After a 2019 season that could be categorized as “deceptively good,” is the current iteration of the Indians bullpen poised for success in 2020?
In terms of the most fundamental aspect of its collective job–preventing runs–the Cleveland Indians bullpen was the third-best in all of baseball in 2019 with a 3.76 ERA. Normally, a top-three finish in just about any major statistical category would warrant a place in the discussion among the league’s elite.
But the Indians bullpen never quite felt elite in 2019, did it? Particularly in the second half of the season, late leads with thin margins for error never felt completely safe. This is not something one would normally think to say about the third-best run-prevention group in the game.
Cleveland’s bullpen xFIP of 4.50 ranked 15th in the league. Tribe relievers gave up fly balls at the fifth-highest rate (38.9%), and induced grounders (40%) at the fifth-lowest. These batted-ball numbers would be more palatable if they came with the caveat that opposing hitters did not make contact very often to begin with, but the Indians’ bullpen posted the 13th-ranked strikeout rate and the 11th-ranked swinging strike rate.
What this all boils down to is that the Indians may have managed to prevent runs once their starters turned the ball over to the bullpen, but that bullpen was far from lights-out.
If we narrow the sample to include only post-All-Star-break numbers, regression becomes more prevalent: 4.10 ERA (11th-best), 4.68 xFIP (11th-worst). The swinging strike and strikeout rates remain relatively the same during this span, indicating that the Indians just finally started to pay for giving up contact as often as they did.
Obviously, the reason this is important is that the core of Cleveland’s bullpen is set to return in 2020, with the possible exception of the guy who was arguably the Tribe’s best season-long reliever in Tyler Clippard.
Clippard is a free agent, so time will tell whether he enjoyed his one year in Cleveland enough to come back on another short and inexpensive deal. Considering his low price tag, his market could reasonably be expected to include most contending teams in need of a cheap and reliable veteran ‘pen arm. In other words, he’ll have choices.
Dan Otero, A.J. Cole, Tyler Olson, and Jon Edwards are also free agents. Barring another departure via trade, this leaves the Indians with Brad Hand, Nick Goody, Nick Wittgren, Oliver Perez, and Adam Cimber among relievers who logged at least 40 innings in 2019.
The remaining bullpen options include Hunter Wood, Phil Maton, James Hoyt, and James Karinchak–with Wood being the only one to have made more than nine MLB appearances last season.
Karinchak has the most promise of the group–and that even includes those in the established bunch with the exception of a firing-on-all-cylinders Hand–but the 24-year-old is still a work in progress.
Assuming better luck health-wise in the starting rotation next season, pitchers like Adam Plutko, Jefry Rodriguez, Zach Plesac, and Logan Allen factor in as potential candidates to work out of the bullpen. But at least two of them–Plesac and Plutko–profile as long relievers, and this discussion is focused more on the sixth inning and beyond.
Maybe Carlos Carrasco permanently transitions to the bullpen after showing flashes of dominant ability late in a couple of games down the stretch, and a full offseason to prepare for such a role benefits him and the team in that regard. That’s a big “maybe.” Bullpen concerns or not, the Indians are likely better off with a fully healthy Carrasco as an option to give them seven innings every fifth day as opposed to one or two innings every other game.
After all, as the Washington Nationals just showed the world, the best way to account for a shaky relief corps is to trot out starting pitchers who can routinely go deep into games. In any case, the bullpen should not go overlooked in terms of what the Indians need to do to improve as a team going into next season.