After the Indians released incumbent closer Chris Perez at the end of last season, the team was without a stopper heading into the offseason. The team decided to cross that off their shopping list by signing former Brewers closer John Axford. After three seasons of saving games in Milwaukee, Axford lost his job so early in 2013 that he failed to record even one save. Now, Cleveland is hoping that he rebounds and that the mechanical changes he made while in St. Louis not only sticks, but was actually the root cause of his struggles in the first place.
While the “tipping his pitches” explanation has become tiring as an excuse, perhaps it’s valid this time. The sample size is tiny if just evaluating whether the changes impacted his performance by looking at his batters faced-based metrics (K%, BB%, etc), but we could instead look at his per-pitch rates and come away with a more accurate picture. His strike percentage skyrocketed, and his percentage of strikes swinging jumped. So perhaps the mechanical fix not only helped him not give away what pitch was coming, but also improved his control.
If Axford is indeed fixed, then the Indians bullpen will be pretty good and the organization gets great value given his salary. If not, they have another man chomping at the bit to get his opportunity. His name is Cody Allen and he posted a 2.81 SIERA last year backed by a 29%+ K%. He throws hard (95+ mph heat) and complements his fastball with a curve. Both pitches induced swinging strikes at an above average clip. He should be next in line if Axford falters again and should be one of the better setup guys in the league.
Vinnie Pestano had been the assumed next-in-line, but he dealt with elbow issues last year which surely hampered his overall performance and control. He’s not all that different from Allen, as both are fly ball pitchers and each of them complements their fastballs with some sort of breaking pitch. Pestano’s breaking ball of choice is the slider, and not surprisingly, he’s had difficulties with left-handed batters throughout his short career. Lefties have mashed him for a .349 wOBA (versus .236 mark against righties) and a 4.68 xFIP. Those splits alone should make it tough for him to ever become a full-time closer. But if he’s healthy, his control should rebound and he’ll be a solid reliever again.
In his second full season, Bryan Shaw was another effective reliever, using a cutter or slider nearly every pitch. He threw his slider more often and induced more swings and misses to make it an above average pitch, but the cutter appears to just be average, given its relatively low SwStk%. With better relievers ahead of him, he shouldn’t sniff the closer role, but will continue to be a key member of the bullpen.
Marc Rzepczynski is set to act as the top LOOGY, as he owns a career 2.81 xFIP versus lefties, holding them to a .267 wOBA. He’s an extreme ground ball pitcher whose slider has induced a higher rate of swinging strikes in every season since his debut. His role makes it worthless in fantasy leagues, but he’s a nice asset for the Tribe.
So the Indians bullpen might be settled, or it might not be. It all depends on Axford and whether the Cardinals cured all that ailed him. Since we cannot be totally sure, it makes sense for AL-Only leaguers to grab Allen as a speculation, as he could still earn some value as just a setup man.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.