Dan Otero: Another Low Cost Reliever Doing Well for the Tribe

Who has been the most clutch Tribe reliever this year? At first, this seems like a silly question.

The answer is simple, you might think. It’s obviously closer Cody Allen. He’s been 14-for-16 in save situations this year and has a 3.23 ERA. Plus, he’s only pitched in the eighth inning or later, generally considered the most important innings in a game. According to the clutch metric on FanGraphs, Allen is the wrong answer.

The right answer, and the leader in clutch score across all of baseball, is actually Dan Otero. That’s right, the 31-year-old middle reliever acquired for cash considerations in the offseason has been the Tribe’s most clutch reliever so far. His clutch score, which according to FanGraphs’ David Appelman measures “how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment,” is 1.40. The second highest in the AL among relievers is 1.25.

Otero’s overall numbers certainly back up this claim. His 0.93 ERA is fourth among qualified AL relievers and he’s given up zero home runs in 29 innings. Otero is also 12th in the league in walks per nine innings (1.86) and has posted an impressive 4.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio, best in the bullpen.

A middle reliever may not be thought of as clutch, though. However, Terry Francona uses Otero in extra innings quite frequently, and that certainly helps his score. He’s pitched in the Tribe’s last four extra inning games, picking up a win and his only save. Though Otero’s not been used consistently in the same inning, he knows that his job is to get outs whenever the team needs them. And he does his job well.

A sinkerballer, Otero succeeds when he gets ground balls and he’s done that at a high rate this year. His 57.5% groundball rate is his highest since he debuted in 2012. The Tribe’s above-average infield defense, led by the phenomenal Francisco Lindor, has unquestionably helped him convert those grounders into outs. And the knowledge of the great defense behind him allows Otero to pitch to contact.

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Looking at Otero’s heat map, shown above, he does just that. He attacks righties down and in, forcing them into weak contact. Right handed batters hit into soft contact 26.4% of the time against Otero, compared to 11.4% for left handers. A low soft contact against lefties is balanced by his high strikeout numbers against them. He strikes out 24% of lefties, compared to just 20% of righties.

Otero had done well in previous years, posting a 1.38 ERA in 2013 and a 2.28 ERA in 86 2/3 innings in 2014. The one thing that’s pushed him from pretty good reliever to great reliever is the increase in strikeouts. His 22% strikeout rate is the highest of his career by a significant margin. One thing he’s done is throw his sinker more against left-handers. According to Brooks Baseball, his 57% sinker usage against left-handers is the most of his career. The increased sinker usage, especially down and away, allows him to set up the slider down and in, his strikeout pitch against lefties. All of his strikeouts of lefties have been swinging, and almost half of them have been with sliders.

Of course, Otero’s sample size is a bit small given his limited usage, but that’s not because Francona doesn’t trust him. The Tribe’s starters go deep into games, preventing any reliever, much less Otero, from getting work in. He has gone at least five days between appearances multiple times and it hasn’t affected his performance at all. There is no difference between an Otero outing on six days rest and one on no rest.

Is Otero’s success sustainable? Well, his home run rate of 0 is definitely not. He will probably give up a few before year is over. But, as an extreme groundball pitcher, he doesn’t give up many homers, so this shouldn’t be a concern going forward. His FIP of 1.96 indicates he might be due to give up a few more runs in the future, but not too many because it tells us his ERA should stay below 2. As long as Otero continues to get groundballs and the defense behind him continues to convert them into outs, he will continue to succeed. Since those two conditions show no signs of stopping anytime soon, there should be no concern of a possible regression.

Otero appears to be another low risk bullpen buy from the front office that has turned out well for the Tribe. He joins the likes of Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano, Bryan Shaw, and Marc Rzepczynski as surprising bullpen successes. Even better for the Tribe, Otero is under club control for another season and won’t hit arbitration until after 2017.

Francona can breathe easy knowing there’s another solid choice to turn to if one of the later inning arms falters.

Photo: Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

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