The Indians’ bullpen is off to a rough start, allowing 16 runs in 38.2 innings, as of the start of Sunday’s game against the Twins. Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw have been far from the late-inning one-two punch that they were in 2014, and Marc Rzepczynski hasn’t looked good, either.
Coming in to the season, the bullpen would have been considered one of the strengths of the team. Last year, Allen stunned ninth-inning batters with a 2.99 FIP and 91 strikeouts in just under 70 innings. Shaw was equally impressive, with a 2.59 ERA, while right-hander Scott Atchison and lefty Rzepczynski posted 2.75 and 2.74 ERAs, respectively.
Those are all considered terrific numbers for any pitcher, so why are the Tribe relievers suddenly so bad? Some of it, truthfully, is that they’re facing a small sample size problem. With only a handful of outings each, no one should write off the Indians’ pen just yet. But there is one worrisome trend.
Take these numbers.
Seasons A and B: 132 innings in 137 appearances, with 94 hits, 160 strikeouts, 48 walks, and a 3.07 FIP (2.45 ERA)
Season C: 35.1 innings in 37 appearances, with 37 hits, 37 strikeouts, 21 walks, and a 5.03 FIP (4.08 ERA)
Those were the numbers for former Indian Vinnie Pestano, who was the Tribe’s best reliever in 2011 and 2012, but became a disaster on the mound in 2013 before being traded away the following year. Pestano missed some time with an elbow injury in 2013, which certainly contributed to his fall from grace, but it’s not unreasonable to think that that injury wouldn’t have happened if former manager Manny Acta had used Pestano a little more sparingly.
Now consider these.
2013 and 2014: 151.1 innings in 150 appearances, with 121 hits, 137 strikeouts, 50 walks, and a 3.25 FIP (2.91 ERA)
Those numbers belong to Shaw over the course of the last two season. Pitching over 150 innings in two years is a lot to ask of a reliever, and that doesn’t even count times when he got warmed up in the bullpen without actually recording an outing. He’s put a lot of wear and tear on his arm, and so far this season, he has started exactly like Pestano did in 2013. Pitchers only have so many bullets, as the baseball adage goes — is it possible that Shaw has used his best ones already?
Shaw has been used even more often than Pestano was, and perhaps the stress of all that work is finally starting to show. Both rely heavily on fastballs and sliders, although FanGraphs classifies Pestano’s as a four-seamer and Shaw’s as a cutter. They are both pitchers who sit in the low- to mid-90s, relying primarily on power with a touch of deception for their outs. Pestano was 28 when his decline happened; Shaw is currently 27.
Relievers have notoriously short careers, and it’s possible that Shaw has already reached the peak of his, much like Pestano did in 2012. It’s something that the Indians need to find out as soon as possible, because using him in high-leverage situations is costing them.
Allen is another reliever who has been used heavily the past two seasons, so why isn’t anyone concerned about him this season? First of all, no one in the bullpen was used as heavily as Shaw. Allen also doesn’t have the same backlog of innings on his arm, because he was drafted a relatively-short time ago in 2011. Shaw has been pitching since 2008. He made his major league debut the same year that Allen was drafted, and Allen all but skipped the minor league, as he debuted in 2012 and never looked back.
Perhaps it’s time to move Shaw down into some lower-leverage situations until he figures out what’s causing him to struggle. His pitches seem flat and lacking in movement, and his control just isn’t there. The Indians won’t be able to compete with the Tigers, or even the rest of the division, if they don’t get their bullpen in order. They need to decide what role Shaw is capable of playing as soon as possible.