Where It Went Wrong for the Tribe: Part 1

The 2006 season was supposed to be one of promise for the Cleveland Indians. A relatively young 2005 squad had won 93 games, pushing the World Champion White Sox to the final weekend of the season before succumbing in frustrating fashion. The Indians became darlings of the prognosticators in the offseason with many people picking them to be the American League representative in the World Series.

Things went south quickly for the Indians. By late June, the trees in the Metroparks surrounding the cities were screaming to the skies to be drowned, long dormant smokestacks in the industrial areas were begging to be demolished, and Indians fans were once again forced to eat a steaming bowl of stinging disappointment by the All-Star Break as the orange construction barrels that sprout along the city’s infrastructure in warm weather howled in glee.

So where did things go wrong? The obvious answer is the train wreck known as the bullpen Mark Shapiro assembled. The Indians lead the American League in blown saves (22) and are last in the AL in save percentage (50%). Blown saves, however, are just one part of a bullpen’s contribution over the course of a season.

Let’s take a look at the bullpens of the teams in the AL Central that are ahead of the Indians this year using David Gassko’s Pitching Runs Created. PRC give us a nice, neat number to sum up a reliever’s worth, and most importantly, a number we can readily compare to both starting pitchers and position players.

               PRC     IP        PRC/IP (through 9/15)
Twins          272     466.7    .58
Tigers         262     411.0    .64
White Sox      174     377.4    .47

These numbers include spot starts from relievers, so not all the PRC were in relief. I thought about separating the spot starts, but over the course of a 162-game season, the pen is going to be called upon to start a few games. I did not include relievers who pitched more than five starts.

The Twins and the Tigers have two of the best bullpens in baseball. The Twins have accrued more PRC because they have been used more, while the Tigers’ relievers have had a better rate. Now let’s contrast that to the 2006 Indians’ pen (through 9/15):

               PRC     IP       PRC/IP
               149     414.5    .36

The Indians’ pen has been about 11-12 wins below the Tigers’ and Twins’ pens. That is a rather massive drop from the contenders in the division. Here is how the Indians’ pen has done individually:

              PRC     IP    PRC/IP
Betancourt    24     52.7     .46
Cabrera       23     56.3     .41
Carmona       19     62.7     .30
Davis         19     50.7     .37
Mota          11     37.7     .29
Wickman       10     28.0     .35
Mujica         8     16.3     .49
Mastny         7     15.7     .45
Sikorski       6     13.7     .44
Guthrie        5     18.3     .27
Miller         4     10.0     .40
Perez          4      8.7     .46
Sauerbeck      4     13.0     .31
Brown          2      7.0     .29
Graves         2     14.0     .14
Lara           1      3.0     .33
Slocum         0      6.7      0

Total         149    414.5    .36

The top Indians’ performers in the pen have only amassed 47 PRC while the Tigers’ top two performers (Zumaya and Walker) have combined for 101. The Twins’ top two performers (Nathan and Reyes) have combined for 113. Jason Johnson, the starter that was deservedly run out of town, had 19 PRC with the Tribe. On the position side, Todd Hollandsworth had 21 RC, meaning the Indians’ best reliever has only contributed three more runs over the season than Hollandsworth.

This year’s Indians pen is also a far cry from last year’s Tribe pen. In 2005, the Indian’s bullpen amassed 267 PRC; through September 15 this year, the Indians’ bullpen has 149 PRC. Last year, the Indians’ pen averaged .57 PRC per inning pitched; this year .36. Let’s look at last year’s pen to determine why the drop-off occurred.

              PRC     IP    PRC/IP
Howry         42     73.0     .58
Betancourt    41     67.7     .61
Wickman       40     62.0     .65
Riske         35     72.7     .48
Rhodes        28     43.3     .65
Miller        24     29.7     .81
Cabrera       24     30.7     .78
Sauerbeck     15     35.7     .42
Davis         15     40.3     .38
Tadano         2      4.0     .50
Guthrie        1      6.0     .17
Tallet         0      4.7      0

Total         267    469.8    .57

This year, Rafael Betancourt leads the Indians’ relievers with an anemic 24 PRC; last year the Indians had three relievers with 40+ PRC (Howry 42, Betancourt 41, and Wickman 40). Howry left as a free agent while Shapiro was trying to sign a big name closer.

Howry’s performance has dipped this year as his ERA has dropped from 168 in 2005 to 135, but he has still put up 39 PRC over 71.3 IP. Arthur Rhodes was traded to the Phillies for Jason Michaels, a bust for both teams. David Riske was traded to Boston as part of the Marte/Crisp deal, and unfortunately, the Indians acquired Guillermo Mota in that trade.

While the face of the Indians’ pen had changed entering the season, Shapiro counted on those returning and the new acquisitions to pick up the slack. They didn’t. Betancourt was much better last year when he was testing positive for illegal substances, and Cabrera has been very disappointing. Shapiro foolishly banked on Scott Sauerbeck as being his primary lefty in the pen; Sauerbeck pitched as well as he eluded the law after a few too many drinks. No one in the Indians’ has pitched well for a sustained time. The pen is a disaster.

Had Shapiro kept last year’s pen together, it would not have come close to repeating last year’s performance. Relievers are not that consistent from year to year, and no one should have expected some of the solid performances from last year to repeat. However, Shapiro’s bullpen creation this season resembled a kid spray painting a mud puddle, and it’s the number-one culprit in the Indians’ disappointing season.

The bullpen isn’t the only reason the Indians have faltered. In my next article, I will use Win Shares Above Bench to determine which Indians’ positional players were below average as compared to other teams in the league. Here is a hint: the outfield, shortstop, catcher, third base, and second base.

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