Meet the Indians’ New Closer: The Committee


Last Friday, Terry Francona announced that Chris Perez was no longer the Indians’ closer. Perez’s struggles have been well-documented as he’s allowed 7 home runs in the second half and blown games in ugly fashion. On Sunday, the Tribe clinched a berth in the AL Wild Card game. Francona has told reporters that he will be using a “Closer by Committee” during the playoffs, relying on multiple pitchers instead of a dedicated closer.

Let’s take a look at the guys that will be replacing Perez and when Tribe will want to use each pitcher.

Cody Allen, RHP

Allen was drafted by Cleveland in the 26th round of the 2011 draft. He progressed through the minors quickly, as his high strikeout numbers propelled him to the majors in July 2012. Allen has a decent debut season, throwing 29 innings with a 3.68 FIP, 34th best of the 83 rookie relievers who pitched at least 20 innings in 2012.

In 2013, Allen improved his walk rate from a problematic 11.9% to a more tolerable 8.7%. He’s done this despite throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone. 51.6% of his pitches were in the zone in 2012, and 48.6% of his pitches have been in the zone in 2012 because batters have chased more pitches out of the zone (24.5% in 2012, 29.3% in 2013). This increase in chased pitches has gotten Allen more strikeouts as well (29.2% of batters faced in 2013).

Allen throws two pitches: a fastball and a curveball. He throws his fastball 96.1 MPH on average, the 20th fastest of all MLB relievers in 2013. While Allen throws hard, his fastball hasn’t been especially effective, as his 21.5% Whiffs/Swing on fastballs is just 63rd best of MLB relievers and 6 of his 7 homers allowed have come on fastballs. It’s Allen’s curveball that’s been his strikeout pitch, as batters have whiffed on 55.6% of their swings, the best whiff rate on curveballs of any reliever in baseball.

Source: Baseball Prospectus

Allen’s curveball has been effective against both lefties and righties, helping him have good numbers against batters from both sides of the plate (2.99 FIP vs LHH, 3.05 FIP vs RHH). When Allen gets batters to chase his curveball, the strikeouts pile up.  Take a look at this graph of all Allen’s curveballs batters have swung at in 2013. Balls hit in play are in purple, foul balls are in green, and whiffs are in black.

Source: MLAM via Baseball Heat Maps

Allen gets lots of whiffs on curveballs that fall out of the zone, and get also get some whiffs when he hits the low outside corner vs righties. He gets excellent velocity on his curveball, with his 85 MPH average speed is 3rd fastest of all MLB relievers. Here’s an Allen fastball with an overlay of his curveball so you can get a sense of it’s movement.

Allen could be the Tribe’s closer if he had more experience. His ability to get hitters from both sides of the plate out will be key in the postseason, and makes him a good option if the Indians need someone to put a full inning in. He’s also a good guy to bring in if the Tribe needs a strikeout with a man on third and less than two outs.

Joe Smith, RHP

The 29-year-old Smith came to the Tribe in 2009. His sidearm delivery has allowed him to put up a 2.98 ERA in 377 career innings despite a below average 1.96 K/BB ratio thanks to a 57% ground ball rate. Over the past 3 years, Smith has given up the 14th least home runs of any reliever in baseball. In 2011, Smith pitched 69 innings for the Tribe and gave up just one home run.

Smith throws a sinker that induces most of his groundballs, and a slider that is his best strikeout pitch. Here is a chip of Smith throwing a sinker with a slider overlaid. The two pitches move in the opposite direction horizontally and his sinker has a larger vertical drop, making for a good two pitch combo against righties.

As with most sidearm pitchers, Smith has been better against same handed hitters (career 3.49 FIP vs RHH, 4.37 vs LHH). Smith has done a good job striking out lefties in 2013 (22.8 K% vs LHH, 18.6% vs RHH), but he’s walked way more lefties and 4 of his 5 home runs allowed have been hit by lefties, all on sinkers.

Source: Fangraphs

This is not surprising as Smith’s sinker is simply nowhere near as effective against lefties. In 2013 80% of Smith’s sinkers hit into play by righties were groundballs, while just 39% of his sinkers put into play by lefties were hit on the ground.

The Tribe should focus on getting Smith in against righty-heavy portions of opposing lineups. He is a great choice when the Indians need a ground ball against a right handed hitter, so expect to see him come in when a double play would get the Tribe out of a jam. Smith has pitch a lot of high leverage innings this year (average Leverage Index 1.56, only Perez’s is higher) but in a playoff game it will be best to give him more favorable match ups.

