Cleveland Might Not Have a Bullpen Advantage

I just wrote about Andrew Miller. Everyone’s written about Andrew Miller. Miller has been the story of the Cleveland bullpen, and the bullpen has been the story of Cleveland’s success. By this point, it’s all well-trod ground — the Indians have gotten this far because Terry Francona has been so aggressive to get to his relievers, and in particular to get to his best ones. It’s easy enough to take this and run with it, figuring that the bullpen must be the Indians’ relative World Series strength.

I have to be honest with you, though. I’m not entirely clear on just how much of an advantage the Indians really have there. Yes, Miller is one of the best. Maybe the very best! But let me just show you a table. This table is what causes me to hesitate.

World Series rosters haven’t been announced yet, but I went ahead and made some guesses about the upcoming bullpens. I gave Cleveland and Chicago seven relievers each, and then I plugged in their actual ERAs and FIPs, and their projected ERAs and FIPs. The last step was weighting the numbers, since the seventh reliever won’t pitch nearly as often as the first or second guy. Weighting requires its own guesses, but I assigned a number between 1 and 7 to each reliever. Zach McAllister, for example, got the 1, for Cleveland. Andrew Miller got the 7. I weighted the numbers by these designations.


2016 World Series Bullpens
Team Adj. ERA Adj. FIP Proj. ERA Proj. FIP
Cubs 2.77 2.99 2.99 3.14
Indians 2.53 3.20 3.15 3.18

“Adj.” just means “Adjusted,” which is a different way of saying “Weighted.” The first two stat columns reflect what the relievers did in 2016. The last two stat columns reflect the projections for the relievers. The Indians look better in the very first column, but that’s also arguably the least-important column of the four. If you put everything together, the Cubs bullpen looks like it’s basically as good as the Indians’ unit. That isn’t something you’d necessarily expect, given that conversations we’ve all been having, but it might just be because relieving has been *the* strength of the Indians. The Cubs have had plenty go right, so the bullpen gets less attention.

The Indians’ big flashy advantage is Miller. Obviously. He can come in in any inning, and he can go multiple innings, and we don’t yet know how hard is too hard to push him. Miller has already handled so much of the workload, but based on precedent, that’s unlikely to keep up to such a degree, unless the Indians somehow manage to sweep. Aroldis Chapman is the Cubs’ equivalent, and he’s barely worse than Miller is. He’s just less flexible, and seemingly less durable. But the Cubs have been prepared to use him in multi-inning stints.

There’s one place where this might break down. One place that, I guess, involves two players. The numbers like Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop. They were good overall in 2016, and they project to be good, too. But Rondon had a late-season stint on the DL, and Strop did, too, and if they’re not close to what they usually are, then the Cubs are in worse shape. The pitchers insist they’re okay, but, it’s the playoffs. Every pitcher insists he’s okay. Joe Maddon hasn’t leaned very heavily on these guys and maybe the Cubs know they’re compromised. That’s a big variable.

From here, however, I only have numbers to go off. The numbers say there’s not really a bullpen gap at all. Count this among the reasons why the Cubs are being viewed as fairly heavy favorites.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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I’ve been thinking about this since Cleveland clinched. Their bullpen has been a big story because of how important it has been to their success, but that doesn’t mean it’s an actual advantage talent-wise. At least not as significant an advantage as the picture the narrative paints.