Spring training is underway in Arizona, and the Cleveland Indians’ pitchers have begun the battle for a spot in the Opening Day rotation. And although Chris Antonetti has stated that Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Brett Myers are guaranteed the first three slots, he hasn’t given that same reassurance to young right-hander Zach McAllister.
McAllister, 25, is coming off a somewhat-shaky rookie year despite outperforming the rest of the Tribe’s 2012 pitching staff. His 92 ERA+ was actually the highest out of all seven of the team’s primary starting pitchers. During a season in which Jimenez was an absolute train wreck and Masterson never quite settled in (among other pitching disasters), McAllister was the sole bright spot in the rotation.
After being called up from Columbus in May, he settled in quickly and pitched better than expected. Entering August, McAllister had a 3.18 ERA and seemed to be on track for a great debut year. While he didn’t collapse as badly as others, his ERA shot up to 4.28 over the next two months, and he appeared fatigued during most of August and September. It’s hard to say whether that was due to the length of his outings or simply the stress of being on a losing team, but whatever the cause it greatly affected his performance.
McAllister can be slightly difficult to judge in terms of value. On one hand, he gave up 19 home runs in 22 games, and he led all of baseball in unearned runs. In addition, he allowed the highest percentage of stolen bases among Tribe starters, with runners having a 95 percent success rate against him. On the other hand, he struck out twenty percent of the batters he faced and walked only seven percent, giving him a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.89 – second only to fellow rookie Corey Kluber, and above MLB average. Those are good signs for a young pitcher, and they almost make up for his inability to hold baserunners. McAllister has good control over his pitches, throwing 65 percent of them for strikes. He has the ability to be a very solid mid-rotation pitcher, if he can make a few small changes.
Overall, the good traits outweigh the bad. Most of his struggles can be attributed to being young and inexperienced, but if McAllister wants to be a successful big-league starter, he needs to cut down on stolen bases this spring. The major league average last season was 73 percent; he had five games where he allowed at least two stolen bases last year, including one where he allowed four. In fact, the only player he caught stealing all season was Dayan Viciedo, who isn’t exactly known for his speed. McAllister needs to pay more attention to men on base and work on getting the ball to the catcher much more quickly. Out of the 18 stolen bases he allowed, half of those runners scored. If he could eliminate those extra runs, he would look like an entirely different pitcher.
Luckily, none of McAllister’s flaws are irreparably bad. If he can refine the skills he showed last season, there is a good chance he’ll pitch better than the rest of the rotation this year, too. He already controls the amount of walks he gives up, and doesn’t need to make a major adjustment to his delivery. He should be able to make the minor improvements he needs to make without being sent back down to the minor leagues.
The Indians didn’t make a lot of bold roster moves involving the rotation this winter. That means they have likely decided to put their faith in Masterson and Jimenez again, who last season earned a 79 and a 72 ERA+, respectively. It doesn’t make much sense that McAllister would be the one who needs to worry about job security, when he clearly pitched substantially better than his teammates did last year. He is a fundamentally strong pitcher and can only improve from here. His place with the team should never have been a question in the first place.