The Indians aren’t off to the start most might have hoped for, though it certainly hasn’t been a debacle. They’re above .500, the offense has been historically unlucky and bound to break out, and the pitching has been pretty much as advertised. Well, the starting pitching anyway.
Entering the two-game series against the Twins, the rotation is fourth in ERA, their a decent 12th in strikeout rate at 22.8 percent, and fourth in walk rate at 6.6 percent. They rate top ten in pretty much everything, with room and expectation for growth. Generally good news. Then there’s this — at 6.3 innings per game, their starters throw more innings than any other team.
That number is actually a little skewed. If you remove Josh Tomlin’s two-inning shelling in Anaheim, that number jumps to 6.5 innings per start. Which is quite impressive — on average, a Cleveland starter this year has gotten into the seventh inning. It’s also not unusual for them. Last year they averaged 5.9 innings per game, third in the league. The year before that it was seventh at 5.8 innings per game. The Indians’ non-Tomlin rate would fit in well in, say, 2011 when the Phillies had an all-time rotation, so at least it’s good company. Starting pitching is the backbone of the team, and of course one that pitches deep into games is vital to the success of any team. But one has to wonder what the tipping point is.
Look, we all like watching Corey Kluber pitch, and Carlos Carrasco throwing that complete game was and is always excellent. Trevor Bauer’s ability to rubber arm his way through 100 or so pitches with incredible velocty and movement is amazing. We want all these guys to throw 200 innings. The rotation as a whole makes every day appointment viewing. For the fans of baseball that’s a good thing. But what about the Indians eventual, or even present, goals of title-winning? They need to win games to get to the playoffs, but the rotation needs to be healthy and able to do what it’s doing now, in six months.
The real issue is the lack of arms in the bullpen that Terry Francona can trust. Outside of Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, who is there that anyone feels comfortable trusting innings to? As maligned as Bryan Shaw was, he was durable, versatile, and, well, very good at pitching. He’s been replaced by a conglomeration of Zach McAllister, Dan Otero, and I guess Matt Belisle? That last one especially is painful to think about to say the least. Innings need eating, whether the first or fifth, whether April or August. That’s a lot of less good pitching that is needed to throw more innings. That’s a problem, and at least in the short term the rotation looks like the real band-aid to fix it.
The starters’ share of the innings will likely fall back towards the mark we’ve gotten used to. Relief pitching is still a big part of the game and a big part of the Indians. But it would be wrong to think they’ll be able to relax and lean on the bullpen for any stretch. Which is worrisome. Because the starters are what they need to be their best. When they aren’t, the Indians get bounced in the first round.
There are reinforcements on the horizon of course — Ryan Merritt’s knee should heal up soon and he can be a swingman replacing Belisle. Danny Salazar will hopefully be able to throw actual innings in the next month or so. And the forgotten one, Cody Anderson, should be available come summer. Most teams need seven or eight starters at a minimum to make it through the season. The Indians, even with their vaunted top four and Tomlin, are going to need the same thing. Whether the big guys need rest or they tweak something, keeping them fresh is paramount. That’s not going to come from the bullpen, at least not from what we’ve seen so far. Maybe a six man rotation at some point this season will be necessary, both to ease guys like Salazar and Anderson back to game shape and to help with plans for October. Or the dream of Salazar becoming a right-handed Miller coming to fruition would be nice. The team has been quite explicit it won’t, but it’s still nice to dream. Once the offense wakes up fully from this April freeze there won’t be as much pressure on the pitching, which will help as well.
Francona does love to give his pitchers a much leash as they want, especially Kluber. It makes sense. A team should use its strengths. It’s not wrong to worry about overuse though. It’s probably nothing, a blip of sample size that will settle back towards a more comfortable number. Washington led baseball in starter innings pitched per game and it was their bullpen that collapsed around them in the playoffs. The year before that, the Cubs, Giants and Blue Jays tied for the lead in starters’ innings, and all three had good rotations. Again, it was the bullpen let two of those teams down, and almost did for the Cubs in the World Series. So that’s probably the real worry for the Indians. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. What that mark is, the Indians shouldn’t try to find out.