On the 2013 Indians starting rotation and narratives

Ubaldo Jimenez

Ubaldo JimenezLast year, in spring training, I remember the WFNY crew was banging our heads against a wall trying to come up with Indians content. There ain’t no shortage of narratives and storylines this year. And that’s fun for everyone. Positives!

But today, I hope to tackle one specific topic from Jon’s “optimism” article earlier this week: the starting rotation. It’s a topic that divides a lot of fans’ and analysts’ opinions regarding the potential of the 2013 Indians. And while I know there could be millions of other arguments, I wanted to do a three-step piece today.

First, I’ll share an debate as to how exactly the Indians were “historically” bad in 2012. Then, I’ll share some intriguing narratives behind three of the starters. And finally, overall about narratives and the upcoming season.

This won’t necessarily be all stats-y, again, but that’s how it will start off for now. I’d love to hear your thoughts and expectations in the comments as well.

 

Historical context

Fairly often, Kirk and I start debates in the much-ballyhooed WFNY email threads. We probably are the two most frequent emailers (or quite close to it) despite being “primarily” weekenders. So again, this conversation began with Kirk remarking how Jon’s Wednesday article ruined his article idea about using jWAR to get the Indians close to 90 wins. Enjoy.

Kirk: Wow, Jon. You really R-Kelly’d my optimism and fun with jWAR thing there today….

And I don’t really disagree with anything you said. Except the “not getting any worse” line on the rotation. If they get any worse, we’re talking about a “move over SPIDERS!” type record.

Jon: I’m a shape-shifter Kirk!

I’m actually much more optimistic than I sounded in that piece, I think. I think a rational actor (i.e. not me) should put the over-under for the team around 82-84 wins.  Which means 85-90 is within spitting distance.

Pitching worries me, but the rest of that stuff?  It would be a bummer, but it’s not like you can not add good players because you’re afraid they’ll get hurt.  That’s crazy talk, and I hope I didn’t imply it.

Jacob: Actually, no, Kirk. That would only make us the 2012 Twins or 2011 Orioles.

Here are your 20 worst starting rotation ERAs among AL teams in the last decade:

# Team ERA Year
20 Boston 5.19 2012
19 Tampa Bay 5.20 2007
18 Cleveland 5.25 2012
17 Kansas City 5.25 2010
16 Cleveland 5.30 2009
15 Baltimore 5.37 2009
14 Baltimore 5.39 2011
13 Minnesota 5.40 2012
12 Baltimore 5.40 2006
11 Tampa Bay 5.40 2004
10 Tampa Bay 5.45 2003
9 Texas 5.50 2007
8 Kansas City 5.50 2004
7 Baltimore 5.51 2008
6 Texas 5.51 2008
5 Tampa Bay 5.62 2005
4 Detroit 5.71 2003
3 Kansas City 5.85 2006
2 Kansas City 6.00 2005
1 Texas 6.24 2003

 

Kirk: But you see what I’m saying in regards to that rotation being way out on the edge of bad, right?

Ubaldo and Masterson had career worst years, Lowe was gone by June, Gomez got torched, Tomlin and Carrasco were hurt, and no one else stepped up.

Our bully only got better and deeper and we added Myers. I hope they won’t ride with Ubaldo all year at a 5.00+ ERA clip if he sucks. I think Bauer makes an impact in the second half, and if Zac Mac can even come close to last year, he’s good enough for an end of rotation starter for us.

That’s ALL I was trying to say the other day. I’d set the over under at somewhere around 81. That team had so many ugly things happen last year and still won 68 games. Just a 9 game improvement to me means there were two or three SIGNIFICANT injuries for extended time and a trade of some sorts.

Jon: Jacob, could you repopulate that list using ERA+?  Curious to see effects of era/ballpark there.

Jacob: Yeah, I totally realized I should have done ERA+ as I was like halfway through that experiment. I’ll try again momentarily.

Here ya go. Sorted by ERA- with tiebreaker being FIP-. Via FanGraphs. Top 20 worst AL starting rotations in the last decade.

