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An in-depth look at the Cleveland Indians' bullpen in 2016: Between Innings

"Between Innings" is a column featuring the topics fans of MLB (specifically the Cleveland Indians) are currently discussing between the innings and after the game. Today's post examines the Indians bullpen after the Indians lost to the Seattle Mariners 7-1 on Tuesday.

Some games are just not going to go your way. That is just baseball, and the Cleveland Indians were due for some bad breaks coming into the game with a six game winning streak. Jose Ramirez fouled a ball off his shin. Robinson Cano was given a ghost foul tip with two strikes and two outs (he scored when Nelson Cruz hit a home run). Yan Gomes had a foul ball give him a testicular contusion (yes, a ball bruise). And, Francisco Lindor froze with two outs, runners on first and second, and the ball in his glove (instead of ending the inning, the Seattle Mariners scored four more runs). Sadly, Indians starting pitcher Cody Anderson is not good enough to account for misfortune, so the Mariners took advantage with six total runs on bad breaks giving them a 7-1 win.

There was some good news coming out of the game, however.

Lonnie Chisenhall was dominant in right field and at the plate. He added an outfield assist, a great catch (and a great attempt at a double play from the warning track to first base), a double, and a home run. After his first two games off the DL, he had a minus-2 DRS score. Since, he has had a plus-5 score. Even his overall plus-3 DRS is good for ninth in MLB (minimum 250 innings) despite having played about half the innings of the leaders and DRS being a cumulative statistic.

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But, we've already covered Big Lon in detail.

Also, the Indians bullpen was needed for 4 1/3 innings and held down the fort by allowing only a single run. The bullpen has been solid — though not spectacular — all season and is a big reason the Indians still sit in first place with a 32-25 record. The fact that the Indians bullpen has not been a hot topic of conversation is a positive sign. Just ask fans of the Texas Rangers, Detroit Tigers, and Toronto Blue Jays how much better this season would be if their bullpen could hold their own.

So, let's a take a look at the 2016 Cleveland Indians relief pitching staff.

Team Bullpen Numbers

Statistics courtesy of fangraphs.com

Despite a small overhaul to the bullpen, the numbers have been remarkably similar compared with last season. The noticeable differences are that the 2016 pen has been giving up more home runs, but obtaining a lower BABIP. The general thought is that the lower BABIP score is due to the Indians defensive acumen (see: Kansas City Royals), but there is also the possibility that it will revert closer to the league average score of .300 with a large enough sample size. Therefore, there is some worry that the bullpen's ERA will not be able to hold up among the Top 5 through the course of the season, which is demonstrated in their FIP score.

The good news is that the past 30-day sample size continues to reflect the overall defensive narrative. The past month has seen the outfield defense solidified (Chisenhall back in right field, Rajai Davis playing better in center field, and Jose Ramirez holding his own in left field) and the bullpen BABIP (and ERA) has dropped even further.

The Core Arms

statistics courtesy of baseball-reference.com

Manager Terry Francona has famously relied on a smaller subset of his bullpens for the majority of work despite the insistance of keeping an eight man crew on the 25-man active roster. So far, in 2016, these are the five arms he has relied upon most. Notice that Jeff Manship's second season of wowing audiences might be more smoke and mirrors than it was last season. But, Francona might have found his new version of Scott Atchison and Manship with newcomer Dan Otero having a surprisingly outstanding season thus far.

Here is where bullpen statistics get tricky. Due to extremely small sample sizes of innings, a couple bad performances taint the entire sample for one player. For instance, Bryan Shaw appears to be a terrible reliever from the above statistics, and one worthy of panic should his name get called upon. However, since April 19, Shaw has a 1.35 ERA with 20 strikeouts to just five walks in 20.0 innings of work. But, due to him giving up nine earned runs in his first four appearances, it will take all season for him to dig himself out of the cumulative ERA hole.

Cody Allen is of a similar ilk wherein he has a 1.89 ERA with batters hitting a meager .159/.284/.254 off of him since April 21. The slow-starting nature of both of these relievers does underscore the importance of the bullpen's role for a winning ballclub. While the April Indians struggled out of the gate and ended the first month below .500, the team has been among the best in MLB since their setup man and closer returned to their dominant ways.

Other Arms Needed

statistics courtesy of baseball-reference.com

Joba Chamberlain could easily displace either Jeff Manship or Zach McAllister from the core grouping once he is back from the DL. The Indians announced they would activate Chamberlain on Monday, but perhaps Danny Salazar's shoulder fatigue requiring the team to call up Cody Anderson to start on Wednesday delayed the roster move. Regardless, Chamberlain pitched well when he as healthy by limiting self-inflicted damage and could be a key component throughout the season.

Another under-the-radar move this past offseason was the acquisition of Tommy Hunter. He has not pitched quite as well as Chamberlain, but he has proven himself a useful cog in the relieving machine. The rest of the arms have been in flux. Ross Detwiler was a mini-disaster in his limited time with the team as was Kyle Crockett. Austin Adams both showed promise and reason for more time in MiLB. Tom Gorzelanny hopes to become the third new 2016 acquisition impressing in relief (and as the much-needed southpaw), but Tuesday night's one inning of work quadrupled his innings pitched this season, so a bigger sample size is needed. And, let's not forget Ryan Merritt's fun MLB debut.

Last Word

The Cleveland Indians bullpen has been holding their own in 2016. They have not been great nor even quite as good as the 2015 rendition, but they have not been a problem for the team either. Hopefully, Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw can continue their post-April dominant ways to lock down the essential backend of the pen. And, if Chamberlain, Otero, and another arm (McAllister or Gorzelanny?) can step up to fill out the core arms, then the relievers can become a true strength of the team throughout the summer months.


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