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B-U-L-L-P-E-N doesn't spell relief for Indians : Between Innings

The Cleveland Indians calendar has turned the page to July, and the bullpen angst has boiled over.

It finally happened. Given the talent residing in the Detroit Tigers (45-40) dugout, the complete dominance of the Cleveland Indians (51-33) over them was going to end eventually. So, manager Brad Ausmus can raise his chin a bit as the Tribe will not be skunking the Tigers in 2016 for Detroit has now won a single game in a dozen meetings. And, as a consolation prize, the Tigers can rest assured that they will carry the last win in the series through July and August as the teams do not meet again until September in which they play seven times.

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How do you spell relief?

Unfortunately for the Indians, the way the Tigers defeated them has a tinge of familiarity to it. While the Tribe rotation has been the best in MLB, there will be days when a starter has a bad game. On those days, a team should be able to rely upon their bullpen to give them some quality innings. However, other than the 19 inning game against the Toronto Blue Jays in which starter Trevor Bauer pitched five of those innings, the Indians bullpen has not provided the necessary relief.

So, when Josh Tomlin struggled, it was not exactly a surprise to see the relievers give up four more runs. On Wednesday, it was Zach McAllister adding the damage to the scoreboard in the 12-2 loss. Fans who watched Sundays game against the Toronto Blue Jays though probably remember a similar script playing out after Corey Kluber struggled and Tom Gorzelanny gave up another seven runs before he limped back into the bullpen.

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Bullpen arms, where art thou?

statistics courtesy of baseball-reference.com

Despite maintaining his usual eight-man bullpen, manager Terry Francona has leaned upon a select few relievers for most of the work throughout the 2016 season. The main duo he utilizes in the high leverage situations of the eighth and ninth innings of close games is that of Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen.

Shaw leads the Indians with 38 appearances and his outings have become attached with the moniker of The Bryan Shaw Experience due to his insistence of allowing baserunners. As can be seen above, Shaw's numbers do not pop out as especially reliable either though he has limited most of the actual damage to two weeks. So, in a weird way, a few complete implosions with the rest of his appearances being good enough makes him reliable in this particular bullpen.

Allen has been his usual self. He is also prone to some games where he just does not have it, but his ability to acquire strikeouts and limit hits makes him one of the better closers in the game. Unfortunately, his main issue is an issue that plagues the entire group; too many walks.

Of the rest of the group, Dan Otero is the Indians random reliever having a career year. Like Scott Atchison and Jeff Manship before him, the Indians need to ride out the amazing season he is having and appreciate the value he brings. Unfortunately, despite a rather stellar ERA, Manship has fallen back much closer to his career norms overall in 2016 making him a bit of a dicey proposition in games. 

And, as the bullpen carousel continues to swing, Joba Chamberlain found himself getting off the ride without a guaranteed return ticket. His numbers were not terrible, but he also didn't provide much confidence either (again, see BB9 column).

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Absence did not make the heart grow fonder

Statistics courtesy of fangraphs.com

As the month of June was closing out on an epic winning streak for the Indians, it was not lost upon most that the Tribe bullpen was left to be spectators during most of the run. A nice, rested bullpen then became an over-used one rather quickly over the weekend in Toronto. And, the time spent watching apparently did not do them much good.

While it is dangerous to make any conclusions based on such a limited sample size, the continued tendencies of the Indians bullpen to allow too many walks is problematic. The strikeout numbers are nice, but giving free passes to teams allows too many opportunities for late runs to be scored, which is happening at an increased rate.

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Last Word

The Indians bullpen has been disappointing, and the solutions are not obvious. The team could pursue another arm or two on the trade market though the Wild Card era has left few teams selling at the deadline and many will be pursuing relievers. The Tribe could also promote some of their better arms from the Triple-A Columbus Clippers. Ryan Merritt, T.J. House, and Mike Clevinger have all spent time on the Indians in a relief role this season, but it is unknown how the team would view such a move in their long-term development. However, what is known is that if the Indians are to win the World Series in 2016, then they are going to need better contributions when Francona makes the call to the 'pen.


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