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Building the worst rotation in Cleveland Indians history

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We mine the history of the Cleveland Indians to find the five worst single years for pitchers that could conceivably make up a starting rotation. It is bleak.

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The history of the Cleveland Indians is rich with legendary pitching. From Bob Feller and Addie Joss to a recent run of Cy Young winners in CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Corey Kluber, it’s been the backbone of any success the Indians have ever had. But it hasn’t always been good. Many times, it’s been damn hideous.

There have been 315 player seasons where a pitcher has started 25 or more games for the Indians. Many were sufficiently average, quite a few were amazing, and several were dreadful. The Indians could put quite the Rotation of Horrors together out of those dreadful ones, perhaps bad enough to lose 140 games if they got the chance. That’s hyperbole, but there was some bad pitching in the last 100 or so years. For the hell of it, let"s see what their worst rotation ever would look like.

To put this rotation of misery together, I decided to find Tribe pitchers who threw more than 175 innings in their respective season with an ERA+ under 90 and a fielding independant pitching over 4.50. The rationale is, they started and pitched quite a bit but still didn’t do their bullpen any favors by not going deep in games. Also, they were way below average compared to the other pitchers of that season (the ERA+) and didn’t do a good job of taking care of the things pitchers have control over. That is where the FIP, which measures pitchers based on homers, strikeouts and walks, comes in. I feel like these combined attributes can demonstrate a terrible starting pitcher. Each of those chosen are snapshots of a single season. Some of these guys had great seasons earlier or later in their career.Some might even hang around a Hall of Fame ballot for a bit. But for one brief, shining moment, each one of these men were absolutely terrible.

In case you wondered, I did try to find longer careers of sufficiently bad pitchers, but it turns out garbage doesn’t hang around too long. So we’ll use single years instead.

The worst tribe rotation ever

5. 1961 Jim Perry - 10-17, 223.2 IP, 35 GS, 4.71 ERA, 4.64 FIP, 83 ERA+

I actually wrote about him a few weeks back, and how awful trading him for Jack Kralick turned out to be. But based on a year like this, you can understand the thought process of the front office in moving him, at least a little bit. Maybe it was a bum arm that dragged him down, seeing as it was his third year, and had been asked to throw 261 innings the year before. As the theory behind the apocryphal Verducci Effect suggests, going from 153 innings his rookie year to 261 a year later was a recipe for disaster. Disaster in the shape of a three-year run with a 90 ERA+ over 600 innings. Going to Minnesota was what his career needed, but it sure does hurt to see what a gem this rough stone turned into a few years down the road. As I said a few weeks ago, patience in a front office is paramount.

4. 2004 Cliff Lee - 14-8, 179 IP, 33 GS, 5.43 ERA, 4.97 FIP, 80 ERA+

Here is an example of patience paying off. This was Lee's first full season starting, and he showed all the growing pains of a young pitcher. He gave up 30 home runs and walked a career-high 10.1 percent of batters, and I suppose in a way it speaks to his potential that the Cleveland leadership stuck with him to see what he'd become. In four years his walk rate dropped to 3.8 percent, he won a Cy Young and netted Carlos Carrasco and Lou Marson in a trade. Between him and Perry, that's two future Cy Young winners on this list, along with two other guys who finished top five in voting. Goes to show you the changes a pitcher can go through as they grow. Or in one later pitcher's case, how far they can fall.

3. 1984 Neal Heaton - 12-15, 198.2 IP, 34 GS, 5.21 ERA, 4.52 FIP, 79 ERA+

Ah, the mid-80s Indians. So much middling baseball by the lake.  Much like Lee, it feels a little wrong to criticize a guy who was so early in his major league career, but the numbers are what they are. And Heaton never really got that much better. Win-loss wise, he actually performed pretty similarly to the .462 winning percentage the team posted, and he did throw a shutout that season. He probably wasn't even the worst pitcher on an inning to inning basis either, that crown going to either Steve Comer's 73 ERA+ or Roy Smith and his 5.03 FIP. But neither of them even came close to Heaton's innings count, Comer at 117.1 and Smith at only 86.1.

When you can get that close to 200 innings and still be that bad, you're a special kind of workhorse. I feel a little bad about Bert Blyleven, the ace on the staff. Blyleven at least talked his way out of the team in a trade that led to that smoke and mirrors 84-win 1986 season. Heaton kicked around for a bit more in Cleveland and toured both leagues, ultimately ending his career with the Yankees two years before they got good. Likely the most forgettable player on the list. He is followed by possibly the most amazing story on the list.

2. 2011 Roberto Hernandez - 7-14, 188.2 IP, 32 GS, 5.25 ERA, 4.56 FIP, 75 ERA+

The Tale of Fausto Carmona is perhaps the strangest saga in the last decade of the Cleveland Indians. While it's not a rare story for him to seemingly age overnight (players from the Dominican and other Latin American countries have used other identities to seem younger and get signed for decades) the way he rose so quickly in prominence and was a key cog in a playoff run, got paid and then promptly collapsed was nothing short of spectacular.

He was like a different person between the 2007 ALCS and Opening Day 2008, and still they extended him. Looking at these numbers, or even just watching him pitch in 2011, it's amazing to think he got Cy Young votes just a few years earlier. he actually started on Opening Day that year, essentially marking him as the ace of the Cleveland Indians by default. For a club with such a history of disappointment in players, Roberto Hernandez's fantastic defrauding of the Tribe has to be top five all time. And when he pitched in this fateful year, he was absolutely dreadful in every conceivable way. It'd be hard to top him, at least in my personal experiences of Tribe history. Luckily...

1. 2012 Ubaldo Jimenez - 9-17, 176.2 IP, 31 GS, 5.40 ERA, 5.06 FIP, 72 ERA+

Just one year later, it happened. Your ace of the awful. Considering the the organization was a bottom feeder for more than three decades last century I thought this reverse ace would have shown up much sooner. Instead it cost two top pitching prospects in 2011, and the Indians and their fans got thirty starts  full of frustration and confusion. Of all the players on here, the fall Ubaldo experienced is most incredible. In 2010 he was not only top three in Cy Young voting, he dominated the NL despite playing at Coors Field. For most of a season he did what nobody before or since has been able to accomplish, including a no hitter. Then he promptly stepped off a cliff. Whether because of hard to repeat mechanics, velocity drop or just being a pile of smoke and mirrors in 2010, he became the worst pitcher in Indians history for a season, before Mickey Callaway fixed him for a bit. Then he was a linchpin in the push to the 2013 Wild Card. Truly a baffling career as an Indian.

Honorable mention

1959 Herb Score - 9-11, 160.2 IP, 25 GS, 4.71 ERA, 5.14 FIP, 79 ERA+. Score just didn't have enough innings to qualify for the list, or he might have bumped Perry. Like with some of the others, a disastrous fall from grace.

1971 Steve Dunning - 8-14, 184 IP, 31 GS, 4.50 ERA, 4.64 FIP, 85 ERA+ - Dunning was just too good. A strange thing to write when looking at that line in a vacuum.

So there you have it. Maybe you enjoyed it. Maybe it brought back bad memories. As great as the Indians have been with pitching, they’ve had their share of messes. If you look at all of baseball since 1906 and sort this list by ERA+, Ubaldo ends up 6th worst. Or best, depending on how you want to look at it. But it just goes to show you, anyone can be great and have a bad year, or the other way around. Hopefully they avoid poxes like the above mentioned men for a while. Hitting these qualifiers has been done 250 times, so maybe it’s a good thing the Tribe only has a handful of them. Being not terrible is the first sign of greatness, you know. Or something like that.