While nothing is concrete and everything can change at a moment’s (or game’s) notice, the Cleveland Indians brain trust has confirmed that their three actual starting pitchers will be throwing on short rest in the World Series. Plainly this is not ideal, but then it’s never ideal to lose two All-Star caliber pitchers within a couple weeks of each other. The Indians are doing what they can, with what they have. But that doesn’t make it good.
It must also be asked, why? Each game is certainly vitally important as a single capsule, and the short termness of October baseball does allow for a manager to not worry so much about tomorrow. That’s why throwing Andrew Miller so many innings and supposed overuse of the bullpen isn’t really an issue. There’s rest, and there’s also the winter coming up. So throwing their top three guys on short rest isn’t going to doom them in a few weeks. But what about Ryan Merritt? Besides the fact that he has the same name and reversed initials as me, he also was very good in his start against the Blue Jays. The only real knocks on him are lack of experience, which wasn’t a problem a week ago, and lack of velocity. That doesn’t seem to stop Josh Tomlin, though he’s been good. But it also doesn’t seem to stop Kyle Hendricks for the Cubs. By the way, isn’t it amazing that in this era of insane velocities, Game 3 of the World Series is being started by two soft-tossing craftsmen?
They did keep Merritt on the roster for a reason, and it can’t be for relief purposes. Going to lower velocity in relief is never a good idea. It just gives the offense an easier time, like suddenly being in batting practice. Until further notice, Merritt doesn’t have one silly pitch that can get him out of problems, so it means only one thing. He’s there to start at some point. I don’t expect long relief to be a situation in this series.
That said, Kluber on short rest is better than Merritt on full rest. So is Bauer, probably. Especially as the book grows on him. And Tomlin is at least as good. You’ll have to wonder what extended fatigue looks like in a guy who lives in the 80’s and uses location to win, too. But the problem is, we don’t really know what we’ll see. Between the three of them, they have two starts on short rest. Kluber’s came in the ALCS where he allowed two runs in five innings with seven strikeouts. Tomlin’s came back in 2011 before he’d had Tommy John surgery. He’s a completely different pitcher now. So we have no idea how they might perform without having all the time to go through their between-start routine. Baseball players being such creatures of habit, this could be trouble.
But what can you do? They have so few options. They could piggyback Merritt and Salazar maybe, kind of a duo-starter thing. Or go with a bullpen game. Doing that in the ALCS was mad enough, and they got saved by Merritt’s dazzlement. Of course, Game Two was a real bullpen game, and it worked brilliantly. One has to wonder whether it would be a good idea to do just that in Game Five. Let Kluber start on short rest in Game Four, then empty the entire bullpen the next day since there’s a built-in day off between Five and Six. It leans on one of the strengths of the Indians and allows for full rest of the other two.
There is the idea of playing to the Cubs weaknesses, though. Chicago struggles against curveballs, batting .201 and making contact just 32.1% of the time on curveballs, the worst mark in the majors. The three starters throw three great and different curves, while in the bullpen only Cody Allen throws a curve of any note. So perhaps it makes sense to maximize throwing the thing that the other guys can’t hit. We’ve already seen a push to throw a ton of them out of Tomlin when he silenced the Blue Jays. Unlike in the regular season, where you face so many teams it behooves you to lean on your strengths, targeting the other guy’s weakness in a playoff series could actually work.
One potential positive to this is that maybe Trevor Bauer will pitch better. He’s such an odd duck, and also struggles early in games before getting it going. Maybe the Indians are actually leaning on his routines being messed up and his already being a little tired, that he is able to lock it in and pitch better from the get-go. It is quite the reach to be sure, but if it works for relief pitchers sometimes, why not Bauer?
Without a good alternative, short rest is the only solution. Unless it’s all just gamesmanship to distract the Cubs from Danny Salazar. A way to get in their heads that they’ll be seeing Tomlin in Game Six and suddenly, it’s a flamethrower coming at them. It doesn’t lend a real benefit outside of maybe the first inning, and anyway these young Cubbies club fastballs, but gamesmanship is always fun even if it’s just potential. With the bullpen they have the Indians only need two times through the order from each pitcher, so maybe it’s doable. Francona has earned the benefit of the doubt, so let’s see if these levers are the right ones to pull.