Cleveland Indians: How Karinchak, Clase can weaponize the bullpen again

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Indians sorely lacked in hard-throwing relievers in 2019. James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase can help with that.

Among the rapidly increasing number of questions looming over the heads of the Cleveland Indians is what the bullpen will look like in 2020.

This particular question stems just as much from personnel turnover–Nick Goody is gone and Tyler Clippard remains a free agent–as it does from a suspect 2019 season in which the Tribe posted the best bullpen ERA in baseball prior to the All-Star break before dropping to the 11th-best such mark in the second half.

With Goody now in Texas and Clippard’s future uncertain, Cleveland’s only returning relievers who posted more than 40 innings in 2019 are Brad Hand, Adam Cimber, Oliver Perez, and Nick Wittgren. Among relievers league-wide with at least 40 innings pitched, none of Cleveland’s four incumbents ranked inside the top 50 in swinging strike rate.

While velocity is not the end-all, be-all of inducing swings and misses, there is certainly a correlation between throwing hard and getting hitters to flail helplessly at the plate. And in that regard, the Indians could very much benefit from a literal change of pace within their relief corps.

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None of Hand, Cimber, Perez, or Wittgren averaged higher than 92.7 miles per hour on fastballs in 2019. No reliever who threw any number of pitches for the Indians in 2019 averaged higher than 94.8 miles per hour on fastballs–except for James Karinchak, who averaged 97.

Karinchak’s ability to strike out opposing hitters is a well-documented phenomenon, though he has yet to prove capable of doing so over a long sample of work at the MLB level. The young flamethrower logged just 5 1/3 innings with Cleveland in 2019, albeit flashing promise with a 36.4% strikeout rate. He will look to build on that with what figures to be more opportunity in 2020 after posting some truly remarkable strikeout numbers throughout his minor league career.

He also won’t be the only Indians reliever with the ability to challenge radar guns in 2020, either. Cleveland acquired hard-throwing righty Emmanuel Clase from the Texas Rangers on Sunday in the Corey Kluber trade. While the overall return in the Kluber deal is one of the most discouraging things to happen in recent Indians history, Clase’s upside is such that there may be room for at least some revisionist history before all is said and done on the matter.

Only two pitchers in all of baseball averaged a higher fastball velocity in 2019 than Clase’s 99.2 miles per hour. Where Clase has shown room for improvement is in his strikeout rates, which, unlike those of his new teammate Karinchak, have never qualified as otherworldly.

Clase logged 23 1/3 innings with the Rangers in 2019, striking out less than one hitter per inning. Concerning enough is that his small sample of MLB work doesn’t stray too far from his minor league numbers. It’s imperative that the Indians, who are renowned for their development of young pitching, unlock Clase’s potential and gain access to the full scope of his next-level stuff.

How Cleveland handles its two hard-throwing relievers early on in 2020 will be one of the key story lines to monitor. Both are young with incredibly high ceilings, but both are undeniably works in progress. Neither Karinchak nor Clase are locks to inherit full workloads right out of the gate next season–or even to open the year on the MLB roster, for that matter.

What can’t be ignored, however, is that the door is open for both to earn their way into prominent roles sooner than later. The Indians found out the hard way in 2019 that it’s tough to win with a bullpen almost entirely comprised of pitchers who throw in the low 90’s. Routinely putting that velocity anywhere near the plate is eventually going to result in damage, and it’s no small coincidence that the Cleveland bullpen struggled in the latter stages of last season as opposed to early on.

In any case, it wasn’t very long ago that the Indians’ bullpen was regarded as one of their greatest strengths, and the two youngsters are in line to help reestablish that dominance. Even if Karinchak and Clase don’t immediately find their way into setup or closer roles, there’s something to be said for having two pitchers in your relief corps who can flirt with triple digits on the radar gun. At the very least, having them available will create a balance throughout the bullpen.

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Patience will be key regarding Karinchak and Clase, both in terms of performance and how long it takes for the Indians to actually work them into the bullpen rotation. But if everything breaks right, the Tribe may well be a force to be reckoned with in the late innings again.