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Indians preview capsules: The starting pitchers

Salazar, Kluber need to fill holes at the top of the rotation

Indians preview capsules: The starting pitchers
Justin Masterson (Photo: BleedingYankeeBlue.blogspot.com)
March 4, 2014
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As a part of IBI's beginning of season festivities, we have preview capsules on all 54 players currently in major league camp with at least some chance of helping the big league team. The next batch of these running today are the starting pitchers on the 40-man roster.

There is just not much more to it; spring training is here and real baseball is just around the corner. Enjoy!

Trevor Bauer, RHPTrevor Bauer (Photo: ESPN)

The arrival of Trevor Bauer as a part of the Shin-Soo Choo trade in December 2012 was supposed to give Cleveland the kind of dominant pitcher the minor league system had not produced in some time. What happened instead, though, was Bauer struggled in his brief time in the majors and spent most of 2013 scuffling in the minors. Whereas last year the expectation for Bauer was to help stabilize and lead the rotation for years to come, now the question is whether the right-hander can even be a competent major league pitcher.

Bauer spent 2013 attempting to change his pitching motion (bringing the phrase "neuromuscular programming" into our consciousness), and while the changes may have been intended to improve the right-hander's abilities, the early results were hard to swallow. He only made it through 17.0 innings in four major league starts, walking 16 batters while allowing 10 earned runs three home runs. The results in the minors were similarly disheartening (4.15 ERA, 5.08 FIP, 7.86 SO/9, and 5.41 BB/9 in 121.1 innings), bringing us to a 2014 season where Bauer is expected to open the 2014 season in the minors.

Now, Bauer is still quite young (he turned 23 years old in January) and he is still the same pitcher who was selected third overall in the 2011 draft. The right-hander's rapid ascension through the minor leagues masks how young he still is and how Bauer still has time to right the ship. It is entirely possible that Bauer is thinking too much about pitching and tinkering too much, but it is better to have someone who cares too much about trying to get it right than someone who does not care enough.

There is no denying that Bauer's 2013 season was bad; that much is a given. But it is only one year. Collectively, people tend to overrate recent history when predicting the future and it is entirely possible that 2013 will ultimately be a bump in the road for Bauer's career. He still has the talent to be a good major league pitcher and the early reviews of his motion this spring have been positive.

Carlos Carrasco, RHPCarlos Carrasco (Photo: ESPN)

Despite being around since 2009, Carlos Carrasco has only thrown 236.2 major league innings in Cleveland. Some of that is the byproduct of undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2011, but beyond that, the constant struggle for Carrasco to find consistency has kept him from making a real difference.

The 2013 season was a microcosm in the Carrasco experience: he got a chance at the beginning of the season due to Scott Kazmir's injury and promptly got himself suspended again for head hunting and sent back down to Columbus. Carrasco made his way back up to the majors in June to burn the suspension and bounced between Columbus and Cleveland the rest of the way, ultimately ending the season in the bullpen. The right-handed finished the season with a 6.75 ERA, his 4.10 FIP leaves some room for encouragement entering 2014.

Carrasco is one of the favorites for the fifth starter spot, but while the right-hander has all the raw talent in the world, it has never really amounted to much. He only posted a 5.79 SO/9 in 2013 -- well-below the league average -- and his 6.19 career SO/9 points to a pitcher unable to harness his abilities. Add in Carrasco's slightly elevated walk rate (3.47 BB/9 in 2013, 3.13 BB/9 in his career) and you have a pitcher who turns 27 in March and has never shown an ability to maintain an average performance at the major league level.

Carrasco's history tells us not to trust him going into 2014. He showed a little more promise as a reliever, but even those stats are not overwhelming (he posted 7.24 SO/9, 3.29 BB/9, a 1.32 ERA, and a 2.54 FIP in 13.2 innings, though it was aided by a .206 BABIP). The team clearly wants to see Carrasco succeed in putting it all together, but betting on the right-hander is a risky proposition. If it works, Cleveland will have a pretty good pitcher with some upside pitching out of the #5 spot. But nothing about the last five years has given us any proof that Carrasco can make it work.

Corey Kluber, RHPCorey Kluber (Photo: ESPN)

Coming off of a 2012 season where Corey Kluber threw 63.0 mostly forgettable innings (5.14 ERA, 0.5 fWAR), the right-hander was supposed to be a depth starter in 2013 and spend most of the year in Triple-A. As you know, Kluber did not stick to the plan. Instead, the right-hander posted a 3.85 ERA, 2.7 fWAR, and the 12th-best xFIP among pitchers with more than 140 innings (3.10), better than such names as Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer. Now the soon-to-be 28-year-old Kluber is a middle-of-the-rotation starter with the potential for even more.

Kluber's turnaround can be attributed in part to a fastball that jumped from a maximum velocity of 94 miles per hour to 97, a small increase in velocity that can make a huge difference. Even more importantly, Kluber began mixing up his pitches in a way he never had before. In 2011 and 2012, PITCHf/x registered his repertoire as heavily fastball-slider based with some curveballs and changeups. In 2013, however, Kluber added something PITCHf/x characterized as a sinker, a pitch that allowed the right-hander to diversify his offerings. Kluber did not throw a single pitch more than 30 percent of the time -- something pitchers like Adam Wainwright and James Shields have done with great success -- and that new effective pitch mix likely did wonders in jumpstarting his career.

For as exciting as Kluber's 2013 was from an sabermetric perspective, the right-hander has never seen those results turn into a sterling ERA. Both in 2013 (3.85 ERA, 3.30 FIP) and for his career (4.32 ERA, 3.61 FIP), Kluber's peripherals have looked great, yet the runs have still crossed the plate.  The same thing happened in the minors (4.42 career ERA, 3.56 career FIP), indicating Kluber might just be someone who allows more runs that his underlying statistics indicate. His major league BABIP and HR/FB are both higher than the norm (.335 and 12.5 percent respectively) and only 214.2 innings into his major league career, there is a decent chance his results will soon match his peripherals. Kluber is new and improved, but his ultimate upside will be determined by whether he can get his ERA under control.

Justin Masterson, RHPJustin Masterson (Photo: ESPN)

Heading into 2013, we all thought we knew what Justin Masterson was: a decent starter with a below-average strikeout rate, a few more walks than you would like to see, but someone capable of getting a ton of groundballs. That combination would have worked out just fine  -- Masterson was worth 8.3 fWAR from 2010 to 2012 -- but the right-hander completely changed his game in 2013.

That change came in the form of Masterson's strikeouts as the right-hander went from below-average to 11th among qualified starters. The combination of getting a ton of strikeouts and a ton of groundballs is quite potent and one that should leave Masterson as one of the better pitchers in baseball again in 2014.

It is easy to dismiss Masterson's jump in strikeout rate and expect regression, but given the changes the right-hander made, that regression might not come. Over the past two seasons, Masterson improved the movement on his slider, giving the right-hander another option to attack hitters with. Before increasing his slider usage from 14.3 percent in 2011 to 26.9 percent in 2013, Masterson relied heavily on his fastball and sinker. Masterson struggled to control the increased movement on his slider in 2012, throwing it for a strike 58.9 percent of the time, but the right-hander got it under control in 2013, getting a strike 63.2 percent of the time. Combining control of his slider to the extra movement allowed Masterson to throw it more frequently and strike hitters out more than ever before.

Masterson still shows a pretty large platoon split, but the good news is the right-hander improved on it in 2013. Right-hander hitters are still ruined by Masterson (.181/.267/.240 line in 2013), but left-hander hitters traditionally give him fits (.278/.361/.418 line for his career). Masterson still was not particularly good against left-handed hitters in 2013, but he did show marked improvement (.245/.340/.357 line). That improvement -- limiting left-handed hitters to average results -- added to his stifling of right-handed hitters sets Masterson up for a dominant 2014. Fellow starter Danny Salazar may (deservingly) have the hype going into the season, but Masterson is still the ace of the staff.

Zach McAllister, RHPZach McAllister (Photo: ESPN)

Any Cleveland fan with the name Adam Miller in their consciousness shudders when a pitcher suffers a finger injury. After Zach McAllister suffered a right middle finger sprain in early June, it was easy to assume the worst. Surely McAllister was bound to go down that same, terrible path filled with lost promise and broken dreams.

A funny thing happened, however. Though McAllister's ERA jumped following his return in late July, his peripherals actually improved (3.43 ERA, 4.21 FIP in 65.2 pre-injury innings, 4.06 ERA, 3.86 FIP in 68.2 post-injury innings). McAllister walked more batters post-injury, but the right-hander made up for it by getting more strikeouts. All in all, McAllister ended the year with a 3.75 ERA, a 4.03 FIP, and a not-too-shabby 1.5 fWAR in 134.1 innings.

