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Do the Indians need a left-handed starter?

With an all right-handed rotation, Tribe should add a lefty

Do the Indians need a left-handed starter?
February 13, 2014
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The 1984 Detroit Tigers did something no other team in the history of baseball has ever done.

Win a World Series without a left-handed starter.

We’re not talking just the Fall Classic either, but an entire regular season without one.

Fast forward 30 years and the Indians also head into the 2014 season without a southpaw in their rotation. As it stands today (barring injury), four of the five spots in the rotation are locked up, which include Justin MastersonDanny Salazar, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister.

For the fifth and final spot, early internal options include Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin and Shaun Marcum. All four are also right-handed pitchers.

You will find only one left-handed starter in spring training, and on the Tribe's 40-man roster. Making 24 starts in Columbus last year, T.J. House is the only lefty in big league camp.

It's a far cry to where the team was at just five months ago, as former All-Star Scott Kazmir revived his career in Cleveland going 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA in 29 starts last year. It marked the first time an Indians lefty started at least 25 games since Cliff Lee’s 22-win season back in 2008.

Prior to 2013, three Tribe lefties in David Huff, Aaron Laffey and Chris Seddon combined for just 36 starts over the last three years.

Kazmir has since moved out west to Oakland, signing a 2-year, $22 million deal with the Athletics earlier this winter. Without the likes of the southpaw this season, a projected all right-handed rotation doesn’t seem to worry Tribe manager Terry Francona much.

“I’d rather have all righties that can get people out,” he said, meeting with the media before heading to Goodyear, Arizona.

But here’s something Francona doesn’t know.

Forget winning a World Series without a left-handed starter for a second and instead focus on just making the playoffs.

How many teams have made the postseason without starting a southpaw during a season?

Try seven.

Since 1903, just seven teams have made the postseason without starting a lefty.

  • 1922 New York Yankees
  • 1932 Chicago Cubs
  • 1984 Detroit Tigers* (Won World Series)
  • 1992 Oakland A’s
  • 1996 L.A. Dodgers
  • 2009 St. Louis Cardinals
  • 2012 Cincinnati Reds

That's only seven of the last 390 teams over the last 111 years to have qualified for a playoff spot. Or if you're into math, less than two percent.

Not good odds to be dealt heading into a season where expectations are the highest since 2008.

Think of it this way, that’s like not having a left-hander in the bullpen for matchups and situations late in the game.

It doesn’t work.

Lefties are meant to break up lineups in a three or four game series. They allow for change, make mangers and players think about strategy and different batter vs. pitcher matchups. It's what the game of baseball is all about.

A perfect example of this was the move made by the Indians Central Division rivals back in December. Detroit traded right-hander Doug Fister to Washington in order to make room left-hander Drew Smyly who is set to join the Tigers rotation this year after pitching out of the bullpen in 2013. This came after having just one lefty in Jose Alvarez start six times last year.

As good as the Motor City Kitties were, it's safe to say they realize the benefits of having a lefty in their rotation.

There was one notable team within the last decade that came close to going a full season without a left-handed starter. Ten years ago, this club started a lefty only one time during the regular season before going onto win the World Series.

That team was the 2004 Boston Red Sox, led by Francona himself. Maybe the 2013 American League Manager of the Year is simply trying to duplicate history once again.

With pitchers and catchers officially reporting to camp Tuesday, there are very few free agent options left. Yes, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana are still the two biggest names out on the market, but those two have realistically priced themselves out of Cleveland.

A better option is to sign a lower tier free agent southpaw, much like how the Tribe did last year with Kazmir. Former Dodgers starter Chris Capuano is a possible option. Better yet, two-time Cy Young Award winner and four-time All-Star Johan Santana may make the most sense. The injury prone southpaw would be welcomed back to the same division he dominated for several years with Minnesota.

If not the free agent route, the Tribe could instead choose to make a move before the July trade deadline if the team stays in contention. The biggest catch would be Rays ace David Price, who is set to become a free agent before the 2016 season. Two other possible lower tier left-handers are Lima, Ohio native Jonathan Niese of the New York Mets, and former Blue Jays All-Star Ricky Romero.

Everyone knows you can never have enough pitching, but the same could be said for having a balance of righties and lefties on a staff as well. 

This season marks a decade since Francona led the Red Sox to their first World Championship in 86 years.

That was special.

