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How nobody -- even the Indians -- believed Dan Otero was that good

MLB, Cleveland Indians

The Yankees' story now keeps going, while Cleveland's is over, and there's one Indians story I'm particularly thinking a lot about today: Dan Otero's.

Even if you watched every game of the American League Division Series, you probably didn't hear Otero's name once this week. The right-handed reliever didn't even make the postseason roster. But you heard a lot about how good Cleveland was, and in a weird way the fact that you never heard Otero's name is the most impressive evidence of just how good this Cleveland team was. How good of a team the Yankees beat.

Here is the list of the most successful relievers (by ERA, minimum 100 innings pitched) the past two seasons:

1. Zach Britton (1.38)
2. Andrew Miller (1.45)
3. Kenley Jansen (1.58)
4. Wade Davis (2.12)
5. Dan Otero (2.14)
6. Chris Devenski (2.14)
7. Pat Neshek (2.22)
8. Craig Kimbrel (2.29)

That's Otero's name! And not even eighth -- where one of the five greatest relievers ever sits -- but fifth, three spots ahead of Kimbrel and six spots ahead of Aroldis Chapman.

Now, nobody believes Otero is really that good. That's why he wasn't on the postseason roster, and why you haven't thought much about him this year. We'll get into why. But don't rush past how good Otero has been:

Over the past two years, his FIP -- which estimates a pitcher's ERA based on strikeouts, walks and home runs, stripped of "luck" and defense -- is better than that of David Robertson, Felipe Rivero, Alex Colome, Ryan Madson and any number of other closers, including Otero's teammate Cody Allen. FIP is generally considered more predictive in smaller samples than ERA, and even by this measure, Otero ranks 24th out of more than 300 pitchers who have thrown 100 or more innings the past two years.

No pitcher in baseball issued unintentional walks as scarcely this season as Otero, who unintentionally walked just one in 50 batters.

Only six pitchers in baseball threw a higher percentage of strikes than Otero. The six above him: four closers, the All-Star Neshek and Nick Vincent. It isn't a high-fluke leaderboard is the point. Chapman, Kimbrel and Miller are all near the top -- but behind Otero.

His ground ball rate this year -- 64 percent -- was the sixth-highest in baseball. Four of the five names ahead of him had ERAs below 3.

Over the course of his entire career -- 315 innings over six years -- Otero has an ERA of 2.91 and a FIP of 3.14. Only 19 active pitchers have a better career ERA+ and only 21 have a better FIP. Otero has been as good in high-leverage situations in his career as he has been in medium- or low-leverage ones. He was effective in last year's postseason, allowing two runs in just over six innings.

Oh, and since the trade deadline of this season, Otero has a 1.37 ERA. Three runs in 20 innings, without issuing a walk or allowing a home run.

That's the guy who was not good enough to make Cleveland's postseason roster.

A big part of this is Cleveland, which might have the best pitching staff ever. Cleveland's staff threw 1,440 innings this year, and 88 percent of them were thrown by pitchers who had ERAs better than the league average. Starter Josh Tomlin's 141 frames provided the overwhelming bulk of the exception. Among relievers, only Boone Logan -- 21 innings -- and Kyle Crockett -- 1 2/3 -- were worse than average. (And Logan missed joining the good group by a single run!) Even Michael Martinez, a position player, threw a scoreless mop-up inning.

There is no such thing as too many good pitchers, unless you're one of those pitchers. Mike Clevinger had a better ERA this year than three of the four wild-card game starters and half of the LDS Game 1 starters, yet he wasn't even in Cleveland's postseason rotation. Neither was Danny Salazar, who was second in the AL in K/9 (minimum 100 innings) and who had a second-half ERA of 3.00. They were crowded out, shifted to the bullpen.

Which was, naturally, already crowded. Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, last year's postseason heroes, controlled two more spots: Tyler Olson, a lefty called up in mid-July, finished the season with a 0.00 ERA in 20 innings, and was the left-handed specialist. That left two spots for a group that included Otero and:

  • Bryan Shaw, Terry Francona's trusted seventh-inning guy, who has led the American League in appearances in three of the past four years

  • Joe Smith, a veteran right-hander who has been a closer and a high-leverage setup man for much of his career and whom Cleveland acquired from Toronto this summer

  • Otero, whose ERA this year was 2.85 and who had a lower WHIP than Shaw's

  • Nick Goody, a 25-year-old right-hander who struck out 12 batters per nine innings and who had an even better ERA (2.80) than Otero

  • Zach McAllister, a converted starter who had an even better ERA (2.61) than Goody

"I can't imagine being on their side," Otero said of the front office and Francona, who had to decide which three pitchers to keep on the roster. They chose Shaw and Smith. Otero, Goody and McAllister -- three pitchers with sub-3 ERAs in full seasons in the bullpen -- were left off.

