After nearly 300 games pitched over four seasons in Cleveland, Indians setup man Bryan Shaw’s arm has yet to fall off.
Quietly one of the most durable relievers in the game, Shaw led the American League in appearances again for the second time in his four years in Cleveland, providing manager Terry Francona with a reliable relief option and generally one less arm to worry about in what has otherwise been a bullpen with a revolving door.
Now, Shaw gets to team with two of the top bullpen arms in the league to form one of the more formidable and frightening back ends in the game today.
The 29-year-old right-hander has largely been a steady reliever for the club since being acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks following the 2012 season, his first full season in the Majors and just 97 appearances into his big league career. He may have looked more like a throw-in piece at the time that he was acquired by the Indians, along with starting pitcher Trevor Bauer, reliever Matt Albers, and outfielder Drew Stubbs, in the three-team trade that sent Shin-Soo Choo and Jason Donald to Cincinnati and Tony Sipp and Lars Anderson to Arizona.
Instead, he has become one of the more consistent arms on the staff, even if fans get nervous with every one of his trips to the mound.
Shaw was 7-3 with a 3.24 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP in 70 games in his first season with the club in 2013, saving one game and earning holds in 12 more while working nearly three quarters of the time in the seventh inning and earlier in a bullpen that featured Chris Perez, Joe Smith, and Cody Allen in the final two innings.
The next season he had arguably his best year with the Indians as he worked through an evolving Indians bullpen that had uncertainty in its closer’s role with the early struggles of free agent addition John Axford. Allen eventually moved from the eighth inning to the ninth and claimed the closer spot, allowing Shaw to move into a setup role. He would go 5-5 with a 2.59 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP while making a Major League-high 80 appearances, breaking the club record of 79 set by Bob Howry in 2005. He saved two more games and was good for 24 holds.
Francona has continued to trust Shaw since, as the setup man now owns three of the top eight spots on the Indians’ all-time list for appearances in a season and another similar use season could propel him into the top ten list for all-time outings by an Indians pitcher (he is currently 22nd at 299).
He went 3-3 with a 2.95 ERA, a 1.22 WHIP, two saves, and 23 holds in 74 appearances in 2015. Last season, his numbers continued a slight trend in the wrong direction as he went 2-5 with a 3.24 ERA, a 1.26 WHIP, one save, and 25 holds. His walk rate jumped by over a batter per nine innings, but his hits allowed over nine innings decreased from the previous year and was better than his career average. He also averaged more than a strikeout per inning at 9.3, his best rate and strikeout total since his first season in Cleveland.
He stuck to his two-pitch theme of the past several years again last season, relying on a cutter and slider to get the job done on the mound. In a change from those recent trends, both pitches had more velocity behind them than at any point in his Indians career, helping to reduce some concerns about possible wear and tear on his arm from such extensive use over the last several seasons. The slider, however, remained more hittable than it was in previous campaigns, as opposing hitters hit .250 against the pitch in 2016 and .257 in 2015 after hitting .123 and .122 against it in 2013 and 2014.
Shaw gives Francona three quality arms to use interchangeably over the final couple innings of a ball game, as was on its greatest display during the 2016 postseason. He entered games as early as the fifth inning (three times), was able to throw on three consecutive days, and was at times able to eat up multiple innings at a time while making eleven total appearances for the club. While that kind of use would not be expected for the regular season, the faith that Francona put in him in such significant games and situations goes to show the trust that exists in that relationship.
That trust was once again confirmed in the offseason, as the Indians made the smart move of tendering Shaw a contract prior to the arbitration deadline. The two sides came to an agreement on a one-year, $4.6 million deal for 2017 in what was his final season of arbitration eligibility. He can test free agency for the first time in his professional career after this season.
Shaw will continue to take the ball for Francona in the late innings of close games for at least one more season, but he will now get a full year of working alongside Allen and left-handed bullpen partner and All-Star Andrew Miller in creating a three-headed monster of matchup issues for opposing teams to deal with. On display throughout the playoffs, that bullpen will once again be one of the greatest strengths of the AL champion Indians in their search of a world’s championship.
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