The Indians head into the All-Star break a surprising 47-42 and a half game out of first place in the AL Central. Many experts think they have done it with smoke and mirrors. I believe they have gotten this far thanks to Actaball- a combination of great pitching, solid defense, and timely hitting. Regardless of how they have gotten to this point, during the break from the action, WFNY will take a look at the four cogs of this roster, how they evolved during the first half, and where they look to be going forward through the rest of the season. On Monday we assessed the outfield and DH positions. Yesterday it was the infield and catching positions Today in the third of our four part series, we will move to the starting rotation.
Justin Masterson (7-6/ 2.64 ERA/ 1.22 WHIP/ 122.2 IP/87 K/39 BB)
Josh Tomlin (10-4/3.81 ERA/1.02 WHIP/115.2 IP/65 K/14 BB)
Carlos Carrasco (8-6/4.28 ERA/1.30 WHIP/101.0 IP/67 K/28 BB)
Fausto Carmona (4-10/5.78 ERA/1.41 WHIP/104.1 IP/62 K/33 BB)
Mitch Talbot (2-6/6.33 ERA/1.80 WHIP/58.1 IP/35 K/24 BB)
Heading into Spring Training, there was no “iffier” group on the Indians than the starting rotation. There were only two things we knew for certain: Fausto Carmona was going to pitch on opening day and Justin Masterson would follow. It was widely assumed that Carlos Carrasco would be making the rotation as he had done all he could do in AAA. Mitch Talbot seemed to be guaranteed a spot as well, which was a complete head-scratcher considering his injury history and the fact that he was not great after the all-star break last season. The fifth spot was going to be a dog-fight between three guys – David Huff, Jeanmar Gomez, and Josh Tomlin.
As they broke camp, Tomlin made things easy on the Tribe brass with a spectacular spring. Talbot on the other hand was painfully bad, yet the Indians decided to stick with him in anyways, placing him fifth behind Tomlin. Had Talbot had a minor league options left, there is no doubt in my mind, Gomez would have made the team as the fifth starter.
So what has happened?
To say the rotation has been the biggest surprise group of the team would be an understatement. Sure, you can say I am way off considering the success of the bullpen, but I looked at the pen as the strength of the team coming in. Nobody could have expected the rotation to be as good as it has been.
First the good. Masterson started the season hotter than Mila Kunis. He won his first five starts in April and carried that momentum right through the first half. More than any pitcher on the staff, J Mast was a victim of the Tribe’s lack of offense. Of the 110 Major League starting pitchers who qualified, Masterson ranked 86th in run support, hence the 7-6 record. However, he is 11th in ERA. He finished the first half strong, with two earned runs or less in his last six starts.
Manager Manny Acta calls him “The Big Nasty,” and for good reason. Whatever pitching coach Tim Belcher found late last season in his mechanics has worked. Masterson has looked like a top of the rotation guy ever since. His sidearming style is deceptive and his ball moves all over the place. Justin has managed to harness his control and has four pitches that work for him. I am the first one to eat crow after insisting he was a better option out of the pen several times last year. I’m glad that I was way off and J Mast proved me and many others wrong. If the playoffs started today, Masterson is your #1 starter.
After Masterson, you’d go with the little guy with the big stones. Josh Tomlin has to be considered the biggest surprise on the team. Nobody could have seen this coming. His 10 wins and 1.10 WHIP at the break both lead the team. 14 of his 18 starts have been quality (six innings plus, three earned runs or less). In every single start of his young career (30), Tomlin has pitched at least five innings – a major league record.
So how is he doing it?
Acta loves Tomlin because he pounds the strike zone, doesn’t walk anyone, and rarely makes mistakes. He does have a propensity to give up the long ball (15), but most of them are of the solo variety. The Texan is smart and just knows how to pitch. The best Tribe comparison I’ve heard made about Tomlin is a poor man’s Charles Nagy. He doesn’t throw hard, but he always keeps his team in the game and is a winner.
JT also loves pitching in front of the home fans at Progressive Field where he is 7-1 in 10 starts.
What’s amazing about Josh is that he seems to save his best for the biggest games. We saw that in his first career start last year – a seven inning, one run, three hit performance against the New York Yankees. He has kept that going this season. For example, his first start of this season was another seven inning, one run, three hit, win over the Boston Red Sox. For the Indians to capture the AL Central crown, Tomlin is going to have to keep this up.
Another kid who the Tribe is going to have to lean on in the second half is Carrasco. Over the first two months of the season, the 24 year old righty showed flashes of brilliance, but couldn’t seem to harness his vast abilities. He missed two starts with a stiff elbow in early May and was working out the kinks at the end of the month. He flat out looked rusty.
