Carlos Carrasco is out for the season and Danny Salazar is not likely to return until late in the playoffs. This puts the Cleveland Indians in a bizarre scenario: the strength that carried the team to its 7-game lead in the AL Central is suddenly a weakness.
Does this mean that the season is over for the Tribe? Not at all. Is the path to the World Series now an uphill climb in a blizzard, except that instead of snow it's snowing bees? I believe that's the most accurate terminology.
There are clues from the season that point to another path. The most prominent is the Indians' willingness to use its closers whenever and wherever they are most valuable. Last It represents an unprecedented change in the way that starting rotations are deployed. It may appear as dangerous as a bee storm and more bizarre than an unfortunate reversal of fortune the Tribe encountered with its pitchers. It is certain to be unpopular with most fans. However, I think gives the Indians its best chance to lift the Commissioner's Trophy in October, and what could make fans happier than that?
The Cleveland Indians should strongly consider deploying Andrew Miller, Mike Clevinger, and Cody Allen as "Openers" for games that Corey Kluber does not start. The team should build a rotation of relievers behind them to ensure that hitters will never face the same handedness or the same type of pitcher consecutively. By doing so, the Indians would usually avoid the Third Time Through the Order Penalty while also keeping hitters off-balance throughout the game. Kluber, being the ace of the staff, would resume normal duties.
It's important to note that I am not advocating an entire postseason of "Bullpen Games". The anchoring principle behind this proposal is that the hardest outs to complete in a game are not the last three, but the first three. This is because the pitcher is guaranteed to face the top of the order, whereas a closer in the ninth might face the bottom of the order. Furthermore, a game is usually either tied or close in the first inning, while a traditional closer might have a two or three run lead.
I recommend that each game still feature a "starter", who is expected to go at least five innings after the opener. Lastly, variants of this idea have existed for years (Tony LaRussa tried using 3-man pitching teams with the A's during the 1993 season, but abandoned it after seven games) but the situation the Indians find themselves in appears to be an honest-to-god real-world testing ground for the theory.
|Opener||"Starter"||Closer||Available if needed|
|Traditional Start||Corey Kluber||Kluber still Klubin'||Cody Allen (fireman if needed), 1-2 IP||McAllister, Manship. Rotation #2 Relievers. Potentially: Bauer, Garner, Crockett,|
|Rotation #1||Andrew Miller, 2 IP||Trevor Bauer, 5-6 IP||Dan Otero, 1-2 IP||McAllister, Manship, Anderson. Rotation #3 Relievers|
|Rotation #2||Cody Allen, 2 IP||Josh Tomlin, 5-6 IP||Bryan Shaw, 1-2 IP||McAllister, Manship. Potentially: Miller, Otero, Garner, someone who pitched after Kluber|
|Rotation #3||Mike Clevinger, 3 IP||Kyle Crockett / Cody Anderson, 3-4 IP||Andrew Miller (fireman if needed), 1-2 IP||McAllister, Manship. Rotation #1 Relievers|
A few quick notes before diving deep:
- The Indians will more than likely take only two left-handed relievers on its playoff roster, it's impossible to ensure that the handedness of the pitcher always changes. As such, Kluber's start and the second rotation will be more susceptible to lefty platoon matchups. We also don't know for sure who they'll take, but this is what I'm assuming/recommending for this scenario.
- The number of innings are just suggestions. For example, if Andrew Miller retires the first six batters on twenty pitches, Tito might consider pitching him for part of the third.
- This setup attempts to give every reliever a day off between appearances before considering off-days. However, Kluber's start and the second platoon could borrow a reliever from the rotation preceding it depending on the number of pitches thrown the day before.
- Depending on the makeup of the series and when there are off-days the Indians might start Kluber on three or four days of rest.
- If used in the World Series, the Indians might be able to pinch-hit for the opener in the second or third inning.
Why these pitchers in this order?
Kluber Start: As noted, the Indians should not goof around with a meeting of the Society. Kluber may win another AL Cy Young award, and as an elite pitcher, the Indians should attempt to get as many innings from him as possible. Cody Allen would be available to close this game, since he would be guaranteed at least one day of rest on either side of the game. Things get a little bit precarious if Kluber only goes six innings and more substantial relief is required, but between McAllister, Manship, and Shaw, I'm confident that the bullpen would be able to figure things out.
