clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Getting to the bottom of the Cleveland Indians' starting rotation struggles

As the Cleveland Indians' division lead has shrunk, the rotation has struggled. Something might be wrong.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Since the All-Star Break, the Cleveland Indians are just 10-11 and have watched a commanding division lead built on the back of a 14-game winning streak dwindle to just 2.5 games as of this writing. Despite being socked repeatedly in the face by the Tribe, the Detroit Tigers just don’t seem to want to quit.

It’s getting to be a little uncomfortable for Cleveland, even if any team would love to be in first place in the second week of August. Those consistently watching the Indians have seen what’s happening, though -- the starting pitching has just been not up to snuff. The offense has averaged 5.1 runs a game since the break, usually more than enough to win. Yet still, the Tribe finds itself in a tight pennant race.

What happened?

The first, most obvious answer has to be the horrible specter of Regression to the Mean rearing its ugly head on an overperforming rotation. Which, according to FanGraphs’ peripheral pitching stats, makes sense for everyone but Kluber. The other four guys were over performing considerably -- here’s their first half ERA compared to their Skills Interactive ERA in that same span:

Pre-Break ERA Pre-Break SIERA
Kluber 3.61 3.40
Salazar 2.75 3.81
Carrasco 2.47 3.47
Tomlin 3.51 4.23
Bauer 3.30 4.01

SIERA gives us a better idea of how a pitcher actually performed than FIP and takes into account batted balls as well. Here’s a fuller explanation. When you look at how these guys were pitching in games, rather than just the outcome, it does make some sense.

For instance, Josh Tomlin has the best winning percentage, which doesn’t mean all that much except he’s had good luck with the offense, but this tells us that he’s been outperforming his peripherals. This will be the case with a low strikeout, weak contact guy like him. Balls being put in play have a better chance of becoming a hit of course, and he does that more than anyone else in the rotation, but his usage of the cutter has been central to his improvement, and he's at least held on to that as the below tables show. I still think he’ll finish the season with an ERA under four, but he’s been lucky all the same.

By that same token, Danny Salazar’s propensity for creating problems for himself through walks then getting out of it with amazing fastballs and one of the best pitches in the majors in his splitter covered up possible room for fade He was due to get worse if only because some batters might drop a bat head and blast a ball to the wall with two men on and two out rather than flying out. He’s got electric stuff, but that command will haunt him until he gets ahold of it. More on him later.

Carrasco was hurt and missed some time in the first half, so sharpness may play into his disappointing peripherals for a bit of his time. Last year he was actually demonstrably unlucky, packing a 3.63 ERA compared to a 2.74 SIERA. He hasn’t been as good this year (more homers, more walks, fewer strikeouts, more hard contact), which in part explains the reversal of that split, but he’s at least shown he can be better. His velocity isn’t down that much from a year ago, even if his strikeouts are, but this could be his wanting to get more ground balls and trust that infield defense around him, go deeper in games and keep his strength up for the season.

Finally, Trevor Bauer is just, well, Bauer. He likely isn’t as good as that stretch from June 1st to July 1st, 49.2 innings where he logged a 1.91 ERA, but he’s also not as bad as the last 23.2 innings where he owns an 8.37 ERA. His BABIP between those two periods jumped from .234 to .350, corresponding with his line drive rate going from 23 percent to 34 percent. Facing the Minnesota Twins apparently is doom for any Indians pitcher, and he’s faced them twice and Baltimore once since July started. That’s a lot of potential for getting bombed.

Back to Salazar though. That one is pretty plain to point out since it resulted in his going to the disabled list. What’s happening with him is why pinning all your hopes on a consistent starting rotation like this can go bad. They don’t really have the depth to reach down and replace a Salazar, since it became Mike Clevinger who is not as good. But Salazar is the only one suffering any real velocity drop and corresponding time off. Perhaps it will be good in the long run, giving the Indians more of a shot at fending off the Tigers and holding onto the division.

Fewer ground balls is rarely ever a good thing

A few weeks back I wrote about how the pitching staff has been taking advantage of a very good infield defense, with all five main starters having marked increases in their ground ball rates. The second half has shown them, whether on purpose or not, moving away from that.

Pre-Break GB% Post-Break GB%
Kluber 48.3 34.3
Salazar 48.5 46.3
Carrasco 53.1 36.9
Tomlin 41.5 44.4
Bauer 50.6 35.9

The outfield defense is definitely not as good as the infield for the Indians. The more fly balls, and even more so line drives, the more pressure on some subpar and young outfielders, and the more hits fall. More fly balls also mean more home runs That doesn’t mean it’s not the pitcher’s fault he’s giving up such hard-hit balls, but it sure doesn’t help.

Pitch selection in the post-Yan Gomes world is questionable

One thing to consider is the absence of Yan Gomes. Yes, he was having the worst offensive season in history before he got hurt, and his defense hasn't recovered much from when he got hurt last year, but the steep dive much of the pitching staff has experienced dovetails nearly perfectly with him getting hurt on July 16th. Since that day, they’ve played 19 games and won eight of them, with a 99-101 aggregate score. That’s highlighted by a four-game series where the Twins scored thirty-seven runs.

But how can a new catcher really change things? I’ll focus on the three pitchers that aren’t Bauer, since he has Chris Gimenez as his personal catcher until last night in Washington, and Kluber, who has been great. Pitch usage has gone like this for the other three:

Fastball Sinker Curve Slider Change Cutter
Salazar Before 52.2% 16.7% 4.7% 7.5% 18.6% 0.3%
Salazar After 45.9% 23.0% 3.3% 9.4% 18.0% 0.4%
Carrasco Before 37.3% 14.7% 15.9% 13.4% 18.7% 0.0%
Carrasco After 47.7% 5.6% 17.7% 11.0% 18.0% 0.0%
Tomlin Before 33.6% 4.9% 13.0% 0.0% 7.8% 40.7%
Tomlin After 21.8% 8.5% 22.1% 0.0% 5.5% 42.1%

It’s important to continue to evolve as a pitcher throughout the season so the book on you doesn’t get too exacting, but at the same time, going away from what works is a little silly. Baseball isn’t that complex a game, and Salazar throwing sinkers, rated as his worst pitch, that much more often is bad news.

Some of these numbers, for instance, Carrasco’s spike in fastball usage, is driven by some short outings where he was forced to throw a lot of fastballs and couldn’t work into the secondary stuff. But even with that, this is over three starts, the percentage shouldn’t be affected too much. Tomlin's curve is good when used judiciously, too much and it can get hung and get blasted. What kind of conversation is being had between them and Perez during game plans, and what’s with the change?

The sky still isn't falling, but something needs to change. Fast

Amid all this is Corey Kluber having a stellar second half. Since the break his ERA is 1.55, his SIERA is 3.30, lower than it is for the whole year, and rated in the top five over that span, and he’s striking out more batters while allowing a lower OPS. His leading all American League in fWAR made me expect a better second half than first for him, which is saying something. He’s done this the last few years, so it’s nice to have this bell cow for the rest of the rotation to follow as they fight to get back to where they were.

It’s tough to swallow the idea that the rotation has just been unlucky, but really it’s just life catching up with them. They do need to get back to trusting that infield defense, Salazar needs to get healthy of course, but is it wrong to say they need to pitch better? So much goes into that, but perhaps they need a good talk with their catchers and their pitching coach to understand what works for them and what works to get guys out. The way these guys are capable of throwing, it’s all going to shake out eventually, but the margin of error in shrinking swiftly as the Tigers creep up, and the ship needs righting.