The Top Five Tribe Rotations of the Past 20 Years

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox

cliff cc

With the 20-year anniversary of Jacobs/Progressive Field almost upon us, we will be taking a look at top-fives in each aspect of the Indians on the field.  We started last week with the bullpens and today we will move to the starting rotations. Coming up with five groups was not an easy task. Let’s be honest here: The Indians have for the most part, been built around their offense and bullpen. That was the John Hart model. Hart’s protégé was Mark Shapiro, who took over the GM reigns during the transition of 2001. Shappy groomed current GM Chris Antonetti, but the landscape has changed over the past six years. When the Indians had their best success, it was because their starting pitching was at its strongest.

And with that…..

5. 1998

Bartolo Colon — 204 IP/14-9/3.71 ERA/1.39 WHIP/7.0 K per 9
Charles Nagy — 210.1 IP/15-10/5.22 ERA/1.50 WHIP/5.1 K per 9
Dave Burba — 203.2 IP/15-10/4.11 ERA/1.37 WHIP/5.8 K per 9
Jaret Wright — 192.2 IP/12-10/4.72 ERA/1.52 WHIP/6.5 K per 9
Dwight Gooden — 134 IP/8-6/3.76 ERA/1.38 WHIP/5.6 K per 9

Finding a fifth member for this list was like choosing the best compact car at a rental car joint. We went with the 2005 five-some mostly because of their names and the innings they ate. Colon headed the rotation and gave the first of a solid four-plus year run where he eventually turned himself into a top-tier starter. In 1998, he looked dominant at times, including a complete game victory over New York in game three of the ALCS. Charles Nagy was solid, yet unspectacular who for the most part kept his team in the game. This was not one of Nagy’s best seasons and his 15 wins are the poster season for the “kill the win” crowd. Burba came over for first base prospect Sean Casey and was steady. Not to mention, “The Ice Cream Man” was wildly popular in the clubhouse. Wright was supposed to build off of his ’97 playoff run and carry himself into the top of the rotation. Instead he had an up and down Sophomore campaign. It would turn out to be the best full season he had during his time in Cleveland. Gooden signed as a free agent that would help mentor Wright and pick up the bottom. Doc’s most memorable moment in an Indians uniform would come in the ’99 ALDS when he got tossed in the first inning of a Game 2 start against the Red Sox.

Honestly, this group doesn’t really bare any more conversation.

4. 1995 

Dennis Martinez — 187 IP/12-5/3.08 ERA/1.17 WHIP/4.8 K per 9
Orel Hershiser — 167.1 IP/16-6/3.87 ERA/1.20 WHIP/6.0 K per 9
Charles Nagy — 178 IP/16-6/4.55 ERA/1.43 WHIP/7.0 K per 9
Mark Clark — 124.2 IP/9-7/5.27 ERA/1.48 WHIP/4.9 K per 9 (21)
Chad Ogea — 106.1 IP/8-3/3.05 ERA/1.16 WHIP/4.8 K per 9 (14)
Ken Hill — 74.2 IP/4-1/3.98 ERA/1.46 WHIP/5.8 K per 9 (11)

The 1995 Indians were the team that really made Cleveland fall back in love with baseball again. For the most part, it was the big bats that did it, but somebody had to pitch these 100 games that the Tribe won.  

A year prior, Hart went out and grabbed a savvy veteran to lead his rotation. Martinez was at the end of his illustrious career, but the man they called “El Presidente” led by example on the field and in the clubhouse. It was his last true season in the sun. While he pitched more innings than any other Tribe starter, when the playoffs rolled around, he took a back seat to others. Like Martinez, it was Hershiser who was a big part of making this young core of stud hitters believe that they could be as good as they were. Nobody was more respected inside that room. Hart had struck gold a year before with Martinez and did the same in the offseason with Orel. He was great in the playoffs, winning three of his four starts while allowing just six earned runs. Nagy was Nagy—he gave manager Mike Hargrove the steady hand in the middle of the rotation and enjoyed the unprecedented run support on his way to 16 wins. At the trade deadline, Hart set out to grab a guy he knew would be an October competitor, as two spots behind Martinez, Hershiser, and Nagy were a little shaky. He plucked Hill from St. Louis, who made 11 regular season starts for the Tribe and was given the ball for the first playoff game in Cleveland since 1954. With the Tribe trailing two games to one in the ALCS to Seattle, Hill pitched seven plus scoreless innings to even the series which the Indians eventually won in six. In ’94 Clark looked like he would be the next to step up to become a solid long term member of the rotation when he went 11-3 with a 3.82 ERA in 20 starts before a broken wrist derailed his season. In the season of dreams, he was handed a job and struggled for the most part. Ogea would eventually share the job with Clark and posted a 3.05 ERA.

