Can the Indians Rotation Stay Strong Down the Stretch?

With the Indians sitting in striking distance of a wild card spot and a trip to the 2013 Major League playoffs, many questions have arisen in regards to the success of the team over the last few weeks of the season. One such issue is the ability of the rotation to remain strong as the grueling MLB season takes its toll on arm and body. If the rotation can hold up and stay strong, the Tribe has a chance at success, if they falter, the Indians are in a great deal of trouble.

Justin Masterson was the Indians ace to start the year, and he pitched like it through the first five months of the season. He leads the Indians with 14 wins and a 3.52 ERA. He is also fifth in the American League in strikeouts with 188. He faltered early on in August, but he has given up two runs or less in each of his last three starts and has emerged as one of the top pitchers in the AL. In his last start, he strained his oblique and will be out for an indeterminate amount of time. He was pitching strong and looked like he was going to be a leader in that rotation down the stretch. His return this season is in question, but his ability on the mound is not. Masterson is the Indians ace and has some of the best numbers of any starting pitcher in the AL.

With Masterson out, the burden on Ubaldo Jimenez is that much greater. He came into the season with many question marks and much speculation about his abilities. He was coming off of the two worst seasons of his career and Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway had a lot of work to do with his poor mechanics. Callaway worked on Jimenez and was positive about his improvements heading into the season, but many fans were still rightly skeptical. His season has been greatly uplifting to the Indians and Callaway’s work look like it paid off.

On the season, Jimenez is 11-9 with a 3.61 ERA. He has the best strikeout rate of his career at 9.2 strikeouts per nine. He struggled early on in April, but picked it up nicely and has pitched well down the stretch. Twice in his last three starts, he has struck out ten batters while walking zero. In the month of September he has not given up an earned run in two starts, spanning 13 innings pitched with 14 strikeouts. He has not given up more than three runs in a start since July 14 and since July 1 he has given up one run or less five times. He is also enjoying the best 24 game stretch of his career. In his last 24 starts, he has pitched to a 2.82 ERA with 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings and a 2.2 strikeout to walk ratio. In the second half of the season, Jimenez has a 1.94 ERA with 63 strikeouts, and 22 walks in 56 innings pitched. Jimenez has gotten stronger as the season has worn on and he has made the Indians decision to pick up his option look like a fantastic move.

Maybe the biggest surprise this season is the emergence of Corey Kluber. On the season, Kluber is 8-5 with a 3.54 ERA. He has struck out 121 batters in 127 innings pitched with an incredible 4.5 strikeout to walk ratio. He is no fluke; he is a pitcher that has learned to pitch and has very good velocity to match. His two-seam fastball sits at 93-95 mph with a good cutter and a devastating slider to go with them. His slider has always been a plus pitch, but in his past, his fastball was flat and stayed up in the zone. No matter what he did, it seemed to hover in the zone and was very hittable. Just after the All-Star break of last season, Kluber started throwing the two-seam fastball in an effort to keep the ball down. That revelation has made all the difference for Kluber’s career. With his solid cutter and killer slider, combined with his high velocity, he now has all the tools to be a front end pitcher, and he has pitched like it this season. His ERA is right on par with Masterson, and questionable defensive play behind him may be keeping it higher than it could be.

FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is a stat that removes defense from the equation and shows a pitchers skills sets on its own; it is on the same scale as ERA. Kluber’s FIP on the season is 3.10, suggesting that if the defense played a little better behind him, his ERA could be higher than his current 3.54. In his last two starts, Kluber shutout the Tigers through six innings, then defeated the Mets giving up two runs in five innings with five strikeouts. His success is necessary in the Indians quest at a playoff berth.

Another pitcher that has done better than expected is Zach McAllister. With a 7-9 record and a 4.11 ERA, the 25 year old McAllister is having a good season for a back end starter. He missed some time mid-season with a finger injury, and after returning to the rotation McAllister felt better than ever. The numbers suggest that he may be running out of gas as the season comes to a head. He has not thrown more than five innings in any of his last three starts, but he has given up four runs or more in each of them. He has given up 17 hits in those 13 innings with 11 strikeouts and 8 walks. Numbers that is not indicative of his previous starts. Zips, which is a program that projects players seasons has McAllister going 1-1 with a 5.12 ERA in his last three starts, not a good end to his season.

Another possible victim of the grind of a Major League season is Scott Kazmir. He has enjoyed a phenomenal turnaround in his career, and no matter how he finishes, he certainly had an outstanding season considering where he came from. An 8-7 record and a 4.17 ERA show a good season for any fifth starter. Down the stretch however, Kazmir has been up and down. From July 30 to September 11, he has had five starts where he gave up four runs or more. In that same stretch, he has made three starts where he has given up one run or less. After a fantastic start against the Mets where he struck out 12 in six shutout innings, he was shelled for four runs in four innings against the Kansas City Royals. The end of his season is still in question, but his inconsistency is not the best sign.

The Indians rotation has been very good on the season; at times they have carried the team. For the most part, the Indians rotation looks strong heading into the last few weeks of the season. They cannot shoulder the load on their own though, if the Indians are going to make the playoffs, they need the bullpen and the offense to come together to make a complete team. Many seasons have been defined by a team that got hot at the right time and carried it into the playoffs for a fantastic run, this is likely the route the Indians will take if they make the playoffs and find further success.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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