Instead, Cleveland may be left wondering by season's end if lefties are that special.

Follow Jim on Twitter @JBirdman27 or he can be reached via email at jberdysz27@gmail.com.

User Comments

Joe Chengery
February 14, 2014 - 12:31 PM EST
Rick,

What I think would be more relevant to if a LHP started during the season is, "How effective were these LHPs during those seasons these teams won the WS?" and "Did they really make a difference in their teams reaching the WS, or were they just used in the rotation, didn't make much noticeable difference to their teams, but three to other four starters helped to overcome those starts, and those teams went on to win the WS?"

It's almost certain that not all of those LHPs did so well that they were the main reason that all of those teams won the WS. It's likely that some of them were the fifth starters on their teams, didn't make much of a positive difference to their teams (I.e. Had a negligible WAR, etc.), but because they were in the rotation, and the team won the WS, that specific stat got increased.

However, you CANNOT say that having a lefty is the definitive reason, or even a reason, why those teams won the WS. I'm sure you can for some teams (Randy Johnson for the 2001 D'Backs, for example). But for other teams, it certainly was a coincidence and nothing more- that's why I said it's a luxury and not essential.

You cannot say that the LHP on all of those teams was the deciding factor or even a factor in those teams winning the WS. There is no correlative evidence to say that was the reason. We can speculate why it might be, but we can't say for certain, and it is very unlikely that all of those teams won the WS just because they had a LHP in the rotation. It just so happened they had a LHP, with minimal to no bearing for some of those WS-winning teams.

It's likely you could have substituted a RHP for some of those LHPs, and they still would have won the WS because those LHPs did little or nothing for their teams- they just happened to be part of those respective rotations. It was more the rest of the team (offense, defense, rotation, bullpen) that led to some of those WS teams winning the WS, not because they had a LHP in the rotation.

Oh, and I recall that RH-dominated 84 Tigers team started off with like a 35-5 record, one of the best, if not best, starts in ML history. Yes, they fell off later (did anyone expect them to keep winning at that clip?), but would someone try to imply that a LHP may have boosted that winning percentage further? That's my point on trying to read that having a LHP in your rotation is automatically going to add to your win total and is going to automatically lead to you spinning a WS, when all sorts of LHP with varying degrees of success were on those teams. They certainly weren't all like Randy Johnson and his pivotal role in the D'Backs beating the Yankees in the 2001 WS. Certainly, that Tigers' performance shows that having 5 solid RHPs can lead to great things if the pitching and the team are good enough.
timothy
February 14, 2014 - 11:14 AM EST
should not have given up on tj mac he could be a left-handed stater
Tony
February 14, 2014 - 12:05 AM EST
Here is my thing. A left-handed starter is certainly not a necessity. If you have five good right-handed starters.....or five good left-handed starters for that matter....then so be it. Same with the bullpen in that I'd rather have 6 good righties and 1 good lefty than 5 good righties and 1 good lefty and a second so-so lefty you squeeze on the staff in place of that righty. Just give me guys who can get outs consistently.

But I do think there is something to be said about having some variation to your pitching staff. One way to change up the look a team sees in a series is to have a lefty which often results in teams have to make several changes to the lineup, sometimes sitting some good players as a result or having convenient timing to sit a guy.

So while I don't think there is no be all end all way to put a rotation together, I just like to have a lefty in there if the option exists. In the Indians current situation they have no lefties other than House, but I don't see it as a problem. And I am not sure Id both much with Capuano or Johan Santana.....not much upside with either and maybe not any better than the options they already have.
Seth
February 13, 2014 - 9:54 PM EST
Rick, I can tell you'd be one of those people who thought the earth revolved around the sun. "Why look, you can see it move across the sky!" Baseball, like most everything, is not that simple. The Indians need someone to perform well as their 5th starter. The handedness of the pitcher is not that important.
Rick
February 13, 2014 - 9:22 PM EST
Seth, the sky is blue and the Tribe needs a lefty. It's not that complicated.
Themaven
February 13, 2014 - 8:27 PM EST
Not having a lefty in the rotation isn't ideal but it's far less of an impact than not having any in the bullpen to match up at the end of a game.

