Looking at the final numbers from 2019, you wouldn’t think the Cleveland Indians’ relief corps was considered a red flag heading into last season.
Despite not boasting any legitimate firepower, the Tribe’s bullpen finished last year with the third best ERA in the majors (3.76) and eleventh in total fWAR (4.0). A unit which was considered a potential Achilles heel for Cleveland ended up being the biggest surprise on the team.
One of the most notable standouts from the group was Nick Wittgren.
Acquired from the Miami Marlins just a few weeks before spring training, Wittgren ended the year boasting the bullpen’s best ERA (2.81). Though working without a single plus pitch, he eventually secured his role as the team’s setup man.
Said role is also one the Indians should consider handing to another reliever this season. Thanks to some concerning trends, along with the potential arrivals of two up-and-coming prospects, Cleveland would be wise to reevaluate its usage of Wittgren.
To clarify, this isn’t an attempt to claim Wittgren wasn't as good as he looked last year. He spent 2019 setting career highs in strikeout rate (26.0%) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (19.5%), while his WHIP has never been lower (1.08). Though his splits against lefties aren’t great, they also aren’t lopsided enough to have you worrying about how he’ll handle the new three-batter minimum rule imposed this year.
Likewise, he didn’t show many signs of struggle as Cleveland’s setup man. Of Wittgren’s 57.2 innings pitched last year, 24.2 occurred in the eighth inning, where he posted a 2.55 ERA and logged 30% of his 60 strikeouts on the season.
With all that said, a few concerns from last season make the setup role a questionable one for Wittgren in 2020. Essentially, he spent a good chunk of 2019 flirting with disaster.
Without high velocity pitches at his disposal, Wittgren relies on inducing weak contact as a key to his success. When contact was made against his pitches last year, though, it was made loudly.
For the season, Wittgren allowed a hard hit percentage of 49.4%. Said metric was up almost 10% year-over-year, and has been trending in the wrong direction for quite some time.
Unsurprisingly, such a significant spike in hard hit percentage also resulted in Wittgren running into problems with home runs.
Over the past four years, Wittgren's fly ball percentage has hovered between 42.9% - 37.0%. However, he’s typically avoided trouble, maintaining a relatively average HR/FB rate while in Miami and logging a particularly impressive 2.7% in 2018.
That changed last season.
Wittgren’s HR/FB percentage skyrocketed to 16.7% in 2019, with issues particularly seen at Progressive Field. In fact, he averaged almost twice as many home runs per nine innings in Cleveland (1.97) as he did pitching in opposing teams’ stadiums (1.05).
Perhaps this was nothing more than Wittgren struggling to acclimate at a new ballpark. Still, it’s a little concerning considering he’s due for another 81 games at the same stadium this year.
Further complicating Wittgren’s hold on the setup role is the potential arrivals of James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase. While both young pitchers still need to earn Opening Day roster spots, each boasts the potential to be an elite reliever.
Karinchak mixes a high-90’s fastball with an impressive 12-to-6 curve, a combo which helped him strikeout over half the batters he faced in Triple-A last year. Thanks to his 100mph cutter, Clase spent 2019 jumping from High-A ball to the majors, surpassing Triple-A on his way to Texas’ bullpen.
This isn’t to say Clase and Karinchak are already good to step in right away. The former is only 21-years-old, while the latter has had trouble controlling his emotions and overthrowing his pitches. It wouldn’t be surprising if at least one of these two opened the season in the minors. Even if they don’t, the Indians won’t want to force setup innings on either from the get-go.
If that ends up being the case, Wittgren should be able to hold down the fort until one of them is ready.
That said, grooming Karinchak or Clase to take over the setup role should still be a goal for Cleveland this summer. Both possess plus pitches which should benefit the Indians in late-inning situations, while Wittgren’s 2019 troubles with the long-ball should make them hesitant to keep sending him to the mound in the eighth.
Again, Wittgren should still be viewed as a solid option out of Cleveland's bullpen. There’s just reason to believe he’d better serve the Tribe in a different role this season.