I get that the Tigers are better than the Indians. When one team spends tens of millions more than the other, develops a Cy Young winner from its farm system, makes trades that net a potential Cy Young winner and a Gold Glove center fielder, and their major expenditures have all worked well, they possess an advantage that can only be overcome by tremendous player development, getting every transaction right, and great luck with injuries.
Obviously, those things have not been the case with the Indians.
It bugs me, though, that there have been so many series this year where the Indians just seemed to be over their heads. The Indians have been swept in series by the Yankees and Red Sox in April, the Tigers in May, and the Yankees and Tigers in June. In the thirteen losses encompassed in these series, the Indians have been outscored 96-43. If you have watched these games, you know that the margin accurately indicates the degree of dominance in those games. The first two games of the most recent series against Detroit have been similarly discouraging. It’s not just the losing, it’s the feeling that, unless we play a perfect game, we have no chance.
The main reason we have struggled against these teams has been pitching. Even in a game involving a significant talent disparity, a good pitcher can make a lesser team competitive, but the Indians’ starting pitcher has pitched into the seventh inning in only three of these fifteen games (counting the two against Detroit). In many of them, we have been into the bullpen before the fifth inning, which not only means those games are out of reach, but has a ripple effect in subsequent games. With the Indians’ offense, it is not necessary to throw a Cy Young candidate out there every night to contend, but they do need five guys who can give them six or more solid innings on a consistent basis.
A look at the numbers tells all you need to know. Justin Masterson has finished the sixth inning in seventeen of his nineteen starts so far this year, which is about as good as you can find. Other than Masterson, however, the Indians’ starters have finished the sixth inning in just 31 of 73 games. Even if the starter is effective enough to keep the team in the game, if the bullpen is constantly pitching three or more innings per game, they will either wear out or be forced to use the less effective pitchers out of the pen because the better pitchers are spent.
Here is how each pitcher breaks down, with starts lasting six or more innings and total starts:
- Jimenez, 6/18
- Kazmir, 7/15
- Kluber, 8/14
- McAllister, 6/11
- Carrasco, 1/6
- Bauer, 1/ 4
- Myers, 1/ 4
- Salazar, 1/1
More than wins, ERA, or any other measurement that you can judge pitchers by, to me the ability to get through the sixth inning on a consistent basis is a prerequisite for remaining in the rotation, simply because of the extent of the damage that is done by failing to do so. One could make a case that Kluber and McAllister, by succeeding more than half the time and because they are still on the upward slope of the learning curve, have pitched well enough to justify remaining in the rotation. Scott Kazmir has pitched six innings in 47 percent of his starts, which is marginal at best. Ubaldo Jimenez, however, has gotten through six innings only six times all year. This is simply not good enough. Even when Jimenez has been relatively effective, he has generally approached a hundred pitches by the fifth inning. At his worst, he has taken the Indians completely out of the game on far too many occasions, allowing five or more runs in fewer than five innings on four occasions, all of which the Indians have lost.
One could make a case that the Indians need at least two solid starting pitchers if they want to be legitimate contenders. Given their payroll constraints, it seems unlikely that they will add more than one. One way to maximize their potential return would be to find a team willing to take on Jimenez’ salary. I am not certain that Jimenez has a great deal of trade value, but I would suggest that if a team offers the proverbial Player To Be Named, that the Indians jump on it. That would increase the money available to spend on a more consistent starter, while also freeing up a rotation spot. Kazmir can handle the fifth spot for the time being, and can slide into middle relief if Carraso, Bauer, or Salazar proves ready to take his spot.
With this offense, the Indians are in any game in which the starter holds the opposition to four runs or less. A consistent rotation will enable the bullpen to improve because Francona will be able to identify his best four relievers and give them the bulk of the critical innings. In my opinion, if the Indians’ starters get through six innings on a consistent basis (say, 60% of the time) the remainder of the year they will stay in contention. If there is a pitcher on the market who can help reach that goal, and the Indians can acquire him without giving up Francisco Lindor or multiple prime prospects, it makes sense to make such a move.