Underrated Allen Anchored Always-Evolving Tribe Pen

The Cleveland Indians bullpen is a work in progress and will always be a machine of moving and interchangeable parts as long as Terry Francona resides within the Tribe dugout. As the game of baseball has evolved, bullpens have become much more specialized and utilized. Francona is one of those in the game who firmly believes in the need for a deep bullpen, consistently using a 13-man pitching staff while keeping a steady flow of bullpen traffic heading back and forth between Cleveland and Columbus to keep his arms fresh.

That said, Francona also has his workhorses and Cody Allen has become one of Tito’s most talented and reliable arms on the staff.

Allen has very quietly made a steady four-year climb from underrated rookie working into higher leverage pseudo-setup situations in 2012 to the club’s closer in each of the last two seasons.

The 26-year-old righty is a former 23rd round pick of the 2011 draft, a solid find for an Indians organization not heralded for its drafting ability over the last decade and a half. The Florida native was clearly on the Cleveland radar, as the club had actually drafted him in 2010 in the 16th round, but he opted not to sign with the club at the time. The second time the Indians came calling, he was signed within eight days.

The Indians, not necessarily known as being a team to fast track draft picks through the minor league system, handled Allen in a completely different fashion. At the age of 22, he appeared with four different teams in the farm system. He notched 14 games at short-season Mahoning Valley, seven at Lake County, and a game apiece at Kinston of High-A and Akron at the Double-A level. His end of the year results were impressive to say the least – a 5-1 record with a 1.65 ERA in 54 2/3 innings with 75 strikeouts to just 14 walks. He allowed ten earned runs and just one long ball. He averaged 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings and a strikeout-to-walk rate of 5.36.

Not bad for a first half-season.

He started 2012 at the High-A level with the Carolina Mudcats and appeared in just two games before getting called up. He didn’t last but two weeks with the Akron Aeros, making five appearances, before getting the call to Triple-A Columbus. He was strong for the Clippers, unfazed by the new stage. Despite being more than four years younger than the average pitcher in the league, he went 3-2 with a 2.27 ERA in 24 games. He still averaged more than a strikeout per inning and, due to his solid efforts all around, Allen received the promotion to the Bigs on July 20th, replacing Scott Barnes in the bullpen and making his Major League debut the same day.

He has not returned to a Clippers jersey since.

He appeared in 27 games for the Indians in just his second season with the organization. He handled the task, posting an 0-1 record with a 3.72 ERA. The next season was even better, as he finished sixth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting after a 6-1 season with a 2.43 ERA in 77 games and his first two career saves. He cut his WHIP numbers to 1.25 and increased his MLB strikeouts per nine rate by nearly three batters to 11.3.

Heading in to 2014, Allen looked to be a favorite as the closer of the future to replace Chris Perez, the third-leading save man in team history. Instead, the team signed free agent John Axford and slotted Allen into eighth inning work.

The Axford signing did not pan out as expected, but the old adage that a team can never have too much pitching rang true for the Tribe, as Allen took the ball by the end of May and has never let it go. He appeared in 76 games, saving 24, while earning a 6-4 record with career-lows in ERA (2.07) and WHIP (1.06).

The 2015 season gave those watching a bit of a scare in the beginning, but Allen settled in to be one of the pieces in the ‘pen that Francona could count on at a moment’s notice, whether it was the customary ninth inning spot, or a save-type situation in the fifth inning against the Chicago Cubs on June 18th after a rain delay.

Allen saved three of his first five appearances, but was dealt losses in the other two, giving up four runs to Detroit on April 11th and four runs on six hits in one-third of an inning in a walk-off loss in Chicago to the White Sox. He ended April with eight appearances, four saves, two losses, and a scary 11.57 ERA.

Things improved as Allen settled in to the season. He allowed four runs over 15 appearances in May, saving all seven save opportunities he had. The bulk of a 19-game scoreless streak came in June, when he saved four games in four chances and earned the win in another. He struggled some out of the All-Star break, giving up runs in five of his first eight games back while taking a pair of losses and a pair of blown saves. After that, he started a 24-game stretch of play where he limited opposing hitters to a .176 batting average, struck out 32 and walked just six in 25 2/3 innings, and earned a 1.05 ERA while posting a 1-1 record and saving 12 of 13 opportunities.

He ended the season with a 2-5 record, a 2.99 ERA, and finished a league-high 58 games out of his 70 total appearances. He saved 34 games in 38 chances. His 99 strikeouts were the fourth-most by any reliever in all of baseball, trailing Dellin Betances (131) and Andrew Miller (100) of New York in the AL and Aroldis Chapman (116) of Cincinnati in the National League. Eleven of his 23 earned runs were lumped together in just three of his 70 games pitched.

According to Fangraph’s WAR calculation, he held a 2.6 mark, the best among all MLB relievers for the 2015 season. His fielding independent pitching was also tops in baseball at 1.82, better than San Francisco’s Sergio Romo (1.91) and Chapman (1.94).

His batting average on balls in play was at a career-high this season (.342), a 76-point swing from last year, but his home run to fly ball ratio was down substantially. He was not as successful as previous seasons at leaving runners on base, which helps account for some of the 0.92 jump in his ERA.

He once again used a four-seam fastball, offset with a spiked curveball that he started to throw in 2010 after Tommy John surgery. He has also used a changeup and slider before, but has deemed them as either inconsistent or unreliable.

Cleveland has a handful of pitchers on the staff eligible for arbitration this offseason (Bryan Shaw, Nick Hagadone, Zach McAllister, Jeff Manship, and Josh Tomlin). Allen is eligible for the first time and is due a sizable raise, thanks to nearly two full seasons anchoring the back end of the Tribe bullpen. While the Indians and Allen may be able to work out a figure for next season, it will be undoubtedly larger than the $547,000 that he made in 2015 or the $515,400 he made the prior year. MLBTradeRumors.com has projected a $3.5 million arbitration figure for Allen.

The Indians due still hold some of the cards; Allen does not become a free agent until following the 2018 season. However, given his productivity in such a short period of time, he may be a guy the Indians target to build that bullpen around long-term for years to come, but such deals with relievers, especially the always-volatile and often-unpredictable role of the closer, are few and far between at team-friendly figures.

Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer

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