When it comes to the Cleveland Indians, it is the team’s starting pitchers that get most of the press and publicity, and rightly so. However, through the first two months of this baseball season, the Tribe’s relief pitching has been every bit as good as the guys taking the mound at the start of each game.
Cleveland’s bullpen, the backbone of the squad only a few years ago, is getting back to shutting down the opposition late in games, as it did during the Bullpen Mafia Days of 2011-2013.
As has been the case the past few years, Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw remain the stabilizing forces in the back end of the ‘pen as Cleveland’s closer and top setup man, respectively. The duo both got off to rough starts to this season, but have each settled in and made it very difficult for the other team’s offense to even think about erasing a late Indians lead.
The month of April was pretty forgettable for Allen. Despite going 7-of-7 in save chances, Cleveland’s closer was lit up in games that did not offer a chance to add to his games closed total. Allen’s ERA for the first month was a disappointing 6.97. He has gotten back to his lights-out ways this month, having a dominant May. He has remained perfect in save opportunities with four so far in the season’s second month. His ERA in eleven outings is a sterling 0.73. Allen’s overall ERA has dropped to 3.57. It’s a number more befitting of the guy who became Cleveland’s full-time stopper in 2014. Certainly, Indians fans can again breathe easily when Cleveland’s closer is summoned.
That same thought goes for the Tribe’s setup man as well. Shaw got off to an even worse start to 2016 than Allen. His overall ERA of 5.40 still is not anything close to where he has been since joining Cleveland in 2013. Considering the unsightly 24.30 that number was at after Shaw’s fourth appearance on April 16, the Indians second-most important reliever has come a long way and gotten back to his great late-innings form. By the end of April it was down to a still quite high 9.64. Like Allen, Shaw has really heated up this month. He has a 1.69 ERA in 12 outings.
As the calendar has flipped to late spring and the weather is heating up, so too have Cleveland’s top two relievers. Allen and Shaw being late-inning stoppers is nothing new. They have been a terrific 1-2 punch the last two years. However, the rest of the relief corps after that has often been somewhat suspect. It has been so obvious that Cleveland manager Terry Francona has relied very heavily on the bullpen duo quite a bit the past few years, so much so that some wondered if their arms were battling fatigue from overuse at the start of this season.
This year, Francona has been able to back off using the two as often this year. Allen and Shaw are not pitching on a near every-other-night basis as they almost had to in years past. Cleveland’s skipper has had a little bit more to work with in his bullpen cupboard so far this year. It is not as bare as it has been the last couple of years.
That is largely thanks to some veteran free agents added over the winter who have worked out better than anyone could have hoped. Dan Otero, Tommy Hunter and Joba Chamberlain have added quite a bit of depth and experience to Cleveland’s group of relievers.
Otero has bounced back quite nicely from a disappointing 2015 season with the Oakland A’s. In his third and final season in the Bay Area, Otero had a 6.75 ERA in 41 games. It is why he was available so easily in the offseason. The Indians are thankful that he was as he has gone back to being the dependable pitcher he was in 2013 and 2014. So far in 16 outings, the 31-year-old has a sterling 0.95 ERA, tops among Tribe relievers who have been on the big league roster for at least a large portion of the season.
Hunter, like Otero, is a veteran who had had success in the Majors but fell off last year. His 2015 started off well enough, posting a 3.63 ERA in 39 games with Baltimore. The Orioles traded the 29-year-old to the Cubs at the July 31 deadline. The friendly confines turned out to not be so for Hunter. In Chicago, he struggled to the tune of 5.74 ERA in 19 appearances. Also, like Otero, Hunter came cheap to the Tribe and has been a revelation so far this year. He has not been as lights out as Otero, but a 3.86 ERA in ten games is a decent way to start getting in good with the new club. He was pitching very well before allowing two earned runs Saturday against Baltimore.
Chamberlain, who recently went on the disabled list, had been pitching as well as he had in years. He was resembling the guy who was once one of the better relievers in the game as Mariano Rivera‘s setup guy with the Yankees a handful of years ago. After a few years of being so-so, Cleveland took a flyer on him this past offseason in the hopes that he could get back to being a serviceable reliever. His experience playing in meaningful and postseason games was a nice addition. He has not disappointed in posting a 1.93 ERA in 14 outings. Cleveland would certainly love to have him back soon.
The trio of veterans has changed the dynamic of the Tribe’s pen this year. Last year, it was shallow. After Allen and Shaw, the only other bullpen arms Francona could really trust in 2015 were Zach McAllister and Jeff Manship. A four-man relief corps is hardly enough. It is much more this year.
McAllister and Manship have continue to be trusted guys out of the ‘pen. McAllister, who transitioned from the rotation to the bullpen last year, proved that he could still be valuable the club despite flaming out as a starter. He has been roughed up in his last few outings before Saturday, including surrendering three key seventh inning runs in Friday’s 6-4 loss to Baltimore. However, he has been mostly good. He had a 1.93 ERA before his three-game stretch that has now ballooned it to 4.08. McAllister tossed a perfect frame against the Orioles on Saturday to get back on track following three consecutive appearances allowing at least one earned run. He is unique in that he can pitch in long, middle or short relief and typically gets the outs he needs.
Manship, a veteran find last year, has remained a strong part of the pen this year in posting a 2.63 ERA through 17 games.
Relievers, other than the true cream of the crop, can be finicky from year-to-year. One year a guy can be dominant and the next can be hit hard. It is why the Indians seemingly invited everyone and anyone who could throw a baseball reasonably well to Goodyear, Arizona, this past winter. They were hoping to unearth a gem or two who had been overlooked due to down seasons in 2015. As it turns out, Cleveland has perhaps found a few.
It is still early, but the Tribe’s bullpen appears to be as deep as it has been in years. Francona seems to have seven guys that he can go to in a pinch and feel good about. It is a much different feeling from a year ago when Cleveland’s manager had to overuse the few guys he felt could get the late-inning outs to keep a lead or keep his team in striking distance.
Right now, the only real knock on the bullpen is the lack of a truly trusted lefty. Kyle Crockett, a rookie sensation in 2014, was a disaster before being optioned back to Triple-A Columbus. Rookie Ryan Merritt is the only southpaw in the bullpen and has yet to throw a Major League pitch. It is clearly too early to know what Cleveland may have in him, especially after working almost entirely as a starter throughout his minor league career.
Having the bullpen become a strength again is important for the Indians to become a real contender this summer. With a strong rotation, Cleveland will rarely be out of a game. However, with an offense that will not put up huge numbers on most nights, the Indians will be in quite a few close games. Being able to win battles of relief pitching more often than not could prove vital.
A year ago, Cleveland’s pen was not deep enough. Bridging the gap from the starter to Shaw and Allen sometimes proved a difficult task. Now the middle-innings relievers are getting the job done. With the Indians’ top two guys having taken off again, close-game leads for the Tribe can again be considered safe.
Cleveland’s bullpen does not have the Cy Young Award contenders and All-Star hopefuls that the rotation has, but this year the relievers have so far been a better extension of the strong group of starters than in years past.
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