The Indians, as you may have heard by now, have several top-notch starting pitchers. Aside from 2014 Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, there's co-ace Carlos Carrasco, flamethrowing wunderkind Danny Salazar, and the ascending Trevor Bauer. Even if the fifth starter(s) can't carry their weight, this quadrumvirate could make Cleveland a powerful team in 2016.
But one of the club's most formidable pitchers doesn't begin games — he ends them. Since debuting in 2012, Cody Allen has quickly become an elite relief pitcher; by last season, he ranked among the game's best in several regards. The rotation's fearsome foursome has, to this point, justifiably earned most of the attention. That's why we should take some time to praise the Tribe's incredible closer.
At first glance, Allen doesn't stand out. He put up an ERA- of only 75 in 2015, ranking a meager 57th among qualified relievers. A .342 BABIP caused that, however, and Allen didn't deserve it: He allowed hard contact 25.0 percent of the time, nearly three percentage points below the average reliever mark. When we look a little deeper, we see how he really stands out.
Even though you already know the purpose of FIP-, I'll explain it anyway. Taking into account a pitcher's strikeouts, walks, hit batters, and home runs will usually reveal how well they've pitched; adjusting that for park and league factors adds some more context. In this regard, no reliever with 50+ innings could top Allen:
With that said, FIP- has its flaws. You might not know about cFIP yet, but you should — not only does it pack a predictive punch, it evaluates performance much more accurately overall. Allen fares almost as well by this metric, placing fourth out of that same sample:
The same cFIP as Aroldis Chapman. A better cFIP than Darren O'Day, Ken Giles — even the cyborg known as Wade Davis. Yeah, Allen is the real deal.
How did he get here? The Indians drafted Allen in 2011, and he hit the ground running. After pitching 98.0 innings of 1.74-ERA relief in the minors, he came to the majors in 2012, where he's remained ever since. Despite throwing a mere two pitches — a four-seam fastball and a curveball — he carved out a place for himself. Still, this level of dominance is a recent development: In the first three years of his career, he owned a modest 79 FIP- and 82 cFIP. Something changed in Year Four.
A lack of home runs played some role in Allen's improvement. In 2015, just 0.7 percent of the batters he faced hit the ball out of the park, compared to 2.3 percent in the prior seasons. Unsurprisingly, a rise in popup rate — from 4.3 to 6.3 percent — accompanied that decrease. More fly balls in the infield means fewer fly balls in the outfield, which generally entails a lower rate of long balls.
Balls in play didn't account for everything, though. Allen also pumped his fan rate up from 29.2 percent to 34.6 percent, while lowering his free pass rate to 8.7 percent from 9.5 percent. That meant his rate of strikeouts minus walks — a measure that predicts future performance astoundingly well — increased from 19.7 percent (28th among qualified relievers) to 25.9 percent (11th among qualified relievers). These defense-independent outcomes made the biggest difference in his case.
Here, we should take into account Allen's platoon split, which doesn't (or didn't, perhaps) go in the direction you'd suspect. Entering last season, he had posted much better strikeout and walk rates against lefties than he had against righties:
|Handedness||K% (12-14)||BB% (12-14)|
Come 2015, he punched out a similar amount of left-handed batters (35.7 percent) and walked them just as often (9.3 percent). On the other hand, he flipped the script for right-handed batters, who went down on strikes 33.6 percent of the time and earned free passes 8.5 percent of the time. Allen's progress versus his own kind elevated him to greatness.
When it comes to Allen's shallow arsenal, one pitch reigns supreme: the curveball. With an unbelievable amount of velocity behind it — only Craig Kimbrel threw harder last season — this offering has always blown by hitters, especially recently:
In need of a boost against righties, Allen turned to this pitch, which seemed to cure his ailments:
Allen's southpaw strategy didn't shift — they saw 30.3 percent curveballs from 2012 to 2014, and 30.5 percent curveballs in 2015 — because it didn't need to. He altered his approach toward same-handed opponents only, and the results prove that he made the right choice.
This season, Allen should probably expect the home runs to return to some degree. Even with that many popups, very few pitchers can sustain a dinger rate that low, so no one would fault Allen for allowing a few more. The strikeouts and walks, on the other hand, seem fairly permanent, so long as he doesn't tamper with this formula. An offering this deadly can make any pitcher great, and Allen's curveball has done exactly that.
Their numerous strong pitchers notwithstanding, the Indians may not contend in 2016, as their position players likely aren't up to snuff. For this reason, Matthew Kory at FanGraphs suggested the team trade Allen, since his loss would hurt less than a starting pitcher's would. Such a deal may pay off, if it brought back a quality hitter. A reliever of Allen's caliber doesn't come around every day, though, and the Tribe would definitely be worse off without one of the best pitchers in baseball sealing their victories.
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