The Cleveland Indians starting pitching since the All-Star break has been nothing short of phenomena. This said, a few have outperformed their outcomes since the arbitrary celebration of baseball’s halfway point.
Outperforming outcomes may be a strange concept, and it comes with its flaw but pitchers are often at the mercy of inputs which they do not control. A few different sabermetric statistics have been constructed to separate what is under the pitchers influence ans what is under the defenders influence. There is SIERA, FIP, xFIP and cFIP, all with varying positives and negatives. For the sake of this article, the analysis will lean on FIP.
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) leans on three major inputs as being under the pitchers control home runs, K%, and BB%. The one striking issue is that it probably does not weight contact management skills properly. The issue of contact management is important to the Indians strange outcomes to date.
One of the interesting benchmarks to compare is the ERA-FIP gap. That is a pitcher’s ERA compared to his FIP1. On the surface level, a large positive ERA-FIP gap is a signal of an unsustainable, inflated ERA. This is what makes the Indians’ positioning on the ERA-FIP gap standings so striking.
Here is how Indians starters rank among the 132 starting pitchers who have thrown 70 innings in 2017.
6. Josh Tomlin 5.38 ERA-4.26 FIP = 1.12
7. Trevor Bauer 5.00-3.89 = 1.11
33. Danny Salazar 4.35-3.96 = .40
34. Carlos Carrasco 4.06-3.67 = .40
44. Corey Kluber 2.77-2.45 = .312
92. Mike Clevinger 4.00-4.41 = -.41
Five of the Indians’ six starting pitchers are in roughly the top third of pitchers in ERA-FIP gap. These gaps point to three potential underlying causes:
- The Indians defense is adversely impacting the starting rotations.
- The Indians rotation has contact management problems.
- Baseball is super noisy and random, therefore an answer cannot be ascertained.
For the purpose of brevity this piece is limited to determining the veracity of the first potential clause. Answering the second question is would require a pitcher-by-pitcher breakdown which hopefully comes forward over the course of the next month at WFNY. (The third, of course, would make all of this analysis a fool’s errand.)
Defense does not appear to be the root cause of the Indians’ starting pitching problems. The Indians are ninth in defensive runs saved and 16th in ultimate zone rating—the two leading defensive metrics. As should always be noted, defensive metrics are incredibly noisy and should be viewed with a grain of salt. However, the Indians, when healthy, have the makings of a strong defensive team. Roberto Perez and Yan Gomes, in total, are an above average defender. Carlos Santana is average-or-better at first base. Jose Ramirez plus at second. Jason Kipnis is average. Francisco Lindor is an above average at shortstop. Gio Urshela is plus at third. Michael Brantley is adequate. Bradley Zimmer and Lonnie Chisenhall are plus. Point is, there is no reason to believe that defensive insufficiency is the basis for the starters large ERA-FIP gap.
However, without further discovery the preliminary verdict is that the Indians starting pitchers have an issue with contact management. The Indians starters have the third-lowest soft%3 of any team in major league baseball. This is paired with the third highest line drive rate against, making it is easy to see how the team, to this point, has had a contact management problem. With elite strikeout rates and good command, the Indians rotation is one of the five best in baseball but their obvious weakness rest in contact management.