Cleveland Indians: Can Nick Wittgren remain a bullpen workhorse?

Nick Wittgren led all Cleveland Indians relievers in innings pitched last season. Will Terry Francona continue utilizing him as a late-game workhorse in 2020?

As a collective unit, the Cleveland Indians bullpen logged 507 1/3 innings in 2019. Only the Washington Nationals pitched fewer relief innings. Like with the Nationals, a couple of factors contributed to this for the Indians.

Chief among them is that the Tribe’s starting rotation combined to pitch 930 1/3 innings, third-most in MLB. When a team’s starters consistently go deep into games, it naturally reduces the need to rely heavily on the bullpen.

Going hand-in-hand with this is that the Indians still take a traditional approach to their pitching staff. The Indians don’t use openers, nor do they ever plan on pulling a starter after just a few innings. If an Indians starter is pitching effectively, he’s going to stay in the game until his pitch count dictates otherwise.

It’s fair to believe these factors at least somewhat allowed a flawed Indians bullpen to hide in the background last year. The Indians held the third-best bullpen ERA in the league in 2019, but ranked 15th in xFIP. Tribe relievers gave up fly balls at the fifth-highest rate (38.9%), but surrendered the sixth-lowest HR/FB percentage (13.1%).

Over a league-average innings sample, Cleveland’s relief corps might have had a more difficult time escaping these invisible metrics, thus resulting in extremely visible evidence on the scoreboard.

Nick Wittgren was a microcosm of Cleveland’s bullpen as a whole in 2019. He finished the year with a 2.81 ERA, but his xFIP was over a run higher at 3.98. Wittgren also gave up hard contact on a truly unnerving 49.4% of batted balls, and 16.7% of the flies he surrendered exited the park with haste.

Wittgren’s 57 2/3 innings pitched ranked 97th among relievers league-wide, but were the most of any ‘pen arm in Cleveland. In other words, Wittgren may have benefited more than anyone else from the dependability of Cleveland’s starting rotation.

Sure, perhaps his HR/FB rate comes down a tick over a larger sample. Then again, with the league’s second-highest hard-hit rate, it could just as easily have been higher. Wittgren’s contact rate allowed to opposing hitters was 80.7%, the 13th-highest such mark in the league among qualified relievers. His swinging strike rate of 9% ranked in the bottom 10. So it’s not as though that 49.4% hard-hit rate is the result of a misleading sample of batted balls.

Much like the rest of Cleveland’s bullpen, these underlying metrics were bound to catch up with Wittgren if he had pitched more frequently.

Why is this important? The Indians had four relievers post 50 or more innings in 2019, and one of them (Tyler Clippard) is gone. The remaining three are Wittgren, Brad Hand, and Adam Cimber. Hand’s role is pretty well-defined as the closer, but last season’s usage suggests Wittgren is Terry Francona’s go-to bridge guy.

It stands to reason that Wittgren will at least begin 2020 in a similar role. The arrivals and consequent breakouts of James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase may be imminent, but they have not yet come to pass. The Indians need dependable relievers to hold down the fort until one or both of those two are ready to hurl their electric stuff in high-leverage situations on a regular basis.

Unless Cleveland’s plan of attack in regard to that timeline is to rattle off an unprecedented number of complete games with an already banged-up starting rotation, it can’t afford for the batted-ball metrics of its bullpen to parallel a game of Russian roulette.

There isn’t a great deal of “blame” to assign to a group of relievers that largely succeeded at its primary function in 2019, which is to prevent runs. This includes Wittgren; even in the presence of some concerning numbers below the surface, he was reliable when it came to the ultimate objective.

But it’s also not unfair to say that a pitcher who serves Wittgren’s role must improve upon the frequency and quality of contact he allows. Regardless of when Karinchak, or Clase, or anyone else shows up to claim the setup role, Francona has demonstrated time and time again that he values the workhorse who can pitch in a variety of situations. As it stands now, that’s going to be Wittgren.

Next: Projecting a role for Delino DeShields in 2020

If this analysis comes off as a lack of faith in Wittgren, it’s rather quite the opposite: This is an acknowledgement that even if everything else goes perfectly right for the Indians bullpen in 2020, they’re still going to need him.

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