ESPN examines ‘the secretly great Indians rotation’

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ESPN Insider/FanGraphs took a deep dive into the Tribe rotation; here’s a link to the story that offers much more visual evidence as well. (The link is Insider only, so here’s the full text.)

Some of the traditional American League powers haven’t exactly had a banner few months as far as rotation strength goes.

The Red Sox couldn’t bring back Jon Lester and had to settle for midrotation guys Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson. The Yankees lost out on Brandon McCarthy and might not have a single healthy, reliable starter. The Tigers (without Porcello) and Royals are still waiting to see what Max Scherzer and James Shields are going to do.

The White Sox added Jeff Samardzija but still have huge questions after him, Chris Sale and Jose Quintana. The Athletics bid Samardzija farewell, the Rays dealt Jeremy Hellickson to Arizona, and the Rangers haven’t done much more than bring back Colby Lewis yet again and gamble on Ross Detwiler.

For many of those teams, there are more questions than answers. So in the meantime, allow us to present one possibility for the best rotation in the American League in 2015, a group of pitchers that probably didn’t come to the forefront of your mind. Let’s talk about the Cleveland Indians.

To look at the Indians’ rotation right now, it might not seem like much after AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber. Here’s a look:

SP1: Kluber
SP2: Carlos Carrasco
SP3: Danny Salazar
SP4: Trevor Bauer
SP5: T.J. House

Kluber is a star, but the middle three are all prospects who have yet to live up to the hype and House is a soft-tossing lefty who has only 102 major league innings to his name. Carrasco has been kicking around the Cleveland system since 2009, when he was a part of the Cliff Lee deal, and he has been designated for assignment at least once. Salazar’s explosive 2013 debut gave hopes that he would be a 2014 star; instead, he was back in the minors by May. Bauer is a former No. 2 overall pick who was quickly pushed out of Arizona after personal differences and spent most of his first year with Cleveland in the minors attempting to iron out command issues.

Got all that? Now look at what those five players, three of whom were in the minors as late as May, did in the second half of the season:

Second half rotation numbers (rank in parentheses)

  • ERA: 2.95 (2nd)
  • FIP: 2.72 (1)
  • WAR:11 (1)
  • K% rate: 25.4% (1)
  • %BB rate: 5.8% (1)
  • HR rate: 6.9% (1)

Those numbers include eight combined mediocre starts by sixth starter Josh Tomlin and likely reliever Zach McAllister, and even still, the young Cleveland rotation was arguably the best in baseball. And we do mean young: Kluber is the oldest of the five primary Cleveland starters, and he’s just 28.

So how did this all happen?

It’s important to first note that you can’t simply extrapolate second-half numbers and assume they will persist over the next season; if you could, Ubaldo Jimenez, arguably the best pitcher in the second half of 2013, would have been fantastic in 2014 rather than a huge disappointment. (The fact that Jimenez struggled once he was away from Cleveland and pitching coach Mickey Callaway is likely not a coincidence.) Still, Kluber is undeniably an ace, and there are tangible reasons to believe each of the others has made real steps forward.

That starts with Carrasco, who in his first five years with Cleveland had been either terrible (5.29 ERA/4.48 FIP), injured (2012 Tommy John surgery), suspended (for headhunting, more than once), designated for assignment (2013) or demoted (most recently losing his starting job after only four games in early 2014). After losing his spot on April 25, Carrasco spent the next three months in the bullpen.

While Carrasco would later say that his time in the bullpen helped him gain confidence, the change he brought with him back to the rotation in August was much easier to see. After a career spent pitching out of the windup with runners on, he began pitching out of the stretch full-time.

It also helped him smooth out his control problems. In 10 late-season starts, Carrasco put up an absurd 78-to-11 K/BB rate with only 10 earned runs allowed. The fact that he added what was, by one measure, baseball’s best slider and a nearly unhittable split/change helped. Carrasco’s 97 mph fastball is surprisingly hittable, but now that he can place it and hide it with two very good off-speed pitches, he’s suddenly difficult to hit.

Salazar didn’t have quite the breakout Carrasco did, but he wasn’t coming from as far away either. After a successful late-2013 cameo that included a playoff start, the hype around Salazar was massive entering 2014. While he didn’t lose his ability to miss bats, an inflated number of walks and homers caused him to find his way back to the minors after only eight starts.

In nearly 30 more innings, Salazar gave up fewer homers and essentially the same number of walks. It later came out that Salazar had been dealing with a triceps injury suffered in spring training, a malady that had affected both his velocity and his release point. He also changed his mechanics, lowering his glove hand during his follow-through to something more closely resembling what he had done in 2013. Put another way, the 2013 rookie sensation had 3.16 FIP, while the 2014 post-demotion Salazar had a 2.83 FIP. And he will be only 25 in January.

Bauer, believe it or not, is the youngest of all of them; he doesn’t turn 24 until next month. After eight atrocious starts in 2012 and 2013, Bauer put together his first full big league season in 2014. While he was more competent (4.01 FIP, 1.3 WAR) than impressive, he showed real progress in attacking the main issue that has held him back: his command. Since being drafted in 2011, he had never once, at any level, had a walk rate of less than 10 percent. In 153 big league innings in 2014, he got that down to 9.1 percent, which is absolutely a step in the right direction.

Like with Carrasco and Salazar, there’s something real and tangible to point to. While Bauer’s 2013 looked like a mess statistically, he spent most of the year reworking his pitching motion, reaching further back and bending his left leg more. While the improvement must continue for him to be a successful big leaguer, it’s worth noting that his K%-to-BB% was one of baseball’s 50 best marks (minimum 150 innings), similar to solid starters Lance Lynn, Chris Archer and Sonny Gray.

House actually did better than Bauer in fewer innings in 2014, and while he likely has the lowest ceiling of any of the five listed here, the fact that he has less than a full year of service time allows us to point out something else that the Cleveland rotation has going for it. Not only are they young and talented, but they are also inexpensive. Combined, this quintet should make just under $4 million in 2015. Compare that to the injury-prone Brett Anderson, who just agreed to take $10 million from the Dodgers next year despite not having pitched even 100 innings since 2010.

Right now, the Indians are tied with the Seattle Mariners atop FanGraphs’ AL rotation rankings, and it’s easy to see why. Carrasco, Salazar and Bauer all took real, visible steps forward last season, while Kluber is among the best in baseball. Not only that, but the players behind them might do more to help. Last season’s Cleveland defense was arguably the worst that baseball has seen in years, and while it won’t be good in 2015, it should be better, if only because no matter who plays shortstop, Jose Ramirez or Francisco Lindor, he will be a huge improvement on the departed Asdrubal Cabrera.

When you think of top rotations, you might not think of the Indians. You should. It is young and talented, and the breakout isn’t to come; it has already happened.

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