July 31, 2014

Indians All-Star Break Review: The Starting Rotation

Corey KluberWe have arrived at baseball’s All-Star break. The Cleveland Indians sit at 51-44, a game and a half out of first place in the AL Central. It has been quite a ride since GM Chris Antonetti hired Terry Francona to manage this club. The shot had been fired – a change in culture was about to arrive in Cleveland. We expected some changes, but nobody could have expected that this team would be as good as it has been. Yes, they have been up and down and have the nickname “Team Streak,” but this start has a completely different feel than the last two years. This seems real.

With that said, each of the next three days we will take a look at the three aspects of the club, beginning today with the starting rotation.

The starters:

Justin Masterson – 20 starts – 135.1 IP, 10-7, 3.72 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 137 K, 54 BB, 9.11 K/9

Ubaldo Jimenez – 19 starts – 98.2 IP, 7-4, 4.56 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, 94 K, 53 BB, 8.57 K/9

Scott Kazmir – 16 starts – 86.0 IP, 5-4, 4.60 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 80 K, 30 BB, 8.37 K/9

Corey Kluber – 15 starts (17 appearances) -95 IP,  7-5, 3.88 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 94 K, 22 BB, 8.91 K/9

Zach McAllister – 11 starts – 65.2 IP, 4-5, 3.43 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 45 K, 22 BB, 6.17 K/9

Carlos Carrasco – 6 starts – 28.2 IP, 0-4, 9.10 ERA, 2.09 WHIP, 15 K, 13 BB, 4.71 K/9

Trevor Bauer – 4 starts – 17.0 IP, 1-2, 5.29 ERA, 1.82 WHIP, 11 K, 16 BB, 5.82 K/9

Brett Myers – 3 starts (4 appearances) – 21.1 IP, 0-3, 8.02 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, 12 K, 5 BB, 5.06 K/9 

Danny Salazar – 1 start – 6.2 IP, 1-0, 1.50 ERA, 0.50 WHIP, 7 K, 1 BB, 10.50 K/9

When the season started, the team’s single biggest question mark was how this rotation would fair. Whether it was the local or the national media, everyone knew the Indians Achilles heel. With the offensive additions, the thought was that this team would only go as far as the rotation would take them. After top dog Justin Masterson, nobody knew how things would go.

Ubaldo Jimenez returned as the number two guy after a 9-17 season. Veteran Brett Myers was given a one-year, $7 million deal to be the middle of the rotation innings eater. Zach McAllister, a pleasant surprise in 2012, would be the fourth starter, and the final spot was going to be a battle between minor league deal signees Scott Kazmir and Daisuke Matsuzaka, kid sensation Trevor Bauer, and holdover Corey Kluber, who was thought to be rotation filler.

Now we sit at the All-Star break with Myers a complete non-factor thanks to injury and ineffectiveness, Bauer working out his mechanics in AAA, Matsuzaka floundering in the minors, and Kazmir and Kluber becoming indispensable members of the big league rotation.

Right at the top, Masterson has been solid. He has thrown three complete game shutouts, which lead the league, and has looked absolutely dominant at times. The righty leads the Tribe starters in wins, strikeouts, WHIP, and Ks per nine innings. However, there are times when he can look rather pedestrian and left-handed hitters eat him up. In the biggest start of the season in front of a sellout crowd on July 5th against the Tigers, he couldn’t get out of the fifth inning. Detroit is the team the Indians are chasing, and Masterson has allowed 10 earned runs in 11 and two-thirds. Still, Justin made his first All-Star team and has gone at least six innings in  18 of his 20 starts.

The enigma that is Ubaldo Jimenez continues to make us all shake our heads. We all need to come to grips with the fact that the guy who the Indians thought they were getting in 2011 does not exist anymore. Jimenez is not a top of the rotation starter. At this point he is a fourth or fifth guy who you hope can pitch six solid innings. The numbers tell a different story. He strikes out nearly a batter per inning, but he still walks too many for anyone’s liking (53 in 98.2 IP). For some reason, he is a much better pitcher on the road than he is at home. In nine starts he has an ERA over six and averages less than five innings per start. On the road, he is 4-1 with a 3.31 ERA in 10 starts.

