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Can Crockett Gain Control of One of Indians’ Open Bullpen Spots?

Can Crockett Gain Control of One of Indians’ Open Bullpen Spots?

| On 22, Dec 2016

When the Cleveland Indians traded left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski at the trade deadline two seasons ago, it left a clear hole on a pitching staff that was devoid of southpaw arms.

Left-hander Kyle Crockett appeared to be the next man up for the relief staff. But in 22 appearances through the rest of that season, the results were mixed at best, with opposing hitters batting .273 against him while scoring seven runs off of him in eleven and two-thirds innings. That offseason, the Indians brought in some veteran options to challenge him for a role as the lefty option in the bullpen. Crockett was passed over for Ross Detwiler, a veteran who was coming off of a bad season split with three different teams.

Crockett landed at Triple-A Columbus, but he ultimately got the call-up at the end of April when Detwiler’s trial run came to a quick conclusion. Back in the Majors, Crockett was unable to hold down a spot over the next three weeks, leading the Indians to instead operate without a regular left-hander in their bullpen until his return in late July.

He looked better in his return to the Major League club over his first eight games back, giving up three hits, a walk, and no runs in those outings before a pair of rough appearances led to three runs charged. Towards the end of August, with new weapon and American League All-Star left-hander Andrew Miller eating up any difficult later inning situations for the club, Crockett was returned to Columbus, but after three appearances there to close out the Triple-A regular season, he rejoined the Indians and made five more trips to the mound, giving up a hit and striking out four of the seven men he faced in September to close out his season.

The end result was a 1-1 record in 29 games at Triple-A with a 3.90 ERA and 1.33 WHIP and no record in the Majors with a 5.06 ERA and 1.44 WHIP in 29 games.

It can be tough at times to remember that the University of Virginia product, who turned 25 last Thursday, was in just his fourth professional season after being fast-tracked through the Cleveland farm system after a fourth round selection in 2013. He made 21 appearances in his debut season, posting a 0.36 ERA and a 0.85 WHIP along three stops with Mahoning Valley, Lake County, and Akron. After 15 games with Akron and six with Columbus in 2014, he got the call to Cleveland, where he went 4-1 with a 1.80 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in an impressive 43 games of relief. The 2015 season presented him with his first true challenge in his professional career, as he went 3-1 with Columbus with a 5.97 ERA and 1.85 WHIP in 29 games and did not earn a decision in 31 games with Cleveland, putting up a 4.08 ERA and 1.36 WHIP.

After another missed opportunity to stake a regular place in manager Terry Francona’s bullpen, Crockett will once again head to spring training looking to come to Cleveland when camp ends. With Miller working in key late inning roles more often than not during the regular season, Francona could use a match up style of lefty, even though the organization has not historically handled Crockett that way. While he has seen some left-on-left opportunities, he has had numerous extended- and multi-inning looks throughout his professional career.

His overall splits indicate his use pattern has been more lefty heavy, as he has faced 56 more left-handed hitters in his three seasons in the Majors, holding them to a .234 average in that span with a 4.10 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That average was pulled higher after consecutive seasons of allowing lefties to hit .256 against him, and the strikeout-to-walk ratio was heavily skewed by the 20 strikeouts and three walks he had in his debut season (9 SO/4 BB in 2015; 12 SO/3 BB in 2016). He has struck out lefties 25.4% of plate appearances in his MLB career while righties have struck out 18.1% of the time.

Right-handed hitters have been more the concern for Crockett in the Majors, as they have hit .278 against him with all three career home runs allowed. They have also drawn walks in 11.4% of their trips to the plate, compared to 6.2% of the time for left-handed hitters.

The numbers were reversed for the 2016 season as a whole, however, as righties hit just .206 against him (20-for-97) with two home runs, 20 strikeouts, and 12 walks in his combined work between Cleveland and Columbus. Lefties hit .305 (25-for-82) with 23 strikeouts and just six walks in that same span.

He operates primarily with a two-pitch arsenal, relying on a four-seamer around the 90 MPH mark with good sink and a slider that has not developed into the kind of swing-and-miss sliders displayed by other southpaws in the game. He will on occasion throw the changeup.

For Crockett, he does have age and his limited professional experience on his time. He received little seasoning at the minor league level before his first taste of the Bigs, but those early career results have not been replicated over the past two seasons as he has bounced back and forth regularly between Cleveland and Columbus. The Indians’ bullpen has just Miller on call as a lefty, so another option on Francona’s relief staff could be preferable. Internal options for true left-handed relievers at the upper levels of the Indians’ farm system were minimal, leading the club to add both Tim Cooney (St. Louis) and Edwin Escobar (Arizona) off of waivers already this offseason, prior to their selection of Hoby Milner from the Philadelphia Phillies during the Rule 5 draft.

Two to three spots could be up for grabs, depending on how the Indians want to carry the roster into the new season. Several internal right-handed candidates will also be vying for their opportunities, and the club just added right-hander Nick Goody in a trade with the Yankees on Tuesday.

The pressure will be on Crockett to gain control of his Indians destiny and to cut back on the mistakes. Opposing hitters have made a lot of contact with him over the last two seasons, and in order to make the most of his chances in Goodyear, he will need to keep base runners to a minimum. He could provide the Indians with a good complimentary piece to their bullpen if he can miss some bats and get the ball on the ground to the good infield defense behind him. If not, he will have playing time waiting for him back at Huntington Park down at the state capital.

Photo: Bob Levey/Getty Images