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Second Thoughts Game #134: Cleveland 3, Kansas City 2

Second Thoughts Game #134: Cleveland 3, Kansas City 2
Jose Ramirez & Carlos Santana (Photo: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)
August 31, 2014
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On Saturday, Cleveland defeated Kansas City 3-2 in eleven innings. Cleveland struck out 13 Royals batters, allowed 2 runs, and used seven relievers, six of whom combined to make a grand total of ten outs.

Welcome to Terry Francona's Indians in 2014. Enjoy your stay.

The liberal use of the bullpen in 2014 has been a point of extreme intrigue, not that the entirety of the bullpen's usage has been solely at the manager's discretion; in 2014, Indians' relievers have thrown 441.2 innings, second-most in the majors next only to the Rockies, whom they trail by only one out. This factor is as much a result of pitchers like Masterson, Bauer, McAllister, and (occasionally) House failing to give the necessary length. Francona's hook is somewhat quick, yes, but if a starter reaches the end of his rope, it's hard to imagine that the population of managers would vary widely on when to pull that same starter. The bullpen's raw innings eaten is not reflective of Francona's judgment

Entirely reflective of Francona's judgment, however, is the fact that, despite being merely second in total innings, Indians relievers lead the majors in appearances by a vast margin. Cleveland's total reliever appearance total - 481 separate reliever-games after Saturday's game - is 33 appearances greater than second place; given that the team with the fewest relief appearances in the majors, Cincinnati, has 351 relief appearances, the gap between first and second is one fifth the difference between the most liberally-used bullpen arms and the most rarely-used. 

As much as Francona has used his bullpen arms, however, he's gotten not only substantial length but also sound performance, as well. FanGraphs WAR, which focuses on fielding-independent outcomes, the Indians bullpen is merely above-average, at 14th in the majors. In terms of the processes that lead to effective run prevention, the Indians bullpen is good but not great.

Unlike the starting pitchers, however, the Indians bullpen has parlayed its good processes into exceptional results. Those processes, measured by the ERA estimator Fielding-Independent Pitching (FIP), regard the run prevention processes of the Indians rotation as virtually the same as the its bullpen; the starting rotation's FIP is 3.52, and the bullpen's FIP is 3.48. For the sake of comparison, the AL average FIP for starting pitchers is 3.90, whereas the AL average FIP for a reliever is 3.68. Because relievers are permitted to pitch in shorter stints than starters, a reliever is expected to be much more effective in the time he does pitch than a starters; hence, in FIP terms, while the bullpen is marginally better than the rotation in absolute FIP, the rotation is far better in terms of run-prevention processes relative to their roles.

Actual run-prevention, however, tells quite the different tale. Because the Indians' rotation has an ERA of 4.08 on the season, it has an ERA minus FIP (ERA-FIP) of 0.55, a half-point gap that is the second largest gap in the league. While previous paragraphs stressed run-prevention processes, the Indians' rotation has been indeed been below-average in terms of actually preventing runs.

The bullpen has quite the opposite problem - their process stats are somewhat middle of the road, but their run prevention is little short of stellar. Whereas their FIP was only slightly better than AL average, their ERA of 2.77 is third-best in the majors. While ERA is a problematic stat to use in isolation for bullpens, since inherited runners are not counted against their ERA, among other reasons, it's a stat whose systematic flaws apply to all teams about equally, and can probably be used to fairly compare bullpens against other bullpens. The bullpen's ERA, even when factoring in league and park factors, is third-best in the game.

In large part, this difference is fueled by an equal and opposite process as the one that has so inflated starters' ERA: Batting Average on Balls in Play. In other words, when batters *do* put bat on ball, the starters have been victimized more often than have the relievers. The league average BABIP is .295 - anything either substantially higher or lower than that for a pitcher is either unsustainable or as a result of an extremely good or poor defense. For the starters, they have a BABIP of .321, third-highest in the majors. Given the often disappointing quality Indians' defense, it should follow quite readily that more balls fall for hits relative to the league average.

The relievers, however, have done their best to undermine the narrative that the Indians defense is to blame for the starters' BABIP struggles: the .277 BABIP that the Cleveland bullpen has enjoyed has been the seventh-lowest among all MLB bullpens. This dissonance between starter and reliever BABIPs explains virtually the entirety of the gap between starter ERA and reliever ERA.

Ultimately, the bullpen run prevention has come. That the source whence the run prevention has sprung is inherently volatile is possibly concerning going forward, but what has happened has happened - regression is not some Lovecraftian horror that reaches into the past and takes away what has occurred. The Indians bullpen has prevented runs at an elite rate, and that cannot be denied. At least, the pen is very solid and slightly better-than-average. Perhaps it will not be an elite bullpen moving forward, but when Corey Kluber is one of your starting pitchers, even an average bullpen makes for an extremely valuable pitching staff.

