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.