The Cleveland Indians and Luck
Originally posted to theclevelandfan.com on January 24, 2014
I was poking around Baseball Prospectus the other day when I came across an interesting stat: No Indians starting pitcher other than Justin Masterson has pitched a full season’s worth of innings at the MLB level. This was written before the Indians inked Shaun Marcum to a minor league deal, but he hasn’t pitched over 180 innings in a season since 2011 and is a poor bet to reach that threshold again due to his extensive injury history.
That stat says two things. One is that the Indians were lucky to get the kind of performance they received from their rotation last year, mainly because their veteran starters other than Masterson were Ubaldo Jimenez (who had been terrible the previous two seasons), Scott Kazmir (who hardly pitched at all in 2011-12), and Brett Myers (who is Brett Myers). The other thing that stat says is that the Indians will be hard pressed in 2014 to match the level of luck they experienced in 2013.
A team with the Indians’ payroll will always need some modicum of luck to make a run at the postseason. The problem is, the Indians are relying on the same large amount of luck in 2014 that they found in 2013, and it’s just not that likely to happen again for a variety of reasons.
For one thing, the Indians faced an inordinately weak slate of opponents in 2013, especially during the stretch run. Consider that after the Tribe played the Orioles on September 4th, at which point their record sat at 74-65, they faced the following opponents: the Mets, the Royals, the White Sox, the Royals again, the Astros, the White Sox again, and the Twins. The Tribe went 17-6 during that stretch, and they needed every one of those wins to edge out the Rays and Rangers for a wild card birth.
Broadly speaking, the American League will be much tougher across the board than it was last year. The AL East is still a juggernaut, and will only be tougher since the Yankees have revamped their roster with a George Steinbrenner-esque foray into the free agent market. In the Central, the Twins and the White Sox project to be much better this season, which is particularly harmful to the Tribe since they play those teams 19 times a year. Even the two patsies of the AL West, the Mariners and the Astros, will be better this year than they were in 2013. All told, it will be much tougher this season for the Indians to compile the number of wins it will take to earn a playoff spot, and that’s before taking into account anything the Indians did (or didn’t) do this offseason.
Another area the Tribe had considerable luck during 2013 was the health department. Most of this comes from Joe Sheehan’s Newsletter. (Sorry Joe. To make up for it, I’ll say that if you love baseball as much as I do, and you are reading this article after all, you should definitely subscribe to his newsletter. Here is the link.) The Indians had thirteen players soak up nearly all of their plate appearances last season, with the fourteenth player being Jason Kubel and his 23 plate appearances. I don’t necessarily think the Indians will have trouble scoring runs this season, but a few ill-timed injuries could cause immense problems for this team considering they don’t have a lot of options waiting in the high minors, especially in the outfield.
A bigger issue than the lineup is the health and production of the starting rotation. The Indians essentially had six pitchers make the majority of the team’s starts last season (Masterson, Jimenez, Kluber, McAllister, Kazmir, and Salazar). A conventional baseball axiom is that a team needs at least seven and sometimes eight starters to get through a season, and there are many reasons to doubt whether or not the Tribe has enough quality starting pitchers to fill out even an initial five-man rotation. Masterson is a workhorse at the top, and it’s a good bet he can at least replicate what he did last season. But after him, the rotation is littered with question marks.
Corey Kluber looks slated to be the nominal number two in this rotation, but even after a successful 2013 campaign there are still doubts as to whether he can keep it going. 2013 is his only (near) full season at the MLB level (147.1 IP), and although his peripherals (4.12 SO/BB ratio, 22.4 K%, 3.30 FIP) more than support his performance, the Indians absolutely need him to do it again over a full season’s worth of innings if they are to have a shot at making the playoffs.
The most exciting arm in the Tribe’s rotation belongs to Danny Salazar, but he brings with him question marks as well. Like Kluber, durability is still an unknown with him, as the 145 innings he threw in 2013 was far and away his career high. Complicating matters further is we haven’t seen Salazar be effective at the major league level with diminished stuff. It’s tough for a starting pitcher to throw 180-plus innings without losing some velocity or sharpness in his breaking pitches, especially for a smaller guy like Salazar, who is listed at six feet tall but is likely even shorter than that. With the way young arms are treated (some would say coddled) in today’s game, it would be foolish to expect Salazar to toss 180-plus innings at the level he displayed in 2013. But as the Indians third starter he’ll likely have to do just that.
As for Zach McAllister, I doubt you can find anyone as pessimistic about his outlook as I am. But I just don’t see him as a number four in a good rotation. When I see a right-handed starter with a 2.06 K/BB ratio and a 17.4 K% with no semblance of an out-pitch in his repertoire, my gut tells me to put him in the bullpen to see if he can dial up his stuff when pitching in short spurts. It would be fine if McAllister was among the Bauer-Carrasco-Tomlin-Marcum potpourri vying for the fifth starter job (an issue unto itself), but the fact that the Indians have to pencil him in as their fourth starter should say everything you need to know about the Tribe’s starting pitching depth. I shudder to think of what would happen to this rotation if Masterson were to miss significant time with an injury.
Now, just because the Indians were inordinately lucky last season doesn’t preclude them from being lucky this season. Many of the same doubts laid out above were present before the 2013 season as well. But if the Indians experience anything less than optimal luck in 2013, it will be extremely tough for them to make significant noise in a crowded American League playoff picture.