Evolution of the Indians’ Bullpen

Throughout the playoffs thus far, there’s been a lot of talk in regards to how the Indians pitching staff may not be strong enough to make it through to the World Series. While this could potentially be true, there’s a key component of this Indians team that could propel them through all of the injuries, and that would be their bullpen.

Coming into the season, there were plenty of question marks surrounding the pen as a whole. In 2015, it was pretty clear that manager Terry Francona loved to rely on his two guys – closer Cody Allen and setup man Bryan Shaw. Allen, appeared in 70 games in 2015 and threw in 69 1/3 innings. Shaw, on the other hand, appeared in 74 games and threw 64 innings.

These two were the anchors of a pen that was fairly questionable through most of the 2015 season. Like most seasons, Tito made a relatively unknown guy amazing in Jeff Manship, just as he had done to Scott Atchison in 2014. Along with them, there was Zach McAllister, Kyle Crockett, and even Trevor Bauer at the end of the season. From time to time we did see guys in the likes of Austin Adams, Shawn Armstrong, and Giovanni Soto.

Most of these guys were either inexperienced or just didn’t have the stuff to come into 2016 to make anyone feel comfortable. The Indians went out, as they normally do in the winter, and signed a couple of guys as minor league free agents or picked them up off the waivers. The two biggest names were Dan Otero and Joba Chamberlain.

Otero, who was placed on waivers by the Oakland Athletics, was claimed by the Philadelphia Phillies, and then traded to the Indians and added to the 40-man roster. As he was guaranteed money in 2016, it was almost certain that he was going to make the club out of spring training.

In 2015, Otero suffered one of his worst seasons, posting a 6.75 ERA in 41 games. He saw both his K/9 rise and BB/9 drop during the season, but his HR/9 almost quadrupled. Otero, who is primarily a ground ball pitcher (as he has a career 56.7% GB%), saw his groundball rate drop from 56.4 in 2014 to 48.5 in 2015. The Athletics essentially gave up on Otero, who was bound to see at least a small raise during arbitration in the winter. The Indians were smart to grab up Otero though, as he has been one of the key members to Francona’s bullpen this season.

Chamberlain was brought in during spring training as a minor league free agent, and was impressive during the spring. He was eventually added to the 25-man roster, but unfortunately had to be let go as part of the roster crunch following the 19-inning game in Toronto.

Even after the addition of Otero, the bullpen still struggled throughout the first half of the season. Allen saw a dip in his fastball velocity, Shaw wasn’t as effective as he normally is at the start of the season, and Manship had come back to Earth after having a career season in 2015. The Indians decided they needed to add one more solid arm to the back of the bullpen, and a lefty would be even better as their only real left-handed option was Crockett. They decided to target the most logical guy on the market – Andrew Miller.

Right before the non-waiver deadline in July, the Indians traded top outfield prospect Clint Frazier to the New York Yankees, along with top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield, and relievers Ben Heller, and J.P. Feyereisen. Since the arrival of Miller, the Indians bullpen has been one of their best weapons.

Miller was signed by the Yankees as a free agent in the winter of 2014. During his time with the Yankees, he posted an xFIP of 2.06, appeared in 60 games, and pitched in 61 2/3 innings. His K/9 sat at an amazing 14.59, and he had a HR/9 of 0.73. The man is a machine, and he’s one of the best relievers in the game.

After acquiring Miller, the ideology of how the bullpen was to be managed shifted in Francona’s mind. In the past, he was always kind of stuck with using his go-to guys in Allen, Shaw, Otero, and Manship. Now that Miller was here, Francona didn’t have to be locked into putting Allen in for the ninth, if he felt that he was better utilized in the seventh or the eighth. The same goes for Miller, Shaw, and Otero. There have been times, as recent as the ALDS, where Miller has come in during the sixth inning, and thrown two shutdown innings because that was the best place to use him. Instead of being pigeonholed into saving the best reliever for the ninth because he is labeled the “closer”, Francona can now put out his best reliever in the situation that needs him the most. This can prevent the opposing team from taking advantage of less effective pitchers late in the game, and gives the Indians a higher chance of success.

Since Miller has joined, the Indians have created their own quasi-core four of pitchers in Allen, Miller, Shaw, and Otero, similar to the Kansas City Royals of 2015. At the season’s end, those four pitchers posted some impressive stats. The four combined for an ERA of 2.18, K/9 of 10.75, and an xFIP of 2.68. They have been extremely effective, and have saved this pitching staff after the losses of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar.

If there was an area to be concerned about with these four, it comes from their walk rate. They currently have a collective BB/9 of 2.43, which is not ideal for a reliever that can come in to inherited runners on base. In the same regard, the four inherited a total of 81 runners this season, and stranded 60 of them. This is good for a 26% inherited runners scored rate, valuable for a team that relies heavily on the pen. This also goes to show that when they do walk batters, it usually comes during a clean inning, not in one where there are already runners on base.

It works so well with the current state of the pitching staff, as Francona tends to let the starters go twice through the lineup, but by the fifth inning, if a starter not named Kluber is struggling, he tends to pull them and go to one of the four guys mentioned above. This tends to lead to a lot of inherited runners and, as shown, the Indians are pretty good at getting out of jams.

Among all of the praising of the main guys in the bullpen, it’s important to remember the other guys who have contributed this year. Guys like McAllister, Tommy Hunter (kind of), Ryan Merritt, and Cody Anderson.

As we enter the ALCS, the rotation is going to need to be stretched out more than during the ALDS against the Red Sox. With more games being played, it’s hard to force Bauer or Kluber to go on short rest because that would force them to be pulled from the game earlier and lead to more bullpen usage in the series. In order to make this work, Kluber and Bauer especially will need to try to go as long as they can to limit the bullpen usage during their starts. This will allow a more effective bullpen during the starts of Tomlin and Mike Clevinger.

With Clevinger, his start is more likely to be short, leading to a bullpen game. This is where having a guy like McAllister can be extremely valuable as he can give you a couple of innings, before the rotation flips over again. With how this bullpen has fared so far this season, this should be no issue going forward.

Photo: Getty Images

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