The obvious questions, then, should be twofold: (1) how have they been so good and (2) is it the sort of thing that we can expect to continue?
First, let’s tackle the “how” part. The Indians have made 33 starts so far this year, and have pitched exactly 208 innings. That averages out to almost exactly 6 1/3 innings per start.
Is that good? I don’t know. Let’s check:
So yeah: it’s pretty good. But not great. After all, the White Sox are getting about one more out per game out of their starters than we are, as are the A’s and Rays.
Let’s compare the 2011 team to past iterations of the Indians using the innings-pitched-per-start stat.
The 2011 starting rotation is currently on pace to throw about 1,020 innings—or almost exactly as much as the 2007 Indians did. Before we get too carried away, we should note a couple of things: (1) it’s particularly early to be extrapolating like this; and (2) only about two staffs per season pitch over a thousand innings—so there’s a good possibility that quite a few teams will see some drop off from their starters in the coming months.
Still, I bring up innings pitched for a couple reasons. For one thing, the more outs the starters get, the fewer outs the bullpen needs to record—which is generally a good thing since the bullpen is largely a group of failed starters. Your best pitchers are in your rotation, so if possible, you’d like them to get as many outs as possible.
The second reason is related, though slightly different: the more innings the starters eat now, the more rested our bullpen will be for the rest of the season. Generally, overworked bullpens become less effective as the season goes on; we’ll look into demonstrating this another time, but it should be fairly evident.
So at least part of the reason the rotation has been so good has been their durability. But if we only give them credit for the quantity of innings they’ve pitched, we’d be missing the exceptional quality of those innings.
Case in point: the White Sox’ starters, as has been noted, have averaged more outs per game than the Indians. Does that make them better? Well, not really—at least not by much.
In 22 more innings (and two more starts), the White Sox have sustained a slightly higher K-rate and BB-rate than the Indians. Both of these even out to suggest that their starters have pitched exactly as well as the Indians’ (they have identical FIPs).
On the one hand, this may insult you. You might be thinking that there’s no way I should be comparing these two staffs. After all, the Indians starters have a 15-6 record while their Southside counterparts are a measly 10-17. But I’m sure you’re savvy enough to realize that W-L records for pitchers are not all that illustrative, especially when discussing sample sizes this small.
But ignoring that for a moment, if I told you that coming into the season that no rotation in the AL central would be performing better than the Indians after six weeks, I have to think you’d have taken it, right? Well, back to the FIP charts:
And that’s the thing. Sure, we have the best ERA in the division by quite a bit right now; that’s excellent news. But when you strip out all the good luck we’ve had—stranding runners and abnormally low batting average on balls in play—we’re still pitching just as good as any team in the division. And we’re doing it with the same old pitching statistics I always harp on: strikeouts, walks, and homeruns.
Here is the division’s starters ranked by K/BB ratio, a fairly good judge of how well a team is pitching (anything above 2.00 is above average; above 2.50 is very good):
Second best in the division. For reference, 2010 the rotation’s K/BB ratio was 1.62—the worst in the AL by a considerable margin.
And here is the HR-rates*:
Best in the division and fourth best in the AL.
*I’m using HR/9 instead of HR/FB because I think the Indians’ staff effectively limits flyballs with their sinker-heavy repertoire. If you’re more of a fan of HR/FB, here are the numbers:
So while the Indians’ rotation has been plenty lucky this Spring, they’ve also been demonstrably good and certainly better than they were a year ago. As I said, most of this you already know.
But the youth of the staff suggests, to me at least, that these guys are learning to pitch more effectively than they have in the past, and the adjustments are finally starting to pay off. This staff isn’t just getting lucky. The skills they’ve demonstrated over the first six weeks are just that: skills. And skills are generally a lot more repeatable than luck. So as tentatively as I might say this, I’m still gonna say it: we should expect this staff to continue to pitch well.
Whether it’s a sagacious coaching staff, a new work ethic, or plain old maturation, it’s good to see this group learning how to pitch in a way that might be sustainable. We’re going to need it.
(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)