A double play is indeed a pitcher's best friend. A consistent and dominant bullpen, however? Now that's something an entire team can be in a good relationship with.
The 2013 Cleveland Indians featured one of the better relief corps in the American League, contributing to a staff ERA of 3.82. Former All-Star closer Chris Perez & Joe Smith anchored that group, helping lead the Tribe to 92 wins and a wild card berth.
A 4-0 loss in the postseason to Tampa Bay ended Cleveland's season, but that loss was only the beginning. Free agency saw Perez & Smith leave for the West Coast. It also left GM Chris Antonetti scouring the open market and possible trades to replace his stopper and best setup man. I know what you're thinking Cleveland fans - we've seen this movie before.
Surprise! You heard it here first: the 2014 version of the Indians bullpen is going to be ... wait for it ... BETTER.
2013 incumbents RH Cody Allen, RH Brian Shaw and LH Marc "Scrabble" Rzepcynski return, as well as newly signed RH closer John Axford from St. Louis and LH Josh Outman from Colorado. Axford, fresh off a successful playoffs campaign with the Cardinals, possesses a solid low-to-mid 90s fastball with a big 12-to-6 curveball. He led the NL with 46 saves for Milwaukee in 2011 and comes aboard for a relatively cheap $4.5M price tag. Outman adds another late-inning, experienced left-handed option to Terry Francona's arsenal, sporting a 4.33 ERA in 61 games at the high altitudes in Denver. That leaves two openings in the Tribe bullpen heading into spring training. The competition will be intensely fierce.
In handicapping any bullpen "race" to make the Opening Day roster, I value a few statistics to sort through the noise: high leverage appearances, inherited runners scored percentage, and strikeout-to-walk ratio. I know you're asking, "How do you pick those 3 out of all the rest?" Here are a few simple points to help you understand what to look for:
High Leverage Appearances (HighLev): A reliever must have "a good heartbeat." You've got to handle pressure situations the same way you would pitching in a blowout. Three outs are three outs - whether you're pitching the first or the ninth inning. Not everyone is cut out for the back-end of the pen, but a manager is looking for consistency. When he picks up the phone, he needs to already know what to expect from the guy he's going to. There's no greater attribute than being consistently effective for a reliever in big situations, especially when looking to separate yourself in a spring competition.
Inherited Runners Scored % (IS%): I'm the biggest believer that a reliever's overall ERA is not indicative of how truly effective he is. Look closely at nightly box scores and pay special attention to the guy coming in after the starting pitcher. He may have zeroes in the run columns next to his name, but he may have "gassed in" the runners on 2nd and 3rd the starting pitcher was responsible for before recording the final out of the inning. This percentage becomes immensely important for the setup guys in any bullpen. More than likely you're entering a game with runners on and a slim lead to none, charged with the task of leaving those runners stranded. Check the guys with the best IS%, in the most high leverage appearances, and you'll find the best relievers in the game.
Strikeout-to-Walk ratio (SO/BB): This number keeps it simple - how many swings & misses does your guy get compared to how much "traffic" he voluntarily puts on the base paths? Any effective reliever cuts down on walks and can match or be slightly over strikeouts-per-total-innings he completes. The more strikeouts a reliever gets indicate a guy with higher velocity and better swing-and-miss stuff. It's critical for late inning situations.
The statistics I've presented below next to each player's name are career totals to give you an idea of each player's track record. With those stats in mind, here's how I see the favorites for the final 2 bullpen positions shaping up for the Cleveland Indians:
#52 RH VINNIE PESTANO: 84/179 G HighLev (47%), 11/46 IRS (24% IS), 2.77 SO/BB
Pestano arguably won the MVP of the Indians bullpen in 2011 & 2012 for setting the club record in holds in a season, as well as providing relief in closing situations when Chris Perez needed a breather. A rocky 2013 campaign unfortunately earned him a demotion to Triple A Columbus for some time. What's to like about Pestano in 2014? There's no better motivation than someone saying you've lost a step. The low-to-mid 90s fastball and sweeping slider Pestano featured from his initial callup in 2010 to the beginning of 2013 will return. He's in the best physical condition of his career. And he's angry. The chip hasn't been this big on his shoulder in a long time. But the only thing he needs to prove in camp is that he's the "old Vinnie." With the offseason he's had, I like not only his chances for making the team, but eventually retaining his old 8th inning post.
