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Second Thoughts: Where the rotation stands

Supposed weakness of Indians performs well in first half

Second Thoughts: Where the rotation stands
July 17, 2013
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It’s the All-Star break in 2013 and once again, the Indians find themselves within striking distance of the division lead. What’s different between this year and the last couple, other than the new coaches and personnel, the Tribe has shown no signs of falling off leading up to the halfway point.

In fact, the Wahoos finished strong winning four straight and five of their last six. For the first time since the miracle 2007 season, Cleveland has won 50+ games before the Midsummer Classic. Take that for what you will, but it certainly puts the team in a good spot to take advantage of their lighter second half schedule.

There have been many keys that have led to the strong showing by the Indians in the first half. A top-five offense, sound leadership in the dugout, improved all-around talent… However, one element that deserved a good deal of the credit is the starting pitching staff, one that was practically written off with a lot of ‘maybes’ and ‘what-ifs’.

While they’re far from being the best staff in the league, they are definitely a ways off from being the worst. From All-Star ace Justin Masterson to Comeback Player of the Year candidate Scott Kazmir to up and coming premier prospect Danny Salazar, the Indians rotation has become reliable and can give the Indians a chance to win every time they take the mound.

Justin Masterson (20 GS, 10-7, 3.72 ERA) *All-Star*

While he may not be an ace in the class of Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez and Max Scherzer, Justin Masterson has stepped up and proven he is capable of leading this pitching staff both on and off the field. The right-hander got the call to be the Indians’ #1 starter a year ago and despite underperforming in 2012, he was given the nod to be the Opening Day starter once again in 2013. This season, however, Masterson has drawn from his experiences from the last couple seasons and stepped up to lead the Tribe in their contention campaign.

The biggest struggle for the 28-year-old this year has been ‘the big inning’. While this has been a problem for him throughout his career, he has done a better job of limiting the damage in 2013. Still, it’s frustrating to see Masterson mow through the opposition with ease for six innings and completely lose control in the seventh.

One of the keys to Masterson’s success in 2013 is his improved ability to get left-handed batters out. Lefties are only batting .257 against the Tribe ace compared to the .296 mark posted a year ago. He’s also become more devastating against right-handers, who are batting a mere .177 this season. His sinker, slider and changeup variant (or “Mystery Pitch”, as Masterson calls it) all have insane movement, but his ability to throw them witch control is what has put him among the league leaders in strikeouts with 137. Just to compare, his career high is 159 set last season.

As of now Masterson is on pace for his third straight season of 200+ innings pitched and leads all major league starters with three complete game shutouts just in the first half. The newly-ordained All-Star looks to continue leading the Tribe in the second half en route to a potential playoff berth.

Corey Kluber (15 GS, 7-5, 3.88 ERA)

It started as a temporary call-up from AAA in mid-April just to give an overworked bullpen a bit of a breather. Shortly after his arrival in Cleveland, Corey Kluber was selected to take over for the injured Brett Myers. Kluber responded with a will pitching seven innings of two-run ball in his first start of the year against the Royals. While he’s had ups and downs throughout the course of the first half, the right-hander appears to have cemented a permanent spot in the rotation.

Since being traded to the Indians in 2010 as a prospect, Kluber posted underwhelming numbers in the minors and didn’t look to be panning out into any type of major starting pitching prospect. The 27-year-old had made appearances with the Tribe since then, but nothing that put him on the short-list of prospects to be called back up to the bigs.

Since making his 2013 debut start, Kluber has seen both ends of the spectrum between giving up eight runs to Detroit in four and two-thirds innings and shutting down the Nationals in eight innings. However, he is beginning to find consistency after making the proper adjustments along the line, including learning to better mix and throw all his pitches for strikes. He has always had the strong mentality that could make him successful in the majors if his stuff ever came around. He never backs down no matter how tough the situation is.

Kluber’s key to the second half is to continue attacking hitters and throwing everything for strikes consistently. Of all the success he had in the first half, consistency was still a nagging issue for the right-hander. Being able to go out just about every start and giving the team the chance to win is the final step in becoming a strong middle-of-the-rotation starter. Some may even argue he could be a #2 guy behind Masterson, unless someone else is brought in.

Ubaldo Jimenez (19 GS, 7-4, 4.56 ERA)

It’s about time we all said it once and for all. Ubaldo Jimenez is not the guy the Indians thought they were trading for in 2011. But then again, Drew Pomeranz and Alex White have not exactly panned out for Colorado either. With that being said, now we can look at what we have now in this right-hander and so far this season, he’s been at least somewhat reliable for the Tribe. However, he’s been pretty much a five-and-fly guy, meaning for the most part, he only can make it past the fifth inning due to an escalated pitch count. Will he stick in the rotation in the second half?

What’s strange is his walks-per-nine-innings is identical to last season at 4.8 while his strikeouts-per-nine-innings and hits-per-nine-innings are only slightly improved over his 2012 marks. Yet the Indians are 13-6 in games where he toes the rubber. Why? It could be the offense has picked him up after he leaves the game since five of his starts in which the Indians have won have been no-decisions. It could also be that his confidence is back and that he trusts his stuff more and is able to get more batters out before a game gets out of hand.

