Orbiting Cleveland: Is the Indians’ 2014 season a precursor of future positives?

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There’s no way to sugarcoat the 2014 season for the Cleveland Indians.

It’s gone sour.

And that taste doesn’t seem like it’s leaving our mouths anytime soon.

One of the most difficult aspects with following this year’s Indians has been the middling nature of the club. This is not a bad Indians team. But that’s where the problem lies — it’s not a good team either.

On each occasion that the Indians seem poised to go on the run, the team then stumbles and rattles off a losing streak to offset the winning. Case and point below:

  • From May 6 to 9, the Indians won four straight before proceeding to lose six out of their next eight games.
  • From May 19 to 22, the team won four straight, which was then followed by five losses in six games.
  • From May 30 to June 9, the Indians won nine of 10 games but then dropped four straight.
  • From July 13 to July 19, the team won four straight but then lost six out of seven.
  • From August 1 to August 4, there was another four-game winning streak directly followed by a four-game losing streak.

So, here we stand, on August 25, and the team’s record sits at 66-63. That’s good for six games back in the American League Central and five games back in the American League Wild Card race.

It would be easier to feel good about the Indians’ chances if there were not six teams ahead of them in the Wild Card race, and one of the two spots all but locked up between Oakland and Los Angeles.

Were we a tad too optimistic coming into the season? A 92-win season can certainly have that affect on a fan base, but let’s not forget about just how much went right last season.

For those unaware, PECOTA is a forecasting system used by Baseball Prospectus, which factors in a number of mathematical variables to offer projections on how players and teams might perform. Last season, of the 11 Indians pitchers that pitched 50 innings or more, all but one of them topped PECOTA’s weighted-mean forecast.

Take a look at the graph below for yourself:

Pitcher Projected 2013 ERA Actual 2013 ERA Difference
Justin Masterson 4.12 3.45 -0.67
Ubaldo Jimenez 3.73 3.30 -0.43
Scott Kazmir 4.85 4.04 -0.81
Corey Kluber 5.08 3.85 -1.23
Zach McAllister 4.52 3.75 -0.77
Bryan Shaw 4.74 3.24 -1.50
Cody Allen 3.63 2.43 -1.20
Joe Smith 3.65 2.29 -1.36
Matt Albers 4.38 3.14 -1.24
Chris Perez 3.52 4.33 0.81
Danny Salazar 6.01 3.12 -2.89

As you can tell, aside from Chris Perez, every Indians pitcher who recorded at least 50 innings exceeded his expectations. Furthermore, every Indians starter who pitched at least 50 innings exceeded his expectations.

That’s not to say that last year’s starting rotation was perfect. We remember how the Brett Myers experiment went south, and Carlos Carrasco left a lot to be desired. Trevor Bauer also never looked comfortable in his four starts. However, the Indians rectified those situations, either by choice or not by choice, and made changes before their rotation suffered.

In the case of Myers, it was removal from the rotation due to injury while Carrasco and Bauer were removed due to ineffectiveness.

Like last season, 11 pitchers this season have pitched 50 or more innings for the Indians. Here are the statistics for those pitchers with PECOTA projections for eight of the 11.

Pitcher Projected 2014 ERA Actual 2014 ERA Difference
Corey Kluber 4.49 2.46 -2.03
Trevor Bauer 4.52 4.18 -0.34
Josh Tomlin N/A 4.35 N/A
Justin Masterson 3.82 5.51 1.69
Carlos Carrasco 4.54 3.14 -1.40
Danny Salazar 4.09 4.52 0.43
Zach McAllister 4.39 5.91 1.52
T.J. House N/A 3.80 N/A
Bryan Shaw 4.01 2.43 -1.58
Scott Atchison N/A 2.81 N/A
Cody Allen 3.11 1.78 -1.33

A few conclusions can be drawn from this data. It’s been said before, but Corey Kluber has been a lifesaver this season. He was good last year, but he has developed into a bonafide ace. There is no chance that the Indians would be even a .500 club without him.

Secondly, it is clear that Justin Masterson and Zach McAllister had a devastating effect on this rotation, especially in the case of Masterson. Both performed well-below expectations, and the Indians struggled because of that.

The two pitchers made a total of 23 starts this season. Now, how many of those 23 games were left on the field because of their poor pitching performances?

As noted above, the Indians did have a slew of bad starting pitching performances last season from the likes of Myers, Carrasco and Bauer, but none of those players were ever in the rotation long enough to dramatically affect the season in a negative way. In comparison, Masterson and McAllister each logged a half season of below-average starts for the Indians this year. The 165 innings pitched between the two of them has had a crippling effect on the team.

The positive news is that the Indians have since rectified the problem. Masterson was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals on July 30 for outfield prospect James Ramsey while McAllister has not made a start for the Indians since July 31.

Unfortunately, McAllister has revealed himself as someone who is more suited for the bullpen, given his limited arsenal. Similarly, Masterson seemed to be a shell of himself in 2014 as he suffered from a loss of velocity.

14757102-largeSince the two have permanently been removed from the rotation, the Indians have a record of 13-8. Their current rotation of Kluber, Bauer, Carrasco, Danny Salazar and T.J. House seems to be the best combination that the team has had all season — only twice (Salazar on Aug. 6, Bauer on Aug. 19) has one of those five starters allowed more than three earned runs this month.

For the first time in 2014, it appears as if the Indians have a stable rotation that’s capable of winning some games, and the August record proves that. The problem is that it might too little, too late.

There are only 33 games left in the 2014 season. Even if the rotation continues to perform and the Indians play above .500, it seems as if it would be wishful thinking to pencil them into the postseason.

Last season, the Indians went 21-6 in September to earn the top Wild Card spot. This year, with six teams ahead of them in the Wild Card standings, 21-6 might not even be enough.

The team does benefit from the fact that they have a combined 12 games remaining against the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals, but it’s still going to be very difficult.

In the Indians’ defense, the result would likely be no different if Carrasco, Salazar and House had been in the rotation all season. Carrasco seemed to discover himself while in the bullpen, and Salazar was mishandled during Spring Training. The Indians were overly cautious with the right-hander, which played a role in his early season struggles.

The good news is that the future looks bright. The current rotation (Kluber, Bauer, Carrasco, Salazar and House) is under team control through the 2017 season. Aside from Carrasco, every other player is under team control through at least 2018.

Also, FIP and xFIP suggests that those five players have actually performed better than their ERA indicates, which directly relates to the Indians’ poor defense, which leads the Majors with 100 errors.

Pitcher ERA FIP xFIP
Danny Salazar 4.52 3.91 3.72
Corey Kluber 2.46 2.47 2.75
Carlos Carrasco 3.14 3.00 3.16
Trevor Bauer 4.41 3.93 4.10
T.J. House 3.80 4.07 3.47

Overall though, it’s clear to see that there’s a lot to be excited about with the current members of the rotation. It’s been years since the Indians have had so many young, talented arms.

The 2014 season has already given us a sour taste, but what if what we’re now seeing is sign of the future — a sign of better things to come?

Yes, it tastes sour now, but 2014 could have one helluva pleasant aftertaste.

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2 thoughts on “Orbiting Cleveland: Is the Indians’ 2014 season a precursor of future positives?

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