The Diff is your weekly Wednesday WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, The Diff covered a trio of topics related to Cleveland sports. This week, it’s time to focus on the Tribe’s starters.
Entering 2013, the starting rotation was said to be the biggest weakness for the Cleveland Indians. While many still expected the team to at least finish around .500, it was in question whether the starters would possibly improve upon a third-to-last 5.25 ERA in 2012. Now 70 games into the much-hyped season, there have been some more mediocre results with lots of intriguing storylines on the rotation’s future composition.
For starters1, here’s a look at the starter numbers side-by-side through Monday’s games:
2012 – 5.25 ERA (28th), 6.1 K/9 (29th), 3.5 BB/9 (28th), 1.77 K/BB (29th), 1.19 HR/9 (22nd), .280 AVG (28th), 45.1% quality start percentage (T-23rd)
2013 – 4.36 ERA (20th), 8.0 K/9, (4th), 3.6 BB/9 (29th), 2.25 K/BB (24th), 1.22 HR/9 (25th), .253 AVG (12th), 46.4% quality start percentage (T-20th)
So yes, there have been improvements thus far. Most notably, as Jon pointed out in yesterday morning’s recap, you can see a difference in the strikeout ratio. That’s jumped way up. Also, it should be noted that, historically, scoring numbers are usually down in March/April. So the proportion of those games to the 2013 data skews it slightly downward for all teams.
But as we note the upgrade from downright-awful to solidly-below-average, I also wanted to go line-by-line through where this rotation might be in 2014. And in order to do that, we have to share some narratives for the main guys on the radar.
Yes, this is a premature activity. Yes, it’s impossible to truly project future performance based on what we have seen in relatively limited sample sizes. But doing this breakdown should help to provide some context for where things might be looking up for the team’s future.
The no-doubt returnees: Justin Masterson and Zach McAllister
Do I buy the idea that Justin Masterson is a legitimate ace? No. He has a career 4.18 ERA in 136 starts. He is 28 years old. Even this year, when he’s thrown two spectacular 1-0 shutouts, he has a 3.52 ERA, which only ranks 41st out of 98 qualified MLB starters. Yet, I certainly do buy the fact that Masterson is a very solid major-league starter. I think he’s better than what he showed in 2012. And he’s a second-year arbitration-eligible player in 2014, with possible free agency in 2015. It’d be an intriguing case to see if he signs long-term. He certainly should be an Indian and, most likely, the de facto ace next year.
Zach McAllister is the up-and-comer. He was even better than Masterson this season, posting a 3.43 ERA before going on the disabled list recently. At 25 years old, with 37 career MLB starts and with earliest possible free agency in 2019, I think we’ll get used to seeing him in Cleveland for a long time. McAllister (career 7.3 K/9, 2.9 BB/9) strikes me as a more punchout-prone Jake Westbrook (career 5.1 K/9, 2.9 BB/9). He’ll rack up the quality starts and usually won’t get burned. Assuming his current finger injury isn’t a major issue a la Adam Miller and others, he should be a very solid starter for years to come.
The new star: Corey Kluber
Pre-2013, after those two pitchers and “the prospect” below, no one knew what the Indians rotation of the future might look like. But Corey Kluber has made the biggest stride this year toward cementing his long-term status with the team. At 27 years old, the light has finally turned on for the big Texan. He has an surprising 3.58 ERA in his 11 games (10 starts) this season. His 5.42 K/BB ratio not only leads the team, but also is historically impressive for a Cleveland Indian. Previously, I pegged Kluber as a long-term relief candidate or possibly a No. 5 starter. At this pace, and with this kind of electric stuff, he’s an ideal No. 3 with big-time upside. Similar to McAllister, his earliest possible free agency is 2019.
The wild card: Carlos Carrasco
Following the most surprising Indians pitcher in 2013, we have the most enigmatic: 26-year-old Carlos Carrasco. Once a three-time top-60 prospect in baseball, Carrasco was the second-biggest fish in the infamous Cliff Lee trade with Philadelphia. He showed brief flashes of brilliance before undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2011. Now finally at 100% health and off the curious suspension bug, he had one of the best MLB starts of his career on Monday. He only has a 5.18 ERA in his 36 career Indians starts. He’s a possible free agent in 2017, but the jury is still out on whether he could finally be a consistent contributor or perhaps just a AAAA flame-out prospect.
The prospect: Trevor Bauer
The No. 3 draft pick in 2011 and a two-time top-20 prospect in baseball, 21-year-old Trevor Bauer has the best pedigree of all pitchers on this list. Eccentric, quirky or perhaps just really smart, Bauer still seems to be misunderstood in Cleveland and elsewhere: He projects to be a possible No. 2 starter with good strikeout ability but continued possible control issues. That’s the storyline reflected in his 24 career AAA starts: 3.26 ERA, 10.1 K/9 and 4.3 BB/9. He is by far the best pitching prospect in the system. His three Cleveland spot starts gave us a tantalizing taste of what he could be in the big leagues, but he’s still a work-in-progress. Ideally, this possible 2019 free agent remains in Columbus in ’13 followed by an opportunity to secure a long-term rotation spot in 2014.