The Red Sox's entire staff had two relievers with sub-3 ERAs in full seasons.

Another big part of this is the way postseason pitcher usage has been changing: Yes, starters are leaving games earlier, but those innings aren't going to pitchers such as Otero. No manager in 2017 wants to be caught using his middle relievers in any game that is still on the line.

On the one hand, high-leverage guys are getting pushed into games earlier and earlier, taking more and more of these innings. Last year, Andrew Miller pitched multiple innings in all but one of Cleveland's postseason wins. He threw 19 innings, the most ever by a reliever in a single postseason. Cody Allen and Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman were also both worked hard.

On the other hand, we're seeing managers using their regular starters -- either the quality pitchers who got squeezed out of postseason rotations or the starters who are in the postseason rotation but take on extra innings as relievers -- in the remaining high-leverage spots. Kenta Maeda, Lance McCullers, Jose Berrios and David Price are all among the 75 best starters in the world; they've all pitched in big moments this postseason. Chris Sale, Robbie Ray, Jon Lester and Justin Verlander are all in their team's postseason rotations, and they've been used in games they weren't starting.

The net result is this: For most of the past decade, the postseason was ruled by the same mix-and-match rules of the regular season. Lefties faced lefties, righties faced righties, everybody had their inning, and exceptions were just that: exceptions. But now, the good relievers go multiple innings. There already have been 45 postseason appearances this year in which relievers worked multiple innings. Last year there were 90, which was a record. In all of the 2015 postseason there were only 52. In 2009, there were 36. In 2009, you quite likely would have needed a Dan Otero.

The last big part of this is Otero.

Very few relievers throw slower than Otero, whose average fastball is 90 mph, and even fewer do it without dropping down sidearm (like Joe Smith) or being left-handed (like Tyler Olson). Despite this, very few throw more fastballs than Otero, at 80 percent. Very few allow more contact than he does, and very few strike out fewer batters than he does. (His six highlight videos this year: five grounders and one K.) Of those who do strike out fewer batters than Otero does -- 44 pitchers out of 345 did this year, minimum 50 innings -- almost none is any good. One of those 44 pitchers had a better ERA than he did. Only three of those 44 kept an ERA under 4.00. We all have a collective bias against relievers who don't throw hard, but as a group, they do a good job justifying our bias.

But right now, at this moment, Dan Otero has the lowest career ERA as an Indian in the live ball era. To find a lower one, you have to go back to Addie Joss in 1910. And yet, despite never having seen Otero do anything but get outs and prevent runs, Terry Francona consistently uses him in low-leverage spots.

Francona isn't dumb, and he certainly is smart enough to notice that Otero's ERA -- and FIP -- are better than Shaw's, better even than Allen's, in both the short and medium terms. There is something about Otero, about Otero's style and stuff and how long it took him to establish himself (he's 32) that makes him less trustworthy to Francona. It's that thing that assuredly makes him less trustworthy to you and to me. We all know Otero isn't this good, right? And here's the rub: Because relievers pitch so few innings and because Otero is never going to stop throwing around 90 mph and striking out very few batters, there might well be no sample size that will ever convince us. By the time he puts together enough innings such as these past couple hundred, he'll be so old we'll be predicting his collapse.

This is all to say that luck is strange. Otero is incredibly lucky to be blessed with the arm he has. He's lucky that, two years ago, after his one bad season, the A's put him on waivers, and that after the Phillies claimed him that winter they sold him to the Indians, so that he could be in this city at this time, on this team, and in these playoffs. He's also a little unlucky that Bryan Shaw learned how to throw a 94 mph cutter a few years ago, and he's a little unlucky that the Blue Jays were terrible this year and put Joe Smith on the trading block, and he's a little unlucky that Terry Francona manages like Terry Francona instead of like Dusty Baker, and he's a little unlucky that he's not on probably any other postseason team. On any other team, Dan Otero might be having a moment this October. You could say the same about Goody and McAllister; in fact, feel free to plug those two names into any paragraph of this piece.

Instead, they just watched -- just watched -- their team get knocked out of the playoffs. There was probably nothing Otero's presence could have done about that. Cleveland lost because baseball is fickle, because the Yankees are also awesome, and because a few things that had nothing to do with Dan Otero went south. But he didn't even get to try. I'm not sure any Indian this week lost in a more heartbreaking way than that.

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