The Curious Case of Cleveland Indians’ Closer Cody Allen

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Cleveland Indians’ closer Cody Allen has been quite extreme this year, just not in the way you want. Hyper old school guys can point to the 14 saves, the statistically inclined can point to how his 2.46 FIP is the best he’s notched in his career, and everyone else can either point to the garbage ERA or the fact that if you’ve watched the guy this year the eye test tells a story of struggle. 

Closers don’t last. Mariano Rivera never actually existed, neither did Trevor Hoffman. One was a creation of the New York media as a trick, and since nobody knows what goes on in San Diego anyway, Hoffman could have just been a collection of random guys whose stats were added together. Cody Allen hasn’t been lockdown the last few years, but he’s at least been pretty good. Competent, in the way that’s a compliment. But there’s an expiration date on pretty much any closer. It’s why they are where they are. From Jonathan Papelbon to Chris Perez to Billy Wagner’s exploding elbow or Francisco Rodriguez fading into obscurity, these guys are max effort every time they come out and since they weren’t good enough to start games to begin with, there’s bound to be an end date.

So maybe the clock is ticking loudly for the Cleveland closer. Allen doesn’t look sharp this year when he has a chance to save the game. He’s walking 12.8% of batters, nearly four points higher than a year ago. He’s giving up way less homers at 3.4% of fly balls which is good compared to the 9.2% last season, but as with that walk rate it may be early. And maybe he hasn’t faced Miguel Cabrera enough yet. You could perhaps say his pitches have been so excellently on the edge of the strike zone that he’s not throwing poundable pitches, in which case he just needs the help of the umpires from time to time. Having a different catcher was a problem for Corey Kluber for a few games after Yan Gomes got hurt, a problem that could have hurt Allen as well. Delving into the numbers is yet another exploration of the duality of this pitcher.

Jun 13, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Cleveland Indians catcher

Yan Gomes

(10) and relief pitcher

Cody Allen

(37) celebrate after the game against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Cleveland won 5-4. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

His contact rate has leapt 4.5 points to 74.5%, but the softly hit ball rate has jumped to 25.8% from 16.8% last year, while the hard hits have dropped five points to 21%. His batting average on balls in play is 70 points higher than his career .307 rate and 111 points higher than a year ago. He’s also getting less swinging strikes than last year’s 14.1%, but it’s right in line with his 11.9% career rate. The Cleveland defense has been typically dreadful again this year so he’s not getting any help any time soon. It’s just… strange. He’s been alright on paper but not so much in-game. The guy is a roller coaster.

Just in general he’s not getting as many swings at his pitches. Batters offer 43.2% of the time this season, compared to 47.9% last year and 46.3 for his career. It’s not a huge difference, but that could be the difference between a 0-2 count after something is fouled off and a 1-1 count. In the battle of the ninth inning that could mean everything. That might mean he was tipping a bit or that he was still finding feel for his throws or wasn’t comfortable because he changed from boxers to boxer briefs.

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How much is it just BABIP, and is this a case of where the stats aren’t enough and it’s just early (and is it still?), or has he gotten worse? Shoot, has he gotten better? He’s striking out a career high number of batters, 33% of all he faced. But again, all those walks. There’s been some velocity fluctuation and an inconsistent breaking ball. He’s found his knuckle curve of late and he’s locked down a few saves, perhaps it was just a shifty April and early May and he’s back to being that guy who irritates but could probably be much worse. I don’t know man, closers are a tweaked, bizarre bunch. They’re all the same even if they’re all different. By their very nature it’s nothing but a thankless job. You get the save, good for you. You did your job. The factory worker congratulates you for working for 10 minutes. That factory worker has no job because we outsourced it years ago, but that’s a moot point. But if he blows it he’s the goat.

Not much to do about it, Allen is the closer for the foreseeable future and that’s not a bad thing. The pen doesn’t stink but I trust him over Zach McAllister, Nick Hagadone, the dust pile known as Scott Atchison and whatever else is back there. Maybe Bryan Shaw? His very persona doesn’t make me confident. He looks like a big galumph. Allen hasn’t been super terrible, just a weird kind of pseudo-good but crippled by forces he cannot control. It doesn’t make sense of course, but closers don’t make sense.

Getting one to work all the time is like wrangling cats. But at least he isn’t trash.

Next: A first-hand look at the Lynchburg Hillcats

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