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How the Cleveland Indians built baseball’s best bullpen

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The Cleveland Indians enter their weekend series with the Minnesota Twins laying claim to the top bullpen in the MLB.

CLEVELAND — Editor’s note: the video in the player above is from a previous story.

Entering the 2021 MLB season, it would have been understandable to have questions about the Cleveland Indians’ bullpen.

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After all, like most aspects of the Indians’ roster, their bullpen lost more than it gained during the offseason with Cleveland declining Brad Hand’s contract option, with the three-time All-Star and 2020 American League saves leader going on to sign with the Washington Nationals.

Yet, as the summer months approach, the Indians don’t just lay claim to a formidable bullpen, but arguably, the best in baseball. Entering this weekend’s three-game series with the Minnesota Twins, Cleveland’s bullpen possesses MLB’s best ERA (2.57), while ranking second in save percentage (88 percent) and first in Fangraphs’ Win Probability added.

So how did the Indians get here? Let’s take a look.

High heat

Considering Hand’s resume, it would have been tough to replace one of baseball’s best closers with just one player. So Cleveland took another approach.

While many teams talk about taking a “closer-by-committee” approach, the Indians did just that, with four different pitchers contributing to their total of 14 saves. In particular, Cleveland has leaned on a pair of hard-throwing right-handers in Emmanuel Clase and James Karinchak, who have totaled seven and five saves, respectively, to this point in the season.

With Karinchak throwing in the high-90s and Clase’s pitches often reaching triple-digits, the Indians have been able to keep at least one of their hard-throwing youngsters well-rested on a consistent basis. To this point, the results have spoken for themselves, with Cleveland converting on 14 of its 16 save opportunities.

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Unlikely hero

When Bryan Shaw signed a minor league contract with the Indians ahead of Spring Training, it appeared to be nothing more than his former team doing him a favor, as his days MLB reliever appeared all but over. Yet through the first two months of the season, the 33-year-old right-hander appears to be anything but done, having emerged as arguably the Indians’ most reliable mid-innings reliever.

In 17 appearances, Shaw has posted an impressive 1.69 ERA after failing to tally an ERA lower than 5.00 after leaving Cleveland following the 2017 season. Whatever issues Shaw had during his time with the Colorado Rockies and Seattle Mariners appear to have been worked out, leaving the Indians to benefit from the veteran’s unlikely reemergence.

Going deep

What Cleveland’s bullpen lacks in known names, it’s made up for in depth. To this point in the season, 11 different pitchers have made appearances in relief for the Indians, giving manager Terry Francona versatility with both his bullpen and starting rotation strategies.

Of the 11 relievers to make appearances for Cleveland this season, seven have posted ERAs under 4.00, with four posting ERAs under 3.00. A lot can — and will — change between now and the end of the season. But if one thing has become clear about the Indians’ bullpen, it’s that they’ll have no shortage of options.

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