This isn’t meant to throw cold water on the Indians’ play of late. Quite the contrary. There are many reasons to be excited about the Indians, even after the tough loss to open the series against the Rangers. The lineup has come alive, the bullpen is taking form, and even the defense has been better of late.
In all these facets, the Indians look at the very least like a bonafide Wild Card contender, if not a worthy challenger to Detroit for the AL Central crown. They’ve clawed their way back (temporarily) to .500, which in a muddled American League puts them right in the thick of things.
But regardless of what their adversaries are doing, a .500 record is not great, and it still will likely take around 86+ wins to nab that last Wild Card spot. The lineup will score plenty of runs, and the bullpen will hold plenty of leads, but an Indians playoff push will hinge on the same thing it did last season: the starting pitching.
To be clear, it would be flat-out wrong to suggest the Indians starting pitchers have been bad this season. They’re fourth in the AL in FIP (3.68)and their 4.50 ERA is without a doubt the product of the team’s major-league worst -40 defensive runs saved.
But those numbers are in the past; what’s more interesting, and more pertinent to the Indians playoff hopes going forward, is how the staff can be expected to perform the rest of the season.
At this point, nobody doubts Corey Kluber’s ability at the top of the rotation. His 2.48 FIP fully supports his 3.23 ERA, and he passes the eye test as well as the sabermetric one. But a team’s playoff hopes depend almost equally among all five starting pitchers, and there questions remaining about Kluber’s rotation mates.
When mentions of a long-term extension for Justin Masterson were first bandied about in the media, I was as gung-ho as anyone about getting an extension done, and thus as disappointed when things fell through. But the first two months of this season have showed exactly why the front office was so hesitant to extend Masterson. It seems as though the multitude of moving parts in Masterson’s delivery will always make him prone to stretches of inconsistency, not to mention terrible splits versus lefties (.381 wOBA so far in 2014). At the same time, just because Masterson has struggled a bit in 2014 doesn’t invalidate what he accomplished last season, and if he can cut down on the free passes even slightly (11.4% walk rate this year, 9.4% for his career), he should at least come close to resembling the pitcher he was in 2013.
Five starts obviously not enough to draw any solid conclusions, but Trevor Bauer looks at the very least like a solid contributor to the rotation (and I’m definitely wiling to give him a pass for struggling a bit at the Bandbox in Arlington). The eye test is especially encouraging here,as the guy has an arsenal of pitches that are devastating when he’s on. The strikeout rate is an eye-popping 30.5%, and his 18.2% home run per fly ball rate will inevitably come back to earth (the league average hovers around 10%). The only real caveat is one that comes with any young starter: how will he perform once he creeps past his previous career high of 138.1 innings? But for now, Bauer should be more than okay.
The last two spots in the rotation are where the concerns really start. Any opinion of Josh Tomlin should depend on whether or not his jump in strikeout rate (23.1% this season, 14.0% career) is sustainable. His swinging strike percentage (8.5%) is still below the league average, (9.2%), which would seem to indicate his above-average strikeout rate is a bit fluky. For a guy as homer-prone as Tomlin, the strikeout rate will likely make the difference between mid-rotation contributor and fringe five-starter.
The final slot in the Indians rotation is a curious one. It’s certainly possible that Zach McAllister’s recent troubles could be attributed to his sore back. But McAllister is another guy with a big jump in strikeout rate (20.1% in 2014, 17.4% in 2013) without the requisite jump in swinging strike percentage (6.6% in 2014, 7.1% in 2013). T.J. House has been fine in his three starts, and it’s nice to have a lefty in the rotation, but it’s mostly been a smoke-and-mirrors act (16.3% K-rate, 6.3% BB-rate), and he never had a great prospect pedigree to begin with. The wild card here is Danny Salazar. If he can make some progress with his slider, or even just iron out his fastball location, he belongs in the big league rotation. Expect to see Salazar back in the rotation at some point this year.
The Indians rode some fantastic performances from their starters to a playoff appearance last season, and that absolutely could happen again. There are questions to be sure, but there’s also the potential for all these guys to pitch up to their potential and propel this team back into the playoffs. On the roller coaster that is the 2014 season, that’s all one can ask for.
Statistics via FanGraphs, the greatest non-pornographic site on the planet.