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Cleveland’s bullpen is good and I don’t care who knows it

I’m really going out on a limb here, I know, but hear me out

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MLB: Cleveland Indians at Minnesota Twins Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t want to blow up anybody's spot here or ruin a good thing that Terry Francona has going with a bullpen that everyone seems to think is made of paper mache and broken dreams, but folks, this bullpen is going to be really, really good. And it’s time we acknowledge that.

I’m sure you, venerable reader of Let’s Go Tribe, SB Nation’s premiere Cleveland baseball fansite, are fully aware that James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase are not the only two potentially great relievers who will be trotting out of Progressive Field’s bullpen to the roar of 10,000 sports-hungry fans. But Karinchak — with his flashy overhead delivery, hammer curveball and high-90s fastball — paired with his triple-digit touting ‘pen mate seem to be effectively hiding from the mainstream baseball audience what could be one of the best reliever cores in baseball.

Pick your favorite “Here’s what each team needs to address before Opening Day” or generic season preview post from around the internet and if they are trying to think deeper than the outfield, they will almost always point to Cleveland “needing” to address their bullpen depth.

Pardon my language, but that is bologna.

The high mark for any Cleveland fan’s bullpen expectations should be 2017, when the Andrew Miller-Cody Allen-Bryan Shaw pain train was in full effect (a year before everything went south into one of the worst bullpens imaginable, but that’s neither here nor there). The three of them, along with Joe Smith, Nick Goody, Tyler Olson, Zach McAllister, and Dan Otero turned in one of the best single-season bullpens of the 21st century. That group’s combined fWAR of 8.2 puts them seventh among relievers from 2000 to 2019.

I’m not ready to say 2021 will replicate that, but it has the potential to be closer than we’re giving them credit for. Projection systems almost never go on the positive end of bullpen volatility, and it was clear in going through our over/under preview series that the robot overlords are bearish on Cleveland’s potential. Perhaps that’s why so many default to Cleveland needing to fix their bullpen — and that’s fair. But I think the projection systems are going to be proven wrong here.

First, obviously, an examination of Cleveland’s present-day bullpen requires a deeper dive on its two biggest names.

Karinchak finished the abbreviated 2020 season with a 2.22 ERA, a 48.6% strikeout rate, and he trailed only Devin Williams for the league leads in expected batting average and expected slugging (the assumed quality of results based on how batters made contact). Karinchak splits his arsenal almost down the middle between a fastball that can touch 98, and a curveball that has a mind of its own.

The break on his curve isn’t mind-blowing by the numbers — it drops a little less than the average curveball. But it pairs perfectly with his four-seamer, which does drop more than the average fastball. A league-leading 9.5 inches last year, in fact. Is the pitch coming at you going to zip by at 96 mph and drop almost a foot? Or is it going to be at your feet before you have time to decide to swing? That’s the conundrum Karinchak creates.

If a batter is lucky enough to know that it’ll be a curveball, good luck figuring out where it will go. Karinchak focuses almost all of his fastballs up in the zone, but his curveballs are used to paint the outside corner. Sometimes the space above the outside corner, sometimes below, often times enough time to walk someone in a bad situation — but it’s over there regardless.

My favorite visual representation of this comes from @PitchingNinja, with an overlay of his two terrifying pitches making Jorge Polanco regret ever picking up a bat as a child.

Clase might not be known to casual baseball fans — or even casual Cleveland fans — but as soon as the 100-mph cutter starts dashing over home plate in April, he won’t be a well-kept secret anymore. The 22-year-old was brought over from Texas in the extremely cursed Corey Kluber trade, in which Kluber didn’t even complete a single inning for the Rangers and Delino DeShields was slowed by COVID-19 after-effects and finished his Cleveland career with a 72 wRC+ in 37 games.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see get to Clase in a Cleveland uniform last year, as the fireballer was caught using a performance-enhancing substance and received an 80-game suspension from Major League Baseball. He had to miss the entire 60-game season, but that counted as serving the full sentence, leaving him ready to go for Opening Day next month.