John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimmHe can also be reached by e-mail at

User Comments

September 1, 2014 - 8:34 AM EDT
I think that our pitching staff of Corey, our ace, Trevor, Carlos, Danny and T.J. has came together as a pretty good staff. Thought T.J. pitched very well and the only question I have is why didn't Terry bring in a left hander to pitch instead of Scott. Maybe Scott after left to left?? Glad that Axford gone and another free agent Outland since they never were fits for team. With our young players doing so well, I think that Swish will retire next year since no way of making next year's team. See what we have done with the new team of Zach, Tyler, J Ram, Perez and pitcher Kyle. We will have Aguilar, Urshela and pitchers Tyler Cloyd and Grady Anderson pitching next year. The current team is solid and never gives up. WE ALWAYS HUSTLE TO FIRST AND NEVER JOG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
August 31, 2014 - 4:14 PM EDT
Thanks for the good article John. Nice to see a little more detail on the bullpen's performance. I've been down on this pen all year, mostly because I was not very impressed with Axford and Atchison signings and them having to play important back end roles. But hey, the group cobbled together and pitching now have been holding the runs down, and as you note, while not elite, they're doing pretty good. Can't complain about any aspect of the pitching staff during this last month-or-so stretch. Also, would never complain about Tito's extraordinary use of the BP, he's been coaching the mid to late innings like it was the 7th game of the series for awhile now, and yes, its pretty surprising (to me anyway) and exciting to see them hanging in there, go tribe!
August 31, 2014 - 2:12 PM EDT
He exposes himself to risk of needing Tomlin to go 7 or, alternatively, needing to call on a position player if need be.

That said, most games don't go more than 9, and most only ten. On balance, it's probably the case that Francona's reliever usage is a positive, but I haven't run the numbers.

That said, Cleveland took a series from the (then) AL Central leaders, have a chance to sweep, and have a winning record against the Tigers. The deficit is appreciable, but reasons for excitement absolutely exist.
August 31, 2014 - 1:08 PM EDT
being nearly 60 years old and a fan of the tribe for as long as I can remember seeing green grass in spring I now realize we are witnessing one of the best managers in my lifetime How this team is competing this late in the season is largely due to Francona. I am not taking anything away from Calloway either has dome a tremendous job with the pitchers. I have had several debates in years past in several message boards that we had the best team in baseball in 07 and the difference was the guys in the dugout who made out the lineups. Oh how I wish Shapiro would have hired Francona while he was here instead of Wedge
August 31, 2014 - 1:01 PM EDT
I think you're correct that Francona is very aggressive in using relievers. His is a very much "win this inning"or even this at bat approach and we'll worry about the next one if and when we get to it. IMO he shouldn't have put himself in the position of having to resort to using Tomlin multiple extra innings on the road against the Royals. It worked out this time. Say your gratefuls and be better prepared next time.
August 31, 2014 - 12:26 PM EDT
Note: I was referring to my own hypothetical criticism as being unfair, not yours.
August 31, 2014 - 12:25 PM EDT
Tomlin was out there for two innings, but I'm not sure that's totally indicative of the dearth of options in the Cleveland pen as much as it is a representation of the risk inherent in Francona's aggressive use of relievers. If he had been more conservative with relievers, and not used five relievers in the seventh, he might have been able to actually match up in extra innings. Tito just did not have any relievers left beside Shaw, whom he was probably intentionally resting.

At the same time, that criticism is both revisionist and unfair. Francona's strategy has its downsides, which almost bit us on Saturday. But to be fair, if Francona had not aggressively used relievers in the seventh, there's no guarantee the game would have even made it to extra innings. They might have surrendered several runs in the seventh rather than simply one. What we saw was a possible downside of the strategy on Saturday.

So ultimately, I suspect the fact that they rode Tomlin was less a factor of the relievers being deficient as it was that there simply weren't enough of them to sate Francona's need for constant reliever rotation. I expect that will change when rosters expand. A fifteen man pen might be sufficient for Francona's purposes - probably not, but it's possible!
August 31, 2014 - 11:38 AM EDT
Well we won the game. We beat a very good team in their park. Having said that, we were a bit exposed. The bullpen dynamics have changed somewhat since Axford left for Pittsburgh and Carrasco became a starter. You lost 2 guys who can come in, throw 98 and get a strikeout or two when they need to. Hagadone is something of an LH surrogate for Axford in that it's not a question of if he's going to blow up but when. But losing Carrasco back there, despite the major benefit to the starting rotation, has left the Indians one scary reliever short. I'm a huge Josh Tomlin fan and he did an awesome job last night in a hostile 2 inning environment, but having to leave him in there to face Salvador Perez who torched him twice speaks to the paucity of Francona's options. I don't know who's ready in Columbus- David Price, Austin Adams, Tyler Sturdevant, but we're going to need a little help going forward. It will be interesting to see who gets called up both pitching and position wise. Does the fact that Russell Branyan got signed mean he's coming up or does it mean Urshela is?
August 31, 2014 - 11:31 AM EDT
Is there an award for pitching coach of the year? Callaway deserves a lot of credit as does Francona.


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