We need look no further than the Tribe's pen last season before 'Scrabble ' was traded for.......Rich Hill....yeesh

The bullpen going 33-16 last season with only one decent left hander in it(and for only half the season) was the real miracle on Carnegie.
Seth
February 13, 2014 - 6:05 PM EST
Rick, it is not basic stuff. You think that having a lefty in the starting rotation is something that common sense tells you is required? To me it seems like a platitude that when you think about it a little deeper for 2 minutes actually makes little sense. Even if you do think it's common sense, a lot of common sense is wrong.

If 2% of playoff teams never started a lefty, what percentage of all teams never started a lefty? 2%? 5%? That's a basic piece of information that we need. If only 2-3% of ALL major league teams ever never started a lefty, then there's no correlation between rotation balance and playoff odds at all. If it's 15%, then there's a correlation, but you still need to investigate causality. If you were analyzing this on the level that a team like Cleveland likely DOES look at things like this, then in this era of unbalanced schedules you'd also have to take into account your division opponents who you primarily face, and how those teams fare against left handed and right handed pitching.
Rick
February 13, 2014 - 3:08 PM EST
February 13, 2014 - 2:55 PM EST

'If there is some overall benefit of "balance" by having a mix of left and right-handed starters that improves everyone's performance, then that should be measurable."

"...That's only seven of the last 390 teams over the last 111 years to have qualified for a playoff spot. Or if you're into math, less than two percent."

Why do you need a Bill James/Baseball Prospectus mathematical basis to deal with simple historical example?

This is basic stuff. is it really better to close by committee or pay a closer? It is a is the sky really blue kind of trite argument.

We are in a bad place with no lefty - and just because there are other loser clubs in a similar situation doesn't make it any less bad.

Rick
February 13, 2014 - 2:58 PM EST
Does Tito really believe this years Tribe is anywhere near the potential of the '04 Red Sox? I love the response but his answer tells you all you need to know.

He expects to open without one hence the brave deflection.

A 12-14 million qualifying offer to Kaz - which just about everyone viewed as money down a rat hole as a gross overpay - would be viewed as a brilliant move about now - given Billy Bean was willing to dish out 11.

I do think it makes a difference - and thank Jim for laying out a historical perspective.

It's interesting how Joe Chengery is factoid crazy when stumping for resigning Ubaldo but now its all about 'being nice' and some such nonsense.

Likewise two seasons ago the blog here was lit up about how we didn't have balance in our offense - and we didn't and it hurt us bad when the team collapsed.

Well, it does matter in the starting RO, but I doubt the front office is going to spend unless a deal falls in their lap.

And not because we have the answer in the pen. It's just the way it is. We don't have the money. But we do have the need.

If we finish 3rd or 4th behind KC and/or the Sox, then it will be a top priority next year, that's for certain.
Seth
February 13, 2014 - 2:55 PM EST
If there is some overall benefit of "balance" by having a mix of left and right-handed starters that improves everyone's performance, then that should be measurable. To me, it's not something that even sounds like it would be true; because a hitter faced a pitcher of a particular handedness one day, he's then going to be negatively impacted by facing a pitcher of the opposite handedness 24 hours later? Since you're only playing 3 or 4 game series, even if this effect did exist, I guess it would often impact the team that faced your opponent next, depending on which game in the series your lefty started. I think you need a lot more behind you than "x number of teams made the playoffs without a left-handed starter" to show that there's some benefit to left-right balance in a starting rotation, beyond facing certain teams (like the pre-2013 Indians) who may be particularly vulnerable to lefties.
Tondo
February 13, 2014 - 2:40 PM EST
Capuano was one of my targets that I hoped the Tribe would look at. He should not command top dollar and can shuttle between starting and BP. He would be an Aviles like aquisition for the pitching staff. I hope they get him
Jwahoo
February 13, 2014 - 1:32 PM EST
I agree with Joe that keeping hitters on their toes no matter if they are LH or RH is whats really important.

If your going to have all RH pitchers its very very important to have lefties in the bullpen. We do have some decent options there so we could be ok.
jwahoo
February 13, 2014 - 1:29 PM EST
I understand what your getting at. There is even a whole idea behind this I forget the term but its basically about balance.

It just breaks things up in so many ways.

Why not sign Johan Santana? I didn't even know he was available. He could be our Kazmir or Loriano this season. If he comes on strong he could form a fantastic 1-2 punch with Masterson.

I think Carrasco might be best as the long man. Maybe its what he needs to find himself. That way if one of our guys just does not seem to have it you can just switch him out for CC and still have a shot.