Bryan Shaw, RHP

Shaw came to the Cleveland in the same 3-team trade that sent Shin Soo Choo to the Reds and Drew Stubbs and Trevor Bauer to the Tribe. Shaw was drafted by Arizona in 2008, debuted in the majors in 2011, and saw his first full year of action in 2012. In his time with Arizona, Shaw did a great job preventing home runs, with a 57.5 GB% and just .62 HR/9.

In 2013, Shaw has been a mainstay in the Tribe’s bullpen, his 75 IP leading all Cleveland relievers. His strikeout rate have improved from 17.4% in 2011-2012 to 23.1% in 2013. Shaw throws a cutter 73% of the time, and at 93.5 MPH on average it’s the fastest cutter among all MLB relievers.

Source: Baseball Prospectus

That cutter has helped Shaw strike more batters out in 2013. In 2012, Shaw registered strikeouts on 12.2% of the cutters he threw with two strikes, 21st out of 23 relievers who threw at least 200 cutters. That figure is up to 19.6% in 2013, 12th of  25 MLB relievers. The cutter’s been especially good against righties, who have struck out on 31 of 142 cutters with 2 strikes (21.8%). Here are all of Shaw’s strikeouts on cutters against righties this year.

Source: MLBAM via Baseball Heat Maps

Shaw gets most of his called strikeouts on the inside half and most of his swinging strikeouts up and away. While he gets plenty of strikeouts on pitches above the zone, it’s the whiffs on cutters in the zone that has helped him strikeout more righties. After getting just 4 swinging strikeouts on cutters in the zone vs RHH in 2012, he’s struck out 11 righties on cutters in the zone this year. Shaw’s velocity helps him get more whiffs in the zone, but good location is still necessary. Here Shaw throws a 93.7 MPH cutter right by Carlos Ruiz.

Like Smith, Shaw doesn’t perform as well against lefties as he does against righties. His slider has been about as effective to lefties as to righties, but his cutter doesn’t get the same types of swings and misses that it does against righties. Against lefties, Shaw has walked more batters, struck out fewer, and given up more home runs. Shaw’s not terrible against lefties, but if the Tribe needs a strikeout pitcher to face both lefties and righties, they should probably go with Cody Allen.  Shaw can be the strikeout-heavy equivalent to the groundball-inducing righty killer Joe Smith.

Marc Rzepczynski, LHP

The Tribe acquired Rzepczynski at the trade deadline, sending Juan Herrera to the Cardinals in exchange for the lefty specialist. Rzepczynski was a big help the Cardinals during their 2011 World Series run, facing 33 batters in 8.1 IP, striking out 9 and walking just 1. He is definitely a specialist, with a career 2.77 FIP against LHH and a 4.82 FIP against righties.

Rzepcynski’s pitching style is very similar to Joe Smith’s, using a sinker and slider the majority of the time while also working in a four seam fastball and a changeup that he throws almost exclusively to right handed batters.  Rzpecynski has a higher release than Smith, but the two have similar results. Both his sinker and slider show large splits, getting more whiffs and inducing more groundballs against lefty hitters.

Compared to Smith, Rzepcynski throws on his slider more often with two strikes. In two strike counts against same-handed hitters, Smith throws his slider 42% of the time while Rzepcynski throws his slider 70% of the time. Unsurprisingly, that makes his slider his main strikeout pitch, as 203 of his 270 career strikeouts have come on sliders. He likes to work the slider outside to lefties, getting most of his strikeouts when players chase sliders out of the zone.

Rzepcynski is a very different pitcher against lefties, and should be used as such in the postseason. He’s the Tribe’s best reliever against lefties, and his poor performance against righties means he not face many (if any) righty hitters in important situations. His ability to get both strikeouts and groundballs makes him a guy the Tribe can rely on against good lefty hitters at the end of games. Rich Hill and Nick Hagadone have gotten some decent playing time this year as lefties out of the bullpen, but Rzepcynski has a much better track record making him the more reliable option.

Justin Masterson, RHP

There’s been some talk about Masterson taking the closer role, but Francona hasn’t said anything that confirms he will be used in the closer role. I think the Tribe will be better off giving Masterson multiple innings out of the pen and using a combination of Allen, Shaw, Smith, and Rzepcynski in the ninth. When the game is on the line you really want to have the platoon advantage, and Masterson won’t gain that much by pitching out of the bullpen. With Danny Salazar and Scott Kazmir often having shorter outings, Masterson would be a good option to bridge the gap with a couple innings before handing off to The Committee for some matchup baseball at the end of the game.