Then on June 7th, with perhaps his rotation spot on the line, Carrasco kicked his game into another gear. Against the Minnesota Twins, Carlos was brilliant in his eight plus innings of work. His three-hit shutout set him into a month long hot streak. Over the five starts, he posted an ERA of 0.91, winning four of the five. In his only loss, he allowed just one earned run in eight innings.
The hope was that this was the real Carrasco; the former top prospect in the Phillies organization who was at one time untouchable. However, in his last two starts, he regressed a bit, allowing 11 earned runs on 17 hits in seven innings.
With Carrasco, keeping his emotions in check is very important. He seems to get rattled if a defensive play isn’t made behind him. But there is no doubt he has the stuff to be a real factor down the stretch for the Indians. If he can find his June groove again, it gives the Tribe a completely different dynamic. We will see how he responds from this two-start mini funk, but I think Carrasco is primed for a big second half.
Now to the bottom of the rotation. As good as Masterson, Tomlin, and at times Carrasco have been, Fausto Carmona and Mitch Talbot have been on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Carmona was supposed to be the rotation’s one sure thing. Instead, you never know which Fausto is going to show up from start to start. The little things seem to set him off as well. He may look like Roger Clemens for the first four innings of a start, then give up a double to start the fifth, and end up not making it out of the inning. Plus, all of a sudden, his double play ball has disappeared and has been replaced by the home run ball.
Carmona has allowed 15 homers and has lost 10 games, the third worst in all of baseball. His 5.78 ERA is the dead last among all 110 Major League starters who qualified. So what has happened to the guy who was so dominant in 2007?
If the Indians could figure this out by now, they would have. Carmona is out of options and putting him in the bullpen as the long man isn’t going to solve anything. So the Tribe will stick with him the rest of the way and hope for the best. The re-aligned rotation has him at the bottom. If he can somehow find himself, it will go a long way towards winning this division.
Then there is Mitch Talbot. I have said in the past there are two versions of him; “The Fury” and “The Itch.” ‘The Fury” showed up twice – a scoreless eight innings in Anaheim on April 11th and a six and two-thirds, one run performance on May 31st in Toronto. “The Itch” unfortunately has been here in the other nine starts.
Talbot has been the Indians personal cooler. The Tribe has lost six of his last seven starts and in the lone win, Talbot went just five innings, giving up three runs in a win against Arizona. Put it this way – Mitch Talbot is the pitching version of Austin Kearns.
Nobody can understand how he is still on the roster despite his lackluster performance on the field. What has kept Kearns here is his contract, his right-handed stick, and has a long history with Acta. Talbot is still here because he is out of options. Pure and simple.
The good news, Tribe fans, is that Jeanmar Gomez was held out of the AAA All-Star game and by all accounts, its because he is on his way up. Yes, the Indians need a starter for Monday’s doubleheader, but with the way Talbot has been pitching, Sunday’s scheduled start could be his last if he even gets to make it. You’ve got Gomez, Zach McAllister, and David Huff all ready if need be. Any is a better option than Talbot at this point.
After his last debacle of a start (eight runs on 11 hits vs Toronto), Acta was asked about Talbot’s standing in the rotation. He didn’t exactly give him a vote of confidence:
“We’re not going to overreact, but it has been 3½ months. We are on top and have to do what is best for the team.”
That tells you all you need to know right there. Gomez is ready and should be up for the rest of the season. He made three starts (and one long relief appearance) earlier in the year, but has been dominant in Columbus, posting a 9-3 record with a 2.40 ERA. The 23-year old is expected to start one of the two games in Monday’s doubleheader in Minnesota, then should stay in the rotation the rest of the way.
The real shame is that former first round pick Alex White hurt is index finger earlier in the season after making just three starts. With the way he looked – poised, polish, and with nasty stuff – he’d have replaced Talbot a long time ago. I wouldn’t expect to see him the rest of the season, but if he does make it back early, he could be a factor in late September.
The starting rotation has saved the Indians bacon during the first half more than anyone could have expected. Add in the young arms like White, Gomez, McAllister, Scott Barnes, and Drew Pomeranz on the pipeline and the Indians look real nice in years to come. But this is about the second half of 2011. Things has to swing the right way for them.
Masterson and Tomlin must keep this up (they will), Carrasco must find his June form again (he will come close), Carmona must be adaquate at best (he will), and Talbot must be replaced by Gomez (he will). If this all happens, the Tribe will win the AL Central.