Another oddity – while Ubaldo seems to be a five-and-fly guy every time out, he has allowed three runs or less in nine of his last 10 starts. He still puts a strain on the bullpen, but Jimenez has learned how to be more of a complete pitcher. I still wouldn’t start him in a playoff game ahead of Corey Kluber, Scott Kazmir, or a healthy Zach McAllister.

Speaking of which, if you had to name a player who has been the biggest surprise of 2013, no doubt it would be Kluber. The right-hander from Arlington, Texas was nothing more than organizational rotation filler when the season began, but something clicked for him when he made a four inning relief stint in Houston in late April. He was inserted into the rotation in place of the injured Brett Myers for the infamous doubleheader in KC that turned the season. Kluber went seven innings allowing two runs, striking out six without a walk. This became a trend for Kluber, who has become a guy who pounds the zone ans doesn’t walk hitters. He has gotten stronger each month. In May, his ERA was 5.17, In June 3.90, and in July 2.79. In addition, Kluber has become the innings-eater that Myers was supposed to be. He’s gone six or more innings in eight of his last 10 starts. To me, he is the Tribe’s second best starter and it may not even be in question.

As good as Kluber has been, Kazmir has been right on his tail of late. Everyone knows his story by now. He was once a phenom All-Star who was destined to have a long successful career. Then the bottom dropped out. He spent 2012 pitching in the independent league and the Indians gave him a shot on a minor league free agent deal in the Spring after seeing him throw this winter. In Goodyear, Kazmir was arguably Francona’s best starter and won the fifth starter job going away. Unfortunately just before Opening Day, the injury bug caught him and he started the season on the DL. He came off the DL to make his first start in his hometown of Houston and failed to make it out of the fourth inning. But since that initial start, Kazmir has done exactly what a fifth starter should do. He has consistently kept his team in games.

What we didn’t expect to see was the velocity and control. Kazmir’s fastball is regularly 94-96 MPH and has returned to being a strikeout pitcher (80 in 86 innings). After an early June hiccup, the left-hander has been as hot as any Tribe pitcher. Over his last five starts, Kazmir has an ERA of 2.32 and a WHIP of 0.87 with 25 Ks and seven walks. At one point in the season, I thought moving Kazmir to the late-inning lefty role was going to be the move. Instead, he has made himself a key cog in the rotation. It should be interesting to see how the Indians brass handles Kazmir down the stretch. He has pitched 86 innings thus far. Its been since 2010 since he has gone over 100.

The hope is that McAllister is ready to rejoin the rotation after the All-Star break. The Zach Attack looked like a perfect complement to Masterson until a finger injury derailed his season. His ERA of 3.43 still is the best of any Tribe starter and other than his last start against Tampa, which the finger was an issue, McAllister hadn’t allowed more than three runs in any of his 10 starts. He made a rehab start this past week in Akron and the key is finding his curve ball. A healthy Z Mac down the stretch will be a big boost to the rotation. If he isn’t able to come back, then the Indians will have to count more on Ubaldo than they would like while having to dip back into the AAA pool for an arm. Myers is not an option. While rehabbing his shoulder issue, the decision was made to bring him back as a reliever. But Myers suffered a setback and it is not known when or if we will see him again.

The hope was that either Trevor Bauer or Carlos Carrasco would emerge and pitch their way onto the club. It hasn’t happened for either. Bauer made four spot starts, each with differing results. We saw a guy who could pitch his way out of jams with a multitude of pitches, but we also saw a stubborn kid with control issues. His delivery mechanics are currently a mess and being worked out in Columbus. The last impression he made with the big club was not a good one as he pitched entirely out of the stretch and couldn’t get out of the first inning in a doubleheader with the Chicago White Sox. He is still the future of the Tribe’s rotation, but not the present.

Carrasco may have been worse.

