The Cleveland Indians used 16 pitchers who threw at least 30.0 innings in 2019. The staff varied more wildly than any year in recent memory, as only Shane Bieber pitched enough innings with the team to “qualify” for season-end leader statistics. Injuries and trades (well, one trade) all played a role in this, but despite it all the team managed to cobble together one of the most effective pitching staffs in the game.
Today, I want to take a more granular look at which specific pitches were the most effective — and least effective — during the 2019 season, and who threw them. We’ll be using FanGraphs’ pitch type linear weights to assess this. This is a great explanation if you are unfamiliar with the metric. To reiterate what is often stated in that primer: pitch values are descriptive, not predictive. They may indicate expected results moving forward.
Be a lot cooler if they did.
Best overall pitches
Mike Clevinger’s fastball was the most valuable pitch thrown by the Indians in 2019 according to overall value. He racked up a pitch value of 19 overall this season. For comparison, Gerritt Cole’s fastball had a total value of 36.2, which is just plain stupid. Keep in mind, though, Clevinger didn’t pitch nearly as many innings. Cole tossed 212.1, while Clevinger managed 126.0 pitching around injuries. On a per-100 pitch basis they came in at 1.99 and 1.78, respectively. Those are both very good pitches, and if anything it highlights how delightful a full season of healthy Mike Clevinger is going to be. Maybe the most encouraging thing about Clevinger is that he also featured an elite slider, which earned him a value of 1.71 per 100, just behind his fastball.
The next best pitch overall was Shane Bieber’s slider, followed closely by Shane Bieber’s fastball (12.6, 12.1). His curveball also rated positively. It doesn’t surprise me at all to see a relatively balanced arsenal from the All-Star Game MVP; it felt, as the season progressed, that he gained confidence in throwing multiple pitches in various counts.
On a per-100 pitch basis, the strongest offering of any Indians pitcher was actually Aaron Civale’s slider, at 2.35. He also threw a quality fastball (1.39) and cutter (0.82) this season. It’s way too early to decide if this is the type of production we can expect from the rookie moving forward, but a strong debut that’s backed up by solid metrics is a great sign.
He’s got a long way to go before we can call him an ace, though. For comparison, the overall and per-100 values on Max Scherzer’s slider were 22.5 and 3.96; Justin Verlander’s were 33.4 (!!) and 3.41. Verlander was truly a beast this season and the Slider is the pitch that drove that success.
Worst overall pitches
This probably won’t surprise anybody who watched during March and April, but the answer is Corey Kluber’s fastball, followed by Carlos Carraco’s curveball.
The overall value on the season — despite seeing use in only 35.2 innings — was -8.4. Per 100 pitches, it came in at a terrifying -3.6. We know Kluber sometimes struggles at the start of the season. This year, it was clear he needed to tweak something, but he never had an opportunity thanks to a broken arm.
Meanwhile, Carrasco hurled 80 innings when he wasn’t kicking cancer’s ass. His curveball didn’t show quite as much fight, accumulating a -4.9 value overall and a -9.45 on a per-100 basis. That makes me wonder if there wasn’t some variance in classification between his slider and curveball, as I can recall him throwing more than fifty-ish this year. In any case, when it was clearly a curveball things didn’t go Cookie’s way. It is worth pointing out that his ERA this season was nearly two full runs worse than his xFIP, and poor results from well-executed breaking balls may be part of the blame.
Clippard had the most effective arsenal overall, with four positive offerings. Only his split-fingered fastball rated as a below-average pitch. This is exactly the kind of profile I expected to find from a guy who manages to outperform his FIP by almost a run every single season. He’s a crafty, bespectacled wizard who conjures pop-ups with the flick of a wrist.
Bieber also deserves a shoutout here. His changeup was his only “below average” pitch. We know it is one on which he is still working, and the fact that it was hit a little better than his other pitches doesn’t mean it’s a “bad” pitch; the positive value of his other pitches likely relies partially on hitters knowing that a changeup might be mixed in at some point.
If you’d like to sift through the data on your own, here it is. Next up: We’ll take a look at which Indians hitters capitalized the most on certain types of pitches.