While the Cleveland Indians infield takes shape as one of the best in the league and the outfield slowly tries to morph into something hopefully passable, the pitching continues to be the glue that propels the team. Or something.
The starting pitchers are obviously the strength of the Indians, but they are not exactly entering 2017 without questions of their own. Corey Kluber pitched a career-high 249.1 innings last season; 34.1 of which came in a relentless October and November where he started six games for the AL Champion Indians. Similarly, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin pitched further into the postseason than they ever have before.
Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, neither of whom started a single game in the playoffs due to injury, also have their own questions to answer. Salazar, specifically, has a worrying elbow/forearm injury that lingered throughout the second half of last season — not to mention quotes from his pitching coach that bordered on calling him lazy between starts.
In this, the pitching edition of of the Indians 2017 projections, I’ll also take a look at a few pitchers who are on the border of being starters. Pitchers limited by their age or own ability, but pitchers who are likely to either find themselves starting for the Indians, starting for the Columbus Clippers in Triple-A, or getting time in the bullpen.
Let’s see what ZiPS and Steamer have to say about them all.
Corey Kluber, RHP
The ace, the emotionless killing machine, the Klubot, whatever you want to call Corey Kluber, he is one thing: amazing. The former Cy Young winner and current owner of an outstanding 1.83 playoff earned run average, Kluber heads into 2017 with the goal of leading the Indians to another AL Pennant and beyond.
And, at least according to ZiPS, he is going to do just that.
Kluber was really good in 2016, but ZiPS sees him being even better in 2017. His numbers get better across the board — strikeouts-per-nine rises (9.50 in 2016, 9.88 in 2016), his walks-per-nine drops (2.39 in 2016, 2.11 in 2016), and his FIP drops almost 20 points. The only thing that do not improve are innings pitched and games started, because for some reason ZiPS just decided Kluber gets bored at the end of the season and wants to take a game off, I guess.
Steamer, on the other hand, is not so high on Corey Kluber. It has him regressing to a 3.42 ERA and a 3.35 FIP, even while his BABIP stays at a reasonable .295 and his strikeout-to-walk ratio remains mostly unchanged.
Home-run-to-foul-ball rates are not shown by Steamer, but that looks to be where the projections differ. Kluber’s xFIP, which uses a variation of HR/FB% to determine how many home runs a pitcher should allow in a season, is .16 higher than his FIP. Steamer also has his left on-base percentage dropping nearly a percentage point — which isn’t much, but shows the projection thinks he might lose a bit of luck in 2017.
Carlos Carrasco, RHP
Given the events of September onward, you probably already forgot that Carlos Carrasco strained his hamstring in May and thus missed a full month of the 2016 season. The injury you probably remember, as much as you try to forget it, is when his stupid hand wouldn’t get out of the stupid way of a stupid line drive off the stupid bat of stupid Ian Kinsler. That series of unfortunate events cost Carrasco his chance at the playoffs, and maybe cost the Indians a chance at... I’m not even going to say it.
ZiPS and Steamer think he will bounce back and be just fine.
Again, like with Kluber, ZiPS is the more optimistic one here. It has Carrasco right back into 2015 form. His ERA and FIP both drop from 2016, though ZiPS and its cold, hard math calculations for playing time has him starting just 26 games. That’s totally fair, though, considering he has not started more than 30 games in any season.
Steamer has him bucking that trend, though, and starting a full 32-game slate, totaling a career-high 193 innings. His ERA suffers a bit, even though his FIP drops 40 points. I’m assuming that’s because Steamer’s robot eyes cannot see Francisco Lindor behind him: Waiting, lurking, smiling, just anticipating any of those 48.7 percent projected ground balls to come his way.
Danny Salazar, RHP
ZiPS and Steamer were big fans of Danny Salazar’s first-half last season. So much so that they have him pitching closer to that than his total collapse in the second half. Granted, neither of these projections match the 2.36 ERA he put up prior to last year’s All-Star break, but they are much better than the average of Salazar’s two halves.
Salazar has always had issues with walks, but his walk rate jumping to double-digits last season was still a surprise. Steamer brings that back down to earth at 8.6 percent, though that is still well above the 7.2 percent he averaged over his first three seasons. Always with its regression to the mean-ness, Steamer also brings his strikeout rate back down from the 27.6 percent he confused batters at last season.
Salazar is such a streaky pitcher to begin with; couple that with his arm injury and he is a very difficult pitcher to project going forward. Neither system knows that Salazar’s arm might fall apart at any time this season, so they both take the optimistic approach for the 27-year-old.
Trevor Bauer, RHP
Danny Salazar’s inconsistencies have nothing on Trevor Bauer.
At only 26 years old, Trevor already has three near-full seasons of pitching for the Indians. Last season, he started out of the bullpen but still wound up starting 28 games for the Tribe with — as you may expect — mixed results.
ZiPS has him pitching five games out of the bullpen, while Steamer is all about the starts. Both have him right around where he performed last season, but with a higher FIP, mainly due to an increase in walks.
Bauer made some legitimate changes last season, which projection systems cannot account for. So maybe his decreased walk rate in 2016 was real, and the projection systems’ regression to the mean will be made irrelevant.
Or maybe Trevor will continue to confuse the hell out of everyone.
Josh Tomlin, RHP
Projection systems hate him! Josh Tomlin continues to succeed with this one simple tip!
After you regretfully peruse that clickbait headline, all you would find is a picture of Josh Tomlin squeezed into a strike zone and a bunch of ads, because that’s how he succeeds. He does almost nothing but pound the zone. For a player without outstanding stuff, that equation results in a fly out or a crushed home run, most of the time.
ZiPS and Steamer seem to be satisfied with Tomlin’s low walk rate, so much so that they overlook all his home runs and drop his FIP from last season to 4.20 and 4.48, respectively. For a No. 5 starter, Tomlin will continue to be perfectly serviceable based on these projections.
Ryan Merritt, LHP
Ryan Merritt is about as unexciting as a pitcher can be. He doesn’t have a lot of movement on his pitches and he doesn’t throw very hard, yet he has had some great seasons in the minors. So good, in fact, that he was named the Tribe’s 2014 minor league pitcher of the year. But how will that translate to the majors?
Probably not great.
Steamer has him starting three games in 2017, with a line very similar to Josh Tomlin: Not a lot of strikeouts, not a lot of walks, a perfectly fine ERA and FIP for a fifth starter — but out of the bullpen.
As a starter, according to ZiPS, Merritt apparently does not pitch well enough to remain in the majors. ZiPS has him projected at 26 starters with a 4.91 ERA and 4.60 FIP.
Cody Anderson, RHP
Depending on how severe Cody Anderson’s shoulder injury turns about to be, you can probably throw these projections. We will hopefully find out Thursday if Big Country was “shut down” as a precaution, or because he had a major setback since he had arthroscopic surgery last November.
Mike Clevinger, RHP
Weighing potential ceiling and near-readyness as equals (effectively ruling out Brady Aiken and Triston McKenzie), Mike Clevinger is easily the most exciting Indians pitching prospect right now. He made his debut last season with mixed results, but flashed a killer 12-6 curveball and a fastball in the mid-90s. Control was a major issue, but the potential is still very much there.
...unless you ask ZiPS and Steamer. Neither system has a whole lot of faith the second-year pitcher. Steamer has him starting just eight games, while ZiPS has him starting all but five of 30 appearances. Both see his walk issues getting better, but far from fixed. ZiPS also has him walking 3.74 betters per nine innings while striking out 8.42.