At the risk of being made to look like an idiot (a risk I frequently take), I have to say: The Cleveland Guardians’ bullpen is being used perfectly right now.
After a gem of an outing against the Dodgers by Bieber on Sunday (6.1 IP, 2 ER, 9 K, 1 BB), Terry Francona went to Eli Morgan in the seventh inning. It’s exceedingly obvious that this was the right move, as Morgan is having a stellar year so far. He’s third among all pitchers (not just relievers) on the team in fWAR (0.9), second in ERA (1.62), second in FIP (2.50), second in BB/9 (1.62), and first in K/9 (11.34). Morgan has been incredible out of the bullpen, practically perfect for his role on the team, and has been utilized incredibly as a fireman.
Actually seeing Morgan in this role, however, is not the move we’ve seen the team use historically. How many of us fans experienced a bit of PTSD when Bieber was pulled from Sunday’s game, expecting Bryan Shaw to come sprinting from the bullpen?
Of course, that didn’t happen, and it hasn’t happened much at all lately. Using player leverage index (pLI), we can see how the Guardians are utilizing the bullpen and assigning roles. Here are Morgan’s most recent outings, the pLI in those games, and how that stacks up compared to the leverage other Guardians pitchers’ faced.
Eli Morgan’s recent outings and leverage
Because Morgan’s role is usually to pitch multiple innings (only six times in 20 games this season has he pitched one inning or fewer), his leverage can be reduced by having to stay in to face less-stressful situations. Often, when Morgan’s pLI is not the highest it is usually only eclipsed by the closer, Emmanuel Clase. But in most cases, Morgan is facing difficult situations when they arise rather than just pitching a prescribed inning.
Clase clearly has the ninth-inning role locked down, and whether using him solely in that role is the best move or not is a separate discussion that probably could go on for some length. But even if Francona is clinging to bullpen dogma regarding the closer role, he’s clearly valuing and utilizing Morgan and the other relievers correctly.
And the other relievers are as much an example of smart bullpen usage as Morgan. Because he works multiple innings so often, Morgan has only pitched on back-to-back days once this season; however, when he’s unavailable, Francona is still playing it smart.
Take the win last Friday, June 17, against the Dodgers. After Zach Plesac pitched a gutty six innings, Francona turned to Sam Hentges as the LA lineup turned over. Hentges’ ERA is third among all Cleveland pitchers (1.64; min. 20 IP) and he sports the best groundball rate in the bullpen (64.6%) and third-best strikeout rate (11.05%). So, it’s no surprise Hentges proceeded to strike out Gavin Lux and got Freddie Freeman to roll over into an inning-ending double play. This was an example of putting a guy in to do a specific job and seeing him execute successfully. Which continued with the next man up, Trevor Stephan, who has a bit of an elevated ERA (3.80) but has been rather unlucky (2.42 xERA, third-lowest on the team; 3.21 FIP, sixth). Stephan mowed down the middle of the Dodgers order in the eighth before running into a bit of trouble in the ninth (partly thanks to an error), but Francona turned to the team leader in K/9, Anthony Gose (12.94), and he struck out both Lux (in the ninth) and Freeman (in the tenth) before turning the ball over to Enyel De Los Santos. With Clase unavailable after pitching the previous three games on top of Morgan being out, there was no better arm to preserve the win in the 10th. De Los Santos is second among all pitchers in FIP (2.42), which is quite close to his ERA (2.45, fourth among all pitchers, min. 10 IP) thanks to his 12.27 K/9 (second among all pitchers), and he looked masterful navigating through Will Smith, Max Muncy, and Justin Turner to get Cleveland a series-opening victory against the richest lineup in MLB.
Every outing with a reliever is a bit of a gamble, especially when your top two are unavailable, but Francona navigated that June 17 victory with aplomb. In fact, the Rockies and Dodgers series looks like a microcosm of the overall season, and there’s little to complain about in terms of the Guardians’ pitching and its utilization thus far. If Francona keeps playing things smart, and not leaning back on old favorites and sentimentality, competing against the best in the league — like Cleveland did this weekend — seems like a reasonable expectation.