On Friday, it was announced that Cody Allen will start the season as a member of the Tribe’s Opening Day bullpen. The 24-year-old will be one of the youngest players to break camp with the team, but he has earned it in every way.
Despite being a 23rd-round pick, Allen became the second player from the 2011 draft to reach the Major Leagues, less than a month after now-current teammate Trevor Bauer made his debut. Only twice in MLB history has a player selected so late in the draft been among the first three in their class to reach the majors—it happened to 23rd-rounder Carl Willis in 1983, and also in 1967 to Dusty Baker, a 26th-round selection. Of course, Allen was originally chosen by Cleveland during the 10th round in 2010, but he turned them down in favor of playing another season of college ball, hoping to garner an earlier pick the following year. And though that plan may not have worked exactly the way he intended, his career couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.
Allen began pitching for the short-season Mahoning Valley Scrappers in June 2011, and by mid-July 2012, he was throwing his first pitch off the mound at Progressive Field. He started off his major league career by pitching over 13 innings before giving up an earned run, and finished the year with an ERA+ of 106—not a bad start for someone who was the 698th overall pick the previous summer. Few players can boast such a speedy trip through the farm system, but the Indians had good reason to put Allen on the fast track.
Throughout his two partial minor league seasons, he pitched 98 innings for six different teams. In that time, he posted an ERA of 1.74 and allowed only five home runs. He also gave up just 23 walks, while striking out a total of 128 batters—a K/BB ratio of 5.57. To put things in perspective, Tribe setup man Vinnie Pestano put up a 2.55 ERA with a 3.08 SO/BB ratio during his four years in the minors, averaging a 1.17 WHIP compared to Allen’s 0.85.
Ideally, sometime in the not-so-distant future Pestano will shift over to Chris Perez’s role as closer, and when he does, Allen will undoubtedly be the best candidate to take over the eighth inning. Some scouts even project that he will eventually become a closer himself, citing a mid-90s fastball and his excellent curveball as key reasons. His velocity increased after he had Tommy John surgery in college, and some reports have his fastball occasionally touching as high as 98 to 99 mph. With Joe Smith approaching free agency and Chris Perez not far behind, he will be a vital part of the bullpen over the next few seasons.
If there’s one area where Allen has struggled since reaching the majors, it’s the amount of walks he issues. Although he collected strikeouts at a rate of nearly a third strike an inning, he also walked 15 batters in 29 frames. That’s far too many for a reliever who will likely find himself pitching in increasingly high-leverage situations. To stay in Cleveland the entire year, his command will need to improve—but if his minor league record is any indication of what to expect, he should be able to make the necessary changes. He threw 61 percent of his pitches for strikes last season, which is slightly below average. He definitely has room to improve, but a lot of young pitchers struggle with this during their first year out of the minors. It’s not an insurmountable issue, especially since he’s done everything else so well.
Since he’s already mastered the art of facing minor leaguers, sending him back to Columbus would not have been beneficial. The best way for Allen to grow as a pitcher is to continue to face MLB hitters on a regular basis. By the time he was called up last July, the Indians were headed into their downward spiral, and there was never really a true high-leverage situation for him to pitch in. It will be interesting to see how he does under pressure this season, when the team is competitive and he is playing for more than just the opportunity to earn a job in Cleveland.
Cody Allen is one of the most intriguing relievers the Indians have developed in a long time, and he really has shown a lot of potential both in the minors and during his time with the Tribe last season. Terry Francona made the right decision by adding him to the Opening Day roster.