CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – The Cleveland Indians had their six-game winning streak snapped, as the Houston Astros outlasted the Tribe on Monday night, 6-2.
This column presents my takeaways from Monday’s game at Progressive Field. For more baseball analysis and insight, follow me on Twitter (@TJZuppe).
1. 8-MAN TAG TEAM
Even the biggest outside-the-box thinker can admit the use of a bullpen day in September during the thick of a pennant race is anything but conventional. Can the Indians really afford to continue using the same approach every five days, turning things over to their relievers to handle a turn in the rotation?
First, that’s a pretty complicated path to go down. There’s a lot of moving parts and a ton to consider. So, let’s start with the contributions of Cleveland’s bullpen on Monday night — the part we can actually evaluate with facts and numbers.
Mike Clevinger, Jeff Manship, Perci Garner, Joe Colon, Dan Otero, Bryan Shaw, Cody Anderson and Josh Tomlin — that’s eight hurlers if you’re scoring at home — combined to allow six runs, four earned, over nine innings of work in Monday’s loss, walking seven and striking out 14.
And if we focus on just the first six innings, the acceptable amount of frames contributed by several back-end arms on a good day, the relievers allowed just three runs on six hits, walking four and striking out eight. Things didn’t really fall apart until the seventh, when Houston plated three runs — two after Jason Kipnis committed his second throwing error of the game allowing two unearned runs to later score.
In a lot of ways, the unconventional day was sunk by the club’s defense and hitting, not the contributions of their relievers on the mound. But in the process, Detroit cut Cleveland’s lead in the AL Central to 4.5 games by topping the Chicago White Sox on Monday.
“A lot of guys’ fifth starter probably doesn’t do as good as we did tonight, going into the seventh,” pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. “We’ve got the bullpen arms to do it, if we want to do it. It’s nice to have a few game lead, now that we’re trying to figure out what our fifth starter is going to look like.”
2. THE REALITY
There’s actually something to be gained from a day pitched entirely by a club’s bullpen. Sure, no one will be getting home from the matchup in a timely manner (you’d be surprised how much Candy Crush can be played in between pitching changes) but it does allow a manager the ability to pick and choose his advantages as the game progresses.
Instead of being committed to a starter for 6-7 innings and hoping the platoon advantage points in their favor, you can position your bullpen arms however you like depending on the opposing team’s order in the upcoming frame. But on the other side of some positives, there’s the reality that burning through relievers that quickly in a normal setting will kill your pitching staff rather quickly.
That’s where the month of September enters the equation. Expanded rosters and bullpens give managers the flexibility to rely on several hurlers in a game like Monday’s. Despite getting nine innings of action out of the pen, the ability to use arms like Garner, Colon and Anderson don’t really hamper Cleveland’s pen moving forward over the rest of the series.
But even with all of that in the complex puzzle, taking a cruise through the bullpen every five days just doesn’t seem like something that can be realistically done, particularly by a team that needs to win as many games as possible to reach October.
“I’m not sure what we are going to do,” manager Terry Francona said about the fifth spot. “It’s not like it’s during the middle of the year where you are putting your bullpen in jeopardy. I’ll want to talk to the guys and see what we think is best for us.”
3. DECISIONS, DECISIONS
So, evaluation mode it is.
The team appears to be in an awkward spot where they don’t want to take Clevinger out of any chances to help the team win a game, but taking that approach every game does remove him from taking the ball every fifth day and stretching back out to a starter’s length.
If that’s the case, it seems like a really difficult balancing act.
“If we think [Clevinger is] our best option three days from now to throw two innings and keep us in a game and maybe help us win, then we won’t hold him back for that,” Callaway said.
That may be one of the more difficult decisions the team will have to make over the final month. How much emphasis do you put into potentially winning one game? How do you weigh that against the long-term solution at the fifth spot. And how much faith should they put in a day lined up with relievers to carry them every turn through the rotation?
More confused yet? Perfect.
4. OTHER OPTIONS
If the Indians go in a different direction, the team could reinsert Tomlin back in the rotation — he did manage to throw a scoreless ninth inning, but probably has a little more work to accomplish before logging innings as a starter once again.
They could also call up lefties Shawn Morimando or Ryan Merritt, two Triple-A hurlers Callaway directly referenced following Monday’s game.
Right now, it doesn’t feel like anything is simple when it comes to that spot.
“I think we want to try and figure out where we’re at when each start comes up,” Callaway said. “If we’re going to have to use a guy to win a game before that, and we think we’re going to win a game using him, then we’ll do [a bullpen day] again. But, if somebody’s available — and we don’t know who that might be — we’ll try and let him start. I think that would be the best approach to go about it.”
Wait, were you reading this column to be less confused? Oops.
The only saving grace of this entire conundrum is the unimportance of the fifth starter once teams reach October. At no point — provided nothing completely unpredictable happens — does a team need more than 3-4 starters in the postseason.
Right now, it’s just about getting there for Cleveland. And that involves making the right decisions along the way. This is one of the more complex ones they’ll be forced to make in the final month.
If you’re going to throw Mike Napoli an 87 MPH fastball (even considering the right-handed hitter’s struggles over the past 20+ games) putting it here seems to be a less-than-ideal thought:
Napoli crushed the offering from Mike Fiers down the left field line in the fifth. The ball connected with the left field foul pole to give the veteran first baseman his 30th home run of the season, snapping a 21-game homerless drought for the Tribe slugger.
By joining the team’s 30-homer club, the right-handed stick became the Indians’ first 30-home run hitter since Grady Sizemore’s 33 bombs in 2008 and is the first of the right-handed variety for Cleveland since Ellis Burks clubbed 32 in 2002.
Obviously, the Indians could certainly benefit from another Napoli hot streak down the stretch.
“I thought it was a good swing,” Francona said. “And we have seen he can hit them in bunches, so that’s the way it usually goes.”