Starting pitching rundown
A lot of the focus on improving the Indians current roster has focused on offensive upgrades, specifically regarding left field and the corner infield positions.
However, the Tribe’s starting rotation is as much or more of a concern, as it’s not only the bedeviled Josh Tomlin who is struggling mightily. Ironically, according to the forthcoming stats the only starter who doesn’t have alarming numbers— especially over the last 30 days— is the 24 year old, Zach McAllister, who was given the opportunity to start after the demotion of Jeanmar Gomez. The hypothetical addition of two or three solid bats still wouldn’t preclude the team from unsightly losing streaks if the starters can’t keep the Tribe close.
After another pounding from opposing hitters on Tuesday, Cleveland’s starters’ ERA is an abysmal 4.87 (12th in the American League). The time has come for a very serious examination of arguably the team’s biggest weakness, its starting rotation.
I will lay out the season stats, as well as the numbers over the last 30 days for each starter, plus former starter Gomez, for the sake of comparison. While it might seem like the starters have only scuffled recently, which is surely true, the overall numbers are underwhelming as well.
One final preface: I chose to list McAllister, who is currently positioned as the fourth starter, ahead of #3-in-name-only Derek Lowe because it’s painfully obvious that McAllister’s spot is vastly safer than Lowe’s.
Season: 22 GS, 4.47 ERA, 139 IP, 58 BB, 107 SO, .256 OBA, 1.38 WHIP
Last 30: 6 GS, 5.55 ERA, 35.2 IP, 15 BB, 28 SO, .284 OBA, 1.54 WHIP
Season: 21 GS, 5.08 ERA, 122.1 IP, 72 BB, 94 SO, .261 OBA, 1.59 WHIP
Last 30: 6 GS, 6.09 ERA, 34 IP, 19 BB, 29 SO, .301 OBA, 1.74 WHIP
Season: 10 GS, 3.18 ERA, 62.1 IP, 16 BB, 59 SO, .251 OBA, 1.24 WHIP
Last 30: 5 GS, 2.56 ERA, 31.2 IP, 9 BB, 31 SO, .240 OBA, 1.20 WHIP
Season: 20 GS, 5.09 ERA, 116.2 IP, 43 BB, 40 SO, .314 OBA, 1.64 WHIP
Last 30: 4 GS, 8.14 ERA, 21 IP, 12 BB, 7 SO, .330 OBA, 1.95 WHIP
Season: 16 GS, 5.72 ERA, 91.1 IP, 21 BB, 53 SO, .293 OBA, 1.41 WHIP
Last 30: 4 GS, 5.96 ERA, 22.2 IP, 1 BB, 8 SO, .287 OBA, 1.24 WHIP
Cle: 13 GS, 5.32 ERA, 71 IP, 26 BB, 32 SO, .271 OBA, 1.42 WHIP
AAA: 6 GS, 3.54 ERA, 40.2 IP, 7 BB, 34 SO, 1.25 WHIP
Seeing these numbers laid out really helps depict the lackluster season, as well as a particularly alarming last month that Tribe starters have recorded. At first glance, McAllister’s numbers stick out like a weed in a patch of dead grass; they’re the only thing living in this troubling starting five. As I previously alluded to, Tomlin has taken a lot of heat, and lost his job in the rotation last night. However, on a good starting staff, one could argue that three or four of the five current starters should be looking over their shoulders. Inconsistency is the deafening theme with Indians starting pitching this season, again, with the exception of McAllister.
Starting at the top, Tribe ace, Justin Masterson has flashed some dazzling highs, in addition to some rock-bottom lows. Masterson has an incredible amount of movement on his pitches, particularly his sinker and slider, but has yet to show that he can consistently harness his combination of mid-90s velocity and sharp movement. The dominant pitcher who spun a three-hit shutout to cap off a sweep of the Cincinnati Reds on June 20th is the same starter who yielded eight earned runs against the light-scoring Tampa Bay Rays on July 6th. It’s frustrating that the 27 year old Masterson, who is in his third full season of starting, hasn’t discovered or executed what it takes to be an ace, and lacks consistency.
Masterson's current 4.47 ERA on the season is an unfortunately drastic step back from the 3.21 ERA mark he posted last season. Even more unnerving is the 5.55 ERA over his last six starts, indicating that he isn’t rounding into confident mid-season form. In spite of his undesirable stats, he’s still the second-best starter (best overall in terms of potential) that Cleveland has; so, if there is any chance of clawing back to the top of the division, then the Tribe has to have their ace pitch to his potential. For the record, in light of the swirling trade rumors, I’m very relieved that he was not traded. It makes no sense to quit on a pitcher with top-of-the-rotation stuff, especially since his trade value is remarkably low.