The last remaining hope from the Cliff Lee trade has been given every opportunity to be a part of this club, but he keeps getting in his own way. In six starts, he has an ERA over nine and again was suspended for throwing at the head of New York’s Kevin Youkilis. He is so tantalizing with his power stuff, but he can’t seem to get it together between the ears. All of this has led up to the unexpected debut of Danny Salazar. The 23-year old Dominican got the call for a spot start last Thursday and showed the stuff that had the Indians front office drooling. 100 Ks in 76 minor league innings will do that to you. He touched 97 with his fastball most of the game, hitting all the way up to 99. His splitter was impressive and kept the Blue Jays completely off balance. Entering the sixth inning of his first start, Salazar was pitching a no hitter and had walked just one. After his first win of the season, Tribe fans want to see more.

However, Salazar is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and the Tribe has him on a pitch and innings limit. The 89 pitches he threw Thursday tied for the most he had thrown all season. If McAllister isn’t ready to come off the DL after the break, expect Salazar to get another start.

———-

This team will only go as far as the rotation will take them in the second half. The key is pitching deeper into games than they have up until now. They rank 12th out of 15 teams in the AL in starter innings. The bullpen is completely overworked and it is not helping their cause.  There are so many question marks. Can Kluber and Kazmir keep this up? Can Masterson continue to be a workhorse at the top? What will they get from Ubaldo? Will McAllister come back healthy and effective? If he can’t, can Salazar give the team a “Jaret Wright 1997″ bump out of nowhere?

Only time will tell.

  • Kevin Huyghe

    Do we lead the league in pitchers who are recovering from Tommy John Surgery!? Seems like every starter or reliever in Columbus is. If Z-Mac is able to come back soon… I think that rounds out this rotation very nicely. Would love to see both Bauer and Salazar finish up the year in Columbus, outside of maybe one or two more appearances, and then be on the opening day rotation in 2014. I am completely over Carrasco’s crap.

  • nj0

    Did anyone in the front office actually say Bauer was pitching out of the stretch against the wishes of Tito and the pitching staff? Has that been verified? Or is this one of those “media narratives” that I’ve heard them talk about so much lately?

  • Steve

    Not only has that not been said, its not even a media narrative, its an annoyed-fan narrative. Hoynes confirmed the next day that Bauer had been working with the AAA staff on pitching exclusively out of the stretch and Callaway was aware of the change.

  • woofersus

    And right after the game Francona said that Callaway told him it would be that way. Nobody has said anything about Bauer being some kind of rebel except for article commenters and Miguel Montero.

  • nj0

    That’s kind of what I expected.

  • nj0

    But he makes his own rap songs!!! WARBBLLE!!! Long toss!!! Attitude!!!

  • woofersus

    I agree Jiminez isn’t a top of the rotation guy anymore, and we’d all like him to be able to pitch more innings, but in fairness to him he’s actually been pretty consistent and reliable this year. He did leave before 5 innings in his most recent start, but before that it had only happened 3 times this year, and he’s given up 3 runs or less 14 times this year out of 19 starts. (only more than 4 three times) I would argue the greater stress on the bullpen has been the Bauer/Carrasco mess that has them pitching in the 3rd and 4th inning every 5 days while McAllister has been out, as well as the doubleheaders. We’ve had a few stretches where one of our other pitchers will have an uncharacteristically bad/short start, followed by a 4 inning start from a AAA guy, and then Jiminez goes 5 2/3 with 2 runs and we’re complaining about him.

    Also, bad bullpen pitching puts stress on the rest of the bullpen. When somebody comes in and can’t get an out, it’s a wasted spot. We’ve carried extra bullpen arms for most of the year, and some of them have just been kind of useless. Huff was shipped out of town after posting an ERA of 15, Barnes blew up and might not be given another chance this year, Hagadone was more frequently bad than good, and now we’re experimenting with first timers like Langwell, Martinez, House, Guilmet, and Lee, who Tito is hesitant to put into high pressure situations. None of that had anything to do with the starting staff. When we talk about an overworked bullpen, we’re really talking about like 3 guys. Having Perez back will help, since that pushes all the other reliable pitchers one inning earlier, and the recent resurgence of Hill, if he can keep it up, will also be huge for preventing tired bullpen arms.

