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The Indians' Bullpen Kicked Off the 2020 Season on the Right Note

I’ll open this with some obvious and necessary caveats.

Yes, it’s early.

Yes, it’s only one series, which took place against the less than imposing bats of the Kansas City Royals.

Still, entering the 2020 season, there was a notable amount of uncertainty hovering over the Cleveland Indians’ bullpen. With that in mind, it was important for this unit to mitigate any concerns as early as possible.

Barring a couple hiccups here and there, Cleveland’s relievers were able to do just that. While there’s still work to be done when it comes to earning trust, the Indians’ relief corps opened this season on the right foot.

Based on stats alone, it seems a bit odd to question the credibility of Cleveland’s bullpen. For the most part, this is the same unit which posted the third-best ERA in the majors last year (3.76). Tyler Clippard was the only significant contributor to depart over the winter, replaced this season by popular prospect James Karinchak.

At the same time, there was reason to wonder whether last year was an instance of overachievement. None of the team’s most heavily-utilized relievers were known for throwing with high velocity, while the bullpen collectively notched only 526 strikeouts in 2019, a number topped by all but one team.

More notably, it seemed every member of Cleveland’s pen entered this season with at least one question mark hovering overhead.

Closer Brad Hand was an All-Star last year, but his bout with a tired arm plagued him throughout the back half of the campaign.

Karinchak boasts a tantalizing two-pitch combo, but also dealt with control issues during his time in the minors.

Nick Wittgren was one of last season’s biggest surprises (2.81 ERA), though his hard-hit rate jumping from 37.6% to 50% year-over-year was certainly worth monitoring.

Both Adam Cimber and Oliver Pérez had righty-lefty splits which made one curious to see how they’d handle the new three-batter minimum rule implemented this season.

There were also reasons to wonder how newcomers Cam Hill (no big league experience) and Dominic Leone (12.2% walk rate last season) would fare in the months ahead.

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So, despite not facing a formidable foe this past weekend, it was still important for Cleveland’s pen to open the year by easing some concerns. For the most part, that’s exactly what happened.

Collectively, the Indians’ pen allowed two hits and three walks in nine innings pitched, striking out ten. It was the only relief unit in the majors to make it through the weekend without allowing a single earned run.

Yes, technically Karinchak was saddled with the loss Saturday night after giving up the go-ahead run in the tenth. However, it’s difficult to blame him for falling victim to the league’s new rule of starting each extra inning with a runner on second, especially after said run came across the plate via two straight sacrifice outs.

From an individual standpoint, several Indians relievers were able to buck their respective red flags, if only for this weekend.

Control didn’t appear to be much of an issue for Karinchak, who only walked one batter in 2.0 innings pitched. Meanwhile, Wittgren generated mostly minimal contact from opposing hitters, allowing just one hard hit ball during two separate appearances.

Though he struggled against right-handed hitters last season, Pérez showed no signs of trouble yesterday, striking out both righties he faced during a scoreless inning of work. A couple frames later, Hill ensured his major league debut was a success, striking out one while not allowing a single baserunner.

Obviously, we have to hammer home the “small sample size” caveat again. One positive weekend hardly means there’s nothing to worry about with Cleveland’s pen.

Additionally, there were a couple concerns worth keeping an eye on in the weeks ahead.

For one, while Hand notched his first save of the season Friday night, his fastballs lacked some zip. The average velocity on his four-seamer (90.4) was notably lower than what he displayed with that pitch last season (92.7).

Likewise, Cimber’s historical struggles with lefties weren’t completely alleviated, as he was unable to keep his pitches in the zone against southpaw hitter Nicky Lopez. Leone also ran into some control issues Sunday afternoon, throwing more than a few pitches which landed well outside the strike zone.

Despite this, the Indians’ bullpen escaped the weekend unscathed.

Again, an effective showing against the Royals hardly confirms there’s no need to worry about Cleveland’s relievers. Yet, it was still important for the pen to start the season on the right note.

Though there are a couple trouble areas to look out for, going three straight games without allowing an earned run certainly qualifies as a quality start.