# Team ERA- FIP- ERA FIP Year
20 Orioles 118 107 5.4 4.89 2006
19 Mariners 118 108 5.16 4.65 2007
18 Rangers 118 114 5.5 5.25 2007
17 Orioles 118 118 5.37 5.33 2009
16 Indians 120 109 5.3 4.75 2009
15 Red Sox 121 108 5.19 4.69 2012
14 Mariners 121 115 5.07 4.77 2008
13 Royals 122 110 5.01 4.59 2012
12 Devil Rays 122 121 5.45 5.38 2003
11 Rangers 123 112 5.51 5.02 2008
10 Orioles 124 121 5.51 5.38 2008
9 Royals 126 108 5.25 4.52 2010
8 Orioles 129 118 5.39 4.91 2011
7 Royals 129 122 5.85 5.5 2006
6 Rangers 130 114 6.24 5.41 2003
5 Tigers 130 118 5.71 5.12 2003
4 Devil Rays 131 115 5.62 4.91 2005
3 Indians 133 118 5.25 4.73 2012
2 Twins 133 122 5.4 5.02 2012
1 Royals 135 114 6 5.07 2005

 

…. Darn you Jon and ruining my perfectly good argument with Kirk!!!! Blargh.

Although I guess I shouldn’t be mad. This is actually good. Good Indians baseball > winning an argument? Maybe.

Kirk: Secretly, I just start arguments and on the off chance you prove your conflicting side false, I write about it. :)

I don’t even know where I want to go with a potential article, but I know I want to go somewhere. I’m thinking about plotting a course/bridge between 2012’s 68 wins and maybe flipping those two numbers in 2013 (86?) [Ed. Note: Stay tuned for this folks. And send some well-wishes over to Kirk and his family this weekend. They need your support … and a Cavaliers win tonight.]

Jon: Jacob, that gets a FASCINATING tag.

They jumped from the bottom of your list to the top based solely on park effects and (more obviously) offensive era.

It’s also indicative of how bad they truly were last year.  Historically bad.

Kirk: (Flexes muscles, then realizes he’s wrong several times more than he’s right.)

 

The returning players

A total of 10 pitchers started a game for the Cleveland Indians in 2012. Of those 10, only 5 remain on the Indians 40-man roster, while only 2 (Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez) are guaranteed rotation spots. A third, Zach McAllister, is the likely candidate for the No. 4 spot (Of course, with Brett Myers also slotted in there for a guaranteed spot). So, in order to really know what we’re working with, let’s look at some intricacies of these 3 returning players one by one.

Justin Masterson – I really enjoyed Jerry Crasnick’s story on ESPN this week about the importance of the Indians pitching staff. In the story, he shared some quotes from Justin Masterson about how things just would spiral out of control last year late in starts.

Let’s take a look at what Justin said:

Casey Kotchman, Cleveland’s first baseman last season, told Masterson that hitters would reach base and remark that Masterson’s sinker was “dancing’’ in the first couple of innings. Then it mysteriously stopped dancing, and he got crushed.

“I would be feeling good, and I’d try to up my effort level and overthrow,’’ Masterson said. “Balls would be up, and the next thing you know I would give up three or four runs. It was one of those trying years. I’d be like, ‘What the heck just happened out here?’ It felt similar, but I knew I was doing something different.’’

So I went back to my famed MLB stats portal1. This definitely shows that that was the case. My goodness those 4th-6th inning, runners on and behind the count stats. Wow. That’s most definitely not purely random.

Split ERA IP K/BB WHIP AVG S%
1st-3rd Innings 4.15 102.0 2.2 1.25 0.243 63.4%
4th-6th Innings 6.52 87.0 1.4 1.71 0.307 60.7%
7th-9th Innings 1.56 17.3 2.5 1.33 0.227 63.8%
Split AVG AB OBP SLG OPS
Bases Empty 0.228 426 0.330 0.310 0.640
Runners On 0.318 362 0.369 0.481 0.850
Runners On w/ 2 Outs 0.349 152 0.411 0.526 0.937
Ahead in Count 0.200 260 0.214 0.296 0.510
Behind in Count 0.317 224 0.505 0.491 0.996

 

 

Ubaldo Jimenez – The Masterson stats-bit was easy: I was practically spoon-fed that table by an ESPN writer. So what might some stats show us about everyone’s favorite Rockie-turned-Indian2?

