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Cleveland’s historically good bullpen

Cleveland’s bullpen is nasty. Historically nasty. And the rest of MLB’s playoff contenders should be terrified.

Cleveland Indians v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Sometimes baseball has a nasty habit of proving a writer wrong nearly immediately after hitting the "publish" button. This happens to nearly everyone in the sports world, but we all learn to roll with the punches. No one is immune, not even the most prestigious of media outlets.

Sometimes though, the baseball gods help solidify an article even before it is written. This is one of those times.

Two and a half weeks ago my managing editor Ryan Romano pointed out to me that the Indians bullpen looked good… historically good. At the time, they were moving up the leaderboard as one of the top-20 bullpens in Major League history. Well, since that conversation occurred, Cleveland has yet to lose a game. Summer weather has turned into autumn weather, once-vacationing children are back in school, and the Dodgers haven’t won in about a month, but the Indians continue to roll. Last night Cleveland capped their 21st consecutive victory, a streak of historic proportion itself. When the Indians got to 15 games they even earned Cleveland locals over $2 million in free windows. (Aren’t baseball’s quirky promos the absolute best?)

Currently the Indians are tied for the fifth-best ERA- among any bullpen. Ever. As relief corps change with time, teams have carried additional bullpen arms. As bullpen usage has changed, the number of rostered relief pitchers have changed. Lefty specialists have replaced a potential bat off the bench and handedness matchups in a regular season game has quickly become the norm.

Historically Good Bullpens

1920 Braves 31 0.9 % 3.4 % -2.6 % .250 .245 1 82.3 % 48 114 1.45 3.59
1927 Cubs 52 10.4 % 11.8 % -1.4 % .223 .253 0 74.7 % 58 97 2.25 3.76
1922 Browns 128.2 13.1 % 11.8 % 1.3 % .228 .263 3 72.0 % 59 89 2.52 3.83
2003 Dodgers 472.2 25.1 % 8.0 % 17.1 % .204 .264 30 79.9 % 61 68 2.46 2.93
2017 Indians 433.1 27.1 % 7.6 % 19.5 % .223 .291 42 79.0 % 63 73 2.82 3.23
1981 Yankees 279 19.4 % 8.5 % 10.9 % .213 .253 18 79.5 % 63 80 2.26 2.91
1990 Athletics 417.1 16.7 % 7.5 % 9.2 % .206 .237 24 78.8 % 63 84 2.35 3.19
2013 Royals 461.2 26.2 % 8.6 % 17.7 % .213 .275 42 81.4 % 63 82 2.55 3.21
2002 Braves 512 20.1 % 10.2 % 9.9 % .216 .262 33 80.0 % 64 83 2.6 3.48
1995 Indians 422 21.4 % 9.2 % 12.3 % .228 .276 39 77.2 % 64 81 3.05 3.77

Despite these adaptations, or more than likely, partially because of these changes, the Indians are putting up some scarily good numbers that make them even more dangerous in the playoffs.

Looking at every bullpen of all-time, Cleveland currently is tied for the fifth-best ERA- and the third-best FIP-. Taking out the 1920 Boston Braves and 1927 Cubs, both of which walked more batters than they struck out over minimal innings of relief, Cleveland moves up two spots on the ERA- ranking.

Over the last calendar month, which includes the 21-game winning streak, Cleveland relievers have thrown 90 innings and given up only 20 earned runs (good for a 2.08 ERA) and only five home runs.

The remarkable characteristic about the Indians bullpen is its depth. Ten relief pitchers have thrown at least ten innings for the Tribe and with the exception only of Shawn Armstrong, all have provided positive value (the other nine have posted at least 0.3 fWAR each). Despite losing their "ace" reliever, Andrew Miller, since August 22nd, the bullpen has not skipped a beat.

Cody Allen has been the most consistent and healthy of the Indians’ relievers. Over 58 ⅔ innings, Allen has struck out nearly ⅓ of all batters he’s faced and has not allowed a run in over a month. It’s not quite the 37.3 percent K-rate that Miller has posted, but the two make a killer late-inning tandem that effectively ends most games after seven innings.

Bryan Shaw’s 67 ⅔ innings have likely been nearly as good as Allen and MIller’s innings. Though he strikes out fewer batters, his 55 percent groundball rate has the ability to kill rallies and limit home runs. This three-armed relief monster will likely give playoff contenders fits when the schedule allows for additional off-days, and each one of them can go multiple innings.

Behind the top three, Zach McAllister, Dan Otero, and Nick Goody have combined for over 150 strong innings with a combined ERA around 2.75. The biggest critique of the deep ‘pen was the lack of a lefty behind Miller, but Tyler Olson has filled in the void well since his call-up from Triple-A in late-July.

The Indians are going to be a tough out in the playoffs. Of Cleveland’s 85 wins, 18 of those are shutouts. This team has a true ace in Corey Kluber (who pitched yet another complete-game shutout on Tuesday), a solid middle of the rotation, and one of the very best bullpens in the histeory of the game. Not a bad combination to take into October.


Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano