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Orbiting Cleveland: The potential of Zach McAllister

Zach McAllister can be a significant asset to the Indians in 2014

Orbiting Cleveland: The potential of Zach McAllister
April 4, 2014
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We know the type.

We pass him in the halls.

We nearly miss him when we see him on the streets.

We watch him work in the office, barely stopping for even a few words of conversation.

You know, the quiet unassuming type.

Or, in other words — Zach McAllister.

When Cleveland Indians fans talk about the 2014 season and the teams' chances for success, one of the first things they point to is the starting rotation. Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar — all three players are paramount to the team's ability to contend.

That's certainly a fair point as the upside that surrounds Masterson, Kluber and Salazar cannot be denied. All three starters have either had success on the Major League level or have the ability to be a top-of-the-rotation arm, and they're frequently lauded for that.

Yet, when someone talks about the 2014 season and the Tribe's rotation, they seem to skip by McAllister.

It's actually quite apropos.

Chances are McAllister probably does not want fans talking about his every move or overanalyzing his ability as a pitcher. He's known to be a quiet person by nature and that's evident whenever he's shown in the dugout.

His presence on the mound seems to suggest the same thing. McAllister never shows much emotion when he pitches, yet he always seems to be at peace. It's almost as if the pitching mound is his own tranquil paradise.

It's understandable that Indians fans seem to forget about McAllister when they talk about the 2014 season. However, just because something's understandable does not necessarily mean that it's right.

McAllister is almost just as important to this starting rotation as any of the aforementioned arms. He seems to thrive by being underestimated though. After all, that's been the case with him his entire career.

That certainly was true when he was in the New York Yankees' farm system. On August 20, 2010, McAllister was sent to the Indians as the player to be named later from the Austin Kearns trade, which was completed on July 30 of that year.

McAllister had struggled a bit, but he was also still just 22-years-old and only a year removed from a season at Double-A Trenton where he posted a 2.23 ERA in 121 innings and 22 starts. This was also in a system that was pretty lacking in regard to starting pitching prospects, so it's surprising that New York was willing to part with him in exchange for a fourth outfielder.

At the end of the day though, it comes down to value. The Yankees clearly valued the services of Kearns more than the services that McAllister might potentially provide.

Similarly, McAllister struggled to gain much steam upon his arrival in the Indians' organization. Many fans viewed him as nothing more than a sixth or seventh starter, and one scout even referred to him as "a poor man's Josh Tomlin." Doesn't exactly seem like the right adjective to describe him, eh?

McAllister triumphed nonetheless, and that was most evident in 2012. In 22 starts and 125 1/3 innings, he posted a 4.24 ERA. He also showed impressive strikeout stuff as he punched out 7.9 batters per nine innings.

Though, even more impressive may have been the velocity spike that McAllister showed. His fastball averaged 91.8 miles per hour, which was up from 91.2 a year earlier. He also had a high velocity of 96 miles per hour, up from 94.6 in 2011.

McAllister's success carried over to 2013, and he carried a 3.43 ERA in his first 11 starts. He also averaged just under six innings per start.

Unfortunately though, McAllister's season took a rough turn after he suffered a middle finger injury that landed him on the disabled list.

When he returned from the disabled list, he was not exactly the same. In his remaining 13 starts of the season, he averaged just 5.28 innings per start and also posted a 4.06 ERA.

That then brings us to this past Wednesday.

McAllister made his first 2014 start for the Indians this past season, and it was a mix of good and bad.

It started out really rough as he needed over 30 pitches to just get through the first inning. Yet, that very same inning was telling as he never seemed to exit attack mode.

It may have taken a lot of pitches, but McAllister was able to get himself out of the jam as he recorded three strikeouts in the inning, and he did not let the Oakland Athletics score more than two runs.

His will was most evident following a Yoenis Cespedes double that scored Jed Lowrie and moved Brandon Moss to third base.

The game easily could have gotten out of hand there, but McAllister maintained him composure. His next at-bats against John Jaso and Josh Reddick may have been battles, but they both ultimately ended with the best possible result — strikeouts.

If even one of those players happen to score, it's an entirely different game. Yes, McAllister did create his own problem and he did not get out of the inning unscathed. However, he also was able to solve his own problem, which needs to be applauded.

McAllister again ran into some trouble later in the contest, but there are some other positives that came out of this game, including:

  • McAllister's velocity topped out at 94.8 miles per hour. For his first game of the season on April 2, that is an especially positive sign. It's almost a near certainty that he will see an increase in velocity as the season goes on, which will only make his fastball and his secondary stuff all the more effective.
  • He managed to strikeout four batters in his four innings in the contest. It's a small sample size, but his ability to reach back for the punchout was impressive. In past situations like the one in the first inning Wednesday, McAllister might have simply relied on an easy groundball or fly ball and surrendered another run. However, he knew the situation was dire, so he did whatever was necessary to get the back-to-back strikeouts, even if it meant his pitch count swelling to above 30.

Yet, the start was also not without its concerns:

  • The pitch selection for McAlliser's 86 pitches is as follows:
    • 74 two-seam fastballs
    • 7 sliders
    • 5 changeups
  • McAllister is at his best when he is using his fastball to set up his secondary stuff, but the stats indicate that he got away from that in this start.
  • As you might have guessed from the numbers, all four of McAllister's strikeouts came from his fastball. You have to wonder why he did not use his secondary stuff more, especially in the first inning when he was locked into some long battles.

Even after fans have started to turn the corner on McAllister, they have maintained that he profiles as nothing more than a back-of-the-rotation starter at best.

