The Indians have a league leader and it’s not just Corey Kluber. That leader is Marc Rzepczynski, who leads the Majors in games pitched with 31. Of course, this isn’t that odd for a match-up left hander and Zep has only pitched 21 innings in those games, a number he is completely capable pitching. The problem with the Indians bullpen is that Zep is not alone on the leader boards. There are five players with at least 30 games pitched in the American League and three of them are on the Cleveland Indians.
In addition to Rzepczynski, Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen have been among Terry Francona’s most trusted and have been used in 30 games and thrown 75 combined innings in the Indians first 59 games. This heavy use has been made even more obvious by the Indians current five game winning streak. When the Indians are losing 8-4 as they were on May 23rd against the Orioles, they have had no trouble saving these dependable pitchers and using less steady relievers such as Carlos Carrasco and John Axford. When they are winning, however, it is the pitchers listed above, along with Josh Outman and Scott Atchison who are called upon. In the past seven games, the Indians have five wins and two one run losses and Cody Allen has pitched in all but one. Of the other two, Shaw has thrown in four games with more than inning on two occasions and Rzepczynski has thrown in five.
In addition to the obvious injury risk, the relievers are wearing down and it has effected their on the field results. Shaw has given up just seven runs all season, three of which came in the past two games. Shaw pitched a perfect 1.2 innings on May 31st, striking out three, generally a performance that would earn a reliever a night off. Instead, Shaw was forced to pitch in three games in a row, blowing a save and giving up his first home run of the season among those three runs. It is not just Shaw who has had issues either. Old man of the bullpen, Scott Atchison pitched in consecutive games just three times in the Indians first 43 games (he pitched in 14 games total), but has since done so three times in the past 16 games and in nine games overall. Atchison is 38 years old and while he is a valuable member of the bullpen, he is more at risk for injury than the other, much younger arms. Like Smith, he has given up runs in two of his last three appearances including his second home run of the season.
At the same time, many pitchers go completely unused. In the past six games, only one pitcher outside those listed has been used and that was Nick Hagadone for 1.1 innings last night. John Axford and Mark Lowe (now in AAA) last pitched on May 27th and Carlos Carrasco the day before that. Supposedly this is because they cannot be trusted with a small lead, yet Axford has 3.1 straight scoreless innings, Carrasco 4.1 and Kyle Crockett (also in AAA) three straight. Carrasco’s appearance before his scoreless streak was four innings in relief when he allowed just two runs, certainly not a bad outing. In fact, none of these pitchers that are still on the team has had a really bad outing since May 14th and that was in a 15-2 Indians win. Axford has been very dependable since being taken out of the closers role (2.08 ERA, 8.2 IP, .229 BAA) as Carrasco has since being placed into the bullpen (2.57 ERA, 14 IP, .231 BAA). If these players are not confident in themselves to pitch into close games it is more likely because of Francona’s attitude towards them than their own recent results.
This is one time when the answer to a bullpen problem isn’t to bring up a fresh arm from AAA or a journeyman in a trade. Even if they did, Francona likely wouldn’t trust them either and the situation wouldn’t change. The real solution now is to stop using pitchers that had been designated as seventh, eighth and ninth inning pitchers (Shaw, Zep and Allen) in the fifth or sixth innings. As often happens, if a starter is removed prior to the seventh, this is the perfect time to give Carrasco, Axford, or now Hagadone a chance. With three left handers in the bullpen, Francona could even start matching up that early in the game, but he would have to use Hagadone, as using Outman or Zep that early would put him in a bad situation late in games. The fact is, even poor pitchers on multiple days rest are better off than the best pitcher that has just pitched in three consecutive games. One way or another, Terry Francona is going to have to start mixing up his relief rotation, either by choice or by necessity when one of his stars is hurt from over use.