Zach McAllister Growing in the Cleveland Indians’ Bullpen

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It hasn’t been a pretty start to the 2015 season for the Cleveland Indians. Check that, it’s been like staring at Medusa these past couple weeks.

They sit somewhere around the cellar of the American League and the offense looks like it forgot how to baseball. Things should come around since they have to play about 140 more games, but the real trouble with the team the last few games has been a bullpen that makes it it’s sole goal to blow leads the starters give them. On April 28th against the Royals, they gave up more runs than the KC bullpen has all year.

It’s… troubling.

Perhaps it’s overuse from a year ago, perhaps it’s that they’ve faced some of the luckiest teams in the Majors in the Tigers and Royals nine times. Those two are first and second in baseball in BABIP, a sort of luck measure that measures how often non-homer hits fall in as a hit. Perhaps they’re horrible now, and that’s all there is to it. Amid the rubble the relieving corps has become though, disgraced starter Zach McAllister has been a twinkle of hope.

Disgraced is a little strong. It’s not like he defamed the king and was exiled to the Shadowlands or made some off-color comments onstage at the Laugh Factory. But, after literally years of chances, his best shot to start is if an actual starter gets sick or injured and they’re on the West Coast. Maybe he wasn’t cut out for it, though allegedly he had more than a fastball when he came up. It was a curveball that got him through the minors if Baseball America is to be believed — in fact, he had the best on the Yankees’ farm. Whether that’s damning with faint praise is another matter.

The velocity uptick has been widely publicized and it gave Zach a new lease on life as a starter, but that seemed to wither on the vine after he was utterly shelled in his first start when the Tigers clubbed 13 hits off him in four innings. Missiles, even the outs. He got five strikeouts too, sort of his cherry on the goose turd sundae. He threw a ton of fastballs with decent location, a couple dozen cutters and only 12 breaking balls. Again, once it was his best pitch. Fangraphs had a piece on him pulling a “Carrasco”, or being put in the ‘pen, having a velo uptick, and coming back and dominating. The problem with that was, it wasn’t a speed problem that plagued Carlos Carrasco, it was a head thing and a location thing. He has four or five great pitches; Zach has one and a half. It’d be super rad if he turned into a Cy Young dark horse, but I won’t wait.

Out of the bullpen he’s been great though. Not spectacular, but better than most. At this point, I have more confidence in him than I do in Bryan Shaw, who was a horse last year, or the closer Cody Allen. Allen isn’t stupendous, but he’s alright.

Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Cody Allen may be in roles other than the 9th inning. Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

(By the way, why can the Indians not find a closer to stick and be any good for more than a year and a month? They always blow up. Too many close games maybe, and managers with a mandate to secretly destroy relievers? At this point, it’s getting stupid. Nothing sticks.)

McAllister has thrown 11.2 innings in relief this year with a 2.41 ERA and 12 strikeouts, allowing 12 hits too. Decent numbers, though his line drive rate is north of 30% and with four walks in that stretch you can tell his location is still spotty. He hasn’t come out of the gate blowing batters away, but he’s looked better with every passing game. Against the Royals, he had his curve working again, that tight break that a man named Maddux so prized because it makes for weak contact, and he was locating his fastball very well. He lasted two innings, gave up a hit with a bunch of weak contact and struck out three. The offspeed stuff was working and the Royals looked out of place and off-balance. Considering they’ve looked like a collection of Mantles against Cleveland, it’s encouraging.

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That tantalizing bastard known as Small Sample Size, the one that makes Jose Iglesias a batting title contender and Dallas Keuchel the Cy Young front-runner, tells us that I’m definitely getting too worked up over this. But it’s not the numbers that excite me though last year his peripherals looked eerily similar to Wade Davis, that terror from the Kansas City battery. Davis had a 1.29 FIP last year, and when he relieved McAllister was up at 1.44. And McAllister has added some zip to the fastball. It depends on if being in the ‘pen will allow him to work on a new pitch, but with all that free time when the starters go deep into games he’ll have to do something out there. What else do they have to talk about? But that’s been said time  and again. He’ll never be as good as Davis was because even Davis won’t do that again. I’ll take 80% of legendary though. At least then we end up with a budget Hercules. Someone who can lift up a Yugo and maybe push it up a slight incline. Still impressive.

I’m getting excited about McAllister because of what, three innings? I’m crazy, aren’t I? But his ability to throw a non-fastball for a strike that’s not a meatball is an intriguing achievement. I hope that comes out kindly. It’s the wrinkle that makes him unpredictable – it caused Kendrys Morales to strike out after fouling off an offspeed pitch, whiffing hard on the fastball inside one pitch later. You need three great pitches to dominate as a starter, but even a decent equalizer can make you special in relief.

It’ll take a while to see if he’s acquiescent to change, but it’s been a very encouraging couple weeks.

Next: Tribe ends skid in series finale vs. Royals

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