Upon his return, McAllister threw fewer breaking pitches, pumping up his fastball rate from 71.2 percent to 74.9. Despite throwing more fastballs, McAllister kept hitters from teeing off on him and actually managed to increase his strikeouts. Sometimes it felt like McAllister was stumbling -- like during his three start stretch from August 30 to September 10 where he only threw 13.1 innings with a 8.78 ERA -- but on the whole, the right-hander was still effective after coming back from his finger injury.

Despite his massive 6'6", 240 pound frame, McAllister continues to throw his fastball in the low 90s and not post overly impressive strikeout rates. McAllister says he is working on adding a slider as a strikeout pitch this spring, though many pitchers try to add pitches in the spring. There is no guarantee this will automatically boost his strikeout rate. The right-hander also does not get many groundballs and has an xFIP that suggests even more regression is on the way. Yet, through 277.1 major league innings, McAllister has shown an ability to be adequate -- a trait that should allow him to be a solid #4 starter for the next few years. The only piece of the "McAllister as a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter" puzzle that is missing is the ability to haul innings. The right-hander has only thrown 125.1 and 134.1 innings over the past two seasons, but if McAllister can finally stay healthy in 2014, his solid, quality pitching will be an anchor in the Cleveland rotation every fifth day.

Danny Salazar, RHPDanny Salazar (Photo: ESPN)

Nothing could hold Danny Salazar back in 2013. Starting off in Double-A? Post a 2.67 ERA, a 1.45 FIP, and 51:10 SO:BB in 33.2 innings. Promoted to Triple-A for the first time? Post a 2.73 ERA, a 2.26 FIP, and 78:14 SO:BB in 59.1 innings. Get the call up to the major leagues? Post a 3.12 ERA, a 3.16 FIP, and 65:15 SO:BB in 52.0 innings and start the Wild Card game. All told, Salazar's season amounted to a 2.86 ERA, a 2.30 FIP, and 194:39 SO:BB in 145.0 innings.

Salazar accomplished this dominance largely thanks to a fastball that averaged 96 miles per hour. The right-hander threw his fastball over 70 percent of the time and Salazar's raw velocity induced them to swing and miss 13.3 percent of the time, a very high rate for a fastball. Salazar paired that with his lethal split-changeup, a pitch that gave hitters absolute fits. That fastball-changeup combination is killer for opposing hitters, and though Salazar's slider is pretty good right now, if it continues to develop, the right-hander would become one of the best starters in all of baseball.

The concern with Salazar remains with his relative lack of size (he is listed at 6'0", 190 pounds) and his injury history. The right-hander is still being built back up to a full workload, though after tossing 145.0 innings in 2013, 2014 should be the year he can approach the magical 200-inning mark. Salazar does not generate his elite velocity through a violent pitching motion, but his size will always be a concern when it comes to durability.

It may not seem fair, but if Cleveland is going to make it back to the playoffs, it will need the 24-year-old Salazar to replace Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir in the rotation and pitch like an ace. Though Salazar has shown an ace-like ability so far in his major league career, keeping it up over a full season is a different story. But knowing what Salazar has accomplished so far in his career, he should be just fine in 2014. Barring injury (which goes for all pitchers), the worst-case scenario is Salazar pitches like a solid, middle-of-the-rotation starter. The best case scenario, though, has Salazar as a Cy Young candidate. He is just that talented.

Josh Tomlin, RHPJosh Tomlin (Photo: ESPN)

After undergoing Tommy John surgery in August 2012, Josh Tomlin finished his trek back from his elbow injury in 2013, pitching in one game down the stretch. Now with a clean bill of health, Tomlin is looking to re-establish himself as the best option for Cleveland's fifth starter spot.

Tomlin's skillset is perfect for the fifth starter spot. He never overwhelmed during his major league time, posting ERAs and FIPs a little below the league average in 2010 and 2011. While that sounds like a negative, for a pitcher like Tomlin, that actually is not all that bad. In 2011, for example, the right-handed tossed 165.1 innings with a 4.25 ERA and a 4.27 FIP, marks that gave him 1.6 fWAR. Considering that roughly 2.0 fWAR is average and Tomlin was around six starts short of a full season's worth of innings, the right-hander's 2011 season was surprisingly solid.

The question is whether Tomlin can regain that 2011 form heading into 2014. The right-hander's 2011 season was strong, though his 2010 and 2012 seasons surrounding it were less than stellar. What those 2010 and 2012 campaigns have in common is a slightly higher walk rate (2.34 and 2.18 BB/9 respectively compared to 1.14 BB/9 in 2011). A walk rate in the two-range is obviously quite strong, but given that Tomlin rarely strikes anyone out -- he has 4.92 SO/9 for his career -- the right-hander has to limit walks to an extreme level to find real success.

Tomlin will never be the kind of pitcher to dominate a game. Hitters tend to hit him a little harder than usual, which when combined with his fly ball tendencies, leads to the right-hander allowing more home runs than the average pitcher. That lack of dominance will always keep Tomlin from being much more than a back-end starter, but back-end starters have value. Whether it is in the fifth starter role or as a long reliever in the bullpen, Tomlin has the ability to competently soak up innings. Tomlin's skillset is not sexy, but it is one that major league teams need.

If you want to follow Jim on Twitter, he’s @JimPiascik. If you want to e-mail him, you can do so at jpiasci1@gmail.com

User Comments

Joe Chengery
March 6, 2014 - 3:54 AM EST
Two things:

1. If Tomlin is the #5 in this rotation, I don't think that torpedoes our chances of winning this division. He's better than a lot of the #3 starters we used to put on the mound only a few years ago. Is he the preferred choice? No, only because of Carrasco and Bauer (he is a better long-term choice than Marcum and Harang though, both of which are stop-gaps, both of which have more question marks than Tomlin, and both of which are unlikely to get any better than they already are, whereas Tomlin could).

Keep in mind that Tomlin hasn't had a real shot to make the adjustments that the league made to him. He did have that 5+ IP streak up until he went down with the injury- most teams would beg, even kill, for a consistent five starter like that. Heck, I remember when Sabathia and Carmona couldn't do that consistently, and they were the top two starters on this team at one time in the not-too-distant past- let's not short-change Tomlin that much, those who are. :-)

He's been described as a "poor man's Greg Maddux," and arguably has the best control of the five starters (only Salazar has similar control; it's really this lack of precise control that keeps Masterson from being a true frontline starter). If he's your #5, you can do a lot worse, and the Indians have in the past. Many teams in the league still are today.

2. I do agree Salazar does NOT have to replace both- I'm not sure Jim meant both- even vintage Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson would have a hard time replacing both, since 1 pitcher can only pitch every 5 days, not twice in a five-day period (certainly not in a starter's role, at least), never mind putting up enough wins and IP to replace solid starters.

It would greatly boost the Indians' chances if he can replace one of the two, while having the other four meet or exceed expectations (Kluber and McAllister pick up where they left off before their injuries, Masterson can keep the H and K rates at or near where they were last year, plus get the BB rate nearer the 2011 rate, etc, while the fifth starter puts up 5-7 IP of 3 runs or fewer at least 50-75% of the time).
Hermie13
March 5, 2014 - 9:09 AM EST
"It may not seem fair, but if Cleveland is going to make it back to the playoffs, it will need the 24-year-old Salazar to replace Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir in the rotation and pitch like an ace."


I agree this is not fair. I don't agree that he needs to replace Ubaldo and Kazmir.

Sure he does need to replace one of them but why both? Improvement from Kluber and Z-Mac plus some non-suck performance from the #5 is what should be considered replacing Kazmir. Kazmir produced a 2.5 fWAR. I don't think it's crazy to think that between Kluber, Z-Mac, and Carrasco (or whomever is the #5) that we can see that made up. Kaz only threw 158 innings as well which shouldn't be terribly hard to make up (though not exactly easy either).

Do need Salazar to replace Ubaldo but asking him to replace both guys we lost is as said, very unfair. Not even convinced he has to pitch like an Ace for the team to make it back to the playoffs though if he does I definitely like our chances of winning this division.
Hermie13
March 5, 2014 - 9:00 AM EST
"It's amazing that people can RIP Josh Tomlin's pitching career based on a month when he was undiagnosed - pitching hurt used to be considered 'gritty' and 'manning up"

I am not a big Tomlin fan....but I know I've never ripped on him "based on a month". His 2011 was good overall but if you look his ERA in the first two months that year was 2.74. But from June 1st on it was 5.24. Was 3 bad months then bad for most of 2012. His ERA from June 1st 2011 thru 2012 was 5.36 in over 200 innings.

Was he injured from June of 2011 on and waited til August 2012 to have surgery? Maybe...or maybe the league started figuring him out.


