Prior to Saturday’s game, the Cleveland Indians made yet another transaction that directly affected their bullpen, as reliever Austin Adams was optioned back to Columbus for the second time in the first ten games of the season to make room for starting pitcher Danny Salazar.
The move paid off for the starting rotation, as Salazar struck out ten in one of the strongest outings he has had in his short Major League career, scattered now over parts of three seasons. The team was able to recall him and insert him into the rotation after Zach McAllister lost his starting spot that he had earned out of Spring Training, maybe as much by default as anything else. The veteran right-hander was out of options and neither Salazar nor the injured Josh Tomlin showed that they could handle the pressures of being out there every fifth day.
The poor outing from McAllister in his first start, followed by a rough effort from T.J. House in his first go round, prompted the Indians to bring in reinforcements from Triple-A already. Both pitchers helped to burn up some of the arms in the bullpen, even though the Indians have had three off days in the first two weeks of the season.
Now before jumping into the numbers, a word of caution. The season has not even officially hit the two week mark. It is April. Pitchers are rusty. Batters are too (unless they are wearing Detroit Tigers uniforms). The weather is generally unfavorable. Excuses, excuses. Now, with that all out of the way…
Through the first ten games of the season, the Indians have used ten different pitchers in relief a total of 35 times. At that present rate of three and one-half relievers a ball game, it would result in at least 567 trips from the dugout to the mound for manager Terry Francona.
Hopefully he has a deep supply of shoes.
While such a large total of relief appearances seems hard to fathom, it is right on par with Francona’s bullpen use last season, when 18 pitchers were used in relief in a Major League record 573 appearances in 2014.
So how bad has the bullpen been this year? Has it been as bad as it has felt at times?
Compared to the rest of the American League, they are not the worst. In fact, they are right in the middle of the pack in most relief statistics.
The Tribe bullpen is 0-2 this season with a 3.26 ERA and three saves in four opportunities. The team has allowed a combined .214 batting average and a 1.34 WHIP, striking out 35 batters while walking 22 in 38 2/3 innings. Five of the 30 hits allowed have left the yard, including a no-hitter ending shot by Houston’s Jed Lowrie off of Nick Hagadone and Friday night’s walkoff winner by Minnesota’s Trevor Plouffe off of Bryan Shaw.
For the most part, the Indians relievers fall smack in the middle third of all AL teams in most pitching statistics, although some (5th in highest WHIP and home runs allowed, 4th in highest on-base percentage, and 1st in walks allowed and wild pitches) put them on the outside of that middle third area. Only Tampa Bay has used more relievers (eleven) than the Tribe, who are tied with New York and Texas in the AL in number of firemen used with ten.
The elevated walk rate has been one of the more troubling numbers. The Indians have tallied the fifth-lowest batting average against them, with a .214 mark in the early going, but are averaging over five walks per nine innings to push their bullpen on-base percentage to .323, the fourth worst in the AL. Three different relievers are averaging more than a walk per inning (closer Cody Allen and left-handers Marc Rzepczynski and Kyle Crockett).
So, what is being said here is that they could be worse. Right now, the Indians bullpen is as average as they come. But what makes that fact so difficult to digest is that last season, the Indians bullpen was both reliable and consistent throughout the year, even with so many different men used and appearances made.
In 2014, they routinely ranked near the top of all major pitching statistics as a club. They led the AL in relief wins (35), were third in innings pitched (513 1/3), fourth in ERA (3.12) and strikeouts (504), and fifth in on-base percentage (.305).
If the Indians relief corps feels different this year, they are. The names may be the same, but the efforts have not quite resulted in a top-five bullpen. Instead, they have been very middle of the road.
Already, four different relievers have appeared in half of the Indians games this season – Scott Atchison, Hagadone, Rzepczynski, and Shaw. Atchison has been untouched on the mound, with a hitless and scoreless four and a third innings of work with four strikeouts and a walk to his credit.
The other three have allowed eight runs, six of which were earned, in nine innings of work. Allen has allowed four earned of his own in three and two-thirds.
Hagadone was perfect in the spring, walking just one batter while striking out seven in eight and one-third innings of work in nine games, but has given up a pair of solo homers and two walks in five games so far. His outing on Saturday was his best of the year, a perfect two innings with a strikeout.
His more veteran and fellow southpaw bullpen mate, Rzepczynski, was almost equally good in the spring. Seven strikeouts and a walk went along with one run on seven hits in eight and a third of nine games. He was charged with a pair of unearned runs in the home opener and two earned runs the next afternoon, but has faced just two batters (one strikeout, one intentional walk after a stolen base) since.
