Indians

Lengthening an Elite Bullpen

Jason Miller/Getty Images

During the fall of 2016, the Cleveland Indians relied upon two elite relievers, namely, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen to reach the precipice of history. The pitchers with opposing arm sides slung sliders and curveballs which burrowed early graves for some of baseball’s best hitters. The Indians altered or perfected the dynamic of postseason baseball in optimizing usage of its best pitchers. However, no matter how dominant these pitchers are in the context of postseason baseball, the never-ending slog of regular season baseball requires that an entire bullpen be at least competent in order to win a division title.

There are many pitchers prepared to compose the low to medium leverage roles starting with the rubber-armed Bryan Shaw, and leading to pitchers of varying potential, Zach McAllister, Dan Otero, Shawn Armstrong, Perci Garner, Mike Clevinger, Cody Anderson and any other lotto tickets the Indians choose to purchase before spring training begins.  In order to avoid repeating past work, my argument for Perci Garner middle reliever can be found here. If one accepts the assertions within, then five bullpen roles are clearly filled with Allen, Miller, Shaw, Garner, and Crockett. The Indians would need either two or three additional relief pitchers from the above pool of arms depending on whether Francona opens with a seven or eight man pen.

The task before us is to select two-to-three relievers from Otero, McAllister, Armstrong, Clevinger, Anderson. In terms of arm talent the Indians have actually collected an interesting group of lotto tickets for this role. First, we pencil in a another lock, Dan Otero.

Otero was exceptional in 2016 with an ERA of 1.53 and a FIP of 2.33. These numbers were exceptional, anchored on his ability to limit walks and induce an elite amount of ground balls, 62.3%! One can quickly jump on Otero’s dominant 2016 campaign and shout “outlier” into the abyss. Yet, Otero outside of an injury plagued 2015 has displayed these same traits in his other three big league seasons. Otero gets an above average amount of ground balls and limits walks by pounding the sinker down and in on the hands of right handed hitters.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball

With two spots remaining for long man and lotto ticket in an eight-man pen, Shawn Armstrong is a promising gamble.

Spin rate has its complexities but from a raw stuff standpoint Armstrong is everything one looks for in terms of a high upside piece develop at the big league level in low leverage situations.  Armstrong obviously comes with his weaknesses most important of which, control Armstrong has rocked walk rates above five per nine innings in AAA and weighs as a concern for his ability to transition to the back end. 

I suggest the Indians go upside in this spot and alter if it looks messy over the course of the first few months.

This would leave one of McAllister, Anderson and Clevinger for the final spot. A collection of pitchers on the converted starters spectrum. The pitcher with likely the greatest odds to at some point produce as a starting pitcher is Clevinger who as at least two promising pitches separating him from McAllister and Anderson.

Anderson limits free base runners rarely walking hitters and in his 18 bullpen innings in the second half, showed more in the pen with an above average K% and xFIP.1  Small sample size caveats but it is common for a transition to play up the stuff, especially with a guy like Anderson who is fastball dominant. Anderson’s changeup and curveball both have promise to be average pitches but likely not as part of a starting arsenal, in the pen his stuff 95+ with off-speed for both platoon sides makes for a promising reliever. Finally, his arm is stretched out enough that he can fill the role of eating two-to-three innings or being ready in a pinch to start.

McAllister is a perfectly average middle innings reliever and likely starts in the Cleveland pen in order for the team to avoid losing him via DFA. But, there is enough upside in alternative options that McAllister could bounce to another organization.  

The Indians enter 2017 with the pieces in place for the best bullpen in baseball. This is obvious when you feature perhaps the best reliever in baseball and Cody Allen. Yet, it goes deeper than that, the Indians have a fantastic mix of talent Shaw and McAllister being stable competent options, with Armstrong and Anderson offering the upside to blossom into back end arms. The talent in this bullpen is the best it has been in at least a decade, which can help the Indians make a return trip to the MLB postseason in 2017.

  1. Anderson also showed a significant K% spike in Columbus following his bullpen transition posting elite rates []

  • mgbode

    I’ll assume Z-Mac makes it in April just because the team realizes that we’ll need a ton of bullpen arms. No idea how Tito is going to play games with the new 10-day DL, which is where he might be able to hide Z-Mac when he wants to give someone else a look.

  • scripty

    Actually I think they’ll be doing more spot starts to give guys missed starts. Calling up AAA guys to pitch and give each starter 1-2 missed dates. Salazar and Tomlin could get 2-3.

  • scripty

    I could see the oranization keeping Cleavinger throwing as a starter in AAA until late June.

  • chrisdottcomm

    Always a legit standing applause for Hattery.

    Really appreciate your writing here!

  • mgbode

    assuming Danny is healthy

  • Mike Hattery

    Thank you so much! Thanks for reading.

  • Mike Hattery

    My expectation is that he remains as a starter for most of 2017 though I sort of doubt he has the command to be effective there long term.

  • scripty

    95 pitches every 5 days.

  • mgbode

    I want to see how his arm is responding to throwing his full arsenal and full speed, which we won’t see until late March. I have hopes that last year was a blip, but it was worrisome he couldn’t shake it from June-November.

  • scripty

    The best surgeons say it’s WHEN not IF a repaired Tommy John will blow again. There’s a few guys that make it a long time before the next injury, I think it is inevitable for Danny. I think we just ride it out, use him somewhat judiciously and when it blows out, just thank him for time served.

  • Steve

    He’s pretty clearly the number six, right? He’ll stay stretched out in AAA until they inevitably need someone.

  • Mike Hattery

    I would say he is the #6 with Plutko/Merritt at 7/8.

  • Steve

    Has to depend how healthy Anderson is. They won’t give up on him as a starter just yet if hes healthy again, and he won a rotation spot last spring. I can’t imagine they would want to give starts to Plutko and Merritt over him.

  • jpftribe

    Steve – Last preseason you rightly pointed out it takes at least 6-7 quality starters to get through a season. This stuck with me all year as I watched them manage the CBus shuttle, and then was overly prophetic come September.

    Bullpen will be fine, if the SP’s hold up. Way more question marks for me on the rotation then on the bullpen. If the starters struggle, then the bullpen becomes stressed and the great Shaw debates continue. Clev could be a big piece this year.

  • jpftribe

    This is going to be interesting to watch in the spring and early season. If Armstrong and Anderson can take innings from Shaw, does he become trade bait at the deadline?

  • Steve

    One of Francona’s guys who, come hell or highwater Tito will still consider the third best guy in the pen? I can’t see a trade at all.

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  • Hopwin

    Is this a vote of confidence for Shaw? I know he caught unfair flack last year but his pitch location seems to be getting worse as time goes by. I personally think we are going to see a big downward tack from him this year.

  • mgbode

    at some point, his arm is going to go Vinnie Pestano and he’ll be done. no idea when that will be but hope we get anotehr Mike Clevinger before it does completely.

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