The Indians’ Paradoxical Pitching Staff

To put it mildly, the 2014 season hasn’t gone exactly the way the Cleveland Indians would have hoped. As play began on Wednesday, the Indians stood in last place in the AL Central at 14-19, 7 1/2 games out of first. In this year’s 14-car-pileup-plus-Houston that is the American League, they are far from buried, but the clock is ticking. All it takes for a club to have a chance in this year’s AL, it would seem, is a singular clear team strength. At least on the surface, it doesn’t take long to find what appears to be the Indians’ forte, as their team FIP of 3.40 entering Wednesday’s games is over a half-run lower than their ERA of 3.97. What’s going on here? Do the Indians have markedly better pitching than the traditional numbers indicate, or is something else afoot?

At first blush, the Indians’ staff appears to be truly unlucky to date. Their overall ERA ranks 7th in the AL, and is closest of any club to the overall AL average of 4.11. They lead the AL in strikeouts (287), and along with the Nationals are one of only two clubs in baseball to strike out over a batter per inning, a remarkable feat for a staff to sustain over about one-fifth of a 162-game season.

Breaking it down between the starters and relievers doesn’t add much clarity – the Indians’ starters rank 9th in the AL in ERA (4.31) despite easily leading AL starters in strikeouts (193). Only four AL bullpens have logged fewer innings than the Indians, who are one of only four pens in the AL to strike out over a batter per inning (94 in 93 1/3 IP). They rank third in bullpen ERA at 3.28.

One explanation for a substantially higher than expected team ERA would be sequencing, or the ordering of events, in this case from the pitching team’s perspective, in a suboptimal manner that would yield more runs than expected based on the actual plate appearance events that took place. This might take the form of an unusually large number of big innings alongside a high number of relatively clean innings, instead of a more normal dispersal of runs. That doesn’t appear to the case here, however. The Indians have allowed a .327 OBP and .382 SLG thus far this season, which in the current AL run environment translates to a 4.00 ERA, which is much closer to their actual 3.97 ERA than their 3.40 team FIP.

If you strip away all of the K’s and BB’s and assign each Indians’ starting pitcher a “contact score”, scaled to 100 and base on the run values of the events occurring on all of the remaining plate appearances, the Indians’ starters as a group would have a relatively poor 116 contact score, with the individual numbers breaking down as follows: Zach McAllister 85, Justin Masterson 97, Corey Kluber 115, Carlos Carrasco 123, and Danny Salazar 197. Yes, Salazar has allowed hitters making contact against him to bat .437 and slug .736 to date.

One can certainly not blame the batted ball mix yielded by the Indians’ staff for their apparent ERA underperformance to date. They have the highest ground ball rate in the AL at 48.6%, and the lowest line drive rate at 17.2%. If all grounders and liners were created equal, and each resulted in league average performance for their batted ball type, the Indians would have allowed the least amount of damage on batted balls of any club in the majors this season – a 92 relative production figure on a scale of 100. Their exceptional K rate would lower that figure to 86, also best in the majors, once all K and BB were added back.

What is the problem then? Team defense must at least be taken into consideration. UZR doesn’t like the Indians thus far in 2014, ranking them next to last in the AL at (11.3) runs per 150 games as a team. In this admittedly small sample, the UZR figures aren’t good all around the diamond for the Indians, with Nick Swisher‘s (29.8) runs per 150 games at first base and Jason Kipnis‘ (22.3) at second base the low points. This isn’t something new, as the Indians ranked 13th in the AL in team UZR/150 in 2013 at (4.5), with Asdrubal Cabrera‘s shortstop play – (16.8) UZR/150 – grading out the worst among regulars. While the evidence does suggest some culpability on the part of the Indians’ defense, particularly in the infield, it is always challenging to determine where the pitchers’ credit/blame ends, and the defense’s credit/blame begins.

It would seem that the quality of contact being allowed by the Cleveland pitching staff has to be at the very least a significant part of the problem. Though Salazar’s “contact score” of 197 is somewhat breathtaking, it can be explained fairly easily. He is a fresh out of the oven power pitcher prospect, who misses a ton of bats and dominates at times, while catching a ton of the plate and being dominated the rest of the time. Contact management is often the last piece that falls into place for a power arm – it’s still not a particular strength of some of the game’s very best starters, like Yu Darvish or Stephen Strasburg. Some big arms, like Brandon Morrow, never figure it out, and fail to reach their potential. Salazar might never be a contact management god, but he is sure to advance from his current low level. Carrasco isn’t even worth discussing, as Josh Tomlin has already seized his rotation slot.

We have plenty of data to properly discuss the other three, however. Let’s look at their plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data from 2013 to get a better feel for the quality of contact they allow:

Masterson % REL PCT
K 25.6% 129 91
BB 10.0% 130 89
POP 5.5% 73 21
FLY 21.6% 77 7
LD 18.2% 85 5
GB 54.7% 127 95
Kluber % REL PCT
K 23.1% 116 80
BB 5.6% 73 13
POP 7.2% 95 49
FLY 23.4% 83 12
LD 26.3% 122 97
GB 43.2% 101 51
McAllister % REL PCT
K 18.0% 91 33
BB 8.7% 113 71
POP 9.7% 129 80
FLY 32.6% 116 86
LD 22.6% 105 75
GB 35.0% 82 11

