In a piece published to ESPN.com on Monday, MLB Staff Writer Christina Kahrl called the Cleveland Indians’ starting rotation potentially the best in baseball—and yes, even she was a little surprised.
Forgoing expected pre-season favorites like the Mets, Nationals and Cardinals, Kahrl, on location in Goodyear, writes that the Tribe’s starting staff packs talent at every turn, all while lacking the pedigrees, big names, and even bigger salaries of other teams’ rotations.
At first blush, that might sound like a reach, considering that the Indians finished third in the AL in quality starts (and tied for sixth overall) and just 10th overall in ERA among big-league rotations in 2015. But their pitchers did lead everybody when it came to putting people away at the plate, whiffing 24.2 percent of all batters faced against an MLB average of 19.5 percent from starters. Cleveland finished second in swing-and-miss rate (with 24.8 percent) to the Dodgers, a team that had Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. And this year, Indians pitchers will get the benefit of a full season playing in front of a much-improved defense anchored by shortstop Francisco Lindor. Even including the team’s first-half defensive woes, the Indians’ rotation ranked fourth in WHIP (1.16), behind just the Cubs, Dodgers and Mets. …
“Our guys have unbelievable stuff,” Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway, told Kahrl over fajitas before a recent Spring Training game, “yet not one of them was just ‘the man’ coming out of the draft. Danny Salazar struggled in A-ball. [Carlos] Carrasco has had his ups and downs and struggles throughout his career. And now Trevor [Bauer] has had some struggles, but he looks like he’s turning some things around.”
If Bauer is turning things around, the rest of the rotation is poised to keep the good going. Manager Terry Francona calls 2014 Cy Young winner Corey Kluber his “self-made ace,” striking out 245 batters in 32 starts in 2015. He’ll make his second consecutive Opening Day start home on April 4 against Boston.
Like Kluber, right-hander Carrasco signed a long-term extension to stay with the team at the start of the 2015 season. After losing part of 2011’s season and all of 2012 to Tommy John surgery, the right-hander known as “Cookie” now boasts a fastball that sits at 94.5 mph. Not only does Salazar’s fastball sizzle in just a bit faster than Carrasco’s( 94.8 mph), he’s also the hardest-throwing pitcher on the staff. And his go-to alternate pitch is a changeup that FanGraphs has ranked as the best in baseball.
Kahrl writes that starting spots four, five and (potentially) six are “where things could get interesting,” with Bauer, Josh Tomlin and Cody Anderson at play if the Indians go with a classic five-pack. The most inconsistent pitcher in 2015’s rotation, Bauer accumulated an 11-12 record, striking out 168 batters in 30 starts.
“Last year, his first half was really good, and then he started to change his routine, and he kind of struggled in the second half,” Callaway said. “It made for tough days, some tough conversations in the second half. We just tried to continually express to him how valuable having a consistent routine is. It looks like he took it to heart this winter.”
Beyond Bauer, Kahrl writes, “Tomlin and Anderson are hardly chopped liver.” Despite big-fly tendencies and health woes throughout his career, Tomlin has notched a 4.46 ERA as a starter while making 40 quality starts in 80 turns. And last year as a rookie, Anderson threw 10 quality starts in 15 turns to run up a 7-3 record and a 3.05 ERA. And while the talent within the Indians’ starting rotation may be comparable in a lot of ways to that of the New York Mets or St. Louis Cardinals, Kahrl goes a bit deeper by factoring in just how cost-effective the Tribe’s arms truly are.
“In a lot of ways, it is the envy of baseball,” an American League executive told Kahrl of the Indians’ rotation. “They have this great rotation, and it’s not even hitting their payroll too much. They have guys who are under control or who are signed to really great, long-term deals or team-friendly deals. I think when you combine how good they are with the cost, they’re the best in baseball.”
Kahrl’s assessment comes on the heels of FanGraphs ranking the Indians’ starting rotation as the fifth best in baseball—best in the American League. Citing a strong starting rotation, backed by a stronger-than-last-year defense behind the mound. And the “crazy number of strikeouts” Tribe starters racked up last year.
These glowing pre-season rotation reviews aren’t necessarily new. Earlier this year, ESPN’s Buster Olney called the Tribe’s starters baseball’s second best.