3. 2007

CC Sabathia 241 IP/19-7/3.21 ERA/1.14 WHIP/7.8 K per 9
Fausto Carmona 215 IP/19-8/3.06 ERA/1.20 WHIP/5.7 K per 9
Jake Westbrook 152 IP/6-9/4.32 ERA/1.40 WHIP/5.5 K per 9
Paul Byrd 192.1 IP/15-8/4.59 ERA/1.38/4.1 K per 9
Cliff Lee 97.1 IP/5-8/6.29 ERA/1.52 WHIP/6.1 K per 9
Jeremy Sowers 67.1 IP/1-6/6.42 ERA/1.55 WHIP/3.2 K per 9

It was a tough call putting the ’07 crew third, but the top three easily separated themselves.

When you have two of the top-three Cy Young award finalists, that’s a leg up. Sabathia and Carmona spent the summer playing “can you top this.” Sabathia was the power to Carmona’s finesse. Both were spectacular. At was the ’07 season where everyone thought the Indians had found their ready-made replacement ace for CC’s expected free agent departure after the ’08 season. He was pounding guys in their kitchens with his power sinker, which Minnesota’s Torii Hunter would call “unhittable” after Carmona outdueled Johan Santana on a summer afternoon in Cleveland. As for Sabathia, he was the Tribe’s workhouse, winning the Cy Young while pitching 241 innings. His October performance left something to be desired, but he and Carmona carried the team to their first division title since 2001.

What made the ’07 group special was the quality of the middle. Westbrook spent some time on the DL, but resumed his role as the resident ground ball machine. If you looked upon steady in the dictionary, a picture of Jake belongs there. The guy just battled and always seemed to get the double play ball when he needed it. People tend to forget, he kept the Indians in a tie game heading into the seventh inning of Game Seven of the ALCS before the implosion set off by the Skinner Stop Sign. Another forgotten moment of that playoff run was manager Eric Wedge’s decision to go with the veteran Byrd in Game 4 of the ALDS in New York instead of Sabathia on short rest. Oh baby did it work. In Yankee Stadium, Byrd went five innings allowing two runs. He did exactly what he was asked to do and was the winning pitcher in the series clincher. Just like Westbrook, the veteran was all heart and guts all season long. The Byrd man also won his lone ALCS start, Game 4 in Cleveland over Boston.

The strangest aspect of the ’07 rotation? Cliff Lee was so awful, he was sent to the minors for a spell and did not make the playoff roster. A year later, he was the AL Cy Young award winner.

2. 2013

Justin Masterson 193 IP/14-10/3.45 ERA/1.20 WHIP/9.1 K per 9
Ubaldo Jimenez 182.2 IP/13-9/3.30 ERA/1.33 WHIP/9.6 K per 9
Corey Kluber 147.1 IP/11-5/3.85 ERA/1.26 WHIP/8.3 K per 9
Scott Kazmir 158 IP/10-9/4.04 ERA/1.32 WHIP/9.2 K per 9
Zach McAllister 134.1 IP/9-9/3.75 ERA/1.36 WHIP/6.8 K per 9
Danny Salazar 52 IP/2-3/3.12 ERA/1.13 WHIP/11.3 K per 9

When the 2013 season started, who saw this kind of starting pitching coming? I know I didn’t. Don’t forget Masterson was coming off a brutal season, Jimenez was so awful coming in that some (myself included) were calling for his ouster. The one and only Brett Myers was given $7 million to be the third starter, a signing many could not understand considering he had been a reliever the previous year. McAllister was going to be in his first full year as a rotation mainstay and Kazmir was just a year removed from pitching for the Independent League Sugar Land Skeeters.

