Speculating For Saves: Cleveland’s Nick Wittgren

Francona appeared to trust Wittgren more than Karinchak in 2020.

James Karinchak’s fantasy stock has been strapped to a rocket. It’s easy to see why. He had a remarkable rookie season and former Cleveland closer Brad Hand is out of his way.

It’s still incredibly early to be analyzing ADP data but Karinchak has been taken as the sixth relief pitcher behind only Josh Hader, Liam Hendriks, Edwin Díaz, Aroldis Chapman and Raisel Iglesias. While Karinchak is among the best relievers in baseball, that ADP leaves very little room for him to provide excess value. Also, it’s not clear to me that he’s even going to be Cleveland’s closer. 

Being the best reliever on a team doesn’t always mean you’re going to be placed into the closer role. Taking a look back at how Terry Francona used his bullpen in 2020, it seems there’s a decent chance that veteran Nick Wittgren gets the first opportunity to close out games for Cleveland this coming season.

If you want an indication of a manager’s trust in his relievers, gmLI is a good place to look. This stat measures a player’s average leverage index when he enters the game. This is important because some relievers have a knack for pitching themselves into high-leverage situations, as opposed to being placed directly into them by their manager.

Wittgren ranked ninth in gmLI among the 141 relievers with at least 20 innings pitched last season. He was the highest-ranked pitcher in that stat to not record a save. Wittgren’s 1.81 mark in gmLI led Cleveland, pacing Hand at 1.63 while Karinchak was at 1.36.

Additionally, Wittgren beat Karinchak in both WPA (1.49 to 0.58) and FanGraphs’ clutch metric (0.62 to -0.27). He also held the advantage in shutdowns/meltdowns. Wittgren had 13 shutdown appearances, which was tied for fourth-most in the league behind only Liam Hendriks, Devin Williams and Alex Colomé. Karinchak was actually right on his heels with 12 shutdowns, but while Wittgren had just three meltdowns, Karinchak had five.

2020 Stats

Karinchak currently has an ADP of 108 and Wittgren’s is 576.

Just to be clear, none of this is intended to be a slight toward Karinchak or an attempt to elevate Wittgren to his level. I fully expect Karinchak to be among the most exciting and dominant relievers in baseball next season. He’ll provide value even if he isn’t the closer, but he’s not going to live up to his current draft position if he’s not pitching in save situations.

It’s not nearly as easy to get carried away about Wittgren, but to be fair, he has been very solid for Cleveland the past two seasons. Wittgren has posted a 2.99 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 26.7 K% and 6.4 BB% over 81 2/3 innings, though his 4.24 FIP is cause for concern. He did not record a save last season, but he picked up four in 2019. 

There may also be some financial motivation behind keeping Karinchak out of the closer role. Try to look at this situation through the lens of Cleveland’s front office. They’ve traded away several of their best players in cost-saving deals the past few seasons, Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco being the most recent. Saves tend to fetch big dollars in arbitration. Will Cleveland want to inflate the price of what could otherwise be a fairly affordable asset?

Wittgren will be making $2 million in 2021 and has just one more season of arbitration eligibility. Karinchak won’t be a free agent until 2026. If he starts racking up saves now he’ll likely price himself out of Cleveland’s comfort zone long before then.

The front office only has so much influence, of course, so this all might come down to what Terry Francona decides. Something that will certainly be in the back of his mind is Karinchak’s postseason outing. He gave up a grand slam to Gio Urshela, then walked the next two batters on a grand total of nine pitches before being removed from the game.

Karinchak was an absolute monster in 2020, but it feels like fantasy baseball owners are overly eager to jump on him in drafts. There is potential for him to be among the top handful of relievers in baseball, no doubt, but what role he’s placed into is out of his hands. I’d prefer some more clarity into this closer situation in Cleveland before diving head-first into the Karinchak waters.

Photos: Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire, Erik Drost | Design by Quincey Dong (@threerundong on Twitter)

Tom Froemming

Tom is a self-professed bullpen nerd who, in addition to contributing to Pitcher List, serves as the content editor at Twins Daily. You can also find him on both Twitter and YouTube as TFTwins.

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