Next in line, Ubaldo Jimenez has followed Masterson’s trend of inconsistency. His ERA over the last 30 days (6.09) is a full run higher than his season average (5.08). Judging by the peripherals, Jimenez seems to be making more mistake pitches over his last six starts (.301 OBA, 1.74 WHIP), than he typically has over the course of the season (.261 OBA, 1.59 WHIP). Either that or his mistakes have just been getting hit particularly hard over the last month. Jimenez’s command/ mechanical issues have simply led to way too many free passes (72 in 122.1 IP). When he walks two or less hitters his numbers are unsurprisingly much better. For example, in his recent start against Detroit, Jimenez only walked a pair of hitters, while shutting out the Tigers over six innings. He gives up too many hits to allow several walks a game.
Another harrowing problem that comes along with his propensity to allow baserunners is his inability to prevent them from stealing. In spite of Carlos Santana having a caught-stealing rate above 30%, Jimenez has allowed a league-leading 22 stolen bases with a mere four base stealers caught stealing. For the record, Masterson hasn’t done much better, as he is second in the league in yielding stolen bags (18). It is simply unacceptable for the two, supposedly best starters in the rotation to allow opposing baserunners to go nuts on the base paths. Whatever it takes, the adjustment must be made.
Finally, to the sunny part of the analysis, Zach McAllister has been a breath of fresh air in an otherwise underachieving starting rotation. He is the only starter to have an ERA below five and-a-half the last month, in addition to being the only one to average six or more innings in his starts. The youngster of the staff has done a great job seizing his opportunity in the big leagues by trusting his stuff and attacking hitters.
The intriguing thing about McAllister's first ten starts in the big show is his plus strikeout rate (59 SO in 62.1 IP), which didn’t initially seem to be part of his game. Sure, some of it can be chalked up to opposing hitters being unfamiliar with his stuff, but even so, his ERA is splendid in what amounts to be nearly one-third of a season’s worth of starts. Inevitably, the league will make the adjustment, bumping his ERA higher than its current superlative mark, but until then the team will gladly lean on its fearless young righty.
Both Lowe and Tomlin have flat out gotten knocked around this season. As the elder statesman, who enjoyed early season success, the 39 year old Lowe has been given more slack than his younger counterpart, in spite of having an eye-popping 8.14 ERA over the last 30 days. Even when Lowe was piling up wins in April, his .282 OBA and 1.42 WHIP forecasted a rather grim ballooning of his ERA. Lowe’s issue is simple: he can’t make opposing hitters miss (40 SO, .314 OBA). Judging by Tomlin’s solo walk— which would typically be a good thing— over his last four starts, it appears that his pitches are simply catching too much of the plate. Regardless, it puts the Tribe in a huge hole when Lowe and Tomlin give up several runs, while neglecting to go at least six innings. With Tomlin already out of the rotation and Lowe maybe out of it now as well after last night's performance, it looks like the Indians are going to go in a different direction with the rotation the next several weeks.
Interestingly, the numbers that forced Gomez out of the starting five aren’t quite as bad as Tomlin’s, which is obviously why there has been an appropriate amount of pining for at least one change to the rotation. Gomez has a solid 3.54 ERA over six starts with the Columbus Clippers, but he could get passed over for another option, namely Roberto Hernandez, when the Indians choose to replace Lowe in the rotation.
The 31 year old Domincan pitcher is still suspended for the next couple weeks, but seems to be the most logical option to bump Lowe from the rotation. Even when he does return, it’ll be difficult to predict what Cleveland can reasonably expect out of Hernandez, who has diminished over the last few years, posting an ERA north of five in three of his past four seasons. Hernandez has kept himself in game-shape while waiting for his visa to return to the U.S., but invariably there will be some sort of learning curve against big league hitters when he makes his return.
Unfortunately, the best starting pitching prospects in the organization (Mitch Brown, Elvis Araujo, and Dillon Howard) aren’t anywhere near ready to help the Tribe’s struggling staff. At Triple-A, former major leaguers Kevin Slowey and David Huff have scuffled. On paper, Corey Kluber (3.59 ERA in 21 starts) and Chris Seddon (3.44 ERA in 20 starts) appear to be the best options; yet both have bounced around with multiple organizations, while failing to impress in their limited opportunities in the majors. Kluber will get that opportunity to impress tomorrow when he makes his season debut.
One viable option is to stretch Scott Barnes into a starter. He’s already on the 25 man roster and at just 24 years of age has plenty of time to develop into a sound back-end-of-the-rotation starter. The key to Barnes success will be attacking the zone and limiting walks, which he has seven of in just ten innings pitched.
Cleveland could tinker with a couple intriguing options in lefties Matt Packer (2.41 ERA) and T.J. McFarland (2.69 ERA). If the Tribe falls out of playoff contention, it’d especially make sense to see what they have in these youngsters because even if Lowe makes it through this season, it’d be incredibly unlikely that he should be counted on for 2013.
Something needs to be done sooner than later to address the underwhelming starting rotation; if not, Cleveland’s chances at making the playoffs will continue to sink....if they have not already.
If wish the article had done more of a breakdown on the various minor league options (like down with Gomez), focusing on the most recent 30 days. That way people can compare pitchers over the same time periods on equal footing.