The question mark: Ubaldo Jimenez
More likely than not, I’d assume the end of Ubaldo Jimenez’s Cleveland career is approaching soon. After yet another ugly outing, TD wrote on April 17 that the team needed to cut the cord. Jimenez is now 29 years old and has an $8 million team option for 2014. In his 55 Cleveland starts, he has posted a near-worst-in-baseball 5.20 ERA. Yes, he has been better of late — to the tune of a 3.02 ERA in his last 9 starts before Tuesday — but is he worth $8 million? Potentially, in the Indians eyes, just as Roberto Hernandez (nee Fausto Carmona) was initially worth $7 million for 2012. But even still, my guess is that pending continued elite play, his NE Ohio tenure is on its final leg soon-ish.
The field: [Free Agent], Scott Kazmir, Brett Myers, Danny Salazar, T.J. House, et al
Rarely, if ever, do teams use just five starting pitchers in an entire season. The most significant example in recent history was 2012 Cincinnati, who had 161 out of 162 starts by just five players. For reference, 16 players have started a game for Cleveland since 2011, including 12 different players with at least 11 outings (link to both charts). Thus, as much as the list above could certainly be the five-man rotation in April 2014, a lot could still change between now and then, while certainly potentially during that season as well.
That leads us to a possible free agent acquisition. The 2014 class has a lot of intriguing starters, as highlighted by Matt Garza, A.J. Burnett, Hiroki Kuroda, Paul Maholm, Phil Hughes, Josh Johnson and Ervin Santana. Perhaps, the Indians also could be attracted to a reclamation project or two. It’s simply worth noting that this is a fairly likely option. The team would have to feel comfortable enough with their existing young options and/or feel constricted enough financially to not reach for a new signing.
This year’s two free agent starter additions were 29-year-old Scott Kazmir and 32-year-old Brett Myers. Kazmir won the No. 5 job out of spring training, yet has been fairly poor so far to the tune of a 5.89 ERA in 11 starts. He has had a few solid outings, reminiscent of his electric stuff pre-2010, but might be out of a job potentially soon when McAllister returns. Myers’ Cleveland future is even more hazy, as he posted a 8.02 ERA in 21.1 innings before going down with an injury on April 20th. He’s eligible to return off the 60-day DL this week, but his rehab was recently put on hold too.
Two other starting prospects are on the team’s 40-man roster in 23-year-old Danny Salazar and 23-year-old T.J. House. Both are recent additions to the AAA Columbus roster, so likely aren’t too serious of options even in the 2014 discussion. Salazar was dynamite for AA Akron and now has a 4.81 ERA in 6 outings thus far for the Clippers. He sat for nearly three weeks recently, yet has as much upside as any Indians pitching prospect after Bauer. House, the team’s 16th-rounder in 2008 out of high school, also was posting solid numbers for the Aeros before his promotion in late April. He has a 5.46 ERA in 10 AAA outings, so the jury also is still out on his future prospect standing.
Overall, I like where the Indians are in terms of their MLB starting rotation situation. I think it’s a solid and still improving cohort. They’re all relatively young and many have been excellent of late. While the organization may lack a starter with the potential to be a top-20 pitcher in baseball, they make up for it with three-to-four players who could be solid No. 2’s or No. 3’s on most teams.
An odd stat that I only realized in full on Monday: The Indians are by far last in baseball in the category of starts made by lefties since 2011. On this list, only Kazmir and House are left-handed. Perhaps, that could be an emphasis point for the organization in free agency this offseason. No immediate southpaw help appears to be on the horizon when looking at the top prospects in the system, as well.
Including Jimenez’s performance on Tuesday, the Indians starting rotation has a 3.81 ERA since Kluber’s season debut in the second game of a doubleheader on April 28th. That ERA is supplemented with marks of 8.2 K/9, 3.3 BB/9 and 2.48 K/BB. That’s darn impressive, especially considering the long losing streak, the continued struggles of Kazmir, being without McAllister for two weeks and, again, how awful the team’s starters were in 2012. It shows the long-term potential of this unit and the depth showcased thus far in 2013.
By the end of 2013, it’s a reasonable expectation for the Indians to finish in the 16-22 range in ERA. They’re getting better and will continue to have more health. Yes, regression can and likely will occur, but that range seems about right for now. It’s a humongous improvement over 2012’s 28th place finish. Where will that lead them in 2014? I’d still lean toward a middle-of-the-pack starting unit, as there is no true ace to anchor the staff.
My prediction is that Masterson-McAllister-Kluber-Carrasco-Bauer are the five who break camp in ’14. That includes a maybe unrealistic desire that the Indians do not pick up Jimenez’s $8 million option. It also opens up the door for consideration of a left-handed acquisition in free agency, if the team has any money available after this past winter’s spending spree. Salazar will be the next-man up in Columbus, while Kazmir and Myers will be off in other pastures.
- no pun intended, like seriously [↩]