We should have known that strange times were in store on Friday evening when, after being delayed by two hours, the Indians allowed the game to begin before succumbing to a second rain delay just ten minutes later. Perhaps this was the plan of the crafty Tribesmen, thinking that their starter, Corey Kluber, wouldn’t be able to match up against the Rays young ace Matt Moore. Perhaps the Indians thought they had a better shot throwing their bullpen against that of the Rays, who are sporting an ugly 4.25 ERA on the season, good for 13th out of 15 AL teams? Get both starters out early, and steal game one with a strong bullpen effort?
Except the Indians don’t really have a good bullpen this season. In fact, their bullpen ERA is good for 14th in the AL with a 4.39 ERA, and as if to drive the point home, Scott Barnes laid a stinker (1 IP, 5 ER). Despite a meager attempt at a comeback in the fifth (circa 1 AM), the Indians went fairly quietly with two runs on one hit over the better part of eight hours. By the time the dust had settled, Mark Shapiro issued an apology and the Indians lost the game 9-2.
Saturday the bizarro-theme continued, this time in the form of Ubaldo Jimenez pitching well. Like, really well. He threw eight scoreless innings, striking out seven and walking only one. He still looks to me like a guy who’s more comfortable with his off-speed pitches than his fastball, but when he’s commanding his splitty/change and curveball he’s every bit the #2 starter we need. It’s those other nights that give him trouble.
I wrote last Friday that Scott Kazmir, like much of the Indians rotation, seems an all-or-nothing pitcher to me, and as evidence I broke his starts into two categories. Let’s try this with Ubaldo:
He’s just not the same guy. There’s the dominant, 3+ K/BB walk guy who shows up in two-thirds of his starts, then the stinking, blubbering failure that comes around every third time or so. I would probably argue that if you’re going to sustain and ERA of 4.83—his current line for the season—that his performance thus far would be the way you’d prefer to do it: dominate most of the time and then give your team no chance every now and then. That seems to me better than just stinking consistently. Either way though, is this a #2 pitcher on a contending team? I guess sometimes he is.
Anyway, Ubaldo cruised, Giambino homered and drove in three and the Indians earned their league-leading eighth shutout on the young season with a 5-0 victory (I know, right?).
Which left Sunday’s matchup of Jeremy Hellickson against Zach McAllister as the rubber game. As a quick aside, I find Hellickson to be completely frustrating to watch as an opposing fan. His fastball hovers in the low 90s, his change-up is always around the plate and he throws almost no breaking balls, and yet the Indians can’t buy a hit against him. Entering Sunday’s game, he had a 2.37 ERA against the Tribe.
Really though Hellickson wouldn’t matter all that much because the one pitcher I’ve continued to exempt from my all-or-nothing theory, McAllister, gave his team no shot. He managed to gut through 4.1 innings, allowing four walks and striking out no one en route to five Tampa runs. This is now two starts in a row in which McAllister has appeared to have very little command of his fastball. In his last start he relied on his off-speed pitches and gave the Indians enough to win, but Sunday he couldn’t locate any pitch for strikes and got beat all around. Worst of all, just as the Indians managed to claw back into the game in the bottom of the fourth, McAllister and a Yan Gomes throwing error let them right back in the driver’s seat in the fifth. The Rays didn’t look back, and ended up trouncing the Tribe bullpen on their way to an 11-3 win.
So let’s ask ourselves some questions.
Is the bullpen worrisome? Meh. A little maybe. You’d sure like to have Perez healthy and Pestano dominant, but when you look at the advanced stats they’re really not doing so bad. 13% of their flyballs have become home runs; that won’t last. Their K/BB ratio of 2.53 puts them fifth in the AL as does their xFIP of 3.83. Is the bullpen still a great strength? No, probably not. But it’s possible they weren’t as good as they often appeared last year (really, it is) just like it’s possible they’re not as bad as they look right now.
Are we done playing elite teams yet? No. In the next month the Indians face the Yankees, Tigers (twice), Rangers, Nationals, and Orioles. Those are all really good teams. After the All-Star Break, things start to get easier, but there are a lot of hurdles to deal with before mid-July.
What about Carlos Carrasco? Right now, Carrasco has a 3.21 ERA in Columbus and is striking out more than three times as many hitters as he’s walking. His problems will always be home run related (and, perhaps, getting ejected for doing dumb stuff), but so far this year he’s allowed only four home runs in 47.2 innings pitched. Meanwhile, Trevor Bauer is getting shellacked down there; in his last three starts (16.1 innings) he’s walked as many batters as Carrasco has all season (14). This, along with the bullpen deficiencies, is my way of saying I don’t want to see Brett Myers anywhere near our rotation this year.
How good is good enough? The Indians are so much better than they were last season. But we have to remember that they were truly awful last season, so improvement isn’t necessarily going to be good enough to matter in any tangible way. I still think they have to get to the All-Star Break above .500 with a solid hold on second place (or first, why not?) before we can think of them as contenders for a playoff spot. But that doesn’t mean we can’t just enjoy the bejeezus out of watching a fun team play good baseball for the next month or so. Some questions just don’t have answers yet.
AP Photo/Mark Duncan