Will give Tomlin this, does get you 5 innings pretty consistently and some of his peripherals weren't as bad as the ERA in the latter part of 2011 (xFIP never rose above 4.19 in any month that year). Tomlin is definitely not a guy I cut, has 3 team options left which is very nice. Not really expecting anything out of him but can be a nice spot starter with the potential to maybe be a good #5.
pathofkindness
March 5, 2014 - 2:12 AM EST
I'm also a huge fan of Tomlin's. I also hope that we have five starting pitchers who are better, and I think we will. If not, he's the perfect guy to slide into the 5th spot in the rotation.
Matthew
March 4, 2014 - 8:17 PM EST
Keep beating that straw man, Rick.
Tony
March 4, 2014 - 8:05 PM EST
Huge fan of Tomlin here. I feel he is a very good 5th/6th starter option and love the toughness. If anyone is writing him off as a loser, then they are sorely mistaken. He's the perfect guy to have around the next 2-3 years as a depth arm for the rotation and if the right opportunity and he seizes it he could settle into a full time option in the rotation.
Jim Piascik
March 4, 2014 - 7:47 PM EST
Nice catch with the minor league innings Hermie13. Should read that he needs to prove he can haul 200 major league innings. Which with his body type/previous production, is well within reason.

And you're not saying I'm ripping Tomlin, right Rick? I thought I was pretty positive about him having real value. :) He has to limit the walks and you'll never mistake him for an ace, but he has shown an ability to be a competent back-end guy. That has its uses.
Rick
March 4, 2014 - 7:36 PM EST
pardon....the only time he did NOT pitch consistently well...
Rick
March 4, 2014 - 7:34 PM EST
It's amazing that people can RIP Josh Tomlin's pitching career based on a month when he was undiagnosed - pitching hurt used to be considered 'gritty' and 'manning up'.

He also did it when the team was heading for it's third 90+ loss season in 4 yrs.

It's also the ONLY time he did pitch consistently well.

Lil' Cowboy isn't the sexy pick. He has never been the proto-type pitcher in any way. All he did was throw strikes before he was hurt and set a club record for quality starts.

When he was proving productive the same kind of posts that proclaim him a AAAA loser now rolled out the same clap trap. People will make adjustments...bla...bla...bla....

I have only one fantasy for Tomlin. That HE THREW SOUTHPAW. Because if he did he would be our #3 starter!

As long as he is healthy he is our 5th or 6th - which if you follow means little to no difference - other than when he starts - not if - rather if its after a DL opens a spot - or in April.

To declare Tomlin not up to starting on a major league team (other than a losing one) is to ignore DOZENS of soft tossing strike throwers who have made millions of $$$ earning a living frustrating hitters.

This guy has proven he can do it if healthy - despite the haters who cling to claiming otherwise.

Heck our pitching was so bad he was a #2 - back when Ubaldo was stinking up the mound.
Hermie13
March 4, 2014 - 5:03 PM EST
One thing to note too with Z-Mac....he only threw 125.1 innings at the big league level in 2012, but overall managed 188.2 innings. Not saying this makes him an inning eater but at least showed he could be stretched out that far and be successful at the big league level.

I expect the K-rate to be up closer to his 2nd half numbers. Had a very decent 7.9 K-Rate in 2012, maybe that's too much to expect but think 7.3 (his 2nd half number) is very doable again in 2014. Solid #4 right now as said. Think there's room to grow there too still as he's only 26 still.
Hermie13
March 4, 2014 - 4:54 PM EST
McAllister's average FB velocity was 91.3 mph last year. He didn't sit 94-95.
Roger
March 4, 2014 - 3:13 PM EST
Jim,
zac mac sat at 94 or 95 and i saw 96 and 97 a couple times that is above major league avg. As a matter of 6 of the seven pitchers listed sit in the mid 90's with their heater and none have reached 30 yet. They are still very young pitching staff on balance!
pathofkindness
March 4, 2014 - 3:12 PM EST
Nice piece Jim! There's some things to figure out, but at least we have what appear to be some decent options.

I do take exception with two comments though:

1) "if Cleveland is going to make it back to the playoffs, it will need the 24-year-old Salazar to ... pitch like an ace." True, some of the Tribe starters need to pitch like "aces" for the Indians to make the playoffs, but it doesn't have to be Salazar. It's certainly not beyond the realm of possibility, given his great stuff, but IMO that is way too much to expect from him this year.

2) "Tomlin's skillset is perfect for the fifth starter spot." Except he's not really good enough. He can be the fifth starter in a bad rotation, but in an excellent rotation Josh is just not quite good enough to get a spot. I love watching him pitch, and I admire his ability to get the most out of his limited talent, but I sure hope that we have five better pitchers and that Tomlin can man a long reliever/6th starter role.

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