Friday night, Cody Allen imploded in the ninth inning once more, and it’s officially time for the Cleveland Indians to revoke his closer duties for the foreseeable future.
This season, Allen has not performed up to elite standards. The righty owns a career-worst 4.42 ERA as well as a 1.31 WHIP — which is his highest WHIP since his rookie season. While being 25-for-29 in save situations isn’t atrocious, the statistic itself is a bit misleading. For example, in eight of the 56 games he’s appeared in, Allen surrendered at least one run, but the Indians were able to prevail in the bottom half of the inning, or in extras. And Friday night, he gave up two home runs to the 40-91 Kansas City Royals without getting a single out, resulting in a blown save.
Allen is viewed as one of the best closers and relievers in the game and rightfully so. He recorded ERAs under 3.00 from 2013-17, has pitched well in the postseason, and has been with the Indians for his entire seven-year career. But right now, the Indians can’t feel comfortable when Allen takes the hill in a close game. He’s putting runners on base often, has already given up a career-high 11 home runs, and labors. He struggles to put hitters away and has only gotten though an inning without giving up a baserunner twice since July 21.
Meanwhile, lefties Andrew Miller and Brad Hand have been superb lately. After a bumpy start to the season which featured a failure to execute late in games and a nine-week stint on the disabled list, Miller has returned to being one of the most prominent relievers in the game. Since coming off the DL, he has surrendered just two runs and eight baserunners in 9.2 innings pitched and has lowered his ERA to 3.38. What Miller offers the Indians that very few relievers can is a great deal of versatility. He has been lights-out in the closer role, can come in and squeeze left-handers, be used in a setup role, and even pitch multiple innings if he has to. He’s finding the zone, overpowering hitters, and performing the way manager Terry Francona and the Indians are accustomed to.
Hand, acquired by Cleveland along with righty Adam Cimber, has been splendid out of the Indians pen. He has surrendered just two runs in 15.1 innings pitched, is 5-for-5 in save situations, has recorded 19 strikeouts, and has helped revitalize a once ailing Indians pen. And like Miller, Hand’s ability to close, get lefties out, and pitch a full inning is beneficial.
Miller is 1-for-4 in save situations, and Hand was good, but not great with the San Diego Padres in the closer role this season, but Allen’s ongoing struggles signal that change needs to be made in the ninth inning. And leaning on the proven veteran is always the best course of action in crucial late-inning situations.
Want a comparison for Allen? How about former Washington Nationals reliever Drew Storen? The Nationals organization was always high on Storen, but he was part of two postseason meltdowns that contributed to their ballclub losing both series. Yet from time to time, he was still dominant, one of the best closers in the game, and a flamethrower. But once they acquired other relievers to push him (Rafael Soriano, Jonathan Papelbon), Storen began to regress. The hype was never-ending, but the results weren’t superb when they mattered most; Allen is falling into that trap in the regular season.
At one point this season, the Indians owned the worst bullpen ERA in the game (5.82), and they were in desperate need of some new faces to relieve their starters. Granted, they’re beginning to return to what they once were, the Indians’ ninth inning worries prevent their pen from posing a formidable group. Sure, they lost Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith to free agency, Tyler Olson fell off a cliff, and Dan Otero owns a 5.59 ERA this season, but this pen’s downfall is hard to understand.
Look around the American League. The other four playoffs teams in the AL — which are the Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, New York Yankees, and Oakland Athletics — have elite bullpens. One year ago, the Indians had arguably the best all-around pitching staff in baseball. Now, their bullpen is easily the worst out of the five.
Now, in theory, the Indians pen isn’t hurting their ballclub. At 74-56, they have a 13-game lead on the Minnesota Twins in the American League Central and are six games back of the Astros for the second AL playoff seeding. But once October hits, you can’t rely on beating up on teams in your own division, or a blown save not killing your playoff positioning.
The Indians lineup is one of the most feared offenses in the game. With Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion, Yonder Alonso, and Yan Gomes, among others, the Indians are always capable of hitting their way to victory, or staying in games. Plus, with Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger, and the emerging Shane Bieber, the Indians have the starting pitching to back their lineup. Imagine if their bullpen had been executing at just half the level they did last season? They could be competing for home-field advantage in the first round. Imagine if Allen collapses in the ninth inning with a one- or two-run lead in the playoffs? The Indians would look unexplainably stubborn.
Barring a heroic comeback by the Twins, the Indians are going to the playoffs. But the wrong pitching change in October could end their World Series aspirations.
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