By September, Ubaldo was pitching like a star. Kazmir was striking out 10 per start. A rookie in Salazar came out of nowhere to be a must-watch pitcher every fifth day. Masterson was enjoying his best season as an Indian until an oblique injury shelved him. McAllister was steady. Then there was Kluber, who went from AAA rotation filler to a guy you would want starting a playoff game. It was truly an amazing turnaround.

Jimenez’s rise back to prominence was the most shocking. During the month of September, Masterson couldn’t make starts. It was the Big U who needed to be that rotation leader. During the second half of the season, he led all AL pitchers in ERA. Heady stuff.  Kluber and Kazmir were season savers who took the ball every time out and always gave a quality effort. The Indians do not make the playoffs without these two pitching the way they did. Salazar was supposed to be shut down with an innings limit, but the Indians had no choice but keep him in the rotation with injuries to Masterson and Kluber. While he pitched only four of five innings at a time, Danny showed the top of the rotation stuff that has the scouts salivating. The Tribe rode the arms all the way to October. Manager Terry Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway deserve a ton of credit for this group’s on the fly maturation.

 1. 2005

CC Sabathia 196.2 IP/15-10/4.03 ERA/1.25 WHIP/7.4 K per 9
Kevin Millwood 192 IP/9-11/2.86 ERA/1.21 WHIP/6.8 K per 9
Cliff Lee 202 IP/18-5/3.79 ERA/1.21 WHIP/6.4 K per 9
Jake Westbrook 210.2 IP/15-15/4.49 ERA/1.30 WHIP/5.1 K per 9
Scott Elarton 181.2 IP/11-9/4.61 ERA/1.30 WHIP/5.1 K per 9

First off, let’s talk stats. For the first time in team history, the Indians had five pitchers make 30 or more starts in the same season. Only one other pitcher, Jason Davis, even made a start in 2005. It is no coincidence that the ’05 team won 93 games, but fell just one game short of the playoffs. The Indians were looking to build off of a strong second half a year earlier, and were able to add the veteran Millwood on a one-year, $8 million deal. His agent Scott Boras banked on a huge year that would send him back on the open market for big bucks. It worked. Millwood led the AL in ERA and still to this day is credited by Sabathia as the guy who taught him “how to pitch.” Back in ’01 when the Indians last made the playoffs, CC was a 21-year-old hard thrower who won 18 games and overpowered hitters. It was in 2005 that he really honed his craft and became ace type material.

Lee had come over three years earlier from Montreal in the infamous Bartolo Colon trade. We all thought that season was where his peak could be. Cliff finished fourth in the CY Young race and pitched with quality stuff and good control. He won 18 games and a sub four ERA. Nobody saw the second half of his career coming the way it did, especially after the 2007 debacle. Westbrook was exactly what you wanted out of your fourth starter. He usually went six innings and induced 25 double play balls. Elarton was perhaps the biggest surprise. A scrap heap pickup a year before, the former reliever in Houston came out of nowhere to make 30 starts for the Tribe. The group finished first in the AL in runs allowed per game at 3.96 and netted 91 quality starts, good for third in the league and tops among this very list.

(Image via Scott Sargent/WFNY)

  • maxfnmloans

    That ’98 rotation sure would have looked a whole lot better with Pedro instead of Jaret Wright

  • Jason Hurley

    Excellent piece. It was hard for me to put into perspective how solid the rotation was last year. Lining it up like this was pretty useful.

  • Dave

    The 2013 rotation was far better than the 2005 rotation… you can talk innings all you want, but in terms of quality it’s not even close. The 2013 rotation featured 5 starters with an ERA of 3.85 or under and Kazmir (who started the year horribly only to recover significantly later on) at 4.04. That is phenomenal. Wins don’t show pitcher quality (see Millwood’s 2005 season) – ERA/WHIP K/9 and more advanced metrics like xFIP etc do and this team was LEAGUES above any other rotation we’ve ever had. The WHIPs weren’t as spectacular, but the K/9 and ERA numbers were ridiculous… we’d be lucky to see it’s equal again.

  • Wow

    It’s a shame the 2005 team didn’t make the playoffs.

  • Lincoln

    Imagine if cliff lee was cliff lee in 07