I just think we need one more starting option. Need to sign one of the Santana's, Jiminez or Capuno.
Joe Chengery
February 13, 2014 - 12:52 PM EST
That's where removing Barnes from the rotation and never returning him there backfired, as he looked to be a promising starting pitching prospect, as good or better than House (who doesn't seem to have the high ceiling he once did. At one time he was projected to be a frontline starter; now, he sounds more like a backend guy. The question is, "What is House's ceiling now?).

I think having a LHP is nice, but I don't think it's essential. I think it's more about mixing and matching styles of pitchers that can keep hitters from locking onto a certain type of pitcher (though regularly facing premium pitching doesn't guarantee you'd hit them any better no matter how many times you'd see him). Certainly, a lefty is a change of pace, but I don't think it's the only way to "change things up in your rotation," pardon the pun. :-)

Look at guys like Salazar, Masterson, and Tomlin (Granted, Tomlin isn't likely to make the rotation, but it will emphasize my point about different pitching styles). Salazar has the best pure stuff and will often ride it up in the zone, plus he has exquisite control. Masterson doesn't have the same level of stuff or command, but is more of a 3/4 arm slot and has most stuff going down, leading to an above-average GB rate. Tomlin has exquisite control, but only has a borderline average fastball. However, he mixes it up with solid offspeed stuff as a change of pace and keeps them off balance by hitting the corners. All three have distinctive styles, none similar, which can help to keep hitters off-balance and from locking onto a pattern, yet are all RHPs.

Therefore, I think a LHP can be helpful, but not essential, especially if you have a diverse group of pitchers, or five power pitchers with ace-like stuff. :-)
Josh K.
February 13, 2014 - 11:50 AM EST
Barnes should get another shot at starting. Seems to it him well
Matthew
February 13, 2014 - 11:17 AM EST
I would like to have a lefty in the rotation, but I do agree that this article blows the importance way out of proportion.

That being said, I would love to see the Tribe add Capuano. I think he will sign fairly cheap, has a moderate ceiling.
Dennis
February 13, 2014 - 11:01 AM EST
Good comment Seth - maybe there have only been 7 teams that did not have a left-handed starter.
Seth
February 13, 2014 - 10:30 AM EST
How many teams didn't start a lefty and didn't make the postseason? I would think the number of teams that made the playoffs without a lefty starting a game would be low because there is a pretty large number of left-handed starters and most teams, playoff-making or otherwise, would have one who started at least a few games. I don't really get the idea that you'd need a lefty starter. It's not at all equivalent to not having a lefty in the bullpen, because it's not like you can control who your lefty starter faces as you can with the bullpen match ups. Certain teams might matchup badly against lefties, which could come into play in the playoffs, but during the season I don't see how it matters. The AL Central teams in particular haven't been weak against left handed pitching. The Tigers had a 109 wRC+ against LHP which was a little lower than their 115 vs RHP, but they switched out left-handed Fielder for right-handed, lefty-dominating Kinsler. The Royals were better against left handers, the Twins were the same, the White Sox were equally horrible against both.
Jim
February 13, 2014 - 10:09 AM EST
JeffP, the Tigers lefty was Jose Alvarez who made six spot starts with them last year. As the article says, Detroit will now be moving a full-time lefty in Smyly into their rotation this season.

Whether House ends up being that guy due to injury for example, it's hard to argue against the numbers of teams that have not been successful over the years without a left-handed starter. I think this proves it's more of a risk and problem than some may think.
Tony
February 13, 2014 - 9:53 AM EST
I myself prefer to have at least one lefty in the rotation. So I would be all for kicking the tires on Capuano or Johan Santana.....though it does not appear the Indians are in on either of them. Really looks like Carrasco's spot to lose.....and that guys like Bauer, Tomlin and House are deemed the alternatives. Marcum the wildcard.
JeffP
February 13, 2014 - 9:21 AM EST
So basically, all we need is one spot start by House?
JeffP
February 13, 2014 - 9:17 AM EST
Who was the Tigers lefty last year? Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez, Fister, Porcello, ???????
Tony
February 13, 2014 - 8:54 AM EST
House is a guy the organization was really high on at the end of last year and believe could be an option at some point this season.
Matthew
February 13, 2014 - 8:51 AM EST
"You won't be find any left-handed starters in spring training, or on the Tribe's 40-man roster."

T.J. House will be in spring training, and is on the 40-man roster.

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