FLY 0.292 0.755 104 91
LD 0.674 0.798 96 97
GB 0.209 0.216 75 78
ALL BIP 0.298 0.422 78 75
ALL PA 0.216 0.292 0.305 73 72 3.45 2.83 2.77
FLY 0.337 0.827 130 132
LD 0.682 0.882 106 97
GB 0.210 0.227 78 93
ALL BIP 0.353 0.538 117 118
ALL PA 0.269 0.309 0.409 100 100 3.85 3.85 3.88
FLY 0.276 0.724 95 97
LD 0.641 0.826 94 98
GB 0.236 0.264 102 105
ALL BIP 0.316 0.508 98 103
ALL PA 0.255 0.319 0.410 103 107 3.75 4.00 4.16

For those of you who have read my previous columns here, you know how much I like Justin Masterson. His 2013 plate appearance outcome frequency data paints an accurate picture – he is an extreme ground ball pitcher (95 percentile rank, career low ground ball percentile rank in five qualifying seasons is 89), who with improved command can be a star. His ability to limit line drives – 2013 percentile rank of 5 – appears to be a true talent, as it has never exceeded 37 in his five qualifying seasons.

Kluber, on the other hand, owes whatever success he experienced in 2013 to his strong K and BB rates. While he also limits fly ball contact (2013 fly ball percentile rank of 12), he allowed a ton of line drives (97). This may very be a true weakness of his, as his liner percentage was similarly high in his abbreviated 2012 MLB debut.

McAllister’s K and BB rates were both below average in 2013, and he unlike the other two is a fairly extreme fly ball pitcher. On the positive side, he developed a fairly significant popup tendency (80 percentile rank) last season, but like Kluber allowed plenty of line drives (75). Also like Kluber, this elevated liner rate has been an ongoing issue for McAllister at the MLB level, though it’s not nearly to the same extreme.

Now let’s look at their production by BIP type tables. The “REL PRD” column indicates actual production relative to the league, scaled to 100. The All BIP line item in that column is essentially each pitcher’s overall contact score, as referenced previously. The “ADJ PRD” column adjusts that figure for ballpark, team defense, luck, etc., in an effort to make the separation between the pitcher’s true talent and the context surrounding him.

Masterson’s unadjusted contact score is 78, over 20% better than league average. Not only does he allows lots of ground balls, he also happens to allow very weak ones, while also allowing slightly lower than MLB average batted ball authority on fly balls and liners. After adjustment for context, his contact score drops to a 2013 AL-best 75.

Kluber and McAllister are far different animals with respect to contact management. Kluber’s overall unadjusted and adjusted contact scores are 117 and 118, respectively. His adjusted overall score ranked higher than all 2013 AL ERA qualifiers. Though he is a ground ball pitcher, he gets hammered on the fly balls he does allow to the tune of a 132 adjusted fly ball contact score. Only Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders among qualifying AL starters had higher 2013 marks.

McAllister was a bit better with 2013 unadjusted and adjusted overall contact scores of 98 and 103, respectively, with his batted ball authority levels in the league average range on all batted ball types. If your glass is half full, you might say that McAllister lacks a single glaring weakness, but if it’s half empty, he has no single strength to carry him through when things are not going well, in any of the bat-missing, command/control or contact management departments. Plus, his risk level is high because of his high fly ball rate – an upward move in his fly ball contact score to even a few points above 100 could deal a crushing blow to his overall performance.

Thus far in 2014, these three hurlers’ outcome frequency fundamentals are about where you’d expect. Masterson is second in the AL to Dallas Keuchel in ground ball percentage at 62.0%. Both his K (21.8%) and BB rates (8.5%) are down a bit. Kluber’s K (24.5%) and BB (6.1%) are again both solid, and his ground ball rate (48.9%) is comfortably above league average. McAllister’s K (21.7%) and BB (7.8%) rates are slightly improved, and his grounder rate continues to be well below league average.

These guys are who they are. Masterson has ace potential, but Kluber’s contact management issues likely limit him to a #4 starter with a #3 upside, and McAllister’s lack of a singular go-to ability and high fly-ball based risk likely casts him as a garden-variety #4 who could easily become a #5 or worse with the slightest breakdown of any of the very average links of his chain. If his 2013 popup spike wasn’t real, he’ll likely have near-term issues.

The Cleveland Indians’ 2014 pitching staff is better than its 3.97 ERA, but not as good as its 3.40 FIP. Like many clubs, they are likely to take a carousel approach to their #5 starter spot, and while their #4, Salazar, has big upside, he is unlikely to reach it this season. Two of their top three starters, Kluber, especially, and McAllister, have clear contact management limitations that make it very difficult to pitch up to the levels suggested by their peripherals. Their team defense likely isn’t as bad as the early UZR numbers project, but there certainly are not plus defenders lurking in their infield – and if any team could use one or two, it’s this one, considering the quantity of grounders they generate. The Indians’ pitching is the strength of their club, but it’s not good enough to save the day for that mediocre defense and an offense currently ranking 12th in the AL in runs and OBP, and 15th and last in SLG.

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The E Santana comparison for Kluber is interesting. Ervin seems to be better with ATL’s excellent OF defense behind him, while Kluber has had at least one start marred severely by Swisher’s right field gaffes. Wonder if this means Kluber will continue to be inconsistent (can one be consistently inconsistent?) this year, living and dying by the strikeout. If so, could be a long season for the Clevelanders.