Indians 2015 Preview: RHP Zach McAllister

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Did the tall righty find his role late in 2014?

Oh, the start of spring training. Position battles are just beginning. Roster spots are up for grabs. Veterans trying to prove they still have gas left in the tank, young guns hoping the club will put their pedal to the metal. At a time of year when so many things are up in the air, one thing is certain: Zach McAllister will be on the opening day roster for the Cleveland Indians in 2015.

The starter-turned-reliever has no minor league options left, and while he hasn’t exactly set the world on fire during his three-plus years in the big leagues, he’s posted a WAR of at least 1.2 in each and would surely be claimed off waivers. Seeing as “pitching depth” is the first (and second, probably third) of Tito’s Ten Commandments, there’s simply no way he would let an arm like the 6’6″, 240-pound right-hander go.

So McAllister will be with the big club when camp breaks, that much is certain. What role he’ll play, however, is still to be determined. As it stands today, four of the five spots in the starting rotation are locked: Corey Kluber, Gavin Floyd, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer. McAllister, Danny Salazar, T.J. House, Josh Tomlin, Shaun Marcum and probably the newly-signed veteran Bruce Chen will use the next month-and-a-half to make their case for the fifth spot.

We discussed this very topic a few weeks ago in our Wroundtable. Salazar seemed to be our favorite, with a vote for Tomlin here and House there. One thing we did agree on was Z-Mac’s role. Given his track record as a starter, the plethora of options for the rotation, and his success working as a reliever last year, we all believe McAllister will be coming out of the bullpen in 2015.

It was a small sample size, but McAllister was downright dirty as a reliever in 2014. In 13 innings, he posted a 2.77 ERA, surrendering 13 hits while striking out 14 and walking just two. But the most striking difference from starter to reliever was his uptick in velocity. Before heading to the pen in September, his average fastball velocity hovered around 90-92 MPH. That number jumped to 94-96 as a reliever, hitting 98-99 on occasion. He was also getting hitters to swing at balls outside of the strike zone around 30-40% of the time at the end of the year, while that number was consistently below 20% as a starter. His overall contact percentage also improved greatly out of the pen. Hitters connected with swings around 75% of the time in September. That number got as high as the upper 80’s and low 90’s starting games earlier in the year.

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Similar to how any female sideline reporter in sports is always compared to Erin Andrews, any starting pitcher that tries to make a move to the bullpen is always compared to Wade Davis of the Kansas City Royals. Davis is the gold standard for starters-turned-relievers. His WAR of 3.1 in 2014 was second to only Dellin Betances of the New York Yankees for all relief pitchers in the majors. Aroldis Chapman was the only reliever to have a lower FIP than Davis as well. He’s one of the best in the bigs, no doubt about it. But before he was, he spent three seasons in Tampa Bay and one in Kansas City as a starter with a similar amount of success as McAllister.

His FIPs of 4.79 and 4.67 in 2010 and 2011 are higher than any single year of McAllister’s career. While Z-Mac’s average of around seven strikeouts per nine innings is nothing spectacular, Davis was hovering around six as a starter. Minus his six starts in 2009 and 2012 as a reliever in Tampa, Davis’ career WAR as a starter is 3.4. McAllister? 4.2. Fastball velocity paints a similar picture as well. Davis was 91-93 as a starter but jumped to almost 96 last year.

I’m not saying McAllister is going to turn into Davis in 2015 just because they both made the same move and their statistics are very similar. If every starter that turned to a reliever became as good as Wade Davis, it’d be hard to find anyone who would want to start games. What I am saying is, he could.

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