Now the remaining player of that trade on either team, it’s up to Clase to make dealing away Kluber worthwhile. If he can manage to pitch well in roughly two games, he’ll probably surpass the value of DeShields and Kluber since the trade combined. With an 80-grade fastball that easily crosses triple digits with movement, it shouldn’t be too hard for him. He’s made it clear that he wants to be Cleveland’s closer. The next step is to prove he can pitch like a shutdown closer, no matter where he’s used.

Beyond those two, there is a little bit of a dip, but not as steep as some might think.

At first glance, Phil Maton doesn’t look like anything too special. After a couple of mediocre seasons with the Padres, Cleveland plucked him away for nothing more than some extra international spending money. He had some strikeout potential in San Diego, but the results were never better than a 4.19 ERA — not to mention he started to give up too many walks.

Someone in the Padres front office should really consider bookmarking Baseball Savant and going to it once in a while, though, because it really isn’t hard to see what Cleveland saw in Maton when they acquired him for virtually nothing. Even back in 2018, when his velocity was low and he was walking too many batters, he was one of the best in virtually every other Statcast measurement there is. Spin rates, hard-hit rate, expected results, barrel rate — it was all in the upper percentiles. The results still haven’t quite matched the potential here, but in the pandemic-shortened season, Maton finished with 2.73 SIERA compared to a 4.57 ERA, indicating that the factors he can control are looking a lot better than the ones he can’t.

Nick Wittgren is a guy who is virtually the opposite of Maton (although he was acquired in a very similar fashion: i.e. for nothing). He has no business being as good as he has been, based on his peripherals. No one dominant pitch, he gets barreled too much, and his fastball hits 93 on a good day. Yet, he’s consistently thrown into high-leverage situations by his managers and so far he’s performed well in all of them.

Wittgren’s changeup saw a big uptick in whiffs last year, jumping from 18.2% in 2019 to 25.6%. His slider was also promoted to putaway pitch in 2020, being used for the all-important strike three in a third of his strikeouts, up from 7.1% of the time the year prior. These individual upticks could all be small-season variance for the veteran righty, but aside from one blip in 2017 he already has a five-year track record of being solid at the very worst.

For any bullpen to go from good to great, you need an unexpected push from an arm or three. Just look at that 2017 squad. Tyler Olson could probably never give up zero runs over 20 innings again if he tried. Nick Goody flared out almost as immediately after his 2.80 ERA and nearly 12 strikeouts-per-nine. Zach McAllister pitched the best 62.0 innings of his life, stunk the next year, and hasn’t pitched in the majors since. Boone Logan!? (He was terrible for Cleveland, so he doesn’t prove this point, I just wanted to remind you he was there.)

I don’t know that Cleveland can find that many lightning strikes in so many bottles again, but they have a couple breakout stars who can throw the ball very hard. Anthony Gose, the former Tigers outfield-turned-reliever, routinely hits 100 mph and has shown better-than-expect control in spring. Sam Hentges is a looming 6-foot-6 on the mound, and his excellent fastball/curveball combo would only get better with a shift to the bullpen. Whoever loses the starting rotation battle between the surging Logan Allen and Cal Quantrill both have stuff that will flourish in a bullpen role.

Cleveland has also brought back 39-year-old lefty Oliver Pérez, who has a 2.67 ERA and 2.83 FIP in three seasons with Cleveland. He’s better suited to face lefties (.298 career wOBA against), but he’s total not dead weight against righties either (.340 career wOBA against). That’s good since the three-batter minimum rule introduced last year will carry over to 2021 and beyond. He can still be brought in to get out a troublesome lefty, and you can hope he’ll get a righty or two out along the way.

Yes, that’s a lot of if’s, but bullpens are built on if’s. I’ll take Cleveland’s if’s over most if’s if I had to choose between other iffy if’s.

And you should too.