Let’s make something crystal clear right off the bat: By no measure in all of baseball was Bryan Shaw the worst relief pitcher in 2022.
There’s nothing you can do or say to dispute that. In fact, he’s not even the worst reliever in the AL Central this year. Seven other guys had a higher ERA than Shaw’s 5.40, including Austin Davis and his 1.2 innings pitched for the Twins. Same with his 4.88 FIP — seven other guys — and 19 other relievers had a worse strikeout rate than Shaw’s 19.9%. Was that still comfortably below average? Immaterial. There were also 16 relievers with a worse WHIP than Shaw’s 1.44, and a whopping eight relief pitchers allowed more than his 35 earned runs. Two guys had a worse bWAR than Shaw’s -1.0. I think that last one sums it up. By any measure, Shaw wasn’t the worst.
This was famously Shaw’s second stint with Cleveland, and he enjoyed many team names and many muttered epithets in his direction over those many journeys back to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. When he was part of a wonderful bullpen back in the mid-teens when Cleveland was in the midst of its last window, he was really good and also the center of a lot of unfortunate losses because of his own durability. Being pretty darn good and being able to pitch effectively for several days in a row made him one of Francona’s Guys forever. So when he came back after his journey into the wilderness of the Rockies, you had to wonder if the struggles we saw there were merely an elevation-related blip, or if our looking for his return to form was just hoping for something that fate had to deny us.
We forget it, but in 2021 Shaw did lead all of baseball in pitching appearances at 81, and he was, again, pretty good. Over 77.2 innings he held a 3.49 ERA, he let other arms in the pen get some rest, and he helped a team trying to figure some things out during a rebuild on the fly to eat some innings. So when he returned in 2022, it felt like some kind of weird legacy thing, combined with, again, being a Terry’s Guy, and maybe still being able to hold onto some of that garbageman effectiveness that highlighted his 2021 campaign.
For a glimmer of a moment there, it seemed like this might be the case. In his first seven appearances (spanning 4.1 innings) he had only allowed a run and seemed, if not still good, perfectly fine. We didn’t have a sense of expectations of the team at large, so it was hard to get too worked up over it. In April we were more just wondering what the deal was with the White Sox being in third in the division and being enamored of Steven Kwan. It wasn’t to be though, and Shaw had a couple of blow-ups that really looked ugly. A backbreaking double against the Angels on April 28 was a dent in the armor, and a few appearances later facing the Twins, he just fell apart. Minnesota chased Aaron Civale in the fifth, and Shaw promptly handed Gary Sanchez a three-run homer. Then, four at-bats later (in the same inning mind you) he watched Royce Lewis park a cutter in the outfield bleachers with a very nice grand slam. It looked worse than it reads.
This is not to say it got Francona to stop going to Shaw. He pitched another 47.2 innings all the way through to September, backed up by a 5.29 ERA, 47 hits, a 48/21 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and seven homers allowed. In all, he was probably the most baffling part of the 2022 season. It’s like the team couldn’t figure out where it was — were they still rebuilding and just trying to get through games, or win them? In June he came in to get bludgeoned by the Twins a couple of times, and even in July Francona had him face the White Sox in what could have been winnable games. It felt like some kind of weird joke that the team wanted to play on its fanbase.
By August he seemed to be relegated to mopping up and bit appearances just to keep people fresh. He did make those two starts in late July because the pitching staff was held together by hopes, twine, and old gum, and Cleveland did win both games, but it was still insane to see happening. It was like some kind of weird outsider art piece, testing the limits of what we could hope to believe we could see. Or else someone read our own Matt Schlichtings’ various articles on the Too Many Shaws concept.
This might be it for Shaw, both as a Guardian and as a major league pitcher. This doesn’t have to be a retrospective on his career, but it’s important to remember that in net, he was great for Cleveland. He pitched a ton of good, high-leverage innings and was predominantly successful. Just because he wasn’t as good as Andrew Miller and Cody Allen in the World Series run, or just because he was old this year, shouldn’t detract from that. This isn’t to say he’s an all-time legend, but of all the Guys that have passed through Cleveland over the last ten years, this is one that we should all remember fondly.