Rotation Concerns Aplenty First Time Through
Bob Toth | On 06, Apr 2014
With five starts under their belts, the Cleveland Indians have had questionable results from their starting pitching so far, despite a 3-2 record. That said, it is always tough to make long term projections based off of a week of work.
The Indians started on the west coast against another returning American League playoff team from 2013 in the Oakland Athletics. Rainy and chillier weather for the Bay Area could have factored in some to the results seen on the mound. The team was also dealt a rainout on Tuesday, forcing a first week day-night doubleheader on Wednesday, creating a later night than scheduled on the season opening road trip.
The rains and colder air were just as present in Cleveland for the team’s first two home games of the season against the Minnesota Twins, helping to cause delays and/or discomfort on the mound.
Corey Kluber was scheduled to start the second game of the season on Tuesday, but a second straight day of rain in Oakland forced the game’s postponement, the first in Oakland since May 5, 1998. So instead, Kluber started the first game of the doubleheader, the earliest doubleheader to be played in Major League history.
Kluber had a tough matchup against former Indians lefty Scott Kazmir and got little run support as Kazmir blanked the Tribe over seven and one-third innings of three-hit ball, striking out five. Kluber was touched up for runs in each of the first three innings and could not escape the fourth, despite only throwing 77 pitches on the afternoon.
He allowed five earned runs on eight hits, walked three, and struck out a pair. He gave up a two-run home run to Alberto Callaspo in the third. It was the first loss he has earned in his last 13 starts.
In addition to the rain delay, Kluber was delayed on the mound for nearly five minutes after a replay challenge by Oakland manager Bob Melvin with the A’s up 2-0 in the second inning.
“By that point, it was apparent I was searching,” said Kluber after the game, “and I don’t think that had anything to do with it. That being said, I thought it took way too long. It took away from the flow of the game and that’s what they are trying to avoid.”
Kluber was 1-1 in Arizona this spring with a 5.60 ERA (17 earned runs) in seven outings. He struck out 23 and walked just three in 27 1/3 innings.
Zach McAllister was spared being tagged with a loss thanks to a three-run comeback by the offense in the ninth inning of the second game in the doubleheader.
McAllister was unable to spot his fastball throughout his four-plus innings of work against Oakland. He allowed three earned runs on six hits, walked four, and struck out four.
McAllister faced seven batters while giving up two first inning runs. He threw 36 pitches in the first inning alone, walking one, throwing one wild pitch, and striking out three. Every batter saw at least three pitches, with Josh Donaldson seeing seven before striking out looking on a full count.
After his offensive teammates tied the game at two in the top of the fourth, he immediately gave up the lead in the bottom half of the frame with two outs after a one out single, walk, and a fly out that moved the go-ahead run up to third base.
McAllister was given the hook after a five-pitch walk to lead off the fifth inning. He exited with 86 pitches thrown over the game.
“I think it was a little bit of the same with [Kluber], just fastball command,” said manager Terry Francona about McAllister’s struggles in his start. “Zach lives with his fastball so much and when he’s really good he spots his fastball in and out, up and down. He was having a tough time doing that. His pitch count was so high. The good part was that he didn’t give in and he didn’t give up a lot of runs. But his pitch count got up there pretty high.”
McAllister was 2-1 in the spring with a 5.75 ERA. He allowed 13 earned runs and five home runs in six games and a total of 20 1/3 innings of work.
Carlos Carrasco gave fans a taste of everything he had to offer in his start on Saturday afternoon, both good and bad.
Carrasco detractors could easily point to several ineffective innings immediately out of the gate, starting with a leadoff home run given up to Brian Dozier. After a double and the second out of the inning, he walked Trevor Plouffe on four straight pitches before giving up back-to-back RBI singles to fall behind quickly, 3-0. He coughed up two more runs in the third after hitting Chris Colabello with the first pitch of the inning.
Catcher Yan Gomes was charged with a pair of passed balls in the third. Throughout the game, it appeared as though the pitching battery was either not on the same page or that Carrasco was badly missing his target. Gomes’s glove was constantly on the move behind the plate, something that did not look the norm for the usually solid defensive catcher and game caller.
Unlike some of his pitching staff teammates, Carrasco was able to last into the sixth inning, facing three batters before being lifted after hitting Dozier with his 100th pitch of the game. He did settle down to have an effective fourth, fifth, and sixth innings, retiring eight of his final ten hitters and four of them via strikeout. For the game, he was charged with five runs, four of which were earned, on seven hits, two walks, and two hit batters in five and two-third innings. He struck out seven, the high water mark for Tribe pitchers this year.
“These are the things we’re trying to break through with him because it’s there and we know it’s there,” said Francona. “There’s a lot to like, but we got to get them out. He settled down, pitched pretty well, but the damage had been done.”
Like his rotation mates, Danny Salazar was victimized by first inning runs. Cleveland starters have allowed eight earned runs in the first inning already this year.
Pitch count was an issue for Salazar, who threw 20 pitches in the first inning while giving up a two-run home run to Colabello. Nineteen more came in the second, when with two on and two out, he narrowly avoided more damage thanks to Kurt Suzuki getting thrown out at the plate by Michael Brantley.
He threw nearly as many pitches over the next two innings (21) as each of the first two innings individually. He issued one walk, got two groundouts, and four outs through the air in the third and fourth innings.
Salazar ducked and weaved through five and two-thirds innings. He allowed two runs on seven hits, walked three, and struck out four. He threw 95 pitches, 55 for strikes, and worked primarily with his fastball and a circle changeup, just a handful of times mixing in a breaking ball.
Easily the best of the bunch and expected to be from the jump was Justin Masterson.
In his third straight season opening start on Monday, Masterson was sharp in seven innings of work in a no-decision.
According to Fangraphs.com, Masterson did not have the usual velocity on his fastball that the league may have become accustomed to. Last season, his fastball ranged from 87.7 to 97.0 miles per hour with an average velocity of 93.1. In his first appearance of this year, he was between 88.1 and 92.0 miles per hour with a 90.0 average, three lighter than last season. He averaged 92.8 in 2012 and 93.1 in 2011 when his fastball was his most predominant pitch.
His sinker, his most used pitch now, was just as slowed in his first start as his fastball. After averaging 92.0 in 2011, 91.7 in 2012, and 91.1 last season, he maxed out at 91.4 in the opener and averaged 88.5 miles per hour on the pitch.
Despite that, he allowed just three hits, one walk, and struck out four over 92 pitches.
Certainly there are other concerns about the club, including some suspect clutch hitting. The offense has scored in bursts when needed, but has also failed more times than not with runners in scoring position.
The bullpen has been a surprising strength, especially when considering the club had to replace four veteran pieces and two at the back end of the mix that had been staples of the Bullpen Mafia during the successful ‘pen years. The relief corps has been credited with all three Indians wins to begin the season (Cody Allen with two, Josh Outman with one), thanks in part to the shorter efforts by McAllister and Salazar and the nonexistent run support through Masterson’s seven innings on Monday.
Of the eight relievers on the roster, only Vinnie Pestano has allowed an earned run and he has surrendered three in addition to a bullpen-high six base runners (five hits, one walk). The rest of the bullpen has combined to allow one unearned run in 16 1/3 innings, with seven hits, eight walks, and 20 strikeouts.
On the positive side of the conversation, the Indians are just a handful of games into the regular season and, just like in Spring Training, it is best to not jump to conclusions based on small sample sizes. However, if the problems persist throughout the month, the team may need to start looking into their options to bolster the rotation any way that they can.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer