At times, veteran left handed pitcher Bruce Chen, the “Panamaniac” (I just made that up because he’s from Panama, nobody really calls him that I don’t think — but maybe) shockingly mystified lineups with his soft-tossing ways. When there was a need for a starting pitcher a couple weeks ago in the Cleveland rotation, the Indians summoned Chen from their AAA affiliate in hopes that he could string together something pretty by lullabying hitters to sleep with his 84-85 MPH fastballs (don’t be jealous Jered Weaver). After two disaster starts versus the Twins and Rangers that left him with a 12.79 ERA and 3.94 WHIP, the Indians gave Chen the good ol’ DFA (designated for assignment) boot on Saturday. With the vacancy in the rotation, who will the Tribe turn to next? It’s hard to say at the moment, but let me introduce you to Zach McAllister.
McAllister is a big righty listed at 6’6″ 240 lbs. and he began his professional career with the Yankees before being the player to be named later that the Indians received as compensation for trading Austin Kearns to New York in 2010. McAllister was never a glamorous prospect, but the Indians gave him extended looks in their starting rotation in each year from 2012-14. In all his starts from those seasons, McAllister compiled a 4.36 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 7.33 K/9, and 3.06 BB/9 over 332.2 IP, which by most regards made him a below average starting pitcher. At the end of July of 2014, the Indians decided they had seen enough of him as a starting pitcher and sent him down to the Minors before recalling him in September to be a bullpen arm.
Upon being used out of the bullpen, McAllister proved to be pretty useful as he had a 2.57 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 14 K/2 BB in 14 relief innings in September. As it usually tends to happen when starting pitchers get moved to the bullpen since they don’t have to “save” their arm to go more than a couple innings usually, McAllister experienced a bump in his velocity. And during that bullpen stint, he actually did make one good spot start where he maintained the velocity gain throughout that game too, which was a pleasant surprise.
This year during Spring Training, McAllister was in a competition with Danny Salazar, T.J. House, and Gavin Floyd (until he got injured) for two spots in the starting rotation with Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer locked in already. McAllister went on to post a 2.84 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and a very impressive 28 K/4 BB in 25.1 IP during Grapefruit League action and along with the velocity gains still, he parlayed it into securing a rotation spot to begin the year.
However, McAllister drew a very tough first start versus a potent Tigers offense. The 4 inning performance that saw him allow 5 earned runs on 13 hits and 1 walk was enough for the Indians to shift him to the bullpen to make way for the much more highly touted Salazar. Just like toward the end of last season, McAllister has shown excellent stuff out of the bullpen this year and has found himself working as the #3 reliever behind Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw. In 13 relief appearances this year, McAllister has a 1.42 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and 24 K/5 BB in 19 IP while gaining velocity as the weeks go on. He appears to be using a pitch that’s being classified as a cutter by PITCHf/x data, a pitch that he hasn’t displayed since 2011 when he had 4 starts as a September call up. Right now, he’s only using it 8.4% of the time, but if he can continue to develop, master it, and implement it heavily like his teammate Kluber did as one of the main keys to his success, then he will have quite a weapon.
As is, as a relief pitcher, McAllister is throwing his four-seam fastball at a 62.1% rate and his two-seam fastball at a 16.0% rate while mixing in a cutter, curveball, and slider. Fastball usage for starting pitchers of the league usually is not as high as McAllister is currently at, and it could very well be the reason why he mostly failed as a starting pitcher in his previous opportunities. With so many fastballs, hitters are not kept off balance as much, so the second and third times through the lineup could get easier for hitters to tee off on him. So if he were to get reinserted into the rotation, I would imagine that he would have to mix in more cutters and his offspeed offerings for a greater chance of success.
In Friday’s daily notes (5/15/16), I talked about McAllister working and succeeding in his current late inning relief role and how he could probably succeed in the closer’s role if Allen doesn’t improve and if the Indians also weren’t comfortable with setup man Shaw closing out games. I also mentioned that I have a feeling by this time next year McAllister will be doing what Kluber did in 2014. I suppose it is a pretty bold statement to make for a pitcher who has been very run of the mill as a starter, but hey, Kluber was run of the mill for a few seasons too. I would hope that Kluber also gives some tutelage to McAllister in how to refine the cutter and have more diversity in his pitch selection.
If the 27-year old McAllister does end up being the pitcher named to take over that spot in the rotation, then I would pick him up everywhere as a wait and see approach. He’s got the combination of high strikeout potential with good control, and it’s not everyday you will find someone on the fantasy waiver wire like that. If he isn’t the one chosen for the rotation then just file this post away for future reference when he does eventually get his next chance. But as he continues to get a better feel for his new cutter, I wouldn’t expect fantastic results right away this season as a starting pitcher if he gets the opportunity, but I’m still calling it right now that in 2016 he will Kluberize the baseball world. The odds are against that happening, but it’s fun to be bold sometimes.