Bullpens are fickle beasts. When you have a good one, it shortens the game. When the opposite is true, every game feels like the dreaded trek to the principal’s office after acting out of line – you know things are fine in this specific moment but can’t shake the feeling of what is waiting at the end of that hallway.
The Indians 2018 bullpen was supposed to be dominant. Cody Allen and Andrew Miller flamed out and it was abysmal. The Indians 2019 bullpen was supposed to be an area of great concern. Nick Wittgren and Brad Hand had other plans. Simply, the year to year variability of bullpens makes prognosticating their effectiveness a near impossible task. Relievers just don’t accrue enough innings in a season to provide a true measuring stick of their overall effectiveness.
The league’s number one bullpen by earned run average resides in Cleveland for the time being. With some of the arms that are being called upon, it appears it may be smoke and mirrors anchoring that mid-June ERA belt. There is, however, statistical backing supporting the Cleveland bullpen, henceforth referred to as ‘The Afterthoughts’ due to the well-traveled nature of its inhabitants.
The Afterthoughts don’t strike a ton of people out. In today’s metric-laden baseball climate, this seems like it should be an area of great concern. Bullpens usually come in to avoid bats altogether, but the Afterthoughts’ respectable 9.86 strikeouts per inning is merely 12th in major league baseball. This is supported by a pedestrian 11.6% swinging strike rate, filing in at 14th among all bullpens. Moreover, the ability to miss bats is not necessarily a deficiency but also not a calling card.
The other aspects within a pitcher’s control reveal more impressive statistics. The Afterthoughts have a simple plan: limit free passes and avoid damaging contact. If one were to pick three tenets of pitching effectively out of the bullpen at the big league level, it would be hard to include anything other than producing strikeouts, avoiding walks, and managing contact effectively. Two out of three ain’t bad for the Afterthoughts.
Not a single bullpen is as sharp when it comes to limiting walks. The Indians’ unit issues only 2.88 walks every nine innings. For comparison’s sake, mediocrity in this department is about a full walk more per nine. The recipe is straightforward. They get ahead early, as only one other ‘pen throws more first pitch strikes. Being ahead early leads to more guesswork on the opposing hitters’ side… This propels a bullpen with mediocre swing and miss stuff to the top of the out-of-zone swing percentage list. Essentially, the hypothesis is that jumping ahead early (and often) allows the Afterthoughts to play up their arsenal a bit, leading to more out-of-zone hacks by opposing hitters.
Control brushes up with contact management, as well. The Afterthoughts’ proclivity for getting ahead of hitters induces contact outside of the confines of the strike zone. By virtue of getting ahead in the count, it is easier to keep opposing hitters off balance. In hitter’s counts, the opposition can get comfortable and wait on their pitch. Even by starting 0-1, it is easier for Roberto Perez and Kevin Plawecki to dial up various breaking balls and offspeed offerings that expand the strike zone a little. This works in concert with plus movement to achieve above average exit velocity mitigation and, by extension, an elite xwOBA against of 0.299.
The exit velocity permitted is closer to average than elite. For the Indians bullpen, reducing hitters to ineffective contact outputs is more defined by batted ball type than authority. While they do not induce ground balls much more or less than other bullpens, the Indians’ group is more concentrated limiting the damage produced by fly balls. Only one other group allows a lower average exit velocity on balls hit in the air. They do so through effectively located four seam fastballs and a steady dose of breaking balls.
The most astounding aspect of the Indians bullpen’s success is the lack of velocity. In 2019, pitchers are all about that extra mile per hour, sometimes at the expense of other areas within their control. The Afterthoughts care not for the need for speed, as they are dead last in average pitch velocity in the MLB. Yet, they lead the league in ERA. They use deceptive arm angles, control, and an allergy to opponents’ barrels to achieve their results. This recipe is working to the tune of effectiveness.