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Veteran Stability Necessary to Avoid Starting Pitching Regression

Veteran Stability Necessary to Avoid Starting Pitching Regression

| On 04, Oct 2014

Today continues DTTWLN’s three week examination of the Indians 2014 season and where it fell short of the playoff expectations established last winter. The staff will examine where the season went wrong and the challenges the front office faces to make the Indians contenders in 2015.

Regression (n): the act of going back to a previous place or state; return or reversion.

The definition is simple enough to understand, but avoiding it seems to be much more complex, especially when it comes to the Cleveland Indians starting rotation.

The Cleveland Indians entered 2013 with their starting rotation as their largest question mark. After a poor 2012, where Justin Masterson (2012: 11-15, 4.93) and Ubaldo Jimenez (2012: 9-17, 5.40) were first and second in the American League in wild pitches and the Tribe had three pitching coaches in two seasons, there was major reason for concern.

However, most things came up aces in 2013 for the Tribe in the starting pitching department. Under new pitching coach Mickey Callaway, Masterson (2013: 14-10, 3.45) stabilized his mechanics, and if it were not for a late-season injury that cost him three weeks, he could have won 17-18 games. Jimenez (2013: 13-9, 3.30) finally found his stride and led the Indians to the playoffs when Masterson was sidelined, Scott Kazmir (2013: 10-9, 4.04) had his career reborn and Corey Kluber (2013: 11-5, 3.85) and Zach McAllister (2013: 9-9, 3.75) made major progress in their development as big league pitchers. Toss in rookie phenom Danny Salazar (2013: 2-3, 3.12) and the Indians pitching problems seemed to be solved as they exited the 2013 season and prepared for their 2014 season of Unfinished Business.

And that is when that dirty word, regression, came into play.

While the old adage says a team can not have enough pitching, the Indians decided to let pitching walk out of town without replacing it. Jimenez and Kazmir each left Cleveland for greener pastures and larger contracts, leaving 61 starts and 340.2 innings unaccounted for. Instead of obtaining a veteran starting pitcher for the rotation, the Indians elected to go with youth and internal options. Kluber and McAllister were expected to saddle larger roles, Salazar was handed a place in the rotation based on his 10 starts and 52 innings from 2013, and Josh Tomlin, Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco were left to compete for the fifth spot in the rotation in spring training. Veteran Aaron Harang was signed to a minor league contract in spring training, but when he did not make the big league team he was granted his release and signed with the Atlanta Braves.

It’s easy to use hindsight and say the Indians should have resigned Kazmir and let Jimenez walk. Kazmir was 15-9 with a 3.55 ERA in 32 starts with Oakland in 2014, while Jimenez was just 6-9 with a 4.81 ERA in 22 starts with Baltimore and relegated to the bullpen by the end of the season. Jimenez was a question mark to even make Baltimore’s postseason roster this week.

If the Indians weren’t comfortable re-signing Jimenez based on one strong month, or Kazmir after a long road back from obscurity, it’s understandable. But not adding any depth to the rotation, expecting everyone to continue to improve and no one to regress was an egregious error that may be one of the reasons that the Indians started the season 10-17 in April and missed the playoffs by three games.

After not agreeing to a contract extension with the Indians in spring training, Masterson struggled mightily. After an outstanding opening game of the season, he was never the pitcher of 2013 again. Allegedly hindered by injury, Masterson was 0-1, with a 4.84 ERA in April and even worse in May when he was 2-3 with a 5.63. After pitching through pain in June, he was finally placed on the disabled list in July and traded before the deadline on July 30. He was no better in St. Louis and was left off their playoff roster this week.

McAllister was much the same. After being penciled in as the Indians’ third starter to open the year and being the Tribe’s best starter in April, he fell apart in May, was placed on the disabled list and back in Triple-A by June. Despite several recalls and opportunities in July and August, visibly shaken and discouraged, McAllister finished the Triple-A season in Columbus before pitching mostly out of the bullpen in September for Cleveland.

Salazar, the pitcher the entire organization touted last winter and pegged as the arm to replace Jimenez or Kazmir in the rotation, lost that new car shine in April and May. Relying too much on his fastball, and lacking accuracy, Salazar had far too many deep counts and tried to just overpower hitters. When the pitch count rose, hitters were able to take advantage of his mistakes. Of his first eight starts in 2014, Salazar threw 90+ pitches five times but only reached the seventh inning once. After throwing 98 pitches in just four innings on May 15 at Toronto, he was optioned back to Triple-A.

Last, and least in the early part of the season, was Carrasco. He won the fifth starters job out of spring training mostly because he was out of options and could not return to Triple-A. After four starts, where he allowed at least four earned runs in each, he was jettisoned to the bullpen.

The Indians counted on their 2013 rotation to improve, and except for Kluber—who is a Cy Young candidate—each regressed.

Even as late as July, the Indians rotation was a revolving door with McAllister, Salazar, T.J. House, Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer all bouncing between Columbus and Cleveland. Several times pitchers were promoted to start based more on availability than a real promotion.

“Guys we were counting on pretty prominently at the start of the year we just weren’t able to get the contributions that we may have hoped,” Antonetti told the media on Monday.

And then something clicked in the second half, most notably on August 10 when Carrasco re-entered the rotation. From that point forward, Indians starting pitchers had the best ERA in the American League for the rest of the season. Carrasco had a 1.30 ERA in 10 starts, House had a 3.35 ERA for the season and appeared to improve down the stretch and Bauer and Salazar each progressed with their make-up and approach to pitching at the big league level. Both seemed to become more pitcher and less thrower as the season aged. Meanwhile, Kluber asserted himself as one of the best pitchers in the American League this season. After just missing an All-Star selection, he was 9-3 with a 1.73 ERA in the second half and struck out 269 batters as he carved his way into the Indians’ record book.

The Indians starting staff made serious progress in 2014, and heading to the 2015 offseason it is again a strength. But, if the Indians are to be serious contenders in 2015, avoiding regression and adding depth is imperative. It appears Antonetti has learned from his previous mistake.

“We’ll always be looking to add to both the rotation and the bullpen,” Antonetti said. “As we go through the course of the offseason, we feel like we’re entering it with a position of strength, maybe unlike any position we’ve had in recent offseasons with the quality and quantity of pitching we have, but we’re still going to look to improve on it.”

A strength for sure, but a stable certainty, not necessarily. Before Carrasco’s win on August 10, he had not logged a victory as a starter in over three years. Seven weeks of good work doesn’t necessarily erase three years of setbacks. Salazar and Bauer both have progressed, but neither are finished products. House will have to prove he is a stable, middle of the rotation starter and not Tomlin 2.0. Even Kluber will have to prove that he is again an elite American League pitcher, and not just someone who had a career year.

A quality veteran, starting pitcher may be just the stabilizing factor to avoid that regression again. Even better, Antonetti seems to recognize his previous mistakes and may be open to trading one of his young arms to help an offense that’s hot and cold, at best.

The final seven weeks of the season from the Indians rotation were a great sign of strength, but assuming all five starters will pick up where they left off in 2015 is a mistake…one the Indians already made a year ago.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images