Can Kluber And The Indians’ Rotation Overcome Poor Support?

Can the Tribe’s talented rotation propel them back into the race, despite getting almost no support from anywhere else?

Thankfully, the baseball world has been taught that a pitcher should never be judged by his win total. The win, mercifully, has now been more or less relegated to a team dependent statistic. There are, of course, a variety of factors. Obviously, an offense has to score runs. A pitcher needs his defense to make plays. And, because of the era of specialization, a pitcher will need his bullpen to finish off a game. With so many things out of a pitcher’s control, the win is meaningless when it comes to evaluating a starting pitcher.

You can just ask any of the members of the Cleveland Indians’ rotation.

Heading into the 2015 season many viewed the Indians as a sleeper team. Because of their immensely talented rotation led by the reigning Cy Young Award winner, Corey Kluber, the Indians looked like a team that would have just enough offense to support what looked to be a potentially dominant rotation. Through 82 games, the Indians are just 38–44 and are last in the American League Central Division.

On the surface, it looks as if the rotation has been a disappointment. Kluber has just 3 wins and 8 losses through his first 17 starts. In those starts, he has compiled a somewhat disappointing 3.64 ERA. Carlos Carrasco, the flame throwing right hander who many predicted would be a breakout pitcher, has won 10 games, but has lost 7 and has a very mediocre 4.17 ERA. Trevor Bauer (7–5, 3.88) and Danny Salazar (7–4, 4.10) have had dominant moments, but their statistics don’t look dominant. It looks as if the Indians’ rotation has underachieved and has submarined a chance at a playoff berth.

This is where it gets interesting. Despite the look of disappointment, the Indians’ rotation has actually been quite dominant this year. In terms of WAR, the rotation’s 8.2 WAR rank is third best in the American League. Their 25.2 percent strikeout rate is the American League’s best by almost three percent. Even more impressive, the rotation’s 6.8 percent walk rate is the third best in the league. Their 3.52 FIP is also third best in the American League and is quite a bit better than their 4.36 ERA.

The negatives? The rotation’s 1.08 HR allowed per nine innings is the sixth worst in the American League. And, most surprising considering the amount of strikeouts and swings and misses generated, the rotation has given up the fifth most hits defined as hard contact in the American League at a 30.1 percent rate.

In all, however, the Indians’ rotation has performed as good as projected. Kluber’s strikeout rate and walk rate are both better than they were last season. His FIP (2.45) is more than a run better than his ERA. Carrasco has, despite what his ERA says, had that breakout season. His 27.7 percent strikeout rate and 5.3 percent walk rate are just slightly below Kluber’s outstanding totals. His 2.83 FIP is much lower than his 4.10 ERA. Salazar (28.9% strikeout rate, 6.7% walk rate, 3.52 FIP) has also outpitched what his traditional statistics indicate. With Cody Anderson making three brilliant starts and Trevor Bauer generally performing well (4.03 FIP, 22.9% K-Rate, 10.6 BB-Rate), the Indians can make the case for having one of the best rotation’s in the game. Yet, the rotation ranks just 8th in the American League with 31 wins. Something isn’t quite right.

Can’t Blame The Pen Completely

While the Tribe’s relievers have the third worst walk rate in the American League at 9.1 percent, their 24.9 percent strikeout rate is tied with the West Division leading Houston Astros for second best in the American League. The other statistics paint the picture of a bullpen that is essentially average. In terms of WAR, the bullpen ranks 7th in the American League. Its 3.61 FIP, 26.7 percent hard contact rate, and 0.95 HR/9 also rank 7th in the American League. Their five blown saves are the fewest in the league. While not spectacular, the Indians’ bullpen has, more or less, been the epitome of average. Certainly, it performed well enough. Of all the support pieces, the bullpen is the least of the Indians’ problems.

It’s A Simple Game, Right?

The basics of baseball are quite simple. You catch the ball, throw the ball, and hit the ball. Obviously, the Indians have the throwing part down well. The catching part is a completely different story. By the metrics, the Indians are one of the worst defensive clubs in the sport. According to Defensive Runs Saved, the Indians are the third worst team in the American League with a minus-14 DRS. Their 46 errors are the 7th most in the league.

Of their full-time starters, only Jason Kipnis has put together a better than average defensive season according to DRS at +4. Their best defensive player according the DRS was Lonnie Chisenhall, who lost his starting job to rookie Giovanni Urshela. Despite the defense-first reputation, the rookie has been a bit of a disappointment in the early going, posting a -2 DRS in a small sample size.

Outfield defense has been a particular issue for the Indians. With Michael Bourn having lost a step or two, he is now an average center fielder. This hurts as the corner defenders, particularly right fielder Brandon Moss (-5 DRS) and corner outfielder David Murphy (-4 DRS) are well below average. Adding to the defensive issues is first baseman Carlos Santana, who also is posting a negative DRS, weighing in at -5.

