Determining Adam Cimber's Role Will Be One of the Cleveland Indians’ Biggest 2020 Challenges
As T.J. Zuppe noted here a couple weeks ago, the MLB’s new three-batter minimum rule is going to make life quite interesting for the Cleveland Indians this summer. No longer having the advantage of short outings for specialty relievers, manager Terry Francona will now be forced to demand more from his bullpen.
While this new rule will have an impact on every Cleveland relief pitcher, how it affects Adam Cimber will be a narrative to keep an eye on this season. Not only are the submarine pitcher’s splits a concern, so too is the fact it’s incredibly difficult to find a situation he can consistently thrive in.
As a result, determining how best to utilize Cimber, while also working around a three-batter minimum, will be one of Fracona’s toughest challenges in the year ahead.
Cimber has been one of the Tribe’s more intriguing relievers since joining the team in 2018. An add-on in the trade which sent closer Brad Hand to Cleveland, both his throwing motion and barrel percentage had Indians fans eager to see what he could offer.
While he was a little shaky with his new team, he still finished that year allowing just four barrels on almost 1,000 pitches and was in the top 4% of the league when it came to exit velocity.
There was, of course, the glaring issue when it came to his righty-lefty splits.
Though right-handed hitters only slashed .239/.273/.337 against Cimber in 2018, lefties thrived. In 16.2 innings pitched to left-handed hitters, he allowed a 1.062 OPS, .420 wOBA and a WHIP of 2.22.
To be fair, Cimber’s slash line against lefties did improve last season. However, it still wasn’t anywhere within the realm of “good.”
2018 – .329/.432/.630
2019 – .296/.387/.556
Cimber’s uneven splits already make working around the three-batter rule a tricky task for Francona. It seems all it’ll take is a lefty pinch-hitter to suddenly put the Indians on shaky ground.
Making matters worse, though, is the fact Cimber saw regression with several of his numbers in 2019.
Both his ERA (4.45) and FIP (4.36) were up significantly year-over-year. His strikeout rate dropped (16.8%) while his walk rate (7.8%) and WHIP (1.32) increased. The velocity with all three of his pitches – four-seamer, sinker, slider – decreased from 2018.
These struggles resulted in Cleveland decreasing his usage in the second half of last season. However, an innings reduction did little to help his performance. For the months of August and September, Cimber allowed 21 hits, seven walks and 14 earned runs on just 12.2 innings pitched.
Bottom line – Cimber is trending the wrong direction ahead of a season where the Indians are forced to request more from him.
Which brings us back to the original issue – just how exactly can Francona utilize Cimber in a way which doesn’t hurt his team’s chances?
Provided flamethrowers James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase live up to expectations, Cleveland could use those two in late-inning situations and focus Cimber’s usage more on earlier appearances. After all, the sixth (0.71) and seventh (1.22) innings were where he logged his lowest WHIP in 2019.
Again, though, this is dependent upon two early-20's relievers with a combined 28.2 innings of big-league experience not enduring any growing pains in 2020.
Francona could also utilize the loophole in the three-batter rule, sending Cimber to the mound when his team needs just one more out. His ERA was at its lowest (4.05) when working with two outs last year. Once out of the jam, the Indians could then replace Cimber with another reliever.
Said scenario gets complicated if it involves men on base.
Cimber threw just as many innings with empty bases as he did with men on last season (28.1), seeing his wOBA inflate from .286 to .328 the second baserunners entered the equation. Of his 28 earned runs allowed in 2019, 24 were given up with men on.
As you can see, Cimber’s performance over the past couple seasons, combined with the league’s upcoming rule change, has ultimately pigeon-holed him. His splits just don’t create many scenarios where the Indians can put him on the mound without having to hold their breath.
Unfortunately, this is the hand Cleveland was dealt when the three-batter rule was introduced. As Zuppe noted, adapting is the only real option moving forward.
For Cimber, that requires fixing whatever caused his struggles in 2019, and ensuring said problems don’t magnify when a lefty steps to the plate. If he can’t, the Indians are going to have a tough time finding a spot where he can provide consistent reliability.