April 16, 2014

What will we see next from mercurial Tribe rotation?

Justin Masterson against BostonEntering the 2013 season, the consensus weakness of the Cleveland Indians roster was its starting rotation. While Chris Antonetti had gone out and significantly boosted the offense — throwing out four-year deals and making small moves for new bench guys — the starters remained mostly intact.

And coming off the 2012 season, intact probably wasn’t the best thing to do. Last year, the Tribe rotation ranked 13th in the AL with a 5.25 ERA. It was one of the main reasons for the team’s abysmal collapse from its similar 26-18 start all the way to a 68-94 final record.

Thus far, we’ve seen flashes of greatness from a moderately improved Indians staff. Some internal changes, such as the impact of new pitching coach Mickey Callaway, might be making a difference. But it’s also been a Jekyll and Hyde situation, often changing impressions of the team’s prospects any given day based on the starter’s performance.

At the beginning of the year, the Indians struggled to an 8-13 start. In these 21 games:

5-13 record, 5.72 ERA, 5.1 innings per start
.257 avg, 7.5 K/9, 4.4 BB/9, 1.71 K/BB, 1.67 HR/9

Then, beginning with game two of a doubleheader against Kansas City on April 28th, the Indians were back in business. The starter statistics for those next 21 games, which had a record of 17-4:

13-4 record, 2.98 ERA, 6.1 innings per start
.228 avg, 8.4 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 3.10 K/BB, 1.02 HR/9

One can easily understand the swaying impact that the team’s starters have had thus far. And based on historical team records split by starter statistics, the pattern is actually quite similar, if not even better, than one might expect.

So what’s next? Earlier this week, while the second 21-game stretch was still underway and before people could realize its fleeting-ness, ESPN’s Jim Bowden wrote a scathing (ESPN Insider only) article saying that the “Indians won’t be able to sustain winning.” He said the team’s current starting rotation was not going to be enough to be a contender. Here’s how he finished the article:

“Their current starting pitching simply isn’t good enough to maintain their first-place status. To have true staying power — not just for this season but for an extended run of success in the future — the Indians must address the starting rotation for the years to come.”

Is he right? Maybe. The staff’s current 4.59 ERA ranks 10th in the AL (now out of 15 teams). One could surmise that it means that those awful starts are weighing so much into the equation, so that mark is optimistic for the future. One also could surmise that it means the team has been so great, but still only ranks 10th in the league despite that impressive 21-game stretch. In essence, there’s no right answer and it’s still very difficult to read.

Of course, since that second 21-game stretch, we’ve seen more of the destructive kinds of Indians starting statistics en route to a 2-3 record in the last five games:

1-3 record, 8.14 ERA, 5.0 innings per start
.330 avg, 8.5 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 2.56 K/BB, 1.48 HR/9

So in an effort to break down what might happen next and what has happened so far, let’s go pitcher-by-pitcher through the eight MLB starting options that the Indians currently have at their disposal. We’ll see what could be on the horizon in the next few weeks to do anything about this unreliable situation.

Justin Masterson
3/22/1985 (28 years old)
MLB Cleveland: 11 starts, 7-3, 3.20 ERA, 76.0 IP, 59 H, 27 BB, 76 K

Is he or isn’t he? For now, especially on the weight on Friday night’s mediocre performance, my vote is that no, Justin Masteron is not a bonafide AL ace. He’s a high-end No. 2. This year, despite some very impressive starts from Masterson — whose back-and-forth stretches have epitomized the staff’s volatile swings — he only ranks 9th in the AL in FIP. He’ll be just fine in the end, but he’s not going to finish with a sub-3 ERA. I’d guess somewhere in the 3.50-4.00 range makes more sense. This is one pitcher fans won’t have to worry too much about, yet he’s constantly a surprise on the mound too.

Zach McAllister
12/8/1987 (25 years old)
MLB Cleveland: 9 starts, 4-3, 2.89 ERA, 56.0 IP, 51 H, 17 BB, 39 K

Zach! Wow, three years ago watching him tear up the Eastern League, I never would have expected his success to carry over this wonderfully. He’s still only 25 years old, making him the second-youngest on this list and hopefully a huge piece of the puzzle moving forward. I think his numbers are a bit flukey thus far, but I really enjoy this comparison I heard last week: Is McAllister Cleveland’s new Jake Westbrook?1 He doesn’t walk many batters and usually is quite consistent. I think we’d all sign up for that in a heartbeat. Again, McAllister has been just fine, but I’d expect some regression to maybe around 4.00.

