Indians Bullpen Without Clear Roles, Just Getting Outs
Mike B. | On 16, Jun 2014
The new-age statisticians have to love how Indians manager Terry Francona is slowly moving toward using his bullpen.
And while bullpen-by-committees have normally not been successful in Major League Baseball over the last 25 years, the Indians have made their bullpen work well for the last five weeks. Since John Axford was removed of the closer’s role on May 9, the Indians have been labeled a bullpen-by-committee. It’s probably not the truest sense of a committee, but the traditional roles—where pitchers have an assigned late inning role or specific inning to pitch—has gone by the wayside, too. Their bullpen has turned into a bit of a hybrid, between traditional roles and new-age sabremetrics thinking.
The four relievers securing wins for the Tribe have been so strong they need a nickname. But then again, guys without much of a defined role are hard to give a moniker.
While he hasn’t been named the closer, Cody Allen is the pitcher Francona would like to have pitching the ninth inning. Allen earned his first save of the season on May 9—the game Axford could not complete—and now has seven on the season. He isn’t just reserved for the ninth inning, however. Seven times Allen has entered in the eighth inning since the bullpen change, including a four-out save on June 3 against Boston. Yesterday, Allen earned the win, pitching the 10th inning, then after Nick Swisher homered to right field to give the Indians the lead, Allen remained in the game and pitched the 11th inning to seal the victory. While closers traditionally only go one inning, Allen instead pitches the late-inning, high-pressure situations. After three straight days of work, Allen likely is unavailable for tonight’s game.
But don’t worry, because whatever the role Allen serves, Bryan Shaw is every bit the “light version.” Normally, Shaw gets the high-pressure situation in the sixth or seventh inning. Since the bullpen change, Shaw has pitched as early as the sixth inning, or as late as the 10th. Shaw has become the right-handed reliever to pitch in a high-pressure situation before Allen, but he’s no right-handed matchup reliever. He’s faced 135 batters, including 49 versus left-handed hitters. While Shaw has struggled against lefties, he has battled through and thrived against right-handers, giving up a sparse .132 batting average against right-handed hitters. If Allen is unavailable tonight, it’s likely Shaw that will back up into the late role, unless they need him earlier.
The left-handed version of Shaw is Marc Rzepczynski. Rzepczynski is much better versus left-handed hitters than right-handers, but has seen equal action against either. He fills that same role in the sixth or seventh inning with a high-pressure situation versus a left-hander. The matchup is what brings him into the game, but just like Shaw, he doesn’t necessarily leave after that one role is complete. The specific roles and LOOGY status is dissolving from the Tribe’s vernacular. Matchups bring you in the game, but too often now, relievers stay on until the next jam presents itself. It seems simple, yet has often failed in the past.
The most undefined role in the Tribe’s remade bullpen though belongs to Scott Atchison. Atchison, the guy some thought may only survive the first week or 10 days of the season, has been as reliable as even Allen in the Indians bullpen—compiling a 2.97 ERA in 30.1 innings of work. He’s come into the game as early as the fourth inning and even closed when Shaw and Allen were unavailable. His best definable role may be his ability to get out of jams created by someone else, as evidenced by his key out in yesterday’s game after Axford walked the bases loaded. Atchison is no matchup pitcher either, allowing just a .195 batting average against right-handed hitters, and .222 versus left-handed hitters. Early or late, bases empty or full, Atchison just gets outs.
It’s the new-age, hybrid bullpen. It’s not undefined, but not clearly defined either. They just get outs when they get to the mound. The best, available relievers pitch in the high-pressure situations, while Carlos Carrasco, Josh Outman and Axford all seem to pitch more often when the game is not on the line.
The only drawback to date, is that with the Indians, most nights present a high-pressure situation. It’s the biggest reason Rzepczynski (35) leads the American League in appearances. Shaw (34) is tied for second and Allen (33) is tied for fourth. It remains to be seen if they can continue at this pace through the summer heat and into a September pennant race. Axford has slowly worked his way into some pressure situation, but mechanics and control like Sunday afternoon, continue to hinder the confidence necessary to get him into more tough spots. The light continues to shine brightly on just these four. It’s possible, young, left-hander Kyle Crockett could be the fifth member to their late-inning bunch.
In the meantime, if the game is tight, the ball will likely go to one of the foursome.
Photo: Brandon Wade/AP Photo