Right off the bat, if you headed to RealGM for the hottest takes on the MLB Draft from earlier this week, sorry to disappoint. For my favorite take, I wholeheartedly recommend this piece by Grant Brisbee at SBNation, which is a perfect proxy for my views on grading draft picks. With that out of the way, let’s move on to the subject du jour: what’s going on with last year’s AL pennant-winning pitchers.
At this point in the 2016 season, the Indians’ were sitting at 34-27 and in sole possession of first place in the AL Central, which they wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the season. This season, though, the Indians are 31-30 and two games behind the Twins. If you had the Twins leading the division halfway through June, then you sir or madam, are far better at baseball prognostication than yours truly.
Par for the course when a team makes it all the way to the World Series, questions have come up about whether the Indians as a team were going to experience any sort of a “hangover,” or whether their players (especially the older ones and the pitchers and especially, especially the older pitchers) were going to suffer any ill effects the following year thanks to all those extra innings spent on baseball diamonds rather than the golf links. We’re here to look at the most important pieces of Cleveland’s rotation and bullpen from the Tribe’s pennant run and see what’s going on, whether or not they might have given it a little too much last year and what we can reasonably expect going forward.
The Most Likely Not to Succeed
Reliever Andrew Miller was one of the biggest stories from 2016’s postseason and if there was anyone to be concerned about going forward, I suppose you might have picked him. He threw 74 innings in relief during the regular season and 19 in the postseason. Those 91 innings are the most that he’s thrown since he was converted from a starter and eclipse all but one season, his 107 innings in 2008 when he was 23 years old. If you’re looking for any negative effects of the unorthodox usage of Miller by Francona last season, though, you’re not going to find it, as the 32-year old is actually having his best season to date.
You need look no further than the surface stats to be impressed: Miller has a 0.55 ERA (2nd in MLB) through 33 innings of work and just gave up his first home run of the season yesterday. While his strikeouts are down a bit (13.36 K/9) are down a little from last year (14.89), that’s still a pretty damn good number and his K-BB% (35.8%) is the 5th best in MLB, as is his FIP (1.27).
If you want to go with the win probability route, Miller is 3rd by WPA (2.27) and first by RE24 (14.23). In terms of putting a value on his contribution to his team, he’s tied with Carlos Carrasco for the lead in fWAR (1.5), and yet he’s pitched about half as many innings. So, yeah, Miller seems to be just fine.
Likewise for closer Cody Allen, who pitched 81 innings last year, including the postseason (versus a prior high of 70 in 2013), and is also posting career-best numbers (13.50 K/9, 2.19 ERA, 2.38 FIP) despite posting a career-high .400 BABIP. Again, nothing to worry about here.
Verdict: Probably drank soda water with lime, ready for heavy metal yoga.
Klubots in Disguise
That previous factoid about Miller being tied with Carrasco for the fWAR lead points to one of the problems the Indians have been facing this season, though: their starting pitching. The logical place to start on that front would be Corey Kluber, who may not have been able to save the day in Game 7 against the Cubs last year, but was one of the biggest reasons Cleveland got to the brink of MLB ecstasy.
Kluber was one of the best pitchers in baseball last year, with a 3.26 FIP (7th), 19.8 K-BB% (9th) and 5.1 fWAR (8th). While his 1.83 ERA in the postseason certainly helped Cleveland get to within a game of winning it all, he was carrying a 3.20 FIP through the postseason and there were some warning flags raised already. Notably, dating back to August of 2016, he’s been having some control issues and both his BB/9 and HR/9 had been increasing.
This season, his velocity is down a tick and his ERA has jumped to 4.38. He missed a few weeks this season thanks to lower back issues, but has recently returned for a couple of starts and, while the first of those starts was encouraging (6 IP, 10 K, 0 ER, 2 H, 1 BB), he gave up seven hits in six innings in his most recent outing. Backs are finicky things and it’s a little early to say whether we’re looking at problems that are going to continue. If you look at Kluber’s peripherals from the latter part of the 2016 season, it’s certainly possible that pitching an extra 34 innings on top of his already no-joke 215 during the regular season could be figuring into his current issues, but, since there have at least been some positive developments, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Verdict: Probably pregamed a little hard, take some ibuprofen and call me in the morning.
Trevor Bauer was solid for Cleveland in the regular season last year (190 IP, 4.26 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 7.96 K/9, 2.7 fWAR), but he struggled in the postseason (13 IP, 5.27 ERA, 4.39 FIP, 1.98 HR/9), even as he was striking out 11.20 hitters per nine. While his overall numbers aren’t great this season so far (5.27 ERA, 4.27 FIP), as Jonah Keri pointed out, a large portion of that is due to a really rough start and the peripheral numbers have been there. He’s been getting better as the season has gone on and it’s hard not to see better things in his future and I’m not entirely sure how all this works with the hangover narrative, except...
Verdict: Woke up feeling a little rough, but seems to have shaken it off.
Missed the Party
While Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco weren’t around for all (or most) of the Indians’ postseason run (since Salazar came back for three innings of work), they were still extremely important in getting Cleveland there. Salazar has struggled mightily this season and hit the DL last week with shoulder soreness (after a demotion to bullpen duty) thanks to a new-found propensity for giving up longballs. His 1.80 HR/9 is far and away the worst of his career and he had already given up 11 this season in 55 innings versus 16 for all of 2016 over 137 innings.
Carrasco was excellent in 2015 (183 IP, 3.63 ERA, 2.84 FIP, 10.58 K/9, 4.8 fWAR) and pretty good in 2016 (146 IP, 3.32 ERA, 3.72 FIP, 9.23 K/9, 2.5 fWAR). The lower innings count was time that he spent on the DL thanks to a hamstring injury on the basepaths and a line drive comebacker to the hand, which is not necessarily the stuff that will have an effect on future performance. So far, so good this season, with a 3.36 ERA and 3.54 FIP through 75 IP.
Verdict: No decision.
The Best Defense is a Good Defense
One thing that needs to be mentioned is that the Indians’ defense hasn’t really been doing the rotation any favors. The Indians’ rotation has the third worst BABIP in baseball at .319 (compared to last year’s run-of-the-mill .304). While some of that is due to individual pitchers’ issues, it’s certainly worth noting. Also worth noting: while the rotation collectively has the 6th worst ERA in MLB (4.85), their FIP (4.01) is the seventh best in the league. Taken together, that suggests there’s something wicked coming the pitchers’ way when it comes to Cleveland’s defense.
Verdict: Position players should probably not drink before taking the field.
On the whole, when looking at the most important players from last year’s almost-champions, the bullpen looks great and, while the rotation has some issues, it’s tough to say that that has much to do with the extra innings they pitched last year (with the possible exception of Kluber). Going forward, what happens with the team’s fate is certainly malleable as all hell. After tonight’s game against the Dodgers, seven out of their next ten games will be against the current division-leading Twins, and that means that we could be looking at a very different situation in the standings come the end of June, one way or another.