Unfortunately, not a whole lot. But here are two splits that tickled my fancy at first:

Split W L ERA G IP WHIP K/BB AVG
April 2 1 4.50 4 24.0 1.50 0.93 0.242
May 3 3 6.75 6 32.0 2.00 0.71 0.279
June 2 2 2.78 5 32.3 1.11 2.91 0.210
July 1 4 6.09 6 34.0 1.74 1.53 0.301
August 1 4 7.67 6 31.7 1.80 3.08 0.333
September 0 3 3.97 4 22.7 1.46 1.09 0.244
Home Games 5 5 3.70 13 80.3 1.38 1.72 0.249
Away Games 4 12 6.82 18 96.3 1.81 1.37 0.290

 

Wow, could he be a different pitcher back-and-forth. It’s amazing to me how he had his best K/BB ratio in August, but that was his worst ERA month. He also was consistently polarizing at/away from Progressive Field. April, June and September were solid months and streaks that showed what seemed to be steady progress for the future. The rest? A whole lot of yuck.

 

Zach McAllister – Zach Attack. Let’s start with some of the positives of your journey to a near-guaranteed rotation spot with the 2013 Indians. A third-round pick out of high school by the Yankees in 2006, his first signature season was his 2.23 ERA year with the Trenton Thunder in the Eastern League in 2009 (my year as the media relations intern for the Aeros in the EL). McAllister then was a pretty decent prospect for the Yanks, yet struggled mightily early in the next year before making his way to Cleveland.

Since then, he’s done just about everything he possibly could do at the AAA level to warrant a spot in Cleveland. And it’s not like he was really, really bad in 2012 in his first gig as a full-time MLB starter. But, despite some of those good vibes and the fact he’s still only 26-years-old, there’s this relatively undeniable fact: McAllister is likely to remain a fairly average pitcher or so. Let’s just go quickly into some career stats:

Year Team Level W L ERA G IP SO/BB
2009 Trenton AA 7 5 2.23 22 121 2.91
2010 2 Teams AAA 9 12 5.29 27 149.2 2.20
2011 Columbus AAA 12 3 3.32 25 154.2 4.13
2011 Cleveland MLB 0 1 6.11 4 17.2 2.00
2012 Columbus AAA 5 2 2.98 11 63.1 2.74
2012 Cleveland MLB 6 8 4.24 22 125.1 2.89

 

He’s succeeded decently well and never walked many batters, but he doesn’t have explosive stuff. Most expect him to be a star in AAA, but never quite much better than a Jake Westbrook in the big leagues.

And one other thought I have on McAllister: His 2012 numbers do appear Masterson-y. He similarly struggled in high-pressure situations: With runners on base, later in games and when he was behind the count. And by struggled, I mean more so than usually expected. So maybe this expresses hope for both pitchers, as those numbers could potentially be fluke-y and then lead to a regression back to usual expected pitching ability in this multiplier-esque situations? We shall see.

 

Overall narratives

Where my dialogue with Jon and Kirk began was discussing expectations for the 2013 Indians pitching: Was last year’s awful-ness an historically bad oddity that’s just unlikely to ever occur again, or just a realization of talent for a mediocre-at-best team?

In other words, as we had discussed before, what is the line of symmetry if one were to draw up a bell curve for the 2013 rotation ERA? Is it closer to 5.25 with an ERA- of 133, one of the three-worst in the last decade? Probably not, now that we see the evidence of how historically rare that season truly was.

Things are looking up for the Indians and their pitching success. Jimenez and Masterson have at least shown flashes (and seasons) of very solid success. At this point in time, they’re by no means what you’d really hope for in No. 1/2 starters, but they could be decent No. 3’s getting paid upwards of $8-10 million on the open market given baseball’s free agency model. There’s clearly hope and some logic there for their renewed success.