#49 RH BLAKE WOOD: 38/108 G HighLev (35%), 22/50 IRS (44% IS), 1.65 SO/BB
Wood returns 100% healthy after Tommy John surgery and features the best fastball of anyone in the Cleveland relief corps, including Cody Allen. In his tenure in Kansas City, Wood displayed a high-90s fastball capable of reaching 100 mph and devastating, knee-buckling breaking ball. He's pitched in plenty of key situations in the past and knows the Central division well. A veteran who won't shy away from facing the big boys in every lineup, he exhibits what you want in any late-inning reliever: fearlessness. At 6'5" 240 lbs, the Georgia native made just one appearance for the Tribe in '13, but flashed the stuff that makes any front office executive fall back in love with the radar gun. His biggest challenge in camp will be keeping walks to a minimum & showing he can go multiple innings. With Allen and Shaw already set in the back end, Wood could be the bridge in the middle innings early in the season to get them the ball.
#53 RH DAVID AARDSMA *(NRI): 117/298 G HighLev (39%), 27/102 IRS (26%), 1.80 SO/BB
Aardsma joins the Indians after spending time in the big leagues with the New York Mets in 2013, compiling a 4.31 ERA in 43 games. Having amassed 69 saves from 2009-10 with Seattle, while also pitching in various roles with the Giants, Cubs, White Sox, Red Sox and Yankees, Aardsma provides much needed stability and versatility as well as familiarity with Terry Francona, pitching under him in '08. Aardsma's calling card is a hard split-finger that has the feel of a bowling ball when hitters make contact. He can still reach the low-to-mid 90s and flip in a breaking ball for a strike when needed, but his seasoned, consistent approach puts him a bit ahead of the rest of the competition. It won't surprise me, even as a non-roster invitee, that his track record carries him into the final conversation for the last spot.
#59 RH CARLOS CARRASCO*: 1/15 G HighLev (7%), 2/3 IRS (67%), 1.98 SO/BB
#43 RH JOSH TOMLIN*: 1/22 G HighLev (5%), 4/5 IRS (80% IS), 2.89 SO/BB
#50 LH NICK HAGADONE: 16/72 G HighLev (22%), 13/56 IRS (23% IS), 1.60 SO/BB
* also competing for 5th spot in rotation
Carrasco is the wild card of everything this spring for the entire pitching staff. Pitching Coach Mickey Callaway and Tito have made it abundantly clear they're going to give Carrasco every chance to start in 2014. Whether that translates in camp is yet to be seen. A small mechanical alteration to Carrasco's glove side has Callaway and the rest of the staff excited for the season ahead. The stuff has always been there: big heater, sharp slider, good feel for a changeup. Should he falter, Carrasco becomes an even more intriguing target for a long-relief role in the pen, with consideration to be turned into a back-end arm.
Tomlin, already with experience in both starting and relieving at the major league level, needs a nearly perfect camp to break either way with the team. Relying mostly on command and a helluva "dare you to beat me" mentality, Tomlin produces a ton of ground ball outs that make any manager happy. With Tommy John surgery behind him, he could fall victim to a numbers game, especially with minor league options remaining.
Hagadone is the "next lefty up" for the Tribe pen. Should Outman or Scrabble succumb to injury, Hags is the logical stopgap replacement. His troubles remain with control and limiting walks. Keeping his low-to-mid 90s fastball down in the zone early in the count could be a big turning point for him this spring. A strong improvement in that area will surely raise his stock for future consideration.