As somebody once said, the best bullpen is a great starting rotation.
Actually, I don’t think anybody once said that. Until now.
Speaking of best bullpens, while most of us have spent this season sending the kids into another room when it’s the Indians’ turn to bat, something totally unsurprising has happened.
The Indians have built another best bullpen.
Saturday, in a 4-1 win over the Orioles, three relievers combined with starter Adam Plutko to toss a one-hitter.
The Indians’ 2.91 bullpen ERA ranks second in the American League behind only Houston (2.82 before Saturday). Indians relievers also rank first in the league in fewest walks, first in fewest walks per nine innings, and their 81.2 left-on-base percentage is likewise the best in the league.
Tribe relievers have also induced the highest percentage of soft contact (22.6) of any bullpen in the league. That’s a good thing, since the goal of hitters is not what Wee Willie Keeler said — “Hit ’em where they ain’t” — but to hit the ball as hard as possible.
Indians relievers are the best in the league at getting them to hit it soft. That might explain why Indians relievers have only allowed 14 home runs, the second-fewest in the league.
They are, arguably, the best all-around bullpen in the league.
Who’d have thunk it?
Remember back in spring training, when the loss of closer Cody Allen and uber reliever Andrew Miller to free agency led to the assumption that the bullpen was going to be a huge problem?
It has NOT been a huge problem.
It’s been a major strength.
So far, the Indians have done what historically they have almost always been able to do: construct a bullpen that ranks at or near the top of the league.
It’s what they do. The Indians have always been good at bullpen building. The one they built in 2016 nearly won the World Series for them. In four of the last five years their bullpen ERA has ranked in the top four in the league. In a three-year span starting in 2015 their bullpens ranked second, second and first.
Bullpens, of course, are the most volatile, unpredictable precinct on any major league roster. Performance curves for many relievers are all over the map. It’s not unusual for individual relievers, or entire bullpens, to go from unhittable one year to unwatchable the next.
That makes the Indians’ ability to cobble together quality bullpens year after year even more impressive. And the Indians frequently do it on the fly, not through the draft.
Nobody drafts relief pitchers. Almost all of them are failed starters. The last time the Indians used a high draft pick on a reliever was 27 years ago, when they used the second overall pick in the 1992 draft on University of North Carolina’s Paul Shuey.
Most pitchers get drafted as starters and remain starters until a lack of a diverse repertoire, or an inability to get outs more than one time through a batting order banishes them to the bullpen.
Once there, most relievers become baseball gypsies, frequently moving from team to team, while hoping their good years outnumber their bad ones.
The Indians this year have used 11 relief pitchers, and didn’t draft any of them: Brad Hand, Adam Cimber, Neil Ramirez, Tyler Olson, Oliver Perez, Dan Otero, Nick Wittgren, Tyler Clippard, Jon Edwards, A.J. Cole — and catcher Kevin Plawecki, who has statistically been the best of the bunch. In his two relief appearances, blowout mopper-upper Plawecki has faced six batters and retired them all.
This isn’t the first rodeo for any of the Tribe’s relievers. The Indians are Clippard’s ninth team and Perez’s eighth team. Hand has been with four teams, Olson, Otero, Edwards and Cole three each, and Wittgren and Cimber two each.
Ramirez was designated for assignment Saturday to clear a roster spot for Plutko, who was recalled from Columbus and pitched six innings of the one-hitter.
“Neil had his moments when he got hot, but it was hard for him to sustain it,” manager Terry Francona said. “We had other guys ahead of him.”
When Ramirez signs with his next team, it will be his seventh.
Relievers are, as a group, baseball’s transients. A fringe group of independent contractors who move from job site to job site. It comes with their extremely slippery turf. Housing? They rent. They don’t buy.
So do the teams that employ them. Relievers are the ultimate rentals. Disposable out-getters. The hard part is finding the right ones. The dependable ones. The Indians have always been good at finding them, and it looks like they’ve done it again this year.
Saturday, Perez, Cimber and Hand combined to pitch three hitless and scoreless innings to preserve the win for Plutko.
Sometimes the best starting rotation is a great bullpen.