I’m not as high on the upper-end potential of Myers and McAllister. But both are solid. They both will give up 4 runs in 6 innings more often than you’d hope, but they are decent guys that at least aren’t projected to pull a Derek Lowe anytime soon — and have many more years until they get to that stage of their respective careers.

Where Kirk and I have battled then is on the rest of the rotation. He even mentioned Trevor Bauer above and his potential “impact.” I do really like the kid, but rookie 20-year-old’s don’t normally provide significant WAR-esque value right off the bat. If he is MLB average at this stage in his career, that’d be fantastic, but expecting anymore is a bit of a fairy tale thus far. He’ll be just fine — but hold off on those lofty expectations for now.

Carlos Carrasco, David Huff, Scott Kazmir, etc. These guys we’ve seen before. It’s the equivalent of what the Indians saw in 2012 with the remaining players that started games outside of the 3 that I featured above. Again, MLB average would be a huge achievement for these players in their possible starts, but there’s some solid hope and logic here again with their potential “success” (mediocrity).

Jon sort of took down the ra-ra anthem of “it can’t get any worse” in his post earlier this week. But, maybe, considering this historical rarity of what the 2012 rotation accomplished, should this motto be given back a little more credit? It’s not the whole story, but to a certain extent, it’d be simply unprecedented (it appears) for a team to host a rotation that comparatively awful in back-to-back seasons.

By luck, or by fate, or by new pitching coach Mickey Callway’s impact, or by actual improvement of the players that return in 2013, something is bound to happen positively at some pint for these pitchers in 2013. There have been tons of narratives and storylines that I’ve shared in this final piece of this article, and overall, I hope it provides a clearer picture of what the Indians pitching staff might actually do this coming season.

Photo: David Banks/Getty Images

  1. Oh wait. I probably shouldn’t talk about this lest they remove my access. Let’s just imagine this as a fanciful playground of unicorns and play-things. Resume what you were doing … []
  2. In case this hasn’t been made clear yet, this trade has proved dishearteningly disappointing for both teams. We all know about Jimenez’s struggles here. Remember Alex White? He was traded to Houston in December after going 4-13 with a 6.30 ERA in 27 Colorado games. And Drew Pomeranz? He was 2-9 with a 4.93 ERA in 22 starts last season. Looks like that strict-inning limit idea didn’t work out too well… []
  • mgbode

    First, Callaway is a former-Unicorn, so you cannot under-estimate the impact that having a guy like that will have on the staff.

    Honestly though, he worries me. Just in that he has only been a pitching coach for 3 years and they have all been in the minors inside the Indians organization. He has not seen how other teams do things (from a coaching perspective) and he hasn’t been on the MLB level as coach. And, it’s not like he’s been sending up a pipeline of minor league pitchers to the big leagues in his time down there.

    It is quite possible that he’s very good and that it will not be an issue. It just feels strange that Francona stayed within the org. on so many of his hires.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    My just-for-the-fun-of-it, just-throwing-it-out-there predictions for the Indians SP rotation this year:

    Masterson – comes closer to his 2011 ERA and WHIP and has a winning record at the end of the season

    Jimenez – puts up an era close to 5 and has a losing record… shows progress at times, but never puts it together, much like last season.

    Carrasco – Shows enough in spring training to make the team, but has a rough first half of the season and solid second half ending around a 4.5 ERA with about equal wins and losses. Spends some time on the DL early in the season with an “injury” as he tries to regain his form.

    Myers – Puts up an ERA in the high 4s but manages to put together a winning record for the Tribe. Spends some time on the DL.

    Kazmir – Beats out McAllister for a job in the starting rotation and puts together a shockingly good season. Low 3’s ERA and around 15 wins.

    McAllister – Sees a good number of starts because of injuries to other starters and puts up a decent ERA in the low 4s with more wins than losses.

  • Steve

    If guys with ~4.50 ERAs are .500 (or better for Myers) pitchers in this park, the Indians will have put together an offense that rivals the mid-90s teams.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Nah, Paul Byrd did it 2007. It’s not common, but it’s possible.