The Cleveland Indians are sitting pretty in the ALDS right now, up 2-0 over the Boston Red Sox. Some surprising outbursts from the latter half of the lineup have certainly helped, but the contributions from all parts of the pitching staff are the reason they are where they are. This was the expectation coming into the season, that the pitchers would lead the winning ways, just not the way we’re seeing it. We know Terry Francona loves his bullpen. But whether by chance or more likely through crafty scheming, his two starting pitchers so far have turned into relief pitchers.
By relief pitchers, I mean they focus primarily on one or two pitches. The great ones that come out of the ‘pen rarely have more than one or two tools in their belt. Mariano Rivera got by with one. A more human Trevor Hoffman had a decent fastball and killer change-up. On the Indians, you have Cody Allen with his four-seam and knuckle curve, Andrew Miller with his fastball and scythe-like slider, and Bryan Shaw’s pair of complementary pitches that move the same way, but with a 10 mph difference. But at least for the first two games, this mentality and methodology has leaked over to the starters. Whether because of the supposed threat of other pitches coming, or just because they're better, it worked for longer than a normal relief pitcher. But it worked.
In his Game 1 start, Trevor Bauer threw 46.2 percent four-seam fastballs and 34.6 percent curveballs. For a man who claims to have fifteen discrete pitches, this is amazing. For comparison’s sake, in the regular season Bauer threw his four-seam fastball 22.5 percent of the time and his curveball 19.6 percent of the time. His sinker took an 18 percent hit, his cutter more than 12 percent, and we didn’t see a single splitter according to Brooks Baseball’s Pitch FX data. While not unprecedented, this is an immense change in approach. This goes back to something I said on the most recent episode of Let’s Talk Tribe (Listen here), that the postseason would see a different Bauer, one less prone to tinkering. It’s easy to get bored in the long season, and for someone who likes to figure out new things like Bauer does and play with all aspects of pitching, it can lead to fiddling around in mid-July when the season seems endless. His commitment to throwing only his best stuff (and when that four-seam is right, it runs at righties about a foot and a half) led to a strong outing against an amazing offensive team and allowed him to succeed without overthinking.
Then in Game 2, Corey Kluber shut the Red Sox down. He grew more dominant as the game wore on, his velocity rising from 89-90 in the first inning to tickling 95 in the sixth. He did this while throwing predominantly two pitches, his sinker and his curve. I don’t have the percentages yet, Brooks Baseball hasn’t popped them out in time for me to write this. But by my rough estimation based on counting from the Gameday page on MLB.com only 20 of the 104 pitches Kluber threw weren’t a curve or a sinker. Five of those non-sinker/curves came immediately prior to his exit in the eighth, where it was increasingly evident he was throwing the kitchen sink as he had nothing left. He was just killing people with those two pitches.
He got Mookie Betts to ground into a double play with a curve, got five strikeouts on the sinker with three looking and two swinging K’s on the curve. It helps when your curve is one of the four or five best single pitches in baseball, but it’s amazing he shied away so much from his cutter/slider. The slash is because different measurements judge it differently, but it’s a cutter according to Kluber, just with a ton of movement. At any rate, it’s firmly his second best pitch according to Fangraph’s Pitch Values even if he doesn’t throw it that much. Kluber focused on his strengths, that being throwing strikes and an amazing curveball. And it worked for seven innings.
This isn’t unprecedented, just amazing. Madison Bumgarner did it just the other night against the Mets, relying on his fastball and curveball more heavily than ever. And it worked. In fact, he threw only three types of pitches in the Wild Card Game, and the cutter was used only 12 percent of the time. In an instance like this, it behooves the pitcher to use their best stuff. We saw Bumgarner continue to build his October legend with it, we saw Bauer go long enough to hand it to the bullpen, and we saw Kluber save the day last night.
But the real question is, can this be carried over? Is this simply a setup for a second start? Surely after seeing these pitches so much, in the sequences Bauer and Kluber used, will give the Red Sox a good idea of what they’ll see next time around. But perhaps that’s the plan. Baseball is such that each move, each pitch and swing and twitch a player shows could be a feint to trick the opponent into making a mistake. There’s an urban legend about Manny Ramirez purposely whiffing on a pitch he could crush against a division rival in May, just so he could destroy the same pitch in September or October when the games matter more. Maybe that's what these games are, a set-up. Baseball is so much that meta-game that is outside the physical aspect of the sport, of course, pitchers would try to think like this when planning a series. Especially tinkerers like Bauer and with wizards like Callaway lurking behind the scenes.
How will these two pitchers present themselves should the Tribe make it to a Game 4 or 5? Will we see them expand that repertoire early, kind of like a pitcher normally would the second or third time through an order? Or will they keep hammering on what they do best? Kluber, at least, didn’t do that, since he didn’t throw that cutter nearly as much as everyone demands. It could be a wrinkle he adds. For the pair of them, it’s something to watch for as they move through this and perhaps other series, and in fact, something to pay attention to in general with any early series starter. The future of baseball might look something like this, just groups of three and four inning specialists who only need to get through an order once or twice. The Indians just did it by accident, or at least without thinking about the future.