Taxation of Domination: Cleveland’s rotation is putting in too much work

Indians right-hander Carlos Carrasco, making his ninth start of the season, retired the Tigers in order in the first inning Monday night at Comerica Park.(Paul Sancya, Associated Press)

We all know about the Rotation of Domination. It is a group that has taken years to cultivate, headlined by two-time Cy Young award winner Corey “Magic Man” Kluber,1 and includes Carlos “Cookie” Carrasco, Trevor Bauer “Outage”, Mike “Sunshine” Clevinger, once upon a time Danny Salazar (please get better soon)…and Josh “He needs to start pitching better or else he’s going to be in the minors Little Cowboy” Tomlin. They have been wrecking opposing batters for years now, propelling the Cleveland Indians to the highest of heights and setting them up for World Series contention for the last two-plus years.

Working in tandem with the Rotation of Domination was an almost equally amazing bullpen. Closer Cody Allen and elite fireman Andrew Miller teamed up with Bryan Shaw, Dan Otero, and others to create a new “Bullpen Mafia“. This group allowed for manager Terry Francona to do the “bullpen shuffle”, using plus relief arms for sometimes one or two hitters at a time, without losing any ground in the advantage department. Starters need only reach the sixth inning unscathed2 before getting lifted for Otero or Shaw, who more often than not handed a lead over to Miller and Allen to close out games. It was a well-oiled pitching machine of death that catapulted Cleveland to the World Series. Then, the winter of 2017 happened.

With well established key pieces of the roster such as Shaw, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley hitting free agency coupled with trade deadline acquisitions Joe Smith and Jay Bruce on their way out, the front office had decisions to make. Brantley was the only player re-signed3 and bullpen arms Shaw and Smith found windfalls elsewhere, Colorado for Shaw and Houston for Smith. There were no replacements signed for them; the organization, despite being known for its inability to develop relief pitcher prospects, would have to replace their production from within.4

Spring training brought the league-wide copycat idea of making former starters Cody Anderson and Danny Salazar into multi-inning weapons to help bridge some of the production lost via free agency. However, injuries have ravaged that idea, with both currently on the 60-day disabled list, and Salazar most recently making news of the bad variety: he is in the middle of a shut down after receiving a PRP injection in his shoulder. The onus would fall on Nick Goody, Zach McAllister, and Otero to produce. And boy… they have not. The collective struggles of the bullpen as a whole have caused Francona to almost avoid them all until they are needed. The Tribe starters have already thrown four complete games, doubling up the next closest team in total. The rest of the majors has nine complete games combined to Cleveland’s four.

The numbers help bear out exactly how bad the bullpen has been and how Francona is putting too many innings on the rotation in the early going. If you want to use fWAR as your barometer, the Indians are doing just great! They have totaled 4.0 fWAR to date as a pitching staff, which is 10th in the majors. However, the bullpen has actually hindered the production, being valued at -0.3 fWAR, costing Cleveland more than one actual game due to the inability of getting players out. For more of a raw number look at the strain being put on the starters: in all of baseball, there is only one team has more innings thrown by their starters than Cleveland. Of those teams in the top ten in pitching fWAR, only three have used their starters for more than 67.5% of their innings pitched: the Indians, the Houston Astros, and the Washington Nationals.

There has to be a break in the dam somewhere to give this rotation some sort of relief, pun only somewhat intended. Say what you will about Bauer and his elastic arm or the fact that Kluber and Carrasco are vets who know their bodies, this season will not end well if Francona continues to use his starters in this manner for a whole season. Look at last year’s playoffs for that example for the last bit: Kluber did not appear to be healthy for Game 5 against the New York Yankees, but he was run out there because he wanted the ball. No player is going to say, “no give it to the next guy”. Hell, even Eddie Harris attempted to stay in the game for one more batter between heaving breaths in Major League.

The continued usage of the rotation for extra innings and apparent abandonment of the bullpen could lead to the downfall of this season. Whether it’s a return to health of Anderson or Salazar (not happening anytime soon), a sudden reliance on a bullpen that has struggled (Oliver Drake has looked good and Miller is back from a disabled list stint which will help matters), or a major roster change (whether it be a demotion to the pen for Tomlin or an influx of a relief arm via trade), something has to give or Francona is going to run his starting pitchers into the ground before the trade deadline even happens. The taxation of the rotation is going to lead to its damnation.

  1. If you think I’m letting this die, you are dead wrong. []
  2. Kluber, Carrasco, and Bauer all pitched more than six innings very often, but you get my drift. []
  3. His $11 million option was picked up rather than declined, which would have made him a free agent. []
  4. In an offseason where few MLB players got paid, nearly all free agents from the Indians got paid well. MLB players, come to Cleveland… get paid. []