Trend Spotting: The possibility of sustainability in the rotation
The Indians rotation like the Tribe in general has been a streaky and on the whole a productive bunch. Well, productive may be a bit bold. The instability of production, however, has leveled out to something fairly respectable and over the last month something dominant.
The Tribe’s starting rotation has produced the following line for the entirety of the season entering Friday night: 4.11 ERA, 4.03 FIP, 3.86 xFIP with the fifth highest strikeout rate and a league average BABIP against.
Over the last thirty games the Indians starting rotation has produced at the following clip: 3.01 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 3.56 xFIP and the eighth highest strikeout rate. As well as a BABIP 28 points lower than their season average.
As we look forward with only fifty-three games left and an incredible opportunity to reach the postseason for the first time this decade the burning question becomes is this pitching sustainable, and if not what can we expect for the remainder of the season.
The question presented is a challenge to evaluate because you can isolate some trends as being unsustainable on the whole including the current BABIP against and HR/FB rates but you must also consider each pitcher as a single case.
The second concern is evaluating sustainability of the net production versus the sustainability of monthly sample production. This is because the last 30 days of production was to not entirely undue, the Indians had been due some regression towards the mean in terms of both HR/FB and BABIP. As a few guys (Kluber most noticeably and Masterson in stretches) FIP’s and xFIP’s had far outperformed their ERA.
Therefore in order to evaluate the future performance of the net I will isolate a statistic or two of interest for every single rotation member over the next two weeks and what it may imply about their eventual production.
Justin Masterson: The Big Three and Importance of K Rate
When looking at the sustainability of success for a starting pitcher there are three first level statistics we look at immediately to monitor if anything fluke like is occurring. Those are BABIP, LOB% and HR/FB.
When looking at the first level these road markers become concerning as Masterson sits 20 points below his career average BABIP against and his strand rate is the highest since his time in Boston as a bullpen arm. The HR/FB is around career average so it can be ignored at this point.
However, on closer inspection perhaps these two outliers are the product of or at least due in part to legitimate improvement.
The first being BABIP, always the sinker heavy starter Masterson has seen an increase in GB% and a decrease in LD% which has had a positive effect on BABIP. This has made him even more groundball dominant which despite his mediocre infield defense has caused a legitimate shift.
The question is whether this has been affected by Masterson’s improvements or whether it is luck. Unfortunately I will give the common answer of it is probably both but a lot is based on that filthy slider. The most tangible batted ball profile shift is on his slider according to PITCHf/x and the BABIP on the slider alone is .152.
Obviously unsustainable to a point but also showing the deadliness of his secondary offering. While there is some luck involved Masterson’s improved secondary offering has allowed him to keep hitters off of his fastball creating weaker contact and a more groundball dominant pitcher.
The second statistic at a peak rate is LOB% which is a pitchers ability to strand runners. Masterson’s career LOB% is 70.8% this season it sits at 76% which is sizable enough to draw concern.
The shift is caused by two things: first the deflated BABIP which we just touched on and second the increased strikeout rate.
The increasing strikeout rate is why this season more so than 2011 has established Masterson as a top of the rotation starter. Strikeout rate is absolutely essential to stranding runners and for a career 7.41 K/9 guy a season with a 9.19 K/9 is a huge stride.
When a pitcher like McAllister or Tomlin has a high strand rate that is usually based on luck and can fluctuate because of their low strikeout rates which makes it BABIP based.
Returning to Masterson’s stride his increased strikeout rate can be traced to a two things first the slider which has a 50% k rate at this point and improved control. Although Masterson’s walk rate has not decreased his control has improved his F-Strike % (First Pitch Strike) is at a career high as well as his SwStr%.
Masterson has taken a huge step forward which if his slider improvement and control changes continue (both likely) then the Indians have a legitimate top of the rotation guy. He may not be an “Ace” but a one starter on a contender absolutely.
Kluber a quiet killer
Kluber is, to many, the piece that really kept this team afloat and while there are a collection of reasons his rise has been absolutely invaluable and dare I say it, sustainable.
Kluber is somewhat of an idol in SABR circles a pitcher who for most the season was not performing even close to what his peripherals expected. Unfortunately this look at Kluber will sound dreadfully similar to that of Masterson because there are an incredible amount of shared trends.
