Kieran Lovegrove was one of the first players to gain major attention on BurningRiverBaseball and get my eye in particular (he was ranked in our top 50 Indians prospects in 2012 and 2013, but not again after). We started the site in 2011 and he was a third round pick in 2012 as a 17 year old right handed starting pitcher from Mission Vaiejo, California, but originally from South Africa. For a young site focusing on Indians minor leaguers and international baseball, he was a perfect player to highlight throughout his career and follow to MLB stardom. Until he wasn’t.
Lovegrove was a starter in the AZL for two years, where I was able to watch him in person, and he greatly struggled in the desert. He improved in Mahoning Valley in 2014, but not enough to move to Lake County and had injury troubles in 2015 that pushed him far behind schedule.
After his hip surgery, Lovegrove moved to full time relief work, making 39 appearances in Lake County in 2016, then 36 (plus two starts) in Lynchburg last year. At this point, he became rule 5 eligible, but was left unprotected and unselected as no Major League team was even slightly interested in the 22 year old with a 5.01 ERA in high A.They may be interested now.
Just as Lovegrove’s hourglass began to run out of sand (he will be a minor league free agent at season’s end if not added to the 40 man roster), he has finally reached his 2012 expectations. It may just be 17.1 innings, but he has been throwing more strikes than ever, walking fewer hitters and striking out more batters, looking like a completely new pitcher compared the last few seasons.
While his ERA may just finally be looking pretty (1.56 in Lynchburg this year), his strike out and walk rates have been improving for awhile and make the jump in ERA potentially more sustainable. Over his final 15 games in 2017 (21 IP), Lovegrove had a 6.00 ERA, but underneath that struck out 26, walked just 13 and allowed 21 hits. Despite an insane .351 BABIP, he allowed a .250 average against and it was not as if those were being hit hard as he allowed just a single home run. This is another great example of we can’t just accept ERA as the penultimate stat for evaluating pitcher performance, especially in the minor leagues. While it was a reflection of what did happen in 2017, there were hints underneath of what could happen in the future.
Now, Lovegrove has been promoted to AA for many reasons. First, the Indians as an organization are in dire need for relievers. In addition to the Major League issues that are well known, the Clippers have seven pitchers currently missing time due to injury while the Rubberducks have four (although three are starters). With those who are left, Columbus has about two reliable relievers while the Ducks have four or five. Both teams not only need arms just to make up the innings, but talented arms and Lovegrove fits that bill.
Lovegrove’s waning hours are also a reason expedience. The decision to add him to the 40 man roster by November is one that can’t be left until the end of the season. He needs to be pushed against a higher level of talent now to see if he will ever be able to pitch against Major League talent. In fact, it would be nice to see him spend only a limited time in Akron to see how he fares against AAA hitters before the decision needs to be made. Given his current level of success and the current state of the Indians bullpen, I wouldn’t even be surprised to see him added to the 40 man roster by September so they can test him out in the Majors for a few weeks.
Given his early success in 2018, there’s an argument that Lovegrove is one of the Indians top pure relief options that could be ready soon. While Louis Head (13.89 ERA in AAA), Cam Hill (on DL in AAA) and Leandro Linares (6.00 ERA in AA) are all pitchers we have watched for awhile and expected to contribute by 2018 or at least 2019, that doesn’t appear to be the case at the moment. Two pitchers who started in Lynchburg this year, however, could be the men the Indians bullpen has been looking for. Lovegrove and Ben Krauth are both strike throwers who limit hard contact and, while they may not throw as hard as Linares, they have been much more effective this season.
There is no guarantee for any minor leaguer. Even one with the greatest minor league pedigree can fail in the Majors and many who didn’t stand out have worked out fine MLB careers, so we can’t say anything for sure about anyone. However, Lovegrove really does appear to have turned things around and is extremely deserving of this chance to prove himself at a higher level. If he does that, there is plenty of room for him within the franchise. There is no weaker projected area for the 2019 Indians than the bullpen, which stands to lose three players to free agency including the top closer and top left handed set up man in franchise history. This is a high risk, high reward proposition for both the Indians and Lovegrove. He needs to be on the 40 man roster by the end of the year and they need young pitchers who will be ready for a bullpen role by 2019. Lovegrove has as good a chance as anyone currently within the system to be one of those guys.