CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – The month of October has become a battle of the bullpens. And that could potentially become a needed equalizer for the Cleveland Indians.
To some extent, a good set of relievers was always important in the MLB postseason, but recently, the emphasis on shortening playoff games with a dominant bullpen has been taken to an entirely different level.
After all, the Kansas City Royals used a tremendous ‘pen to hide other warts and shortcomings to appear in back-to-back World Series — winning the 2015 championship.
It’s sort of what the Indians had in mind when they went out and acquired wipe-out lefty Andrew Miller from the New York Yankees at the trade deadline. And his addition has given the Tribe one of baseball’s most dynamic and productive bullpens heading into the postseason.
“As we look at our bullpen, we believe it’s one of the strengths of our team,” Indians President of Baseball Operations Chris Antonetti said. “We have a group of guys out there — not just Andrew — but a group of guys out there that have been really effective, especially since August 1st and really for the balance of the season.
“I think when we turn the ball over to that group with a lead, we feel pretty good about shaking hands at the end of the game.”
And there’s a good reason for that.
Since the Indians paid a hefty prospect price and landed Miller from New York, the back-end of Cleveland’s ‘pen has been about as unhittable as they come.
The quarter of Miller, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Dan Otero, over the final two months of the 2016 campaign, logged 102 2/3 innings, allowing just 62 hits and 19 walks, striking out 117, and posting a 0.789 WHIP and 1.84 ERA.
Miller, perhaps the nastiest of the bunch, posted an unreal 1.55 ERA and recorded 46 strikeouts in 29 innings pitched after being acquired by Cleveland. Oh, and his willingness to be flexible on when and how he is used makes him even more lethal to the opposition.
But not to be forgotten, the contributions of Otero (1.53 ERA), Shaw (3.24 ERA) and Allen (2.51 ERA) were equally as vital to Cleveland reaching the postseason despite losing talented pitchers like Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar to injury in the final month.
Overall, the Indians finished the season with the league’s second-lowest bullpen ERA this season.
It’s that sort of value and production which gives the Indians confidence, even despite limping into their American League Division series against the Boston Red Sox missing two talented starters.
Indians manager Terry Francona knows, if necessary, he can have a quick hook and turn things over to his bullpen at any time. And if that starts with Trevor Bauer in Game 1, so be it.
“The postseason is a little different,” Francona said. “You have to use judgement… But you want to leverage certain guys in your bullpen, that’s for sure. And we will do that to the best of our ability. You don’t want to get in the way of a starter. But you don’t want to go too long. In a short series, that’s challenging. That’s one of the challenging things.”
The added benefit of the postseason, along with the frustration, is the unnecessary need to hold anything back. There is no need to worry about next week; Off days and a short series put the emphasis on winning that day’s game and worrying about tomorrow if it comes.
“There’s no reason to not pitch a guy,” Francona explained, “Even if you’re down a couple, when you have a day off the next day.”
If that means going to the bullpen in the third inning for a key matchup, the Indians are more than capable. And given how much Cleveland was forced to utilize their bullpen over the final month — injuries led to several instances of bullpen anchored games — the Indians feel fully prepared to handle whatever workload is thrust upon them in a short series.
“I think the way the bullpen has kind of come together and been used in the course of the last six weeks really had a playoff-type environment to it, or feel to it,” Antonetti said. “So, I think our guys are really prepared going into the postseason and positioned to be successful.”
A big reason for that success has been the willingness of guys like Miller, Allen, Shaw and Otero to gear up for any situation. Without that sort of buy-in, an aggressive style of bullpen usage wouldn’t necessarily work in the way the team envisioned on paper.
“We may have a chance if the starter gives us five… and he gets a couple of guys on base and struggles a little bit in the sixth, we can cover it,” Shaw said. “If it happens in the third, we can cover it. If it happens in the ninth, we can cover it. We’re ready down there whenever the phone rings, whenever Tito calls us, we’re ready to go.”