CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – The Cleveland Indians completed a sweep of the Kansas City Royals, defeating their division rivals at Progressive Field, 5-2.
This column presents my takeaways from Thursday’s game. For more baseball analysis and insight, follow me on Twitter (@TJZuppe).
1. NOT SO BAD
The phrase five and fly has taken on a negative connotation in recent years. The idea that a starting pitcher only lasts five innings before handing things over to the bullpen is largely viewed as bad thing.
On some level, that thought process is understandable. We are groomed into believing it’s necessary for a starting pitcher to go at least six before we view it as a quality outing. For a great one, the hurler had better get into the seventh or beyond.
Of course, that narrative changes a bit when the pitchers coming on in relief are providing some of the best bullpen production in baseball. And as far as the Indians go, Cleveland’s relievers are pitching like some of the best in Majors.
Thursday’s starter Mike Clevinger lasted five innings, giving up just a pair on a two-run home run to Alcides Escobar in the top of the second, but limiting the damage after leadoff batters reached in each of his final three frames. Clevinger pitched around the traffic, limiting KC to just four hits in 19 at-bats vs. the long-haired righty.
But when manager Terry Francona has an opportunity to turn things over to a quartet of bullpen arms like Dan Otero, Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, the decision to have a quick hook is a pretty easy one.
On Thursday, Francona turned to Otero, Shaw and Allen to record the final four innings of work. The trio happily obliged.
2. WILD CARD
With four scoreless innings provided on Thursday night, Cleveland’s bullpen now owns the third-lowest ERA in the Majors at 3.29 and sixth-lowest FIP at 3.66. But beyond that, the MLB Trade Deadline addition of Andrew Miller has made the back-end of the Indians’ pen that much more lethal.
Since the lefty’s arrival from New York in the somewhat shocking deal, the entire structure of the Tribe’s relievers appears to have fallen into place. Somehow, Miller has seemingly made everyone around him better, probably because his presence allows Francona to use his bullpen arms in as many advantageous spots as possible.
On Thursday, the Indians received two scoreless innings from Otero, who lowered his ERA to 1.49. In terms of ERA among MLB relievers this season, the veteran righty now ranks third.
Otero’s contributions cannot be overstated this season. His ability to serve as Francona’s wild card has been as critical as any production the Indians have received in a non-starting role in 2016. And with a number of quality arms behind him, Cleveland’s manager doesn’t have to hesitate when deciding to bring the right-handed hurler into a crucial spot in any game.
3. WORK HORSE
Behind Otero, Shaw provided another scoreless inning, lowering his ERA over his past 29 appearances to 0.70 (two earned runs in 25 2/3 innings). The 28-year-old reliever’s appearance was his 73rd of the campaign, which current leads the Majors.
Beyond the production, Shaw’s durability has been impressive. The righty has now appeared in 70 games or more in all four seasons with Cleveland. Over that four-year period, no pitcher in baseball has appeared in more games than Shaw, working in 297 games since the start of the 2013 season.
That sort of ability to bounce back every game is becoming more and more rare, as arm injuries potentially plague high volume relievers. On top of the durability, Shaw’s ability to stay consistently productive over time is even more rare.
“It’s uncanny,” Otero said of Shaw. “I can’t even say how amazing that is as a reliever, to keep his arm, his mind in that shape to be able to do that. I think some of it maybe is he doesn’t think about it too much. I think that helps him. It’s impressive to watch. You don’t see many relievers do that, go 70-75 games, 3-4 years in a row. He’s been able to do it and effectively.”
4. NEW PLAN
In a lot of ways, Thursday’s game was a glimpse of a potential blue print for Cleveland in October.
So much emphasis, and rightfully so, is put on the starting rotation over the length of an entire season. Good starting pitching can give you a chance nearly every single night. But injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar have altered the original plans for the Indians in the playoffs.
Francona won’t be able to sit back and let his starters go deep in every game. But a stellar set of arms in the bullpen will help shorten every matchup. Given the Indians’ thinned out rotation, Cleveland will have to rely on their relief arms quite a bit in October.
With guys like Clevinger and Josh Tomlin under the microscope over the final two weeks, knowing one of the best bullpens in baseball has emerged in Cleveland gives Francona some peace of mind in an otherwise frustrating spot.
And if that means pulling the starter after five, even in a future playoff game, the Indians know they have a set of hurlers ready to get the job done. Truly, Cleveland has evolved far beyond being viewed as a one-dimensional club based only on starting pitching.
“We don’t want to let them down,” Otero said of the starters. “We want to keep pulling in the same direction. When you’re out there you don’t want to let anybody else down because everybody here is trying to get to the same pinnacle.”
5. KEEP STRETCHING
Speaking of avoiding the one-trick pony label, the Indians continue to own one of the league’s best offenses in many statistical categories, but perhaps the most pleasantly surprising revelation has been the combined production from Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana.
Napoli is stuck in a decent slump at the moment, but Santana has been more than willing to help pick up the slack, slugging his 34th homer of the season with a three-run shot off Dillon Gee in the bottom of the sixth, providing the difference in Thursday’s victory over Kansas City.
The bomb to the seats in right increased Cleveland’s chances of winning the finale by 28.5 percent, the biggest win probability swing of the evening.
The blast not only helped lift the Indians to a sweep of the Royals, but it also gave the Tribe their first pair of hitters with 34 bombs or more since Jim Thome and Juan Gonzalez in 2001.
“When we went into the year,” Francona explained, “everybody said, ‘How are you going to score? How are you going to score?’ Then without Brantley you’re kind of thinking ‘Is this going to stretch?’ And then you look up and you got two guys who have hit 30 and it’s been fun.”
Santana has already posted a career high in homers this season. The switch-hitter is now just one run and two RBI shy of matching his career highs in each of the other respective categories. He is currently slashing .253/.361/.492 with a 128 wRC+ and has reached base in 22 consecutive games.
“I’m happy for Carlos because he’s made an effort in so many areas to be better than he was,” Francona said. “And you don’t see that very often in a veteran player. He’s done a really good job.”