CLEVELAND (92.3 the Fan) – When something is so readily available, it is often taken for granted.
Indians reliever Bryan Shaw has appeared more than any other reliever in baseball since 2012, the right-hander’s first full year in the major leagues. He has led the league in appearances as a reliever twice, and currently leads baseball in 2017.
Shaw is by no means the best reliever in baseball, partly due to his status as a middle reliever. Since the acquisition of Andrew Miller, Shaw has seen his wins above average drop because of his drop in usage for high leverage situations.
He may not be the best, but the 29-year old has carried a FIP below the league average in all but one of his six full seasons to date, the lone outlier being 2015 when Shaw’s 4.01 mark was just north of baseball’s collective 3.96 FIP.
To date in 2017, Shaw has had perhaps his best year so far, with a 3.23 FIP more than a full point lower the MLB average of 4.34.
Yet there tends to be a reaction among fans to consistently loathe Shaw’s appearances despite his outperforming most relievers in the game.
Manager Terry Francona compared Shaw to an offensive lineman in football.
“If he misses a block, it’s all they really notice,” he said. “This kid, for five years running, has been as durable—I shouldn’t say as durable, he has set the bar.”
While Francona may not realize understand where the backlash comes from, there may be a fairly evident reason, assuming critics actually realize why they are as such.
Shaw’s numbers take a noticeable dive when he pitches with runners on base as opposed to the bases being empty, and those numbers get worse with runners in scoring position.
With the bases empty in 2017, Shaw boasts a .230 wOBA against, slotting in .060 below the mark that would qualify as “awful” for a singular hitter according to FanGraphs. His FIP and xFIP with no runners on are 2.69 and 4.07.
(xFIP “replaces a pitcher’s home run total with an estimate of how many home runs they should have allowed given the number of fly balls they surrendered while assuming a league average home run to fly ball percentage.”)
The wOBA and FIP are all well under the average for major league pitchers with the bases empty, .318 and 4.30.
The numbers are much less impressive when hitters reach base, however. Shaw’s wOBA jumps to .321 with runners on, which makes sense given that the more runners on, the higher “weight” to a hit. His FIP jumps to 3.70 and his xFIP drops to 3.66.
Those first two numbers are even worse with runners in scoring position at .329 and 3.94, while the xFIP drops again slightly to 3.58.
While the jumps may raise eyebrows, they are consistent with MLB averages as the league wOBA (.318, .325, .323), FIP (4.30, 4.40, 4.56) and xFIP (4.24, 4.47, 4.65) all rise as the opposition gains base-runners.
What fans may be reacting to is that Shaw is a tremendous reliever when pitching with no one on, but becomes much closer to average when he allows runners.
Francona recognized that Shaw has stretches that are worse than others, like any reliever, but lauded his dependable righty for his ability to consistently be one of the game’s better pitchers.
He also noted that Shaw has helped the organization as a whole by being with the team long term.
“Other than Andrew, when you build your bullpen, if you can build it from within, more often than not you’re going to be in good shape,” Francona said. “When you pay for a bullpen, because there are so many ups and downs because of usage, the guys that are pitching well normally get used a lot. Then the next year, a lot of times there’s a down year then maybe there’s an up year. To do it year after year after year like Cody, Shaw, it’s not taken for granted.
The more exposure means more base runners, and more base runners mean Shaw, or any other pitcher, usually weaken.
To boot, Francona mentioned that, while his appearances may not always be high leverage, he does face the opposition’s big bats.
“More often than not, he goes right through the heart of the order. He doesn’t go 8-9-1 very often. And when he gives up runs it’s like people are up in arms for whatever reason. Without him in that bullpen, it would be very difficult. Because when push comes to shove or when you’re up against it, he’s like, ‘I’m fine.’ And he pitches. And he goes multiple innings. It’s been a blessing, believe me.”
Shaw can also tend to be too available according to Francona.
“Well it’s funny because when I was out sick and he pitched in that 10-to-1 game, I asked Millsy, I said, ‘Why’d you pitch Shaw?’ He said, ‘Well he walked by me before the game and said he needed to pitch.’ I said, ‘He does that to me every night,’” Francona laughed.
“I said, ‘You’re there, you hear it.’”