Ubaldo Jimenez
1/22/1984 (29 years old)
MLB Cleveland: 9 starts, 3-3, 6.04 ERA, 44.2 IP, 40 H, 22 BB, 47 K

This guy. Ubaldo had his best-ever four-start stretch as an Indian from April 29th to May 17th: 3-0 record, 1.90 ERA, 17 hits in 23.2 innings pitched and a 3.63 K/BB ratio. That was as good of a stretch he has had since his Colorado days. But, of course, it means that his other five starts — including his latest outing on Wednesday — have been downright awful this year. TD called for the Indians to cut the cord with Ubaldo right before his four-start stretch began. Are we back on that idea again now? Who knows, but it’s always a rollercoaster when he’s up to pitch.

Scott Kazmir
1/24/1984 (29 years old)
MLB Cleveland: 6 starts, 2-2, 6.35 ERA, 28.1 IP, 36 H, 10 BB, 30 K

Kazmir has been one of the fantastic storylines in Cleveland this year as he completed his incredible comeback from All-Star to AAAA to independent baseball and back to the big leagues. Yet, the results have not been so endearing thus far. He began the year on the disabled list and did have back-to-back quality starts on May 4th and May 9th with 17 strikeouts against just one walk. But those are his only two quality outings all season and the K/BB ratio hasn’t been as flattering in his other outings. How long is his leash in 2013? There’s very little pressure contract-wise for him to be here long-term, but the Indians will probably want to realize their investment in some form.

Corey Kluber
4/10/1986 (27 years old)
MLB Cleveland: 7 games (5 starts), 3-3, 5.19 ERA, 34.2 IP, 42 H, 6 BB, 33 K
AAA Columbus: 2 starts, 1-1, 6.57 ERA, 12.1 IP, 14 H, 3 BB, 12 K

The team’s 2013 stopgap has done about as well as one might expect. My favorite thing about Corey Kluber: He’s as reliable as they come when it deals with K/BB. I’ll talk more about that later and a debate I’ve had with Jon about it, but among AL pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched, Kluber’s 5.50 mark ranks 6th. Has that necessarily translated into efficient production? Not really, and his Columbus numbers weren’t all that dominant in two outings either. In a best-case scenario, Kluber might be a hard-throwing middle-reliever or a sixth option. For now, he’s been just OK as a No. 5 and might be there for as long as need be.

Brett Myers
8/17/1980 (32 years old)
MLB Cleveland: 4 games (3 starts), 0-3, 8.02 ERA, 21.1 IP, 29 H, 5 BB, 12 K
AA Akron: 2 starts, 0-1, 3.68 ERA, 7.1 IP, 3 H, 5 BB, 2 K

Oh Brett Myers. Jon was on a rampage (this, this and this) on Twitter the other night about why in the world the Indians decided to sign him for $7 million this offseason. Of course, now he’s hurt and his numbers when healthy were dreadful, but I get Jon’s point too. He struggled in his last rehab outing for Akron on Wednesday, so who knows when he might be re-activated. For now, it might be easier to just forget his presence and move on from the Indians perspective. I think the best-case scenario for winning now is either giving the next two guys on this list a shot or just looking to the trade market for whatever might be available.

Carlos Carrasco
3/21/1987 (26 years old)
MLB Cleveland: 1 start, 0-1, 17.18 ERA, 3.2 IP, 7 H, 2 BB, 2 K
AAA Columbus: 8 games (7 starts), 2-0, 1 save, 1.36 ERA, 39.2 IP, 27 H, 9 BB, 41 K

Dennis Manoloff and Paul Hoynes have written substantially about Carrasco’s comeback trail over the past week. The gist: The Indians have been extremely satisfied with his production recently down in Columbus and they want to find a way to hide his eight-game (or whatever it might be post-appeal) suspension to bring him back to Cleveland. Carrasco is volatile himself, hence leading to another MLB suspension, but when his fastball command is on, there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t be as good or better than Kazmir, Kluber or Myers. In his last four outings since May 5th, he has a 0.82 ERA (two earned runs in 22.0 innings pitched) with 24 strikeouts and only six walks. He’s on a roll.