    I agree Kazmir’s staying power is a concern. Tito’s been handling him pretty carefully, pulling him with less than 100 pitches most of the time, and I assume this is partially because he knows we really need him to continue pitching well for the rest of the year. My biggest concern about the starting rotation isn’t so much the quality of the top 5 guys, but what happens if we lose one of them as we’ve seen with McAllister hurt. Salazar was tantalizingly good, but I doubt he’s available for significant innings down the stretch this year.

  • nj0

    I think Indian fans will always describe Ubaldo’s performance, however good or bad it may be in reality, in the worst terms possible. That may be unfair, but he’s kind of earned it.

  • nj0

    If I was going to give a letter grade, I’d probably give the starters something in the C-/D+ range. I think a lot of that is thanks to the Meyers/Bauer/Carrasco cluster in the 5th spot.

  • Harv 21

    Not exactly. Per post-game reports, Francona only found out it might happen after Bauer was on the mound. Callaway knew he was working on it in the minors, but in his pre-game bullpen he was pitching both ways. Quotes sound like Francona was peeved at the kid’s failure to communicate as well as the disastrous result in the first game of a doubleheader where the bullpen was already taxed.

    http://www.cleveland.com/tribe/index.ssf/2013/06/tale_of_the_tape_from_clevelan.html

  • nj0

    Thanks for the link.

  • Steve

    The rotation ERA- is 113. So no longer worst in the league like last year, but still 22nd. They could use some help.

  • co811809

    Imagine if we traded for a top of the rotation guy like Garza though. 1. Garza 2. Masterson 3. McCalister (have to think he’ll be okay) 4. Kluber/ Kazmir 5. Kluber Kazmir. If they keep pitching how they have been as of late that could be a 5 deep rotation. You get a good second half out of guys like Swisher, Cabrera, Chisenhall etc. that is a scary team. I know that’s a lot of ifs but its not crazy to have that happen.

  • Jaker

    First of all, I’d like to see more of Salazar, but I’d rather take the necessary precautions to take care of his injury rehab. Hopefully he and Bauer will be here to stay sometime in 2014. I think in their development, we should be thinking 2014 all the way, with a spot start here or there this year…

    Great roundup, you touched on everything…except the outside addition we may make. Whether its Garza, Gallardo or a young arm from St. Louis, this rotation will probably make a move. Do you think this will happen? Do you think it must happen?

  • mgbode

    Just based on my expectations in the spring, I’d give them a solid B+
    Based on their actual work, C- sounds fair.

  • woofersus

    It’s right there in the article, “I know when he took the mound, Mickey told me don’t be surprised if he pitches out of the stretch.” Obviously it was something the pitching coaches knew about. It’s also been reported in the media that it was never run by anybody in Columbus, but that’s not what Francona said either.

    The other quote that Hoynes put in front of it was taken out of order IIRC, and it makes him sound annoyed, but that’s not the impression I got when watching him say it. I believe that one came from a different question about why Bauer is unconventional and if he was worried about it. I tried to find a transcript or video to go back and recheck, but I couldn’t find one.

  • micronot

    Carrasco has some good stuff, but is too inconsistent and doesn’t yet appear to have the mental toughness to be a starter. That said, he has good stuff… maybe the team should give him a try in the bullpen.

    I think the Tribe will need another quality starter if they want to have a shot at the post season. It would be nice to have Cliff Lee back. Maybe if they can get another starter that can eat up innings, plus a couple guys from the bullpen return from injury, maybe they won’t need another arm in the pen.

    Right now, they are only 1.5 games out of first, and on paper the second half of the season should be easier – playing against many sub-.500 teams. So with a little boost (i.e. another good stater), and barring injuries, plus a little luck, this team has a real good shot at the post season THIS YEAR. It would build a lot of confidence in the fans (and the team too), if ownership shows they are willing to spend to put a contender on the field.