When the season began, the Cleveland starting rotation appeared to be one of the biggest strengths of the club. The sky was thought to be the limit for the Indians’ staff in 2015 and a major reason that so many individuals placed lofty expectations on the Cleveland roster.
After some early bumps and (literal) bruises, the staff has gelled together to not just be a strength, but has turned out to be one of the more dominating forces in all of baseball. With some incredible performances already, especially from its top four members, the staff has a chance to become one of the best and most feared rotations in all of baseball.
Corey Kluber was coming off of his breakout season, when he claimed the top pitching honor in baseball by winning the Cy Young award with an 18-9 record and 2.44 ERA in 34 starts while striking out 269 batters, just two short of the top spot in all of baseball.
Trevor Bauer was just 5-8 with a 4.18 ERA, but he looked strong after returning from his start to the season at Triple-A Columbus, where he was 4-1 with a 2.15 ERA in seven starts.
Danny Salazar had a similar path as Bauer and his numbers nearly matched, as he went 6-8 with a 4.25 ERA and also spent eleven games in the minors. He was 3-5 with a 5.53 ERA in eight games prior to the demotion and 5-4 with a much more respectable 3.50 ERA in 12 starts following his late July return.
Carlos Carrasco was 5-6 with a 2.67 ERA as a starter, which was quite the impressive turnaround after his April struggles, 0-3 record, and 6.95 ERA helped earn him a trip to mop up duty in the bullpen to figure himself out. There, he averaged nearly four strikeouts per walk and had a 2.30 ERA, eventually working into higher leverage situations later in games. When he returned to the rotation on August 10th, he was one of the best pitchers in the game the rest of the season, going 5-3 with a 1.30 ERA and .179 batting average against. He struck out 78 batters in 69 innings of ten games and walked just eleven.
Kluber and Carrasco, for their parts, were rewarded with long-term contract extensions that seemed to benefit both the club and the players.
The Indians as a club started slow, and their 7-14 April was a result of general failures across the roster, including members of the pitching staff. Despite the early rough go, they have rebounded and have consistently kept the Tribe in ball games while keeping damage to a minimum from opposing teams more often than not.
Isolating the numbers of the Indians’ top four starters in appearances versus those of each of the other 29 team’s top men, the statistics confirm what many thought entering the season – the Cleveland rotation had the potential to be amongst the game’s best and was doing so.
Looking at all 30 teams and the four pitchers to start the most ball games on their respective clubs, the Indians staff is near the top of several pitching categories, including some of the most important for arms. These results exclude the Saturday statistics for starters of the three West Coast games, but regardless of the outcomes, it would not have made a notable difference in the numbers. In addition, two clubs – the Angels and Rays – both had starters tied for fourth in appearances and both sets of numbers were considered when making the following comparison.
Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer, and Salazar have combined to strike out 330 batters, more than any other top four in baseball. Kluber leads the pack, and the Majors, with 105 in 84 2/3 innings. Tampa Bay is the next closest in the AL to the Tribe quartet – Chris Archer (97), Jake Odorizzi (63), Nate Karns (56), and Erasmo Ramirez (31) have combined to K 247 batters in their 42 starts. San Diego is tops in the Senior Circuit – James Shields (92), Tyson Ross (78), Andrew Cashner (74), and Ian Kennedy (45) have 289 to lead the NL in 45 starts.
The same Indians staff has combined to win 21 games, tops in the league and tied for fourth-most in all of baseball, trailing the NL’s New York (23) and St. Louis (22) and tied with San Francisco. Their 13 losses as a four-man staff are just one more than Seattle’s J.A. Happ (one), Felix Hernandez (two), James Paxton (three), and Taijuan Walker (six) and Houston’s Dallas Keuchel (one), Collin McHugh (two), Scott Feldman (four), and Roberto Hernandez (five), and equals the amount by the top four in Texas, Tampa, and Minnesota.
The combined 3.49 ERA of Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer, and Salazar is third-best in the AL. Only Oakland (2.70) and Tampa (2.91) can sport lower figures. Even on the free pass side of the stat sheet, those Indians starters have allowed the fourth-fewest, as their 75 walks trail just Chicago (71), Houston (69), New York (61), and Minnesota (55). Tampa joins this list when substituting Alex Colome for Ramirez.
While this year’s rotation has already taken on a new look, the results have come back to be very reminiscent of the strong finish the starters had to end last season.
The real turnaround may have come on May 13th, when Kluber found whatever was lacking on the mound and threw a game to remember against the St. Louis Cardinals. He took a no-hitter deep into the ballgame and only allowed one hit in total over eight innings. No batter was issued a walk and 18 of the 24 retired by Kluber in the contest were shut down by strikeout.
Including that start, Kluber is 3-1 in his last five outings, striking out 59 batters and walking three in 40 innings. Opposing hitters are batting .215 off of him during that stretch. In seven starts prior, he was 0-5 and the club lost all seven of his starts. He struck out 46 in 44 2/3 innings and walked eleven. The opposition hit .290 and he earned a 5.04 ERA while receiving little to no run support.
