Sports are a giant Lego set. They can be packaged up nicely and presented to look fascinating and easy, yet have multitudes of inputs and caveats that go into the final form. It doesn’t matter the sport in question, the gears churn and play off of one another in perfect form to present the simplified version you see on television.
Anyone who has ever picked up a golf club understands. Arnold Palmer said it best:
Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated; it satisfies the soul and frustrates the intellect. It is at the same time rewarding and maddening – and it is without a doubt the greatest game mankind has ever invented.Arnold Palmer, 7-time PGA Major Winner
Now, substitute pitching for golf in the first word of the quote. Deceptively simple and endlessly complicated. The easiest way to address the convoluted pitching battle is to identify a few key inputs, such as throwing strikes or getting hitters to leave the strike zone and generating swings and misses. One by one, an organization attempts to tackle the inputs that they deem important to create a well-rounded hurler.
There is a common thread with the Cleveland organization, however. They are adamant about finding guys who are elite in one area and then trying to assemble the remainder of the inputs for the Lego set.
Take Oliver Perez, for example. Cleveland acquired him as a free agent in the midst of the 2018 campaign. He doesn’t throw the hardest, or strike out the most, but is capable of getting lefties out with the best and, maybe most importantly, is an elite strike thrower. From 2015-2019, among pitchers with at least 50 innings in that time frame, he is the 98th percentile for zone percentage. Worded differently — only 16 of the 811 other qualified pitchers in this time frame threw a greater percentage of strikes.
(Among those who have thrown more strikes than Oliver Perez: former organizational staple Zach McAllister)
About a month later, the Indians sought out and traded for James Hoyt. At the time, Hoyt was a 31 year old journeyman reliever with a mere 70 or so major league innings under his belt. It was an unremarkable trade, for the most part, and he has barely pitched for Cleveland, yet continues to hang around.
The why behind Hoyt’s ability to stick around the organization is where the intrigue lies. Tribe brass is hyper-focused on analytical inputs, so a now 33-year-old reliever with 80 innings over the past five years sticks out like a sore thumb. They are typically very concerned with the ramifications of the aging curve and the likelihood of success for players as they descend the post-peak side of it.
It’s those 80 innings that provide compelling evidence that there is a tool they feel can be unlocked. We talk about reliever seasons being extraordinarily volatile over short samples for metrics like earned run average, but we can glean some things through pitch by pitch metrics. Two shine brightly in James Hoyt’s favor.
Over the past five years, there are 812 pitchers with at least 50 innings. Of those pitchers, Hoyt resides in the 97.5th percentile in swings generated on pitches outside of the strike zone. Only 20 names have induced more frequent swings at non-strikes than Hoyt’s 36.8 percent. This lends itself to a theory that his stuff is just plain filthy.
(Among those who have induced more non-strike swings than James Hoyt: once free agent acquisition Dan Otero)
Further investigation of Hoyt’s stuff reveals that it lends itself to swings and misses, too. In that same grouping of 812 players, Hoyt falls in the 98.8th percentile there with a whiff rate of 16.8 percent, and only eight names ahead of him. This could be considered an extension of the hypothesis about movement on his pitches.
(Among those around Hoyt on the swing and miss rankings: former Indian Boone Logan)
After adding James Hoyt and Oliver Perez, the Indians were looking for some more relief help but of the premier variety. They locked in on Brad Hand for obvious reasons. However, deeper in that deal was the submarining Adam Cimber. Much maligned by the Indians fan base for his 2019 effectiveness or lack thereof, there is still a tool that the Indians latched in on in his acquisition.
Cimber’s funky delivery allows him to play up his stuff. This leads to managing contact extremely well. As such, Cimber’s elite tool is in the quantity of soft contact he induces, which is by FanGraphs’ definition 23.5 percent of balls in play. This falls in the 97th percentile among all pitchers with at least 50 innings over the past five years.
(Among those around Cimber on the soft contact leaderboard: Matt Albers, part of the deal to acquire Trevor Bauer)
A lesser known deal occurred last summer — the Indians went out and traded for Phil Maton, not a pedigree mainstay and with only 90 innings of 4-plus earned run average ball under his belt. They clearly weren’t blown away by major league production. Instead, they were attracted to his 99th percentile fastball spin rate, per Baseball Savant. It has not lent itself to immediate success in the Cleveland ranks, but is why Maton will see future chances.
Fastball spin and velocity also proved to be a point of interest for Cleveland this past offseason with their acquisition of Emmanuel Clase, as well. Clase, who is currently serving a PED suspension, resides in the the 99th percentile for fastball velocity and 97th percentile for fastball spin.
Even though they aren’t in the top three percent like the previously mentioned arms, other recent bullpen additions have pretty solid niches in the elite skill sets market, too. Nick Wittgren is a 90th percentile strike thrower. Hunter Wood is in the 90th percentile in getting hitters to swing at non-strikes and is in the 83rd percentile in generating whiffs.
It is clear that these relievers are being targeted for acquisition. Most of them came rather cheaply and are either well-traveled veterans or lack pedigree for name value. The search for diamonds in the relief market rough is very specifically pinpointed on capturing that one Lego that completes the entire set.