In 2019, the Indians constructed a bullpen on a dominant Brad Hand, and a handful of matchup men. Cimber, Olson, Perez, Clippard, and a panoply of others were relied upon for competence, and that is what they provided. Yet, 2019 was a far cry from the Shaw-Miller-Allen bullpen in 2016 which had the Indians within a razor’s edge of a championship.
However, while the Indians bullpen was third in Major League Baseball in ERA at 3.76, the bullpen was more unsustainably good than long term impactful. The Indians fielding independent pitching (FIP) which attempts to quantify more precisely a pitchers influence on run scoring was nearly a half a run worse at 4.18.
Nick Wittgren’s ERA in particular at 2.81 over 57.2 IP appears to have been particularly unsustainable. With all of this in mind there are few locks for the Indians bullpen outside of Brad Hand, Oliver Perez, and Nick Wittgren.
Yet, the Indians bullpen for 2020 is perhaps better positioned than its 2019 iteration because of the back end of Brad Hand, and James Karinchak.
Karinchak burst onto the scene with a 97 MPH fastball and a curveball that makes big league hitters look like drunken men bobbing for apples.
In five and one-third big league innings with the Indians Karinchak struck out 8 of the the 22 batters he faced for a strikeout rate of 36.4%. For most pitchers a 36.4% strikeout would be an exhilarating explosion in a limited sample, for James Karinchak? Business as usual.
In minor league baseball Karinchak’s multi-plus pitch arsenal had produced borderline historic dominance. Praises of Karinchak’s arsenal were not limited to those obsessed with the Indians minor league system. A Baseball Prospectus Scouting Report was positively glowing:
The fastball alone would make him a potential relief monster. It’s not alone. Karinchak throws an absolutely devastating curveball that pairs slider velocity with classic overhand curve break. We have no reports of hitters being able to get the timing down yet. It’s a second out pitch that would be the best pitch for nearly every reliever in the game. But again, he is no ordinary reliever.
In a discussion of Oscar Mercado, Gage Will astutely discussed the nature of projection systems:
These projections are merely tools utilized to make estimates about a player’s current worth and are riddled with expected throes of variance.
I would modify a bit to note that the purpose of projection systems is a certain agnosticism to recency and qualitative assertions. Projection systems are a delightful benchmarking tool which incorporate significant data and principles of aging curves into median outcomes. They are neither binding nor gospel but they are useful guidance as a starting point.
With the above in mind, below are the top five projected Indians pitcher FIPs via the Steamer Projection system:
Karinchak is projecting like an elite relief pitcher, and is projected at 24th among all American League Pitchers in 2020 in FIP.
Building bullpens is difficult and messy, especially on a middling budget but two elite arms at the back of the bullpen make it significantly easier. Karinchak and Brad Hand may not be peak Andrew Miller-Cody Allen but it may not be far away either. Laying heavy expectations at the feet of a 24 year-old reliever may seem naive or unreasonable but a talent such as Karinchak’s is a rare enough talent that such expectations are merited.