Cody Allen: Avoiding The Closer Tag And Being a High-Leverage Reliever

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Since baseball started keeping “saves” as a stat in 1969, most teams every year have labeled someone as the “closer” who pitches in save situations. The decisions that lead up to a save or when to not use your “closer” and the numbers that go along with those situations, tend to spark a lot of different opinions and strategies.

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Closers are often teams highest paid reliever, whether it’s a free agent contract to shore up the spot in the bullpen or a player earns enough saves and gets more through arbitration, blowing past other relievers with the same major league experience on his team.

Still, I don’t think money is the reason why Terry Francona decided to call Cody Allen a “high-leverage reliever” while speaking with MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian.

"“Sometimes you get established guys down there and they’re not real big on doing that. Cody just wants to pitch when it’s exciting. If you do that enough, it’ll backfire on you, but I also think putting your best pitcher in the best situation, the most leveraged situations, will help you more than it doesn’t.”"

Best pitcher in the best situation?

That kind of thinking is enough to drive some traditionalists and fantasy owners batty. One big argument to naming a closer, is that it ‘helps everyone else fall in line with their roles in the bullpen.’ It was the kind of argument that people thought was the ultimate doom of the Indians in 2004 when Bob Wickman was out most of the year recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2003 and threw the bullpen out of whack. It was a pretty bad bullpen. Actually, outside of Matt Miller, Rafael Betancourt and 37 games from Bob Howry, it was a disaster.

Aug 24, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Cody Allen (37) pitches against the Houston Astros during the ninth inning at Progressive Field. The Indians beat the Astros 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Even though Allen was 24 of 28 in save opportunities in 2014, if Francona sticks to his “high leverage” argument, baseball finally has a chance to bring itself into the 21st century with the “save”.

Over the years, writers, such as Baseball Prospectus’ Russell Carleton, have talked about not boxing the closer into the ninth inning up one-to-three runs.

Managers love to play the matchups. Like Francona did early in the year with Lonnie Chisenhall against lefties and other choice matchups where Lonnie could succeed. Managers can place left and right-handed relievers in similar situational matchups.

Until the ninth inning, it seems. When a manager’s team is up by one to three runs, he turns to the same pitcher, the one who makes the most money  — all the time. Matchups be darned at that point.

So why are we still in the dark ages with this notion about saves while every other stat and trend has been morphed into greater evaluating tools?

Allen is the guy you would want on the mound in a save situation, in fact. Last year he was 1-1 with 1.60 ERA, allowing six runs in 33.2 innings of work and a 49-to-7 strikeout-to-walk line (K:BB).

In non-save situations, Allen was 5-3 with a 2.50 ERA. Not bad, but why the change in performance?

In high-leverage situations (plate appearances in the seventh inning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one or the tying run at least on deck, according to Baseball Reference) Allen held opposing hitters to a .525 OPS. In medium leverage, it was .811. Some pitchers just pitch better in given situations.

But does that mean Allen should always pitch the ninth inning? No.

In a tie game (a place ‘closers’ shouldn’t pitch, according to the ‘logic’) Allen held hitters to a .551 OPS and a 29/12 K:BB ratio, and he should pitch where he’s proven to pitch best.

If the ninth inning where the Indians are leading proves to be the situation he pitches best, that’s where he should be.

But if J.D. Martinez, who hit two gut-punch homers off of Allen last year, or Miguel Cabrera, who had a 1.010 OPS off of him in 2014, are up in the ninth inning of a one run game, maybe someone else is a better option?

Bryan Shaw for instance, held hitters to a .405 OPS in tie games and .603 in high leverage situations. Left handers hit just .141 off of Allen in 140 plate appearances. Left hander Marc Rzepczynski allowed a .180 batting average to lefties in 108 plate appearances. Splitting hairs, but the point being, that the tradition lefty-on-lefty doesn’t always produce better results. Robinson Cano hits .333 lifetime off ofRzepczynski whereas he is 0-for-3 lifetime against Allen. Smaller sample size bust highlighted for the sake of bucking tradition. If the number stays the same over a longer period, why just go toRzepczynski because he’s the lefty?

Sep 14, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Bryan Shaw (27) pitches against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Another thing to point out in the argument, most inherited runners score. Allen was the best Indians regular with allowing just five inherited runners to score all year. Rzepczynski allowed 11, but as a situational left-hander, he’s obviously coming into a game with runners on in more situations.

Maybe I just want to see the baseball world’s balance upset, anger traditionalists or mess with fantasy owners, but why do managers save their closer for a situation that may never arise?

If the bases are loaded in a tie game or even a three-run game, in the seventh or eighth inning, managers aren’t inclined to use their closers. They use their setup man to try get to their closer.

If you’re paying a reliever more than one or two million, or even more than $10 million, why save him for the lowest leverage situation? A three-run lead with empty bases in the ninth inning. Yet you’re trusting a setup man who earns $750,000 to get you out of the biggest situation of the game? Where you could lose the game before even getting the ball to your stud?

They call getting the game to the closer with a lead a “hold”. Yet setup men don’t make more money than the closer, who come into the game in easier situations more often than the setup men.

If Allen is the Indians best reliever and has good numbers against a division rivals heart of the order, with runners on in a close game, why would you use someone else, to wait to use Allen in the ninth?

Jul 27, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Cleveland Indians Kyle Crockett (57) delivers a pitch against the Kansas City Royals during the ninth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

If Shaw hands Allen a one-run lead by getting out guys such as the Detroit Tigers’s Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Yoenis Cespedes with runners on in the eighth inning, he’s performed in the higher leverage situation, really a ‘save.’

Francona wasn’t shy about going to the bullpen last year. He broke the major league record to prove it. If the Indians keep three lefties (such as Rzepczynski, Nick Hagadone (who figured it out last year) and Kyle Crockett), he has more flexibility to play late inning matchups.

I’d love to see Francona stick to the ‘high leverage argument’, and use Allen or whoever when the matchup is best, rather than wait to use Allen in a situation that might not come if someone else in the bullpen comes in and blow the game ahead of him.

But some men just want to see the world burn. It’s not like I’m pitching a ban on shifting, I’d just like to the best pitchers pitch in the most important situations.

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