Last season, Cleveland Indians starters produced a combined 23.1 fWAR. That mark was over 4 fWAR higher than the second-highest-ranked Diamondbacks, more than double the total fWAR of half of the rotations in MLB, and surpassed the output of the bottom five teams combined. Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco combined were worth more wins than the entire pitching staffs of 16 different MLB teams. Six different Indians starters (six!!!) were worth more wins than the entire White Sox starting rotation combined. They struck out over ten batters per nine on average as a group, which had never been done before in. the. history. of. baseball. I could keep going with stats like this for a long time, but you get the basic gist of it: the Tribe’s rotation was really, really good.
And so we come to 2018. Not one starter has left the team (though Danny Salazar is still a few weeks away from returning to game action). Cody Anderson should be able to come off the disabled list at some point in May or June. Top prospect Triston McKenzie is waiting in the wings if injuries reach disastrous levels. And we probably shouldn’t forget about Ryan Merritt, who’s due back very soon. Not only is the Tribe’s rotation elite; it’s also bulletproof.
Can The Rotation Really Improve On Last Season?
Yes, they could. That doesn’t necessarily mean they will, but there’s reason to believe that hot starts for Mike Clevinger and Trevor Bauer are actually sustainable based on improvements they’ve made in their game. Bauer’s new breaking pitch looks lights-out, while Clevinger has only walked two batters so far this season; his 4.26 BB/9 was perhaps his biggest issue during a phenomenal 2017 campaign.
Many also forget that Kluber missed a full month last season and still produced more fWAR than any starter in the majors not named Chris Sale (and that’s including an incredibly pedestrian April). Despite missing five or six turns in the rotation, he would’ve needed just 11 more innings to surpass Sale for most in the majors in 2017. In fact, as I’m typing this, the Klubot has already tossed a majors-leading 23 innings. He’s struck out nearly seven batters for every walk he’s issued, and looks every bit ready to contend for his third Cy Young Award. If he’s able to stay healthy for the entire season, we could have the privilege of witnessing an 8- or even 9-fWAR campaign from our ace.
Carrasco’s long been listed as a candidate to emerge to elite status, and perhaps earn his own Cy Young Award. But even if he doesn’t, his peripherals across the past three seasons combined are a strong indicator that he’ll be able to at least repeat the success he enjoyed last year when he notched a career-high 226 strikeouts. Cookie doesn’t walk hitters, which is another important component of his skill set. Across the past three seasons, he boasts MLB’s seventh-best strikeout-to-walk ratio, right below Noah Syndergaard and above Madison Bumgarner. In case you were wondering, Kluber sits at fourth overall and Salazar comes in at 12th.
Speaking of Salazar, it remains to be seen if he’ll stay healthy enough to contribute any significant innings total for the Tribe. But even if he doesn’t, Tomlin’s as good a backup plan as you can ask for. The bad taste from his first start of the season still sits fresh in all our mouths, but the fact is that Tomlin is the only pitcher in major league baseball to walk fewer than a batter per nine innings across the past three seasons combined. He’ll give up some dingers, but last year’s 2.2 fWAR output was all you really need to ask for from a fifth starter.
You’ve probably forgotten about Cody Anderson by now, but he’s only two full seasons removed from being the AL’s Pitcher of the Month in September of 2015. After coming to 2016 spring training camp with amped up velocity and a repertoire similar to that of peak Matt Harvey, he dealt with serious injuries (and some serious bad luck) en route to a season that will be looked back on as a massive disappointment. But it’s easy to overlook that he managed to nearly double his strikeout rate while cutting back on walks. And in 32 1/3 Triple-A innings, he whiffed 11.3 batters per nine innings. There’s still a chance that Anderson could recover and emerge as Tribe Ace 1E.
So what if Kluber puts up a 9-win campaign? What if Carrasco whiffs another 226 hitters with a low-3’s ERA? What if Bauer and Clevinger truly take the next step forward and become true top-20 starters? What if the combination of Tomlin, Salazar and Anderson manage an output better than a league-average pitcher? There’s a reasonable chance that we could be looking at a rotation that not only matches, but exceeds the record-breaking numbers put up by the 2017 iteration. And that, Tribe fans, is an absolutely terrifying thought for every opponent that has to step into the batter’s box this season.
Photos courtesy of Erik Drost, via Flickr.