Indians

The New/Old Bullpen Arm in Cleveland

A perennial favorite of Cleveland Indians fans has rejuvenated his season amidst this incredible 18-game winning streak. With Andrew Miller taking up space on the disabled list, Cody Allen needed someone else to step up and be his high leverage sidekick. Tyler Olson and his sweeping curveball have been sidekick worthy. The trade deadline re-acquisition of ground ball machine Joe Smith added another option. But, the newest arm in Cleveland has been on the team for five years. Bryan Shaw has “flipped the switch” after a dreadful July in which worries surfaced that being the most used reliever in Major League Baseball had finally caught up with him.

New bullpen arm does not exactly lend itself to Shaw. He has been a mainstay in Terry Francona’s bullpens since 2013. His excessive usage has led to polarization, including being the figurehead of a crushing loss last November. The 2017 contract year for Shaw has demonstrated that the team intends to maximize his usage, without regard for what lies beyond 2017.

As an aside: WFNY’s own Mike Hattery wrote a piece for FanGraphs detailing the advantage MLB teams have over players in the context of big data, in which he highlighted the case of contract year Bryan Shaw.

The relief appearances leaderboard is predictably headlined by Bryan Shaw. On pace to appear in approximately half of his team’s games in 2017, Shaw has had a career year in terms of the peripheral stats FIP and xFIP; posting marks of 3.04 and 3.44, respectively. The path to this success has been a circuitous one, however.

The most notable development of 2017 Shaw has been his pitch selection. His predominantly two-pitch repertoire includes an above average cutter and a run of the mill slider. The usage of these two pitches has traditionally followed an 80/20 rule, with the cutter being the main selection. Over the course of 2017, though, we have seen him rely on the cutter even more. It has accounted for nearly 89% of his total pitches, leaving the slider at an infrequent 11%.

A trend like this is certainly worth monitoring. On a per 100 pitch basis, pitch values show us that Shaw’s cutter is much more valuable than his slider. While pitch optimization to identify market inefficiencies is common, most noteworthy usage shifts this season have prioritized an increase in breaking balls (see Corey Kluber and Trevor Bauer).

To assess Bryan Shaw’s effectiveness in 2017, it is necessary to divide the season into three buckets. The first bucket contains everything from the beginning of the season to the end of June. The second bucket includes a historically poor stretch that lasted from the end of June until early August. Our third bucket highlights the performance from August 6th to today. Swinging strike percentage provided a foundation for this allotment because it gives us a small hint at a how well the pitcher’s stuff is working.

Bucket No. 1 (4/4/17-6/27/17)

In the first bucket, Shaw produced numbers that align with his career trajectory. Limiting hitters to a 0.268 wOBA over this time frame with a relatively ordinary 23% strikeout rate is no small feat, but that’s the reliever that Indians fans have grown to love/hate. Throughout this bucket, he induced whiffs at around a 12% clip which also mirrors expectations.

Bucket No. 2 (6/29/17-8/4/17)

The second bucket was disastrous, to say the least. Over 14 appearances, his ERA approached seven and his FIP climbed over five. A sample size of 13 innings is utterly worthless, but it is important to note the substance behind these struggles.

Bryan Shaw just couldn’t miss bats. In ten of the fourteen appearances, he failed to produce a swinging strike at all. He threw 212 total pitches, which translated to an abhorrent seven whiffs, or 3.3%. Included in this grouping is a 112 pitch stretch across seven appearances in which opposing hitters made contact against his pitches on 98.2% of their swings. Deviations from the mean are expected, but a greater than thirty day period of this doused the always-burning Bryan Shaw fire with a truckload of gasoline.

Bucket No. 3 (8/6/17-Present)

Seemingly out of nowhere, Shaw snapped out of the funk that had plagued him for the previous month and change. He is inducing whiffs at a pre-July funk rate and has struck out over 30% of the hitters he has faced. Additionally, he is mitigating walks as well as he has over any stretch in his Indians tenure. His marks in FIP, wOBA, and ERA have followed suit in returning to form. At the root of these returns to norm is a significant velocity spike featuring a one mile per hour boost from his July speedbumps.

Certainly, there is a sample size caveat here. Relievers are volatile in nature, considering whole seasons of data for them are typically insufficient in making conclusions. However, when improvements are backed in objectifiable measures like velocity spikes, optimism is more warranted.

To understand this velocity spike a bit more, I have expanded the graph to include his career rolling average for the cutter. It may seem like he’s reaching new peaks when painting a 97 mile per hour dart on the outside corner, but the reality is he has fluctuated to these points previously, as well. It is also important to note that pitch velocities prior to 2017 were tracked by PITCHF/x and have now transitioned to Statcast. This caused experts over at FanGraphs to theorize in April that pitches might be about one mile per hour faster on average in 2017.

This chart puts the trend in perspective. In 2014 and 2015, Shaw worked his way into peak velocity late in the season, as well. Over the past two years, he has done a much better job of maintaining velocity throughout the course of the season.

One month of hideousness is not enough to overtake the multiple years of data. The usage volume continues to be worrisome, but the trend back to peak velocity following it is reassuring. Bryan Shaw is ready to slide back into his role as a solid 2nd tier bullpen option, alongside Joe Smith. As long as Andrew Miller and Cody Allen are healthy, the Indians bullpen is poised to be as dominant as ever in a postseason environment that emphasizes the importance of relievers.

