To fully encapsulate how bad the Cleveland Indians bullpen has been thus far in 2018, allow me to deliver possibly the best pop culture reference I have ever used, and I’ve used a lot of them: the bullpen is Brian Fantana’s Sex Panther. It stings the nostrils, it occasionally smells like a turd covered in burnt hair, and best of all, 60% of the time, it works every time. The bullpen has surely led some to want to get hosed down outside of the building, hoping the cold water will wake you up from the fever dream that is this year’s bullpen.
The rest of the team is humming along like a well-oiled machine on the marathon road trip that is a 162-game schedule: the four starters (Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger) acting as the four perfectly new tires on the van, Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor being the cooler full of sandwiches and energy drinks to keep the party going, Greg Allen manning the aux cable, jumping in the middle of the trip bringing the fire tracks to keep the driver going. However, the bullpen has been the equivalent of the 80-year-old grandmother who needs to take potty breaks every hour and makes you pull over to see the world’s biggest ball of twine, despite it being an hour off the meticulously mapped out travel path.
On the season, Cleveland’s pitching staff has garnered 5.8 fWAR to date, good for fourteenth among all major league ball clubs. However, the bullpen is responsible for -0.9 fWAR, pulling the Tribe down from a possible 6.7 fWAR, which would be ranked seventh. But a turnaround has been happening over the last week, as it is hardly possible to get much worse. Cleveland has been the only team with a 100% strand rate out of the bullpen across the last seven days and also has the eighth best K/9 ratio in that span as well. All of this is due in part to performances from two relievers who have seen their fair share of big league clubhouses.
Neil Ramirez is on his sixth major league franchise, having appeared in more than 30 games only once in his five-year career. Despite having some early struggles with Cleveland, Ramirez has settled in over the last 14 days. Not allowing a run to score in his 4.2 innings pitched during that span has given manager Terry Francona some hope that he’s found someone to take some burden off his starters. Looking into Ramirez’s pitches, over the month of June, he is getting a higher whiff percentage on both his fastball and slider, with the slider proving to be a weapon at 41.6% with no hits coming off the breaking ball. For reference as to how good of a whiff percentage that is, Andrew Miller’s slider has never gotten better than 33.3% whiffs in a month.1 Ramirez has been using the slider the same amount per batter, but with better horizontal location away, causing right-handed batters to miss more often. If he continues locating the slider away to right-handers, the better he will continue to be.
Oliver Perez was picked up off the scrap heap on June 2nd, a day after activating his June 1st release date with the New York Yankees. Unable to break into the Yankees bullpen of nightmares,2 Perez has helped stabilize the Indians pen, giving Francona another lefty option so as to not abuse Tyler Olson too badly too early. A 100% strand rate will surely come down some, but with four strikeouts in eight batters faced, Perez has delivered since he arrived.
Neither of these two performances should keep the front office from doing almost everything in its power to get bullpen help prior to the July 31st trade deadline. Adding to this position group should have been taken care of in the winter after Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith left, but with no one brought in to supplant the two and Andrew Miller’s injury woes, it’s of no surprise as to why the bullpen has been a dumpster fire. Hopefully, Ramirez and Perez can continue to produce and allow for the starters to get some rest, because even Sex Panther worked 60% of the time.