Despite him having the most success he’s ever had since donning a Tribe uniform, Jimenez’s future in the rotation is not set in stone. It’s already highly unlikely he’s re-signed in the offseason after his contract expires. Some are already speculating the possibility of him moving to the bullpen at some point in the second half. That would depend, of course, on if the Indians bring in an outside option via trade this month for the rotation.

Zach McAllister (11 GS, 4-5, 3.43 ERA)

Dating back to last season, Zach McAllister has been arguably the biggest pleasant surprise for the Indians pitching staff. Like Corey Kluber, McAllister didn’t appear to figure into the immediate big league plans for the team, but after having a strong showing in 2012, the right-hander became the man to beat out of one of the two vacant rotation spots in spring training.

Making the rotation, McAllister picked up where he left off pitching 10 straight starts of at least five innings while allowing three earned runs or less. In his final start in early June before landing on the disabled list with a finger sprain, that streak came to an end where he only pitched four and a third innings and allowed four earned runs against the Rays.

As of now, McAllister is pitching a rehab assignment in the minors and is expected to return to the big league squad soon after the season resumes. His success, like Kluber and many other pitchers, has been attributed to throwing all his pitches for strikes. The question now is can he pick up where he left off despite missing a month and a half and be able to make the proper adjustments to avoid another injury? One thing’s for certain, though, he will have his spot in the rotation waiting for him when he gets back and won’t lose it until his performance forces Terry Francona’s hand.

Scott Kazmir (16 GS, 5-4, 4.60 ERA)

While it’s been said a hundred times by now, it still doesn’t make Scott Kazmir’s comeback to the majors any less inspiring. May I remind you this is a guy who pitched every day in his backyard between being released by the Angels in June of 2011 and being signed by Cleveland in December of 2012, trying to figure out where he lost control of his mechanics and correct them. Now at the All-Star break, Kazmir is still in the Indians rotation and figures to stick around as long as he can in the second half.

It’s been a long, tough road for the former strikeout champ, but it has all paid off, at least for now. He showed how just how rusty he was in his first start of the year against the Astros where he didn’t even make it out of the fourth inning before surrendering six runs. Fortunately, the Indians had already scored 15 runs up to that point and still won 19-6. Since then, Kazmir has had games where he looked like the guy who Tampa Bay boasted of in the mid-2000s and games where he didn’t look like he belonged in a big league rotation. So far, however, the good has outweighed the bad and the Indians will continue on as one of the starting five.

Probably the most astonishing development in the left-hander’s comeback to the majors has been the resurgence of his velocity. It hasn’t been consistent, but on occasion, he’s been able to run his fastball up to the mid-90s, particularly when he needs a strikeout. The main concern surrounding him at this point is his endurance and ability to pitch well down the stretch and avoid injury or setbacks with his mechanics. If that happens, the Indians could have something special on the hands and I wouldn’t be surprised to see extension talks start.

Starting Pitching Depth (11 GS, 2-6, 5.30 ERA)

Right now, it looks like Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco may be staying in AAA for a while. After several spot-starts and unsuccessful attempts to make them stick in the rotation, it was determined that leaving them in the minors to resolve their issues was the best way to go, barring injury to any of the current big league starters. Bauer is currently working through some mechanical problems while Carrasco is dealing with confidence issues and it appears as if the soonest they could be called up is in September when the rosters expand.

As far as where they stand in the Tribe’s future plans, Bauer is still considered a major prospect despite his disappointing big league performance thus far and underwhelming AAA numbers. However, he has shown that he is knowledgeable about pitching mechanics and could figure out his problems on his own. Carrasco, on the other hand, has issues that are more deeply rooted mentally and only time will tell if he can overcome them.

The biggest upside to the pitching depth has been the emergence of rising star prospect Danny Salazar, who made his big league debut earlier this month and pitched six innings of one run/two hit ball with seven strikeouts. The young right-hander has dominated at every level of the farm system despite sitting out for parts of 2010 and 2011 recovering from Tommy John surgery. The downside to that is he has an innings limit placed on him this season and has already been pitching regularly in the minors this season. Right now, Salazar is and should be viewed as the new 6th starter for the Indians and could be back in the majors in a matter of days.

The rotation has surprised a lot with their strong performance in the first half despite injuries. They’ve been able to step up even when the offense hasn’t been able to. They’re far from dominant and far from perfect, but they’ve been able to form a foundation that could hold up in a playoff chase with the right reinforcements.

However, the one thing they haven’t been able to do consistently is pitch deeper into games and give their now-struggling bullpen a break every now and then. Masterson is averaging between six and seven innings a start, Kluber stepping up has given the Indians around six innings per start and McAllister will be welcomed back with open arms also averaging six innings per start before his injury. The rest of the starters however have only averaged around five innings a start combined. Someone will need to step up or someone else will need to be brought in.

We’re finally rid of the Derek Lowes, Mitch Talbots and Fausto Carmonas of the world. Will this year’s rotation have any kind of staying power that recent seasons have been devoid of? Stick around and find out.

Jake Dungan is a communications student at Stark State College and an intern with the Akron RubberDucks. Follow him on Twitter @MajorLeagueJake.

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