The difference being that when you look at Kluber’s first level peripherals you expect him to actually improve which for Indians fans is a surprising thought. In terms of BABIP, LOB% and HR/FB one would expect them to either continue at their current rates or improve.
Once again we have a pitcher whose strand rate has improved as his strikeout rate improves at the major league level. Which is to be expected. Of course one of the really hard to answer question with a guy like Kluber is whether his improved control is for real?
Because when looking at both his minor league and major league production prior to this season his walk rates were alarmingly high, not necessarily Ubaldo-esque but close enough for concern.
Like Masterson Kluber has shown a good F-Strike % which shows an ability to get ahead in counts which is incredibly important as well as a spike in pitches chased outside the zone.
Also very similar to Justin Masterson has been Kluber’s improving secondary offerings, Corey is able to utilize a solid changeup and a plus slider to grab strikeouts.
Interestingly PITCHf/x has charted Kluber as having two fastballs one close to a four seam and the other reminiscent of a sinker. Kluber’s “sinker” actually has a tick higher velocity but both sit at around 93 MPH average with the sinker peaking 97 and the four seam peaking at 96.
Outside of a fifty-six inning stint in single-a in 2008, Kluber is currently posting his highest K/BB rate of his career at 4.40 at any level. Which can cause you to question whether this is sustainable or whether he is actually a case of adjusting at the big league level because his prospect pedigree would make us wary of potential control problems.
The other interesting piece is that perhaps Mickey Callaway has played a role in developing both Masterson and Kluber’s sliders which have become major pieces of their success. In fact, in Masterson’s case it has been the biggest reason for his strides forward.
Looking at the peripherals on Masterson and Kluber leads you to believe that they have made some major adjustments that have created success that should be sustainable which as Indians fans should be encouraging.
I waver a bit on more on Kluber because of past red flags with control although perhaps he has created a more consistent delivery but I think that Masterson’s improvements are major and he has made himself a front of the rotation guy.
Next week I will take a look at McAllister and Kazmir, maybe even Ubaldo Jimenez if I feel so bold.
A few things that may only interest me:
- The Indians outfield UZR is eleventh in the league and their defense has been pretty impressive having a positive effect on opponents BABIP’s. (I tend to think they are stronger than their UZR but my eyes have fooled me before)
- The overall team UZR has them ranked as a substandard defensive team with the infield in particular weighing them down. (This confirms what is visible eye tests wise as Chiz and Cabrera are substandard defenders as well as any time Mark Reynolds sees the light of day defensively.)
- The Indians have top six WAR production in MLB at the following positions: C, 2B, and RF.
- A contract paying Ryan Raburn based on his WAR value this season would be 11.9 million dollars to date. He was brought in on a minor league contract.
- In 0-2 and 1-2 counts Michael Brantley is hitting .266 and .271 respectively. Both over 100 points above league average.
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Pluto's column in the PD today noted that Kluber changed the grip on his fastball last year.
"In the middle of last season at Class AAA, Kluber changed his fastball grip and suddenly had much better control. He went from walking 4.5 per nine innings to 2.2. This season, he's walking only 1.9 per nine innings, striking out 8.6."
So would it be valid for someone to point out that Kluber's numbers this year are much better than his career norms and are therefore "unsustainable"?
Masterson has developed better control of his slider, which has created a ripple effect. He's putting more hitters away with his slider, which keeps them from sitting on his fastball, which makes the fastball more effective. I well remember the frustration of watching Masterson and Roberto Hernandez throwing 90% sinking fastballs and watching hitters foul them off over and over and over. The pitches were too good to hit squarely but since the hitters always knew what pitch was coming it was hard to get a swing and miss. Hence millions of foul balls into the dirt.
It's also been reported that Ubaldo's relative success this year is due to him finally realizing he can't overpower hitters anymore and learning how to pitch. This is the third iteration of Ubaldo we've seen: The All-Star fireballer with the Rockies, the lost and ineffective starter with the Indians, and this year's version who has speeded up his delivery and learned to get hitters out without the 97 mph heat.
I think sabermetricians have to be very careful when comparing current stats to career stats and deciding that current performance is unsustainable. The assumption is that players never change and their ability to play the game is consistent throughout their careers.