While the defense has improved a bit since the call up of short stop Francisco Lindor and Urshela settling in, the Indians lack of defense is proving costly. That ineptitude is compounded by the fact that the worst defenders haven’t compensated with their bats.

No Offense

Surely, the defense has worked against the pitching staff. That deficiency, however, is magnified by the lack of offense. Because the offense gives so little room for error by any other facet of the team, anything that goes wrong is costly.

The offense wasn’t going to be the strength of the team, but in no way was it projected to be this bad. How bad? The Tribe ranks 12th in the American League in runs scored. Only the Rays, Mariners, and White Sox have scored less. Like the Indians, the Mariners and White Sox are struggling to win this season, but the Rays, as usual, can overcome their lack of scoring with their strong pitching and strong defense.

The Tribe rank just 13th in home runs, 12th in slugging, 10th in wOBA, and 13th in ISO. Essentially, they are a powerless team that was supposed to hit home runs. There is some good as their .323 on base percentage is fourth in the AL. That’s buoyed by their league leading 9.4 walk rate. They also make quite a bit of contact as they have a strikeout rate of just 18.4 percent, fourth best in the league.

The offense has been hurt by the poor seasons of Carlos Santana and Yan Gomes. They’ve also received practically zero production from Michael Bourn and actually zero production from Nick Swisher. With the core of the team struggling, the fine seasons of Jason Kipnis and the platoon of Ryan Rayburn and David Murphy haven’t been able to carry the team to a pennant race.

With little payroll flexibility and actual, realistic big moves to make, the Indians will head into the second half of the season largely the same. They aren’t quite far out of it to sell and, truthfully, their sellable commodities won’t bring back much in value. So, with the record of 38–44, 9.5 games behind the division leading Royals and 5.5 games out of the Wild Card, the Indians will hope for a second half run to propel them into the race.

So, You’re Saying We Have A Chance

Yes, there are actual, tangible reasons to believe that the Indians could climb back into the race. Obviously, they have a rotation that is capable of pitching elite level baseball. And, there is every reason to believe that the group can continue to pitch well. Kluber has proven to pitch equally as well in the second half of the season during his career. Carrasco was dominant during the second half of last year as was Salazar.

The defense, a liability so far, should be better. Francisco Lindor and Giavanny Urshela come to the Major Leagues with a reputation of above average defensive skills. The left side of the infield should be stronger as the season goes on. Kipnis is playing above average defense. While the outfield and first base will continue to be a liability, offensive production from those positions should pick up.

Carlos Santana is not a hitter who slugs .357 as he currently is slugging. The 29 year old switch hitter has a career line of .244/.364/.433. He is also a hitter who, historically, hits for more power in the second half of the season as he is a .260/.370/.469 hitter in the second half compared to a first half line of .233/.361/.409. Power from the first baseman is coming. Yan Gomes has only played in 34 games this season because of a knee injury. Since returning last month, the 27 year old catcher has struggled. But, over his last five games, he is beginning to find his stroke as he is 7 for his last 21. It’s a start. Even more, Gomes was one of the few catchers who bucked the trend of a second half slump last season. Last season, post All-Star Break, Gomes hit .303/.322/.525. There’s hope.

Even some of the Indians’ current numbers offer some hope. The walk and strikeout rate are already above average. But, even the current Indians’ contact type gives hope of better offense to come. Currently, the Indians make hard contact at 28.9 percent, good for seventh in the American League. Couple the hard contact rate with the fifth lowest team BABIP and it is reasonable to believe that the patient offense can produce more in the second half.

And, the teams ahead of them in the race aren’t exactly sure things either. The Wild Card leaders — the Angels and Twins — both have issues. The Tigers just lost Miguel Cabrera and have pitching issues. The Rangers, Rays, Blue Jays, and Orioles all have flaws. And, as bad as the Indians have played, they are just 5.5 games behind. They are far from out of the race.

All that has to be scary for the rest of the playoff bound teams. If the Indians can get into the tournament, even as the Wild Card, the strength of the pitching staff could take over. Imagine Kluber pitching in the win or go home Wild Card Game. Then, assuming Kluber shuts down the opponent, the Indians go into the Division Round with Carrasco, Salazar, and either Bauer or Kluber. Those are matchups that give the Indians an advantage over almost every other contender.

But, they have to get there first. With a Manager who isn’t a stranger to comebacks, a creative front office, and a deep, talented pitching staff, the Cleveland Indians need their offense to rebound to their expected output. That’s not unrealistic or even hopeful. If their track record holds true, most of the offense should have a much better second half.

The 162 game schedule is the great equalizer in sports. The Cleveland Indians will need all 162 to, perhaps, qualify for the postseason. If they can get in, they have the type of team that can make a run. Kluber and the rotation just needs a bit more support.