The 30+ Year Old Cleveland Guardians
The last three guys I want to mention are the elder statesmen of the Tribe’s bullpen in 2021. Bryan Shaw, Nick Wittgren, and Blake Parker have all had their moments this season, but all find themselves on the wrong side of 30. Each has reasons they may or may not return as Cleveland Guardians in 2022.
Bryan Shaw has been a target of ire from fans through both of his stints in a Cleveland uniform. When he returned to the Indians this offseason, there was plenty of reason for optimism. Even with some fans degrading his value to the ballclub in his first run from 2013-2017, Shaw pitched no less than 64.0 innings in any of those seasons, and gave Terry Francona an ironman reliever that he could run the wheels off of.
When he returned before this season, there were reasons for cautious optimism (coming home to where he had success before, reuniting with Tito, etc.). Throughout the first leg of the season, it seemed that he was worth his weight in gold for a young bullpen. He took on 7th inning duties, getting the ball to James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase in the 8th and 9th innings, and had found new life in his upper 90’s cutter.
As the season progressed, however, it seemed like Shaw’s arm became tired, and his velocity began to dip from his earlier high marks. He became less reliable in high-leverage situations, and has been relegated to less significant innings as of late. Even with a little life still left in his arm at 33, one must wonder how he would fit into the Guardians bullpen in 2022.
He has struggled with walks all season (34 in 62.1 innings), and doesn’t seem like the lockdown guy he was even as recently as early in 2021. I’ll personally always be a fan of Bryan Shaw going back to the years he and Cody Allen anchored the pen, but it may be hard to fit him into the mix after this season.
Nick Wittgren was a sneaky-good acquisition from the Miami Marlins back in 2019, and has given the Tribe consistent production since coming north. His quality body of work being acknowledged, Wittgren’s 2021 season has paled a bit in comparison to his first two years in a Cleveland uniform. He sported ERA’s of 2.81 and 3.42 respectively in 2019 and 2020, but has seen that same statistic rise a full run plus to 4.47 in 2021.
Even with a WHIP on the season (1.18) a smidge lower than his career average of 1.19, something is causing the Tribe reliever to take more damage in his outings this year. That something may be his hard hit percentage, which is up to 53.9% this season, in comparison to the league average of 35.5%. In relation to usage, Wittgren’s changeup has been his most brutalized pitch in 2021, with the opposition getting 17 base hits off of it this season.
I believe that there is a fix that can be made, in the form of his slider. Wittgren has used it less than his fastball (58.5% of his pitches) and changeup (22.6% of his pitches), but if he can up it’s usage going forward while laying off of his changeup a bit, his fastball could play better with a more consistent breaking ball compliment. On the season, hitters have only hit .214 against the slider, and using it more consistently than it’s 10.4% usage rate may allow Wittgren to attack hitters more aggressively going forward. If he can use that to work his hard hit percentage down, he may have a place in the bullpen going forward into 2022.
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Blake Parker has been a welcome addition to Cleveland’s bullpen in 2021. With Oliver Perez being let go early in the season, Parker has claimed the mantle of “old man in the bullpen”, and he has pitched well in that position. With a 2.67 ERA and a 2-0 record to his credit, Parker has been a steady veteran presence as the relief corps has dealt with some late season upheaval.
What may be most impressive from a fan’s perspective about Parker, is how he passed on heading back into free agency in Spring Training and accepted an assignment to Columbus so he could stay with the organization. He has been a respected voice and leader in the bullpen since getting called up, and has had an impact that goes beyond his play on the field.
For example, Parker has been instrumental in helping Trevor Stephan develop a split-change, showing that his contributions to club extend beyond his work on the mound. Outside of his statistical merits and quality body of work, he is the kind of guy who strengthens the culture in the pen, the clubhouse, and the organization. It would behoove Cleveland to have Parker in a Guardians uniform in 2022.
With the options Cleveland has amongst the guys in the organization, fielding a strong bullpen should be within reach for the 2022 season. The mix of youngsters, veterans, and high-leverage arms should give the Guardians a positive outlook on relievers as the page turns on 2021. Outside additions will probably be made and some guys will likely be headed out of town, but there is plenty of reason for optimism when the Cleveland Guardians take the field for the first time next March.