It’s understandable if Terry Francona doesn’t want to lean on his bullpen right now. Like the rest of us, he’s stared into the abyss of whatever random Triple-A arm the team has been forced to call up or acquire in a trade, and there are very few good options there outside of further torching the arm of Cody Allen.
Francona’s solution, naturally, has been to rely more heavily on his starting pitchers, a group that was historically good last season, and is somehow looking even better this year. Having starting pitchers go deeper into games is undoubtedly more enjoyable to watch (don’t even pretend like you enjoy watching bullpenning), but it’s rarely seen as the right decision this early in a season.
A month in, and we’ve already seen Indians starters throw four combined complete games, including two from Carlos Carrasco. They’ve thrown 234.2 innings pitched as a unit, second-most in the majors behind the Houston Astros. And keep in mind these numbers come with one starter (Josh Tomlin) making just five starts. It begs the question — is Terry Francona burning out his starting rotation too soon?
The answer: Probably not, but mostly by dumb luck.
As of today, no pitcher in baseball has faced more than Corey Kluber’s 217 total batters faced, and Carlos Carrasco isn’t far behind at 205. After that is Trevor Bauer at 193 and Mike Clevinger at 179. That all seems like a lot, but part of the reason they’ve been able to stay in games so long and face opposing lineups so much is that they’re being remarkably efficient in terms of how many pitches they need to get batters out.
Here’s how they rank in total batters faced:
Total batters faced (MLB)
And here’s how they rank in number of pitches thrown:
Total pitches thrown (MLB)
Indians starting pitchers (again, with the caveat of Josh Tomlin’s numbers being included) have a combined strikeout rate of 23.7 percent, eighth in the majors. But they also carry the second-lowest walk rate at 6.3 percent. Combine those two factoids and it starts to paint a picture of why they’ve been able to go into games so long — they’re not leading the league in strikeouts, and they are walking next to no one. Would it be nice to climb the ranks and strike more batters out like Carrasco did in his 14-strikeout complete game yesterday? Maybe. But right now with the bullpen the way it is, it’s even better to be able to stay in the game longer with shorter at-bats and outs, which is what they’ve done.
Carrasco is the Indians’ most efficient pitcher at 3.67 pitches per batter faced (19th in MLB) with Kluber and Tomlin right behind him at 3.70 and 3.71, respectively. Keep in mind that efficiency doesn’t always equal good results, if you couldn’t tell by Tomlin’s inclusion on the leaderboard. The average earned run average of the top-10 most efficient pitchers — David Price, Martin Perez, Alex Cobb, Ty Blach, and Aaron Sanchez, among others — is 4.91. Because rarely does working with so few strikeouts and relying on the ball being in play work out as well as it has for Indians starters to this point, as evidenced by their league-best .246 BABIP against.
Keeping in mind how bad most “effecient” pitchers tend to be, it’s interesting how high on the list so many really good Indians starters are.
Pitches thrown per batter faced (MLB)
I get not wanting the Indians to burn out their starting pitchers so early in the season (See: Corey Kluber, September/October 2017), but I also think it’s far too early the lambaste Francona for letting his uber-efficient starting pitchers go longer into games because his bullpen is not in the best shape. The best case scenario is that Tito has these numbers in front of him, and he knows he’s been lucky to this point to have his starters go so deep into games without taxing themselves too much. I would also hope that he doesn’t intend to ride that luck into the ground once Andrew Miller returns and peace is restored to the rotation.
If Francona has to lay off the starting rotation a bit in August and September when the bullpen is at full strength (and maybe with an additional reliever acquired at the trade deadline), then so be it. The games count in May just as much as they in September. I don’t see the starters going longer now as any kind of short-sightedness or unintentionally driving his pitchers into the ground, I see it more as Tito has a chance to potentially win more games with the starting rotation now and the bullpen later using what is currently as his disposal.