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OC Register: New Angels closer Cody Allen hopes he’s fixed what went wrong last year

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TEMPE, Ariz. — Cody Allen has spent his first spring training with his new team trying to find himself again.

Once one of baseball’s most consistent closers, Allen endured a frustrating season with the Cleveland Indians in 2018, on his way out of town as a free agent.

The numbers – both the obvious and the subtle – painted a picture of a 30-year-old pitcher in decline. Throughout his first spring training with the Angels, though, Allen has been reassembling the pieces he believes will get him back on track.

“I feel really good,” Allen said. “It’s a progression. We’re not there yet, but I feel really good about where we’re at.”

At his best, Allen would be the kind of closer the Angels have lacked for a few years. From 2014 to 2017, Allen posted a 2.62 ERA and he converted 120 of 135 save opportunities.

During those years, he averaged 70 games a season, anchoring the back end of the Indians’ bullpen and making him a favorite of Manager Terry Francona.

“The Angels are getting one of the best competitors out there,” Francona said earlier this spring. “They’re getting a guy who will take the ball every day, never refuses the ball. I love him. I’ll pull for him. The only time I won’t pull for him is when we’re playing the Angels. He’s a great kid.”

But he wasn’t a great pitcher in 2018.

Allen saw his ERA rise to 4.70. He gave up a career-high 11 homers. He walked a career high 4.4 batters per nine innings. He suffered five blown saves, a career worst.

Allen’s fastball velocity dipped to 93.6 mph, the fourth consecutive year in which it had declined. The contact rate on his pitches was the highest it had been in five years.

“There were a lot of areas in my game that need to be better, which is fine,” Allen said. “It’s baseball. This game is hard, really hard. I’m looking forward to the challenge. I’ve done it for a long time and I had a hiccup last year.”

Allen, however, seems confident that he understands exactly why he had the hiccup.

His delivery had gotten too “rotational,” he said, instead of moving directly toward the plate. It didn’t allow him to fully use his legs to create velocity. It didn’t allow him to get the maximum “rip down on the baseball” to create a high spin and sharp break on his curveball.

When his curve floated instead of breaking sharply, it would either get hammered or miss the strike zone entirely, leaving him as a one-pitch pitcher.

Allen said he’s been working hard on drills since the start of camp to help him put his delivery back the way it should be.

“I feel like in catch it’s going really well,” he said. “It’s just a matter of re-wiring it to do in a game.”

So far this spring, Allen has allowed three runs in eight innings, two of them coming on two bad pitches that went for solo homers. He also pitched a perfect inning in an intrasquad game in which he faced Mike Trout and Andrelton Simmons. Those numbers are certainly too small of a sample to be predictive of how he’ll do in the season.

During an outing last week, though, his curveball consistently spun at 2,750 rpm, with some surpassing 2,800. His average curve last year was 2,575 rpm.

“That’s a great thing,” Allen said of the spin readings. “It’s something we’ve been working all spring and winter on. I’m trying to get back to really getting through the baseball. … I feel really good about how it’s coming out of my hand. We’ve got to execute, but I feel the stuff I’m playing with right now is really good.”

Francona said the way to tell Allen is on is when he can drop a first-pitch curve in for a strike.

“Then everything’s locked in,” Francona said. “It’s unbelievable.”

The Angels certainly hope Allen can be locked in more often than not, if they are going to contend this season. They invested $8.5 million, plus incentives, to land Allen, which is far more than general manager Billy Eppler would normally spend on a reliever.

At the time of the deal, Eppler sounded convinced Allen was aware of what led to last year’s disappointing season and how to correct it. He also saw value in Allen’s experience to lead a young bullpen. Allen pitched in the playoffs with the Indians in four seasons, including going to Game 7 of the World Series in 2016.

So far, Allen has embraced his role as a bullpen mentor, taking all the relievers out to an Escape Room and a dinner.

“He’s awesome,” said Ty Buttrey, a 25-year-old who figures to be one of Allen’s primary setup men and perhaps the heir to the closer role. “He’s already given me a couple tips. He has this leadership presence. Seeing what he did in Cleveland is unbelievable. He has the experience in big games. He has experience facing top hitters.”

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