Ryan Merritt Pitched the Indians into the World Series

Because of course he did. This morning, I wrote all there was to know about Ryan Merritt, the 24-year-old, soft-tossing, non-prospect, left-handed pitcher who was set to start Game 5 of the ALCS for the Cleveland Indians with all of 11 innings of major league experience under his belt and the opportunity to end the Toronto Blue Jays’ season and clinch the American League pennant for Cleveland. The conclusion, based on all available data, film, and reports? “Probably, this isn’t going to go well for Cleveland.” The actual results? Shutout ball for 4.1 innings, perfect for 3.1, and a whole lot of champagne and cigar smoke in the visiting clubhouse at the Rogers Centre.

Because, baseball. Because, 2016 Cleveland Indians. When Michael Brantley’s season was over before it began, Jose Ramirez simply stepped up and turned himself into Michael Brantley. When Marlon Byrd got hit with a season-ending PED suspension at the end of May, spreading an already-thin outfield even thinner, Tyler Naquin emerged as a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate. When Yan Gomes separated his shoulder and the Indians failed to land Jonathan Lucroy at the trade deadline, Roberto Perez stepped in and handled the pitching staff so well that most Indians pitchers, when asked about the rotation’s dominant run in the postseason, haven’t been able to wait for reporters to finish their questions before his name falls off their lips. And so, of course, when Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar each suffered season-ending injuries in the final month of the season and Trevor Bauer went all Victor Frankenstein and was betrayed by his own creation, Josh Tomlin and Ryan Merritt made it seem like no one was missing. Like this was how they drew it all up from the start.

And of course, saying Merritt pitched the Indians into the World Series makes it sound like an isolated effort, when in fact the bullpen threw as many innings in Wednesday’s 3-0 pennant-clinching victory as he did. If anyone, on their own, truly “pitched the Indians into the World Series,” it was ALCS MVP Andrew Miller, who threw another 2.2 scoreless innings, bringing his postseason total to 20, with 31 strikeouts and three walks. Miller, Bryan Shaw, and Cody Allen did as much of the work as the starter, as they have for much of the postseason, but there was no work to be done if Merritt didn’t keep the game in check and hand the ball off to the bullpen with a lead. Cleveland’s lineup did its part, and Merritt did more than his own.

Merritt’s fastball averaged 86.0 miles per hour, according to BrooksBaseball. It maxed out at 87.5. He got just four swings-and-misses all day, just one coming on the fastball. In a sense, Merritt did what we should’ve expected him to do: put the ball over the plate, between 70-88mph, walk no one, and miss no bats. It just wasn’t as easy to expect that plan to work.

It helps to get ahead. Merritt threw 49 pitches, and he was behind in the count for just eight of them. That means Merritt was either even or ahead in the count for 84% of his pitches. Clayton Kershaw led starters in that stat this year, at 81%. Five of those eight pitches from behind in the count came in Edwin Encarnacion’s fourth-inning at-bat that ended in a double play. Encarnacion and Ezequiel Carrera were the only Blue Jays to work themselves into a hitter’s count against Merritt. The rest of the team worked exclusively from the defensive.

This is, of course, because Merritt was relentless in attacking the strike zone. He worked to both edges of the plate, and almost completely avoided the middle of the zone:

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He faced 14 batters, and he threw first-pitch strikes to 12 of them. That’s a rate of 86% when, again, Kershaw led all starters in that statistic this season, at 70%. The first pitch Merritt threw all night was a called strike to Jose Bautista, and it was a changeup, which should’ve been a clue that this might turn into an unexpected performance. Nobody starts games off with changeups. Nobody throws 4.1 innings of scoreless baseball against one of the league’s most imposing lineups in their second career start to clinch a World Series berth, either.

After that first-pitch changeup to start the game, Merritt went full-Kershaw (lol) by getting a first-pitch strike or out on seven of the next eight batters, with six of those first-pitch strikes or outs coming with his 87mph fastball.

Here’s all 14 of his first pitches, in .gif form. Pay close attention to where Perez is setting up in these clips:

Merritt was, more or less, perfect on the first pitch. Wherever Perez wanted the ball, Merritt put it there. He got first-pitch strikes with all four of the pitches in his arsenal. Only four Blue Jays swung, two put the ball in play, and one got a hit. Merritt almost always got ahead, and the league hit just .223/.266/.352 after falling behind to a first-pitch strike this year. Most of Merritt’s at-bats were close to over before the Blue Jays hitter had swung the bat.

For the night, Merritt threw 80% of his fastballs for strikes. 71% of his curveballs for strikes, and 62% of his cutters for strikes. Only his changeup — unanimously agreed upon as his best pitch — went for a strike fewer than half the time, and even that was a strike four of nine times, accounting for two of his four swinging strikes.

Merritt threw hittable pitches. Most anything over the plate with his velocity and movement is going to be hittable. You see those five blue squares closest to the center of the plate in the strikezone plot from above, indicating in play, out(s). Those pitches won’t always be outs for Ryan Merritt. Those pitches will lead to damage. But these pitches didn’t lead to damage. Of Merritt’s 10 pitches closest to the heart of the plate, five went for strikes, four went for outs, and just one went for a hit. Call it good fortune. Call it hitters swinging on the defensive. Call it whatever you want. It was probably a bit of both. Ryan Merritt will call it a start he’ll never forget. The Cleveland Indians will call it a trip to the World Series.

We hoped you liked reading Ryan Merritt Pitched the Indians into the World Series by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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