The Guardians surprised a number of onlookers with their run to an AL Central title last season. Among the reasons for that success: a bullpen that was one of the league’s most effective. Cleveland relievers finished fifth in ERA (3.05), sixth in strikeout percentage (26.4%) and fourth in ground-ball rate (46.4%).
Some of that excellent rate production was a byproduct of a strong rotation that consistently worked deeper into games than most. Cleveland relievers finished just 26th in innings pitched. A reliable starting staff no doubt took some of the pressure off manager Terry Francona and the top late-game weapons at his disposal.
That’s not to take anything away from the coaching staff or the relievers overall, however. Cleveland had eight relievers who threw 35+ innings last season; seven of them finished with an ERA of 3.25 or better. Five allowed fewer than three earned runs per nine innings, with the bulk of that group consisting of generally lower-profile hurlers who were acquired without much fanfare.
That’s perhaps best personified by 27-year-old righty Trevor Stephan, who broke out with an All-Star caliber showing in his second big league season. The 6’5″ hurler pitched in 66 games and tallied 63 2/3 innings. He posted a 2.69 ERA while striking out an excellent 30.7% of opposing hitters with a solid 48.1% ground-ball rate. Stephan picked up swinging strikes on 16.2% of his total offerings, a top 25 rate among relievers with 30+ innings.
There was very little to nitpick in Stephan’s performance. He missed bats, kept the ball on the ground when he did surrender contact, and limited walks to a tiny 6.7% clip. Stephan overwhelmed right-handed opponents, surrendering just a .207/.263/.293 line in 153 plate appearances. Lefty batters hit .280 against him but without significant impact, reaching base at a .348 clip while slugging .380. Stephan mixes three pitches in a power arsenal, backing up a 96-97 MPH fastball with a wipeout splitter and a quality slider.
While that production didn’t come entirely out of nowhere, it was a huge development for a pitcher who could have found himself on the roster bubble not that long ago. Originally selected in the third round of the 2017 draft by the Yankees, the University of Arkansas product spent four years in the New York farm system but didn’t secure a 40-man roster spot. He’d posted fine but unexceptional numbers as a starting pitcher between High-A and Double-A in 2019. Like every other minor leaguer, he wasn’t able to log any game action in 2020.
The Yankees opted not to protect him from the Rule 5 draft during the 2020-21 offseason. Cleveland nabbed him with the 24th selection and kept him on the MLB roster the entire following year. Stephan had an inconsistent rookie year working mostly in low-leverage innings. He posted a 4.41 ERA through 63 1/3 frames, striking out an impressive 26.6% of opponents but surrendering far too many walks and home runs. That changed in 2022, a season in which Stephan dramatically increased the use of his split to great success.
Stephan now looks like a key-high leverage bridge to star closer Emmanuel Clase. He joins hard-throwing James Karinchak as the top righty Cleveland setup arms heading into 2023. Southpaw Sam Hentges — a former fourth-round pick who had a breakout ’22 season of his own — would have a key role if healthy, though he’s battling a shoulder issue with an uncertain recovery timetable.
Controllable through 2026 and not eligible for arbitration until next offseason, Stephan would be an incredibly valuable piece for the foreseeable future if he’s able to replicate most of last year’s success. He already looks like one of the better Rule 5 selections in recent memory, posting the caliber of season rarely seen from players available via that process. The 2020 Rule 5 draft generally turned out far better than most, with the biggest successes coming at the Yankees’ expense. In addition to Stephan, New York lost right-hander Garrett Whitlock to their archrivals in Boston that year.
Image courtesy of USA Today Sports.
The Yankees could’ve had him instead of overpaid cry baby Chapman. Gotta love being a Yankees fan sometime.
Every team has plenty of “if only” players. Projecting player development is really difficult.
They could’ve given him a roster spot over other journeyman relievers. Just saying with hindsight obviously that it sure would be nice.
They could’ve given him a roster spot over other journeyman relievers.
Based on what?
He had a 4.79 ERA in AA.\, with no AAA experience. And you think he should’ve been given a roster spot?
Kapler's Coconut Oil
Hardly. I’d argue you’re wrong on both accounts. I don’t think any team is gonna prioritize a reliever for a 40 man spot to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft and it’s guaranteed that even if they did, it wouldn’t have come at Chapman’s expense.
I beg to differ, sir. Both the Red Sox and Guardians did just that. When the Rule 5 selection is made the player has to remain on the 40 man roster for the full season or risk losing him back to the original team. Both Red Sox and Guardians still have their selections after prioritizing these players for a 40 man spot.
Yankees fans always think they deserve to have everything. Like Cleveland just lucks into guys. They prioritize pitcher development. They scout well and then develop pitchers. It’s not like everyone thought Stephan was a sure-fire stud. Cleveland saw something they thought they could develop and got him cheap. Relax. New York will be just fine.
Let me break out my tiny violin…
Nobody feels sorry for Yankees fans. No losing seasons in, what, 30 years? 5 titles in that time. Then you miss out on a rule 5 player and get upset. Smh.
He probably wouldn’t have turned out as good on the Yankees (or 25 other teams who aren’t as good at pitching development).
It feels weird to say that seven of the eight Guardians relievers who threw at least 35 innings have a 3.25 ERA or better, when the one who didn’t was Eli Morgan who had a 3.38 in almost 70 innings with pretty decent peripherals.
Anyway, Stephan is a really good pitcher. It’s tough to trust bullpens on a yearly basis, but they’ve got a lot of good options coming back and on paper their “worst” option is probably either Morgan or Enyel de Los Santos. Plus they have young guys who are close to ready (Herrin, Misiaszek, possibly Mikolajchak) and whoever this year’s mystery impact reliever is.
Guardians shouldn’t be worrying too much about their relief corps. Pretty studly hard throwers up and down that ‘pen, other teams should be envious. I mean, in the AL who can better that bullpen? The Astros and Mariners maybe, that’s it.
Julio Franco's Birth Certificate
I’d actually say Cleveland has the best bullpen in baseball and it isn’t even close, which is why they won their division with an offense that was nearly putrid at putting up offense, especially at the OF spots.
They definitely are playing Moneyball there. Have eight lights out guys in the bullpen that nobody ever heard of and are cheap, and fill the rest of the roster with Jose Ramirez and some guys.
But it works!
Their organization has shown over and over an ability to develop pitching that is second to none in MLB. The little engine that could. If they stay mostly healthy they should take that division again.
Lesson learned: try starting pitchers as relievers before you give up on them.
The Indians are really good at pitcher development. Now if only they could do that for the offense.
I’m not buying the hype around the Indians this year, though.
What makes you feel that way, what do you see as a weakness on that team?
Why is MLBTR discussing this guy if he’s clearly not a candidate for a transaction? Stop trying to be Fangraphs with this weak-hitting analysis.
Why did you read the article then?
Because I didn’t know who he was and thought perhaps he was a trade candidate.
Sid Bream Speed Demon
Crying about what a free site publishes is fairly unimpressive.
Oh, because you pay money to this site that means you can criticize them? Thanks for clearing that up, bub.
The Guards will be very good this season. All those players coming of age at the same time. I think they’re the best team in the AL. I just don’t trust the Jays. They act like good individuals vs a coordinated team.
Looking at his numbers, innings were similar,hits were similar, SO slight uptick, but really limited HRs and walks. Focusing on the splitter really seemed to work.