Lengthening an Elite Bullpen

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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 []