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How the Cleveland Indians starting rotation has evolved into one of baseball's best

The Tribe rotation has been excellent this year, and they've changed what they do a bit too. What has Mickey Callaway wrought?

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Indians starting pitching, in case anyone wasn’t aware, is absolutely incredible this season. First in the American League in Wins Above Replacement at 10, second in strikeout rate at 22 percent, first in Earned Run Average with 3.57 and first in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) at 3.86. It continues on like that, but you get the idea.

The five starters have been excellent and even if one or the other isn’t having their single best year, together they’re nigh unbeatable. On top of all this, they’re blessed with an incredible infield defense bolstered mainly by the incredible Francisco LIndor, and they are taking full advantage of it. Ground ball rates for all five pitchers are up markedly from a year ago, and it had to be asked, why, and how?

Before we go any further, here’s those numbers for the pitchers:

'15 GB% '16 GB%
Kluber 42.4 48.2
Carrasco 51.2 50.7
Salazar 43.9 49.8
Bauer 39.2 49.7
Tomlin 37.5 41.1

Carrasco’s has actually dropped half a point, but it’s dragged down a bit by the 12.1 second half innings where he’s had a 45.2 percent ground ball rate, compared to 73 innings of 53 percent.

The face of the why is obvious -- Lindor gets a glove on everything remotely near him, Jason Kipnis has improved on his pre-play positioning and defensive play in general, the rotation of Juan Uribe and Jose Ramirez at third has been very good and Mike Napoli is just fine. Unlike the previous half decade, it behooves the pitcher to get the ball in play with this defense, and since the outfield isn’t nearly as good at their job, the grounder is the thing.

But the how is more important. What has that wizard Mickey Callaway done to get his hurlers to get the ball pounded into the ground? Some digging revealed a rather simple result -- for the most part, they just throw the ball in the zone more. Pitching to contact always sounds counterproductive, but when a pitcher can force weak contact, a batter gets himself out, and does the pitcher a favor.

Here are the rates the starters have gotten the ball in the zone the last two years, and the contact rate to go along with it.

'15 Zone% '16 Zone% '15 Contact% '16 Contact%
Kluber 45.9 47.2 74.6 75.9
Carrasco 41.7 42.5 72.9 75.9
Salazar 47.9 46.9 76.3 76.4
Bauer 42.6 49.0 78.8 78.9
Tomlin 49.5 47.7 80.9 86.2

As you can see, three of them have taken to throwing the ball in the zone more, and all five have increased their contact rate, though some more than others.

In Josh Tomlin’s case, I’ve written what he’s been doing this year, specifically throwing far more cutters than he has in the past. That pitch adds deception to how he attacks guys, so rather than having to live actually on the corners with similar movement on his pitches and low velocity, he can throw cutters, two-seamers, four-seamers, chances and curves and have them break out of the zone in all directions, still inducing more grounders because the batter can’t square up.

However, as the below graphic pulled from Brooks Baseball demonstrates, from last year to this he’s really changed where he attacks hitters, even if he is throwing out of the zone a bit less.

Tomlin Zone Compare 15 to 16

He’s been much more aggressive up in the zone compared to a year ago, and while his opponent’s swing rate has dropped two points to 47 percent, swings at pitches outside the one have gone from 30.5 percent to 32.7 percent and contact on those pitches has jumped from 64.4 percent to 74 percent. Logic dictates that hitting a ball out of the zone is harder, meaning less hard contact, meaning more grounders. He has guys guessing more, has them off balance and is able to win the mind game of pitching. Once again I can't help but imagine what kind of dominance he would wield if he could just throw 95. He's basically Roy Halladay without the fastball.

In Salazar’s case, he’s dropped his throwing in the zone but raised in his contact rate by virtue of developing his split-fingered changeup to be utterly murderous, and also incorporating more pitches into his repertoire. He’s throwing nearly 3 percent more sinkers more specifically according to Brooks baseball, and more importantly throwing the ball over the plate more, but keeping it a bit low. Here’s his strikezone map:

Salazar zone 15 to 16

The way that change he has dives so much, it’s going to fall out of the zone a lot, and that’s what he’s been doing after setting up with this incredible fastball. It induces swings, but it takes the sting out of the bat, too. Really, it appears like his ground ball rate spike can simply be attributed to becoming better at throwing pitches, and when. He walks a lot of people, but he's at least giving his defense some chances to create double plays more often this season. It's also a luxury to throw balls up in the zone more when you throw one of the more unhittable pitches in baseball.

It’s amazing to think a little bit of instruction like this is all it took. Which is likely oversimplification -- these pitchers have been growing the last few years and getting better at their own job, and there could be more to it involving sequencing and location than just "throw strikes and keep it down". In Bauer’s case, that’s all it ever needed though. If you were curious, here’s his zone map from the last two years.

Bauer zone 15 to 16

He’s still been wild, but the proof of his improvement is his not walking people, and that comes from fewer balls out of the zone. He's dropped his walk rate nearly two points to 8.5 percent of batters faced and combined with his ground ball rate, a huge spike in sinker use (32 percent this year compared to 12 percent last year), completely throwing out his slider and his curveball turning into a superweapon for him, he's like a new pitcher than a year ago. Old timers might complain about his cerebral approach to the game, but this ability to to recognize his failings and reinvent himself is brilliant. Genius aggression is a terrifying prospect for opposing hitters.

A conversation with Callaway would be enlightening, because telling a group of professionals to do what they’re doing must be hard and definitely not as simple as I've described. Whether this all happened piecemeal, one at a time, or this is his philosophy, or if the coaching staff saw what it was working with and the pitchers adjusted for them, that's still to be wondered. It’s awesome to see a team take advantage of what they have going for them so much though, plus it lets us watch Lindor dazzle a few more times a game.