That might be the case, but he has the stuff, velocity and size to be something more. He even showed some brief glimpses of that on Wednesday.

What makes McAllister so intriguing is that he seems to be so close to becoming a much more complete pitcher. Take a look at the table below, which details the 2013 statistics for pitchers who either played a key role for the Indians in 2013 or will play a key role in 2014.

Pitcher            BB/9               K/9           HR/9              H/9             GB%              FB%
Justin Masterson 3.54 9.09 0.61 7.3 58 24.2
Corey Kluber
2.02
8.31 0.92 9.3
45.5
28.5
Danny Salazar 2.6 11.25 1.21 7.6 34.4 39.8
Ubaldo Jimenez 3.94 9.56 0.79 8 43.9 36.3
Scott Kazmir 2.68 9.23 1.08 9.2 40.9 36
Carlos Carrasco 3.47 5.79 0.77 12.3 50.3 27.5
Zach McAllister 3.28 6.77 0.87 9 37.1 41.4

McAllister is a pitcher who is average to good in a number of areas, but just some minor improvements could push him over the hump and cement him as a very good Major League starter.

He will never come close to approaching Masterson's outstanding groundball percentage, but if he can even move that number just a few percentage points north, he will be much more effective.

Also, his strikeout rate suffered significantly last year, which might be related to the finger injury. As noted earlier, he struck out 7.9 batters per nine innings in 2012, so it's reasonable to believe that the K/9 rate could return to those numbers.

Wednesday's start was certainly encouraging in that regard, and it will be interesting to see if progress continues to be made in that direction.

McAllister also may not yet be a control artist, but imagine if he continues to make strides there as well. It's just another step toward making him a better pitcher.

Finally, one of the most interesting things about the numbers above is McAllister's fly-ball percentage in 2013. It is somewhat high, but it's interesting to note that he did not allow a large number of home runs.

As long as he continues to keep balls in the park, the high fly-ball percentage will be forgivable, especially if he makes progress in these other key areas.

Clearly, there are a lot of "ifs" being thrown out here, but it's reasonable to have faith in McAllister. He's been underappreciated for the majority of his professional career, yet he's proven the naysayers wrong at every stop.

The bottom line is that when you think about the Indians' future and the team's chances for success, McAllister is as key to that as almost any other pitcher on the roster.

Extensions seem to be an early theme this season as we've seen the Tribe reach extensions with both Yan Gomes and then Jason Kipnis earlier today. A case could be made that McAllister is another worthy extension candidate.

So, as you follow the Indians this season, be sure to keep a close eye on McAllister as he quietly goes about his business.

Cheer him on as he continues to prove that he can be a more-than-capable Major League starter,

Or, doubt him.

Question his ability. Openly say he has no chance of sticking in the rotation of playoff-contending team.

Chances are he wouldn't have it any other way.

Steve can be reached via email at orbaneks@gmail.com.

User Comments

george
April 5, 2014 - 10:18 AM EDT
McAllister is staying away from the pitch that injured his finger and that's why he has lost some effectiveness.
Chip
April 5, 2014 - 9:22 AM EDT
McCallister had difficulty keeping his fastball down in the zone against Oakland. While his FB control was not ideal it had good armside run and sink. I have a ton of faith in McCallister's ability and think that at the very least he will be a solid #3 with the potential to be a good #2. He strikes me as another pitcher that would benefit from developing a cutter. His FB and change up both have armside run so developing a pitch gives a different look might be beneficial. That or the continued development of his slider which has a tendancy to flatten out. His size and durability point to him being a workhorse and the Indians are lucky to have him.
Rich
April 5, 2014 - 7:43 AM EDT
Zach couldn't get his breaking ball over against the A's, which is why he only threw 12 of them in 86 pitches. If he has to get by throwing 85% high fastballs he's going to get punished. It was his first start of the season so I'm not panicking, but he needs to get his breaking ball over so that high cheese is effective.
Joe Chengery
April 5, 2014 - 4:51 AM EDT
I agree with Hermie that McAllister can be a solid 3; I think he and Tomlin both get overlooked for a lack of "stuff," but are considerably better than many of the pitchers that the Indians were sending out not that long ago (Sowers, Huff, and Laffey are three pitchers off of the top of my head, and at least the first two getting more publicity than either McAllister or Tomlin has ever received).

Speaking of pitching, check out Bauer's encouraging stat line at Columbus: 6 IP/2 H/1 R/1 ER/2 BB/9 K; 96 pitches, 57 strikes, 39 balls.

The S/B ratio is not ideal, but the results look more like an ace; I can't remember if Bauer even had one start last year at Columbus where he put up an "ace-type" stat line like that. Definitely encouraging and something to build on in 2014.
Tony
April 5, 2014 - 12:33 AM EDT
McAllister is talented. In his first start he simply lacked feel for his fastball. Clear as day. Will be interesting to see what he does next time out.
Hiram
April 4, 2014 - 6:25 PM EDT
McAllister is a good 5th starter but to ask him to be more than that is a bit of a stretch. I don't feel comfortable being matched up with anyone else 1-3 starter. I think he caves too many times at crucial times and becomes predictable in what he throws.
Hermie13
April 4, 2014 - 5:13 PM EDT
Was being caught by Santana....maybe had nothing to do with his pitch selection/getting away from what works...but worth noting IMO.

Other than maybe OB, probably one of McAllister's biggest fans on this site. Still think he can be a solid #3. Showed it in 2012 and 2013 at times. Think worst case he's a #5 guy.

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