Of all the problems that have kept the Indians near .500 through more than a month and a half, the most surprising is the starting rotation. They rank 29th in ERA, 8th from the bottom in batting average and 5th worst in HR/9. However, the peripheral numbers lie more within the realms of our original expectations. WAR has the Tribe as the 10th best starting rotation largely due to a 4.01 FIP that ranks 8th in baseball and an xFIP of 3.40 that is literally the best in baseball.
The difference between these numbers lies in two factors that are related. First, they have the worst BABIP in baseball at .322, a number largely based in luck, but with effects coming from type of batted ball as well as defense. Secondly, a defense that has been great the last few years and was expected to be just as good this year has been worth -2.5 runs compared to average so far this year. That defense can hurt the BABIP, but so can the fact that the Indians are worst at inducing weak contact and have allowed the 8th most hard contact.
With Danny Salazar as the perfect example for the entire rotation, the starters are second in MLB in K/9 and have allowed the 9th least amount of walks per nine, but when a ball is being hit into play, they are getting crushed.
Looking deeper into Salazar, who has a 5.66 ERA through 61.1 innings, but has struck out 62. We’ve seen this type of period from Salazar in the past, but he has always finished the season with significantly better numbers despite having even significantly worse groups of starts. In his first full season, we find the first example.
Salazar has always had the strike outs and back in 2014, his second game of the season was a 10 K affair where he allowed five runs in 3.2 innings. In his next appearance he lasted longer thanks to a smaller amount of strike outs and a lower pitch count, but he still allowed five runs in 4.2. Slightly better in his next start, he allowed four in 4.1 and brought the strike out count back up to six without significantly increasing his pitch count. Each game was a slight improvement over the last, but there is no question that the Indians were not happy with any individually.
His next start came against the eventual World Champion Giants and he allowed one run in seven innings, striking out eight to a single walk. The small improvements in each of his three poor starts culminated in one incredible start that lead to a run of seven good starts in a row (2.90 ERA, .255 BAA, 41 K, 40.1 IP) before his next poor start. Even at his best, however, high pitch counts were a problem as he lasted past the fifth in just two of these seven starts despite throwing 90+ pitches in each.
While he would have poor starts again in 2014, he wouldn’t again have two bad starts in a row. The 2015 season was much of the same with only consecutive bad starts once (from April to May) and with an exception of a run in August when he tried to come back from injury too early, the same was true in 2016.
Looking at 2017, Salazar has really only had major issues in four starts, something that has been compounded by the fact that the last two have been consecutive and he hasn’t had a single incredible start. Again, it’s the high pitch count that is killing Salazar in his good starts as he allowed just three earned runs in his second and third starts of the season combined and struck out 18, but he only threw 12 total innings.
The other high expectation pitcher who has been struggling the most recently is Trevor Bauer (obviously, injuries to Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco have not helped the situation). Bauer has never been as good as Salazar, in fact his best season (2014: 4.18 ERA, 4.01 FIP) wasn’t as good as Salazar’s worst (2014: 4.25 ERA, 3.52 FIP) and along with this, his peaks and valleys are each lower. In 2017, he’s stacked three of his four worst starts of the year in a row from April 26th through May 8th.
Going back just a year with Bauer, he caught fire quickly once rejoining the rotation in April and posted a 2.42 ERA with a .212 AVG and .312 SLG through 74.1 IP from his third through his 13th start. This was followed by a five game stretch with an 8.37 ERA and 16 walks to 20 strike outs. This kind of alternating stretches of good and bad for Bauer loosely exemplifies his entire career. One of the best examples was in 2015 when he allowed two runs in 19 innings across three starts to begin the year, 14 runs over his next 15.1 innings across the next three, then pitched at least into the 7th in his next five starts and allowed only seven total runs. In this last span he struck out 36, walked just 13 and he ended it with a six run 3.2 inning game against a bad Seattle team. After a seven inning shut out, he allowed seven more runs in three innings in his next start.
There is a point to all this. Every starter ever has had not only a bad start, but a section of bad starts. The Indians first Cy Young award winning pitcher ever, Gaylord Perry, allowed 22 runs across six starts and 39.1 innings while striking out just 29 during his award winning 1972 season. With an average against of .288, seven home runs allowed and an ERA of 5.03, it’s hard to argue that, in the age of the home runs, the current Indians starters have been worse. Perry would end the season with a 1.14 ERA and .179 AVG in the eight starts following this stretch to finish the year with a 1.92 ERA.
The Indians are not some team in a rebuild that is playing expendable veterans and rookies. Beyond Mike Clevinger, there isn’t a minor league option to be found among the starting five and with all under control through next year and all except Josh Tomlin under control through 2020, there is almost no chance of them being released or traded. This is the same rotation that finished 7th in ERA and FIP in the Majors in 2016. Barring injury, there is no reason to believe that every single member of the rotation (except Carrasco, who has been great) won’t be pitching much more efficiently in the near future. We’ve seen it happen countless times in the past and will see it happen countless times in the future. The peripheral numbers are there to predict it in addition to the anecdotal past. Now, we just have to sit and wait and watch it happen.