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It's Time for the Indians To Start Worrying About Their Creaky Bullpen

The Indians are still atop the feeble AL Central, but their bullpen has become a major issue for Terry Francona.

Last night’s eighth inning wasn’t quite the low point of Cleveland reliever Zach McAllister’s season so far—that would probably be a five-run outing he suffered through last month—but it certainly felt close enough. He didn’t allow a three-run bomb by Detroit’s Niko Goodrum so much as he offered it up and insisted that the right fielder take it. McAllister presented Goodrum with a luscious meatball that sailed right over the heart of the plate that the Tigers outfielder pulverized to give Detroit a win on Monday night. That home run erased Cleveland’s hopes in what had previously been a close game, dropping the team back down to the .500 mark. That’s still good enough for first place in a lousy-looking AL Central, but not by much, and probably not for long.

McAllister, who’s currently posting the worst numbers of his career, is just one frustrating piece in what’s quickly become the Indians’ most frustrating area—their bullpen. While the team’s rotation remains among the strongest in baseball, their relief corps has been one of the weakest. No other bullpen has a higher home-run rate, and only one has managed to record fewer saves. The rigor and utility of bullpen wins above replacement as a stat is arguable, but it’s inarguably bad that Cleveland is one of only three teams with a negative number there.

Overuse is typically one of the easiest culprits for bullpen woes, but that isn’t the case here. The Indians’ pen is the least-worked in baseball—they’ve collectively pitched 105 innings this year, compared to a major-league average of 144—yet they’ve caused more problems for their team than almost any other relief crew has. That figure isn’t all bad, of course; a key part of that is tied to how good Cleveland’s rotation has been. But it still shows that manager Terry Francona has been loath to lean on his pen, and with good reason.

For the last few weeks, the team could easily label at least one source of their struggles here as temporary: the absence of Andrew Miller, who is on the disabled list with a hamstring injury. But Miller returned over the weekend, and his presence alone isn’t enough to fix the situation. In fact, Miller might not even be the reliever who’s been missed the most dearly by Cleveland in 2018.

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There’s a fair case to be made for that title to instead go to Bryan Shaw, who left in free agency this winter to join the Colorado Rockies and hasn’t been capably replaced. Shaw’s presence wasn’t ever nearly as sexy as Miller’s, or closer Cody Allen’s, but it was dependable in a way that few other relievers can claim. In his five seasons with Cleveland, from 2013 through 2017, Shaw appeared in more games than any pitcher in all of baseball. He doesn’t throw especially hard or have a particularly creative arsenal, and he’s never recorded gaudy numbers in any category other than innings pitched. But that last thing there had quietly been crucial to the success of Cleveland’s bullpen over the last few years—building a stable foundation for an environment where Francona could comfortably get creative with his management of bigger names like Miller and Allen—and it’s clear that the team misses it now that it’s gone.

Since Cleveland didn’t seek external replacements for Shaw, the natural internal choice seemed to be some combination of McAllister with sinkerballer Dan Otero and breakout candidate Nick Goody. But all three have struggled this year: McAllister’s been home-run-prone, Otero hasn’t been able to keep his groundball rate as low as he has in the past, and Goody has failed to strike guys out like he did last year. And while that lack of adequate middle-relief depth has been the bullpen’s biggest problem, it hasn’t been the only one. Allen, who’s reliably held down the closer’s role for years now, has also been underperforming, grappling with command issues that have cut his strikeout-walk ratio by more than half this year.

The bullpen isn’t Cleveland’s only issue—while the offense has started to shake off its glacially slow start to the season, key players like Jason Kipnis and Edwin Encarnacion are still struggling at the plate—but it’s perhaps the most troubling. The AL Central is weak enough that their division lead should be safe, but there are only so many sins that a team can commit while remaining in first place, and their current bullpen construction looks like one that’ll be awfully frustrating to overcome.