Rotation #1: Andrew Miller — with a glorious playoff beard billowing in the breeze — takes the mound to open the second game. Ideally, he pitches this game the same way that he approaches an appearance as a closer: close to maximum effort and curling sliders over the corners. Since Miller is a lefty who throws his slider and a four-seam fastball, Bauer is an excellent fit to follow him. Not only will the handedness flip thwart attempts to platoon the middle of the order, but Bauer's mix of pitches and approach on the mound contrasts nicely with Miller. For the closer, I recommend Dan Otero. According to fWAR, he's the best reliever on the Indians roster after Miller, and I'd prefer to frontload the games to give the Indians the best chance to win in the first games of a series.
Rotation #2: Cody Allen opens the third game of a series for the Tribe. Just like Miller, the Indians would ask him to pitch as if he's going for the save. With Allen, I have a little bit more concern about managing his pitch count, but he's shown that he is capable of going two innings when it is necessary. Since Allen sits at 95 on his fastball and mixes that with a curveball, Tomlin seems like the obvious choice to follow him. Hitters would need to adjust to a much wider repertoire of pitches, including a mid-to-high eighties cutter and a 90 MPH fastball. Shaw follows Tomlin, since the cutter that hitters got used to around 86 MPH would now be coming almost 10 MPH faster. There is some hesitancy to putting Shaw in the closer role given his proclivity to folding in high-leverage situations, but he appears to me to be the best option to keep hitters off-balance.
Rotation #3: This is where things get a little bit weird, but remember: if the Indians are in a must-win game, there is a very good chance that Kluber may start in this slot, rolling over the list a game early. I went back and forth about whether I wanted Clevinger or Anderson to open. After that, this game does threaten to become a dreaded bullpen game. Andrew Miller would be available if the game is close to close things out or step in and get the Indians out of a high-leverage jam. I would feel much better about this if the Indians had another quality lefty reliever, but this setup still ensures that only four or five pitchers would be needed.
Considering arguments against the opener
One of the strongest reasons that no one has ever tried using the opener is that it muddies the pitcher win waters. Since the opener would not pitch five or more innings from the start of the game, they would not be automatically eligible to win. It seems obvious enough to me that, in a winning game, the official scorer would designate the "starter" — the pitcher who comes in after the opener and throws up to six innings — the pitcher of record. This would hopefully circumvent the issue of pitchers feeling uneasy about leaving a traditional starting role due to the loss of potential bargaining power due to not accumulating wins.
Pitcher wins, by the way, are already a mostly-worthless statistic, but they still matter in contract negotiations because in some ways baseball is still played as if the Cold War is ongoing. The reason to Indians are in a unique position to test this out is because they would not be committing to it for an entire season. Rather, they'd simply deploy it during the playoffs while trying to win the World Series. I imagine that most players are more than happy to trade a few wins for a championship ring.
Another commonly-cited reason to stick with the five-man rotation: pitchers thrive in defined roles and wither when confronted with variable or uncertain roles. This might be true for some pitchers, but to me, it seems that the role pitchers are most accustomed to is being the guy who tries to throw the ball past the hitter. Andrew Miller is an excellent example of this, as Tito Francona has used him in four different innings. Miller did not have a mental breakdown or suffer a terrible loss of talent as a result. There is something to be said for certain pitchers being more suited for certain roles, but I'm not asking Miller and Allen to throw 100 pitches in a game.
Detractors also point out that the Indians lose the ability to deploy Miller or Allen in high-leverage situations late in the game as a result of using them in the first. This is true, but the Indians already lose out on that opportunity when saving one of the two to close, or if they've pitched too many days in a row and require rest. Why not guarantee that they'll be used at a valuable time against the other team's best hitters?
Finally, the setup I've proposed can become an issue if the Indians get into a very high-scoring game and need to use many relievers. This is true, but is also already true of the standard setup. By limiting the number of pitches that any given player throws, the Indians can use them more often during the week. If Trevor Bauer throws 70 pitches on Tuesday, he ought to be able to throw 20 on Thursday and not suffer a major decline in skills during his next "start".
What are the alternatives?
If the Indians elect to continue using a standard rotation in the postseason (and the rest of the season), they'll rely on Kluber, Bauer, Clevinger, and Tomlin. I worry that with this rotation, the Indians won't be able to use its excellent bullpen arms in situations that can affect the outcome of a game. If the home team trails by 4 in the bottom of the seventh, they are only expected to win about 12% of the time. I'm not suggesting that Clevinger and Tomlin are destined to be miserable in the postseason, but if the Indians can make them more effective by limiting innings and keeping hitters off-balance with a different type of pitcher before them, they should do it.
The Indians are in a position to contend for the World Series. Given the current circumstances, I believe that this gives the team the best opportunity to do win it all.