  • jpftribe

    “Excessive usage”

    Any reliever who is going to appear in 50% of games, in the 7,8 & 9th innings, is going to be polarizing. Personally, I don’t like it but OT, Zach, Armstrong are having bad years. Overusing Smith and Olson could create even bigger problems. Goody has been effective in his role, but who knows if you change it. So I’m not sure what an alternative would be.

    He deserved the standing O on Saturday. That was as clutch as it gets.

  • Gage Will

    I’m not even sure how you “overuse” Smith from Indians standpoint. Only a couple weeks left w/ expanded rosters. What do you mean?

  • jpftribe

    1. Saving his arm for the post season.
    2. Not sure what his usage pattern was in TOR, but deviating from that excessively this far into the season would be a mistake.

  • mgbode

    It is crazy how every year Shaw goes through a small period of time where he doesn’t miss bats, he gets wrecked in games, then just casually recovers back to being dominant. This article begs us to go and see if the velocity dip & swingstrike% correlate to the above in each of these previous seasons.

  • Gage Will

    I hear you. I haven’t seen much indicating that he was being relied upon too heavily, but I haven’t looked into his usage pattern in Toronto. That’s a good thought.

    I hope Francona can keep the arms fresh.

  • Gage Will

    I’m curious to see if his velo keeps climbing. *IF* Statcast is showing ~1 mph faster readings,there’s reason to think he could get into 95.5-96 range on the rolling average (based on past years).

  • Chris

    Gotta love September call-ups. MLB found a way to combine their playoff push with NFL Preseason Week 4 and the second game of a NBA back-to-back in February.

    If nothing else, it’s unique.

  • Chris

    Gotta love September call-ups. MLB found a way to combine their playoff push with NFL Preseason Week 4 and the second game of a NBA back-to-back in February.

    If nothing else, it’s unique.

  • Steve

    To be fair, teams still in contention are primarily using their regulars, With the Urshela/Allens as defensive subs. And teams out of it are trying out real prospects, not just simply AAA filler. These are all guys legitimately fighting for MLB roster spots, unlike NFL preseason.

  • Chris

    I didn’t mean to insinuate that it takes away from the playoff races, but it certainly helps allow contending teams to get healthy going into October. However for every one of those, there’s the White Sox.

  • scripty

    Last year it was April. I can’t recall previous years.

  • scripty

    There are a lot of mouthbreathers who don’t realize how valuable Shaw is. For the forgetful, the Indians were in 1st place last season with Shaw as the 8th inning guy before we got Miller.

    But Shaw also is a high usage guy, and his extra innings are often valuable innings. They aren’t always Andrew Miller peak leverage use but they are vital, days when you’d be putting an Armstrong or (IMO, not ready for primetime) Goody out there in 7th innings in games that we are down 1 late.

    #Shawsome

  • Steve

    There are also a lot of people who pounce on those that point out Shaw’s flaws, and Francona’s too high opinion of Shaw. He has had some pretty rough stretches. He’s back on track now.

  • mgbode

    Last year there was also a week in June where he just went off- then back on- the rails. I remember looking up and seeing similar in previous seasons but not exactly which weeks.

  • scripty

    Leads the league in pitching appearances, top 5 ish in holds, with only over 2 days rest 10x this season, and allowed 6 inherited runners to score in 69 appearances. Been the 8th inning guy since 8/1 when Tribe’s managed to scratch out a few wins. I think Miller’s superstardom has warped perception of what a quality set up man looks like.

    I am curious what your remedy is – flipping Otero and Shaw? Using Goody or McCallister more?

  • scripty

    I also think if the starters weren’t so divine, the whole bullpen would be exposed more.

  • Steve

    That Shaw is better than some guys pulled off the scrap heap is certainly a point in his favor.

    I think a big part of the problem is that criticism of Shaw gets interpreted as “dump him”. I think Shaw is a perfectly fine middle reliever, and I am very grateful that the FO prioritized getting two better relievers each of the last two seasons.

  • mgbode

    criticism of Shaw gets interpreted as “dump him”

    I think you underestimate the vileness of what Shaw receives. Not sure if you subscribe to The Athletic but Meisel described it here:

    https://theathletic.com/87755/2017/08/24/the-pariah-of-cleveland-bryan-shaw-says-cleveland-fans-hate-me-but-why-is-he-so-polarizing/

  • Steve

    I wouldn’t deny that he unfairly gets laid into. But so does Santana, Salazar, Carrasco, and most every player who dares put up a bad week. Fans can be dumb rabid dogs.

    There are fair criticisms of him, and issues with him and Tito’s reliance on him, and I think they get unfairly tossed in with the vileness.

  • Steve

    Kipnis to CF. Good ol’ Tito.

  • mgbode

    Well, at least what Kipnis lacks in speed he also lacks in route-running experience.

  • Steve

    At the time he was drafted, he wasn’t expected to stick in CF. Now that he’s older and coming off a bad hamstring? Either Brantley is toast (but even then, Kipnis could go to LF, Chis/Jackson in CF), or Francona is suffering from withdrawals of his Aviles/MM drug.

  • mgbode

    He didn’t ever consider Aviles/MM a starting option but an occasional usage model. Kipnis would be at least a RHP starter, which is scary even w/o considering his bad hamstring.

  • jpftribe

    I’m not so sure. This is going to be interesting to see how it plays out. Tito has a way of letting the experiments speak for themselves.

  • jpftribe

    The big news here is that they are not going to break up Lindor / Ramirez in the middle. The CF stuff is somewhat diversionary, in my view.