Trevor Bauer
1/17/1991 (22 years old)
MLB Cleveland: 3 starts, 1-2, 2.76 ERA, 16.6 IP, 9 H, 15 BB, 11 K
AAA Columbus: 6 starts, 2-1, 3.96 ERA, 36.1 IP, 25 H, 20 BB, 38 K

Then, finally, there’s the No. 1B prospect in the Indians organization. Bauer was just fine in his three spot starts in Cleveland thus far, walking a few too many batters, of course, but overall limiting any significant damage. He’s usually been much better with his control in AAA, but his last two outings haven’t been pretty: 6.94 ERA, 10 hits, 12 runs, 10 walks and only 7 strikeouts in 11.2 innings pitched. He’s back to his old ways of likely trying to be perfect on every single pitch and hasn’t yet achieved the consistent AAA success that would require a long-term move to the majors. Also, don’t forget that he’s likely to have an innings limit this season, so he might not be an option by mid-September.

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So there you go with the eight starters currently under Indians control and vying for regular starts with the big-league club. Again, they’ve combined to rank 10th in the AL in ERA, so this crew ain’t that special, no matter how you portray it.

Some additionally intriguing rankings: They rank 10th in K/BB with a 2.32 mark and T-4th in BABIP with a .287 average. In terms of K/BB, Jon and I argued for most of the offseason about its correlation with efficient pitching. It started with Zach McAllister and his future upside based on his well-above-average K/BB ratio. I was always pessimistic. So far, he’s right. But for now, it seems encouraging that the rotation overall has shined in this category recently compared to its poor start and its 1.77 mark in 2012, so maybe this could shift some optimism for the future.

But then you have the ranking in batting average with balls on play, a usually dependable2 measure of flukey batting behavior. The Indians used to rank No. 1 in this category in the AL but have finally started to regress back to the average.

Thus, what is next for this odd rotation? We’ll see if another poor start from Jimenez, Kluber or Kazmir necessitates a move down to the well to bring back Carrasco with his suspension or maybe even one last effort from Myers. Bauer will be there in emergency situations this season, but likely can’t be relied upon for consistent MLB production in 2013 at all. By another two or three trips around the rotation, the Indians will have to make their final decision on whether to add a major piece to this rotation puzzle for a playoff run. As of now, I’m leaning toward yes, but then it’ll be just a matter of the price and the right tools.

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

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Footnotes:

  1. I really, really like this comparison. Both pitchers arrived via ho-hum trades with the New York Yankees. Westbrook broke out in April 2004 with his dazzling seven perfect innings relief appearance against Detroit. McAllister’s not-so-sudden emergence over the last 12 months has been similarly impressive. []
  2. I added that qualifier since Jon and I also have debated about the long-term correlation of BABIP to overall skill. Some hitters are able to have better BABIP numbers long-term because of their speed, power or overall ability. For pitchers, this can be impacted too based on their groundball-flyout tendencies. []

  • Kirk

    Great article, Jacob.

    I think I would bring Carrasco up for sure and remove Kluber. Here’s how you do that.

    The team has an off day upcoming on June 6th. If they can have Carlos pitch while appealing, then drop the appeal, bring him up to start next Saturday (June 1st) against the Rays. Pitch, drop the appeal immediately after, the Tribe has four games, then an off day, then four more games. By the end of that, Carlos is suspension free, and you slot him into the rotation permanently on Tuesday (June 11th) against Texas. If he has to just serve the suspension, bring him up on June 2nd and play with a 24-man roster for the next 8 days (7-man pen (normal), 3 man bench (not normal, but Tito is fine with it right now)).

    If Kazmir or Ubaldo tanks it over the next 2-3 starts consistently, I’d bring up Bauer. He’s going to have his growing pains, but the guy missed bats and can be more effective than the others right now.

  • saggy

    nice points, Kirk. Nice article, J. i think it’s time to bring these 2 kids up. Myers and Kluber are not long-term options here, and, frankly, aren’t really short-term options.

    I have heard rumors out of the front office that the Tribe will certainly be buying a #2/#3 SP this summer. That’s good to hear, but I’d still like to see what our farm has cultivated.