Those of you who follow me on Twitter know where I stand on the Cody Allen debate.
Actually, it’s not really a debate. He’s the best closer in franchise history and on pace to be one of the most efficient closers of all time (albeit with a long career ahead of him for that trend to go in another direction).
I could show all kinds of stats about Allen’s efficiency and his strikeout rate to show just how dominant he is compared to past Indians stoppers, but I’d like to look specifically at his most recent save to show why he is so good and why fans sometimes misinterpret his performances (as they do with many relief pitchers).
On Sunday afternoon Allen took the mound with a 3-2 lead and ended up putting the winning run on first base thanks to consecutive two-out walks.
That sounds like a shaky outing but, as with most things in sports, with more context we can reach a different conclusion.
In this case, it’s extremely important to note that the two players Allen walked were reigning MVP Josh Donaldson and one of this year’s top MVP contenders Edwin Encarnacion. The Blue Jays two most dangerous hitters came up to the plate with two outs—also very significant—but ended up being stranded on base when Allen got Russell Martin to line out to right field.
Let’s dissect the two at-bats to determine if Allen choked under pressure, as many fans would have us believe.
The image below shows the location of the seven pitches Donaldson saw in his at-bat.
But this was not a pitch that got away.
Donaldson is a .239 hitter against curveballs this season, and has a tendency to chase them out of the zone. The image to the right shows Donaldson’s batting average by zone against curves, which indicates Allen knew exactly what he was doing by locating his curveball low and away. It’s a pitch Donaldson can’t hit out of the park to tie the game, and one that he has a tendency to swing at with poor results.
Despite the result, this is a great first pitch.
Pitch No. 2 to Donaldson is a fastball up and out of the zone(the high green dot above the plate). This is a riskier pitch because Donaldson crushes fastballs, but not at this level. Donaldson has a career .093 batting average on fastballs up and out of the zone and hasn’t homered off such a pitch since 2014.
Once again, this was a pitch designed to lower the chances of Donaldson tying the game, but in an area where he is known to chase with poor results.
On 2-0 and 2-1, Allen goes back to the low curve ball. More pitches Donaldson is unlikely to hit out of the park (he has just two home runs off curve balls) and it allows him to even the count.
On 2-2 Allen goes back to the high heat, but it gets a little away from him (the highest green dot). This is probably the only bad pitch of the at-bat because it’s unlikely to induce a swing from Donaldson in that location.
On 3-2 Allen comes back with another curveball (fouled off) before missing with another high inside fastball.
Donaldson ended up walking, but Allen (very purposefully) attacked him with pitches and in zones that dramatically decreased the odds of him tying the game with one swing.
On to Encarnacion…
This was a much less competitive at-bat but it was probably by design.
Allen attacked Donaldson relatively aggressively, knowing he had an advantage with the curveball and due to the fact that a mistake to Donaldson with the bases empty would cause less damage than a mistake to Encarnacion with a man on base.
But Encarnacion, unlikely Donaldson, can handle curveballs as well as fastballs. Given Allen’s repertoire, there is not an obvious area for Allen to attack Encarnacion.
Russell Martin, however, waits on deck and every pitcher in baseball would rather face the 33-year-old catcher with a .246 average than the potential AL MVP.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that Allen gave Encarnacion nothing to hit other than a 3-0 outside fastball.
So did Allen lose it in the 9th inning? Or did he strategically attack the heart of the Blue Jays lineup?
I suppose only he and catcher Chris Gimenez know for certain, but looking back on those two key at-bats it’s easy to justify every single pitch Allen made.
He wanted to dispose of Donaldson and end the game right there, but he also knew that he had to strategically attack Donaldson’s weak spots due to his dangerous home run power. If Donaldson simply chases that first curveball low and away, the game may have ended right there. But, as good hitters often do, he was able to lay off and extend the at-bat—sometimes this happens when two extremely talented players face off, and it doesn’t mean either one screwed up.
When Encarnacion came to the plate, Allen felt like more damage could be done by attacking him in the zone than by putting him on first and letting Martin take some hacks.
These are all very logical decisions, and it certainly appears as though Allen executed his plan perfectly, even if the results were a little messier than fans would like to see from their closer.