The Reds Hit the Unhittable Bullpen

Prior to the 2016 trade-deadline acquisition of Andrew Miller, the Indians had a strong bullpen. Dan Otero was in the midst of a terrific year and was arguably a top-10 reliever in baseball. Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Zach McAllister compiled a strong relief core that was a huge strength for the American League Champion. They finished the season 7th in the league in total WAR at 5.0, aided by Andrew Miller’s 1.1. Miller instantly added a new dynamic to the bullpen and the Indians were able to ride them through all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. Ever since then, Cleveland’s relievers have been nearly unhittable.

Up until May 21, just before the Indians and Reds series began, the Tribe bullpen was spotting an ERA of 1.97 through 146 innings, which was first in the league with a .184 batting average against and a .248 opponent wOBA. As a unit they had converted all 18 save opportunities they had been given, never relinquishing a lead from the 7th inning on.

The Indians’ opponent for the next three days happened to be the Cincinnati Reds, who, believe it or not, currently lead the majors in WAR for position players, while also sitting 5th in OBP, 5th in SLG and 6th in wOBA. They have four players with double-digit home-run totals, the only team in the league that can boast that. Zack Cozart leads all shortstops in AVG, OBP, SLG, wRC+ and WAR. They also have a former MVP who is slashing .351/.510/.608/.1.118 for the month of May. While they might not be on everyone’s radar, this offense has been one of the league’s best so far in 2017.

The Reds hitters showed they are the real deal in the battle of Ohio, particularly against the very stingy Cleveland bullpen. In 7.1 innings in three games against the Reds, the Indians’ pen allowed 5 earned runs and gave up 10 hits and 2 walks while striking out 8. It’s not the worst line for a three-game stretch by any means, but given their performance prior to this series it can certainly be classified as surprising. All of the run-scoring damage took place during two at-bats: Eugenio Suarez’s game-tying home run against Bryan Shaw and Zack Cozart’s go-ahead single against Cody Allen.

Suarez’s home-run in the bottom of the 7th inning took the Reds’ chances of winning from 18.4% to 55%, easily the most impactful play in terms of WPA for each player this season. While the Indians ended up coming out on top, it was still the first blown save for the Indians this year.

Cozart’s 9th inning, go-ahead single the following night would prove even more significant as it came in the Reds’ final out of the game and added a whopping .648 to their win probability. It quickly became the second blown save in as many nights and ultimately resulted in a Reds win. The one caveat about this play is that Billy Hamilton’s speed had quite a significant impact. He may be the only player in the league that scores from first base in that scenario, which greatly affected the WPA for both Cozart and Allen. Nonetheless, Allen still got pegged for a loss in his worst outing of the year so far.

Going forward, this series will mostly likely come to be insignificant for the Indians. Andrew Miller still turned in dominant performances and Shaw and Allen are likely to remain the strong, reliable setup men they have proven to be. For the Reds, this series is more evidence that the lineup is up and down very much improved from last year, when they posted 15.4 WAR (they are currently at 10.1 in 2017) and an 89 wRC+. With Joey Votto continuing to put himself in the discussion at the best hitter in the game and a young group of players eager to prove themselves, this Reds offense could manage to surprise some more people down the stretch.

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Votto is a known quantity, but the big question is can Cozart and Suarez sustain this level of production or will one or the other regress? If they can sustain it then the Reds are looking really good.