His 60 strikeouts in May, including a three-K effort against Toronto in his first start of the month, put him in rare company all-time for pitchers accumulating 60 strikeouts or more and six walks or less in a calendar month. He joined baseball legend Bob Feller with the most strikeouts by an Indians pitcher in a nine-inning game. The Indians have a dozen games with ten strikeouts or more this season and Kluber is owner of four of them, including three beginning with that destruction of the Cardinals. His 105 whiffs this season are tops in the AL and all of baseball.
The cerebral Bauer may have learned a thing or two from Kluber in their two years together, because he has followed the Tribe ace’s lead and has been solid on the rubber.
In his last five starts, all following Kluber’s effort, he is 3-1 with a 1.75 ERA. Opposing hitters have been limited to a .180 batting average. He has struck out 36 batters in 36 innings and walked 13 to give him an even 1.00 WHIP. He was effective in six starts before, striking out 34 in 34 1/3 innings, but other teams were able to make much better use of their time on base, hitting .240 with a .329 on-base percentage against him while scoring 16 runs, giving him a 4.19 ERA in that span.
Three times in eleven starts Bauer has lobbed ten strikeouts or more, including his first start of the season, the day after Kluber’s 18-K masterpiece, and in a tough 2-1 loss May 29th against Seattle. His 70 strikeouts this season are tied for tenth-most in the league.
Carrasco has been the master of the decision, leaving all eleven starts as either the game’s victor or loser, including a tough-luck loss on April 14th after being hit in the face with a line drive on just the second batter of the game. After his loss to start the St. Louis series, just one game ahead of Kluber’s outing, Carrasco was 4-3 with a 4.84 ERA and had allowed a .277 batting average to opposing players. His 42 strikeouts to eight walks was a perk, but he was allowing more than a hit per inning pitched. In four starts since, he is 3-1 with a complete game loss, allowing just nine runs in 29 innings (2.79 ERA) and a .204 batting average. He has continued to keep both strikeout totals high while minimizing walks to just a hair over two per nine innings.
Carrasco has also been good after a loss, winning five of his seven starts immediately following a Cleveland L. He has one double-digit strikeout game this season and has struck out at least a half dozen on the mound in nine of eleven outings. He is tied for seventh in the AL with 74 Ks.
Salazar may be the biggest surprise of the rotation after failing to make the mix out of Spring Training. Bypassed for Zach McAllister and T.J. House, both pitchers struggled, resulting in McAllister taking the Carrasco path to the bullpen to find himself while House was hurt by injury and ineffectiveness and has travelled the I-71 highway to Columbus’s rotation.
Salazar made one start for the Clippers, working six scoreless innings while allowing four hits and striking out seven, earning him a quick trip back to Cleveland. Since his recall, he is 5-1 with a 3.79 ERA and has struck out 71 batters in 54 2/3 innings, including four double-digit strikeout games of his own. He is 2-0 record with a 3.77 ERA while striking out 33 and walking 12 in his last 28 2/3 innings in his five starts since the Indians’ mid-May revival.
He has been even better than Carrasco following losses. The team’s loss stopper is 5-0 following a Tribe L. He is tied with Seattle’s Hernandez with 81 strikeouts, third-most in the Junior Circuit.
All of this talk is not to detract any attention from Shaun Marcum, who has filled in admirably in the fifth spot after House and Bruce Chen were unable to take a hold of the position. The veteran of the staff is 2-1 in four starts with 21 strikeouts in 21 innings, but rough efforts in a no-decision and a loss have elevated his ERA to 6.00 in his first Major League action since 2013.
After the club’s 12th double-digit strikeout game of the season on Saturday, twice that of the next highest team, the Chicago White Sox with six, the Indians’ starting rotation as a whole extended their league lead in strikeouts to 367. The next closest club was San Diego with 335 and the next closest AL team is Tampa Bay with 301. The collective group of arms on Terry Francona’s pitching staff has amassed 530 strikeouts as a club, 35 ahead of the Padres for the overall lead in the MLB.
It is no surprise that the Indians have put more W’s in the win column since the rotation stepped up to the next level. Despite having the sixth-highest scoring offense in the AL, the runs have generally come in bunches. Sixteen times the bats have provided the pitching staff with a half dozen runs or more, but 25 times they have scored three runs or less, including four of the last five games. With inconsistent play at the plate and in the field, the staff has seen their stellar efforts wasted on more than one occasion already.
With a 15-7 record since hitting the road following the St. Louis series and a 16-8 record since Kluber’s memorable start, the team is trending upward while shredding some of the gap in both the division and in their pursuit of .500. A win Sunday would return them to an even mark for the first time since their Home Opener loss to Detroit.
The top of the pitching staff has been the source of the Indians revival and they will need to continue that trend if Cleveland hopes to continue to climb the standings and make a playoff push as the summer months roll on. The consistency that they have shown should give the team and its fans a little bit of hope moving forward.
Photo: AP Photo/Phil Long