second in franchise history all-time among relievers in wins above replacement.
Maybe that’s not greatness. But it was really, really good.
Is the mark he set, 8.6 WAR, really all that impressive in a vacuum? WAR is a tough measure for a reliever, simply because they throw so little compared to their peers. That’s about what Mike Trout posts in most of one typical season, and it took Cody eight to put that together. Still, it’s a measure of how he helped his team win during his career. In context, he’s up there among the best relievers in the game.
From 2013, when Allen became a full-time fixture in the ‘pen, to 2018 when he left Cleveland, he ranks 12th among relievers in all of baseball. In part because only two relievers threw more innings than Allen’s 411. From his peak 2015-17 seasons, he was good for 69 appearances a year with a 2.76 FIP, and of course the franchise record for saves. I can’t say that he was the best — he wasn’t even the best on his own team — but he was about as lockdown as you can get without going Andrew Miller on everyone. It’s especially amazing considering where he came from.
Have you ever heard of High Point University? I hadn’t. If you’re curious, it’s just south of Salem, North Carolina. The town of High Point is home to the world’s largest chest of drawers, the Museum of Old Domestic Life, it’s the only town in North Carolina that spans four counties, and one of its nicknames is “The Home Furnishings and Hosiery Capital of the World”. They have a whole trade show about it. That school, High Point U, has had 37 players drafted in its history, the greatest among them Allen. He’s remarkable simply because he’s the first to make the majors, to say nothing of the success he had.
Two other pitchers from High Point have since taken an MLB mound, Jaime Schultz in 2018 after being drafted by the Rays, and Andre Scrubbs for the Astros in 2020. So it’s not a baseball school per se, but maybe something started leaching into the water the last few years.
One of the more incredible things about Allen — along with the insane, tight break on his curve when it was going right — was how he shaped himself into a major-league pitcher.
From High Point to Cleveland, it was an unlikely path. He was a pretty good pitcher in college, throwing 83.3 innings with a 3.12 ERA in 2011 for High Point and striking out 89, but that doesn’t scream future closer in the best bullpen in baseball. He wasn’t exactly projectable for size either — he’s 6-foot-1, somewhere under 200 pounds when he was drafted (Miller made him seem smaller), so it’s not like he was some kind of freak of nature. Just a normal-sized guy. And yet, Cleveland drafted him twice, first in the 16th round in 2010, then in the 23rd in 2011.
Ideally, the crowning achievement for Allen would be throwing that last pitch of the 2016 playoffs. That wasn’t to be, and instead, he’ll be a figure in the mists of baseball’s past, a very good reliever who took the ball when asked and didn’t have too many horrid outings. Only one relief pitcher tops him, that being Eric Plunk from the early to mid-90s with 9.9 WAR, and honestly, that’s a great, fitting comparison as far as a legacy. I don’t quite remember Plunk — except for having maybe the greatest name for a pitcher ever — but he was a solid piece of a championship-caliber bullpen who probably deserved a less anonymous end to a pretty good career.
He didn’t get that title, and honestly, there’s no reason the baseball world should remember Allen any more than they do Plunk or Michael Jackson (1998’s closer) or the Raphaels Betancourt and Perez. For some time though, they were vital to championship-caliber teams trying to do something truly special for the city of Cleveland.
The closer is probably more closely tied to the highs and lows of our baseball experience than any single player. So for fans who got to enjoy him, Allen will always be there, dropping dirty curves and nailing high fastballs and shutting down games.
He wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t the best, but he was pretty damn good for a while, and he was ours.