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What the Indians starters do well (Part 1)

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The most questionable part of the Indians team heading into the 2009 season is the starting pitching.  This isn’t to say our starting pitching is the worst part of the team, but it is certainly the hardest to project.  I have talked a little bit before about some of our options for the back of the rotation.  Paul and Castrovince have both given their rotation previews recently as well.  I am of the opinion that we have enough pitching to be where we want to be come the end of July (at which point adding more pitching might be in play).  The challenge is that the right combination of pitching isn’t likely to be established by April 1.  Wedge and Willis will have a difficult role to play in deciding who takes the mound every 5th day – simultaneously avoiding giving too many starts to an underperforming guy and not wasting pitching talent at AAA.  In that light, I’d like to start a series looking at what each of our starting pitchers does well as a way of identifying what they need to do in 2009 to succeed (and what, if they aren’t doing it, tells us they need to get yanked).  As always this is offered in the “WTF do I know?” spirit.


I’ll start with the 2 guys who have the clearest positives, Cliff and Fausto.


In 2008 Lee did just about everything right (as if his 22-3 record and 2.83 FIP didn’t tell you that).  But what he really did well in 2008 was throw strikes.  Only Paul Byrd (57.0) and Andy Sonnanstine (56.9) threw a greater percentage of pitches in the strike zone among qualifying pitchers than Lee (56.4).  Only Mussina (67.6) and Ervin Santana (66.7) threw more first pitch strikes than Lee (66.6).  Paul Byrd’s control has allowed him to stick in the majors despite a lack of great “stuff”.  Cliff’s stuff is considerably better than Byrd’s, and in 2008 it began with his fastball.  Only 10 pitchers relied more heavily on their fastball than Lee, whose 91-93 mph fastball set up the success of his other pitches.  Lee’s change and curveball are both plus pitches, especially when coming off of Lee’s fastball (see this recent piece from THT on pitch sequencing), which they almost always were last season.  Lee also managed to get more groundballs off his fastball than he had in the past, something which helped dramatically lower his HR-rate.


I don’t see any reason, barring injury, Lee can’t repeat some degree of his success from last year.  I’m not going to predict that he’ll go 22-3 again, but I would be shocked if his control fell off a cliff (no pun intended).  Seeing Lee maintain his control numbers and somewhat elevated GB-rate will be good signs.


Fausto’s success is also easily explained.  Fausto’s power sinker (92-94 mph), in addition to being hangover inducing, might be the best pitch on Cleveland’s staff (Perez’s slider is probably the other leading contender).  Last year he threw it about 80% of the time, induced a huge amount of contact off of it, and was second in the league (behind Brandon Webb) in GB%.  But Fausto’s sinker works best when people swing at it.  Last year hitters did a better job of waiting for Fausto to throw strikes and as a result, recorded less swinging strikes and walked considerably more batters.  For Carmona to regain some of his 2007 success, it would help for him to make batters less patient by more consistently throwing strikes, thereby making it harder for hitters to hold off on pitches outside the zone (last year his outside the zone swing % dropped from almost 27% to 22%). 


It is interesting that if you look at Josh Kalk’s 2008 pitch f/x data, they classify Carmona with three different primary pitches; a fastball, sinker, and cutter.  They are all, I’m pretty sure, his power sinker (all sit between 93-94 mph), but they differ in how much break they get and the results they produce.  The “cutter”, which made up a little over a third of his sinkers in 2008 is basically a less effective subset of the pitch.  It still induces groundballs, but batters let it go past them for a strike far less often.  One other thing that comes out of his pitching numbers is that in 2008 Carmona struggled with his slider which, along with his change, completes his repertoire.  Carmona doesn’t use his secondary pitches often, but his slider, which was an effective pitch in 2007, had almost no control in 2008.  More than half the time he threw it last year it was a ball (up from 36% in 2007), again, giving hitters more of a reason to keep the bat on their shoulder.


So aside from the superficially obvious “get Ks and avoid BBs”, I think the two things to look for in Carmona are called strikes on his sinker and control of his slider.  Hopefully his control during winter ball is a sign these struggles are past him.


Up next, some of the bigger question marks...