Shaw credits cutter for success vs. lefties

Tribe reliever reverses career splits with backdoor pitch

Shaw credits cutter for success vs. lefties

CLEVELAND -- As Bryan Shaw trotted in from the bullpen, one of the league's better left-handed hitters stood in the batter's box, runners on first and second with two outs.

At a crucial moment in Monday's 8-3 victory over Kansas City, Tribe skipper Terry Francona called on Shaw to face Alex Gordon, with the switch-hitting Ben Zobrist on deck. On the surface, it appeared to be a peculiar choice. Shaw is a side-arming righty who relies on a cutter and a slider -- two pitches that break toward the barrel of left-handed hitters. Throughout his career, as one might expect, he's struggled against lefties.

Shaw has held righties to a .601 OPS -- 17 percent better than league average. Lefties, though, have tagged him for a .730 OPS -- 22 percent worse than league average.

So why did Francona choose Shaw to face two potent left-handed hitters in a high-leverage situation? Because this year, the splits have flipped. In 2015, Shaw has been 20 percent better than league average against lefties, spitting in the face of his career numbers.

That trend puts Francona in a difficult strategic spot. Is he to trust the limited success Shaw's had this year? He entered Tuesday having faced just 91 lefties, after all. Or is he to go with the larger track record that shows Shaw has a tough time against opposite-handed hitters?

"That's a great question, because there is some balance there," Francona said. "One, you want to find out why [the results have changed] and then, two, they almost have to prove it to you a little bit."

So, why has Shaw been so good against lefties this year? Is there a change in the process, or is it small-sample, results-based noise?

"I think it probably has to do more with command of throwing a backdoor cutter to lefties, versus previous years where I didn't have that much command of that pitch out over there to them," Shaw said. "So, I'd always have to go in, sliders in and all that kind of stuff. Everything was kind of going in to them and they sat on all that stuff. Now, with the backdoor, like a couple days ago against Detroit, I threw a couple backdoors to lefties and it freezes them, because they think it's off and it comes back."

Shaw credits the backdoor cutter to lefties as the reason for his success. Do the numbers back that up?

They sure do.

So how did the inning go Monday night? Well, Gordon and Zobrist both singled and scored a run. But both singles were weakly hit tappers down the third-base line that didn't make it out of the infield grass. The pitches? Both backdoor cutters, spotted on the outer edge of the plate that generated weak contact, exactly like Shaw wanted, and exactly like Shaw's been doing all year. That they went for hits is just baseball, and serves as a reminder that it's typically wiser to trust the process than the results.

Worth noting

• Indians ace Corey Kluber completed fielding drills before Tuesday's game -- the last step before being cleared to pitch after missing two turns through the rotation due to a strained hamstring. He'll start Thursday's series finale against Kansas City.

• Francona also said in Tuesday's pregame media session that once the Triple-A Columbus Clippers finish their playoff run, the Indians expect to add "a couple more guys" to the big league roster.

August Fagerstrom is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.