Cleveland as the host of the All-Star Game was everything the team was not the first couple months of the season; namely, fantastic. But with both the poor start and the ASG in the rearview, will there be another celebration in the city this season?
As we wait for baseball to resume, the Indians are 5.5 games back of the Twins. It’s not how we fans hoped things would stand, but it’s a hell of a lot better than it was at the end of May.
And while we could point to a reinvigorated offense as the reason for the improved outlook, the primary reason is the 11.7 fWAR the Indians pitching staff has amassed in the first half. Third place among American League teams in pitching and fifth overall is great, but when you add the context that the team’s top three pitchers (i.e., Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger) participated in just 24% of those games ... well, then it’s a damn miracle.
So, this article is a pitching appreciation post. Because the Indians’ pitchers deserve it, because every starter who stepped up — from Cody Anderson to Jefry Rodriguez to Zach Plesac to Adam Plutko to Aaron Civale — and every reliever who has out-pitched his expectations (3.2 fWAR as a unit, fifth in MLB) did so in a big way. They did so in a way that prevented the team’s literal worst-case scenario from becoming the impetus for rebuilding. We’re witness to Francisco Lindor announcing Cleveland’s intention to buy because of the job those pitchers did.
But two guys deserve a little more praise than the rest, because they’ve worked their tails off. One is the All-Star Game MVP and the other is a bit off his All-Star best from last season but could make a reasonable case for his own selection this year: Shane Bieber and Trevor Bauer, of course. And I predict, barring injury, that both will be among the finalists for AL Cy Young this year.
At the break, here’s where the two stand in some very informative statistics:
Rank among qualified starters
Better still, when you limit to only qualified AL pitchers, Bieber is top five in every single category except ERA-, where he is eighth.
His story by now has been shared widely, that of college walk-on to All-Star MVP. But that story is still developing, and the heights will be higher. All season, Bieber has maintained his fastball above 93.4 mph on average, which only happened in two months of 2018. Likewise, he’s decreased the horizontal movement on his curveball and increased it on his changeup, while also increasing the vertical movement on his fastball and keeping his slider on a flat plane. This has led to a spike in ground balls and four pitches (fastball, changeup, curveball, and slider) that are in the top third among all starters (all rank higher than 23rd among 74 qualifiers).
A big part of this, we now know, has to do with the instruction of the Indians unofficial assistant pitching coach: Trevor Bauer. The father of pitch design, as he is dubbed in The MVP Machine, is always on hand to offer his insight and suggestions to young players like Bieber. But, by the same token, it means we should not count him out for a second half surge.
Despite the fact that no pitcher in either league has thrown more innings than Bauer to this point, there was likely some injury hindering his performance in the first half. Injury is the best way to explain how last year’s FIP leader in the AL is sitting in the middle of the pack this year; however, middle of the pack is not a bad place to be, especially if you’ve been struggling to feel like yourself.
Last year’s AL Cy Young winner, Blake Snell, was 17th in fWAR at the break and 2016 winner Rick Porcello was 30th at the break. Past results are no indication of the future, but Bauer making a run would hardly be unprecedented. Furthermore, there are underlying stats that show where Bauer is making progress. Specifically, the pitch design guru has gotten his slider closer to perfect — with greater horizontal movement and nearly flat horizontal movement — and pushed his curveball to its vertical drop extreme while maintaining career highs in fastball velocity and matching the velocity between his slider and curve to maximize deception.
With both Bieber and Bauer, if anything is holding them back from being at the top of all the leaderboards, it’s a tendency to give up home runs. But if we’re going to talk about home runs, we have to talk about the ball. As Dr. Meredith Wills found and wrote for The Athletic, “the 2019 baseball is not the 2017 baseball. Not only is it different from those of late 2015-2018, it’s different from balls going back to at least 2000.” The result of this change in the ball is the greatest HR/9 ever.
With that in mind, Bieber and Bauer’s struggles with the long ball don’t register as much concern. Both are at or under league average (1.38; Bieber = 1.39, Bauer = 1.18), and have done a good job limiting the damage done by those home runs, with 65% of home runs against Bieber and 59% against Bauer just solo shots.
I don’t expect every writer who votes for AL Cy Young this year to consider the nuance of changes in the ball and solo versus multiple-RBI home runs, these are the same writers (at least some of them) that stiffed Kenny Lofton on the Hall of Fame vote after all. But in the end, I’m not sure it would matter.
Barring intervention by injury, I fully expect these two to come out in the second half and keep on dominating opposing batters. If general manager Lindor is to be believed, they won’t have to prop up the entire team while doing it, either.