Shaw was a concern in the spring, but the old adage that he must have been working on things was in place. He struggled with leaving the ball up in the spring, allowing 12 runs on 16 hits with an even four walks and four strikeouts in eight and two-third innings. He did similar to Plouffe on Friday, who grooved a 3-2 pitch deep into the seats in extra innings for the walkoff win on a pitch that was almost set up on a pitching tee.
Allen allowed five hits in seven innings in the spring, walking two and striking out two. He was hit hard by Detroit, but who wasn’t in that series. In his other three outings, he has worked three scoreless frames with seven strikeouts, a pair of walks, and three saves.
Between the two lefties currently in the ‘pen and both the setup man and the closer, they have combined for a 7.11 ERA. It is a troubling stat, especially when considering three of the four men were the team leaders in appearances last season (Shaw – 80; Allen – 76; Rzepczynski – 73).
Currently, the staff is just seven men deep, a step away from Francona’s desired 13-man mix. In addition to the five man rotation, closer Allen, setup man Shaw, lefties Rzepczynski and Hagadone, they have Atchison, McAllister, and Anthony Swarzak on the roster.
McAllister has a 1.69 ERA in five and one-third innings of relief in two outings. He has allowed one run on six hits with a pair of walks and strikeouts, but it is tough to assess how he will play out in the bullpen after jumping in for Carlos Carrasco on short notice on Tuesday after the pitcher was struck by a line drive.
He looked like a viable rotational candidate out of the spring, when he struck out 28 batters in 25 1/3 innings with a 2.84 ERA in seven games. He had plenty of baserunners – he allowed 29 hits in those games – but he walked just four to limit further damage. The low walk totals carried over into his first and only start on the season, but his hit rate shot through the roof as the Tigers singled and singled and singled some more off of him in the home opener to the count of five runs on 13 hits in four-plus innings on the mound.
McAllister’s ability to be an effective starting pitcher has been often criticized due to a lack of a strong third pitch, which is thought to affect him severely when facing batters a second or third time in an outing. He has thrown his fastball over 85% of the time already in appearances this season and, outside of a lone changeup tossed according to Fangraphs.com, has used a breaking ball the rest of the way. In his last appearance on Friday night, he threw almost exclusively four-seamers between 94 and 97 miles per hour in his first inning of work as he just reared back and let it go. Kennys Vargas lined out after seeing six straight fastballs as McAllister tried to flat out blow him away with his velocity. He sprinkled in a cutter, slider, and curveball to the other seven hitters he faced, for good measure.
The pitching stats just lay proof positive to the theory – over the course of his entire career, he has allowed a .223 average to batters the first time through, a .297 average the second, and a .324 mark the third time against him in a game. His strikeout-to-walk ratio plummets from 3.31 to 1.84 just from the first time up to the second.
McAllister is out of options, so the team has to hope that he, like Carrasco, can figure things out in the bullpen. In the meantime, he is a nice fit with a powerful fastball to boot and, not having to face batters multiple times in an outing, the Indians could use his pitch speed to their advantage.
Swarzak, the forgotten man in the bullpen, made the team out of the spring camp and has been good in three appearances. He has worked four and one-third innings in relief, allowing just three hits and a run while striking out a pair. The familiar face and former Minnesota Twins pitcher has the versatility to go longer in outings if need be, which cannot hurt the bullpen long term.
Adams was shipped out for the second time in eight days on Saturday after previously getting recalled Sunday, one day after his first demotion when Yan Gomes went on the 15-day disabled list. He had allowed two hits and two walks with a strikeout in four and two-thirds innings, but because he had minor league options available and the team needed to make a move with Salazar and McAllister, Adams was the odd man out.
The left-handed Crockett was a victim of a similar roster crunch on Sunday and, having options, was sent to Columbus as a result of the overused bullpen in the Detroit series. The 23-year-old will be back sooner rather than later, but in the meantime he will be able to address a slight accuracy issue he faced in three appearances. He walked a batter in all three outings and in two of the three threw more balls than strikes. Last season, he walked just eight in 30 innings over 43 games.
Shaun Marcum was a surprise addition and then equally surprising subtraction after he was added to the 25- and 40-man rosters for Sunday’s outing and logged some serious innings in his return to the Majors for the first time since 2013. In relief of House and Adams, he worked five innings and both saved the bullpen and kept the Indians in the game. He allowed a run on three hits, struck out four and walked three, but was designated Tuesday to make room for backup catcher Brett Hayes, needed due to the Gomes injury. Marcum went unclaimed and returned to Columbus, starting for the Clippers Saturday night.
The list is long and will only grow as the season continues, through injuries, ineffectiveness, or pushing the pitching depth back to 13 men. While names like Adams and Crockett will likely return at some point, they will be just part of the ongoing reinforcements arriving from Columbus throughout the season to strengthen Francona’s bullpen bunch.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer