On May 2, 2017, Corey Kluber of the Cleveland Indians had finished his No. 6 start of the season, lasting just three innings while allowing 5 ER, bumping his ERA up to an uncharacteristic 5.06. The next day Kluber was placed on the 10-day disabled list with a back injury. Since his return on June 1, Kluber has been arguably the best pitcher in all of baseball.
In his 13 starts since returning from the DL, Kluber has been unhittable and has nearly cut his ERA in half to 2.65. Over that same stretch, he has had double-digit strikeouts in 11 starts, including at least 11 Ks in his last five. Altogether he leads the MLB by a significant margin with 142 Ks in that time frame.
The man closest to Kluber in the K department since his return just so happens to be the same man who has overshadowed his ridiculous season, Chris Sale. While Kluber was struggling through April and was hurt for basically all of May, Sale was dominating his competition. Through his first 11 starts, Sale had racked up 110 Ks, a 6-2 record, a 2.77 ERA, and had gone less than seven innings in just two starts.
Sale was a strong, early Cy Young candidate, and has remained the leader in a seemingly one-horse race as his performance has only improved in his last 12 starts. The problem is that while Sale still deserves to be the leader in the Cy Young race, Corey Kluber has pitched his way into the conversation but is getting limited recognition.
Since June 1st, Kluber has outpitched Sale and every other pitcher in the MLB. Kluber leads baseball in strikeouts, IP, OBP against, SLG against, wOBA against and is No. 2 to only Clayton Kershaw with a 1.70 ERA. He recently passed Kershaw and Max Scherzer into second place behind Sale for pitchers WAR according to FanGraphs with a 4.9.
While Kluber did struggle to start the season, his season long stats still nearly mirror Sale’s. What helps put Sale ahead of Kluber is the 28.2 extra innings he’s pitched along with his incredible 1.98 FIP. A couple of the two aces important rate statistics, K/9, BB/9, HR/9, and ERA, are all nearly the same showing that Sale’s strong WAR lead comes down to more playing time.
If not for Kluber’s DL time it would be interesting to see how close the gap would be between the two. Kluber and Sale are the only two SPs averaging more than seven IP per start this season so it seems to follow that Kluber would have made up the 28-inning gap over his four missed starts.
Last night Sale went eight innings with 13 Ks allowing no runs on two hits and one walk, following up his worst outing of the season in which he allowed seven ER against Kluber’s Indians. Kluber kept pace with Boston’s ace by going the distance for the second game in a row with eerily identical pitching lines. In both games he fanned 11, allowed 1 ER on a solo HR and held the opposing lineup to just three hits.
It’s impossible to correctly answer which guy is pitching better right now but the consistency of Sale rightly keeps him atop the Cy Young and WAR leaderboards. With another 7-8 weeks in the season there is plenty of time for Kluber to gain ground if Sale sputters because despite what the mainstream media has said, this is not a one-horse race.
For the fans, all we can do is hope that both stay healthy and dominant heading into the postseason. The AL East leading Red Sox and Central leading Indians are slated to face each other in the ALDS of the 2017 Playoffs and if they hold their division leads we could be in for one of the greatest postseason pitching matchups of All-Time will Kluber and Sale both toeing the rubber for Game 1 and possibly games 4 or 5.
When I wrote my trade deadline article last week, there was one major deal that I left out and that’s because I wanted to give it and the Washington Nationals a more in-depth look.
When I first started writing here, I created a list of possible article ideas and one that I was really looking forward to writing was how the disastrous Washington bullpen would let itself down in October if they didn’t make any upgrades. As we sit now, the tone of the article is changed as their recent acquisition gives me and I assume their organization new optimism.
The trade I have alluded to was one in which they acquired relief pitchers Sean Doolittle and a personal favorite of mine, Ryan Madson from the Oakland Athletics. The Nationals did not give up much to do so. The package they sent to Oakland included RP Blake Treinen and prospects LHP Jesus Luzardo and 3B Sheldon Neuse who prior to the season ranked as the No. 15 and No. 17 best prospects respectively in the Nationals system, according to Baseball America.
The Nats hold a commanding 12 game lead in the incredibly weak NL East. Every other team in the division looks to be sellers at the deadline, other than maybe the Mets who have been crushed by injuries this season, which means that Washington should waltz to a division title and playoff berth.
With one of the most dominant lineups and starting rotations in baseball, Washington has been a pleasure to watch. Washington’s roster is headlined by superstars Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer, but the likes of Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez are all having career years as well.
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The strength and depth the Nationals have at the top of their rotation and lineup is scary. Harper, Murphy, Zimmerman, and Scherzer all started for the NL while Strasburg was a reserve for the team and Rendon was unwisely left off as he currently leads the NL in WAR according to FanGraphs. All of these guys will be potential MVP and Silver Slugger, or in Scherzer’s case, Cy Young candidates at the end of this year.
These stars are the main reason why Washington sits in second behind the Houston Astros in basically every offensive category including runs (540), total bases (1611), RBI (526), AVG (.278) and OPS (.817). Their starting rotation is No. 3 in ERA (3.58) and IP (595.2), and No. 1 in BAA (.229) and SO (626).
Despite the fact that this team sports the most dangerous lineup and consistently effective starting rotation in baseball, just two weeks ago I believed the Nats were going to have an early exit in the postseason. Their bullpen has been a nightmare all season and surely would have let them down in October.
The addition of Doolittle and Madson, however, gives this bullpen new life for the last 60 or so games of the season. Doolittle and Madson aren’t the most dominant bullpen arms in baseball, but they’ve both had solid seasons in Oakland so far and more importantly are massive upgrades over what Washington was trotting out to the mound on a nightly basis.
Prior to the trade, the Washington bullpen ranked last in baseball with a 5.34 ERA, .810 OPS against, and -0.9 WAR. The 36-year-old Madson comes to Washington with an impressive 1.2 WAR, 1.91 ERA and 2.37 FIP over 42.1 innings while Doolittle sports a 0.7 WAR, 3.33 ERA and 2.66 FIP in just 24.1 innings after spending some time on the DL.
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The two have quickly slotted in to the No. 8 and No. 9 inning roles for the Nationals. Both players have closer experience but it is unclear who will be the closer going forward and there’s a chance they split time depending on matchups. Regardless of what inning they throw in, they bring a new shutdown feel to the Nationals pen that has surrendered countless leads this year.
It is to be seen if Washington will go out and make another addition to further solidify their pen but the trio of Matt Albers, a journeyman having a career year of his own, Madson and Doolittle should be good enough to hold most leads.
The National’s bullpen still does not stack up to the likes of the Indians, Yankees, or Dodgers and it will be really interesting to see if it will be able to hold its own in the postseason.
As I mentioned in an earlier article, when looking at the top of the bullpen rankings in baseball, the list is crowded with playoff teams like the three aforementioned, as well as the Red Sox, Astros, and Diamondbacks. The fact that the Nationals have been so successful this season in spite of having one of the worst pens is a true testament to just how talented and impressive the rest of the team has been.
Washington is primed for a deep and competitive playoff run. If they’re able to get the same kind of production from their staff and lineup that they have in the regular season, they could easily run away from the competition and breeze to the first World Series title in Washington since 1924.
The Cleveland Indians just posted 13 unanswered runs to beat the resurgent Texas Rangers last night by a score of 15-9 after trailing 9-2 (Disclaimer: I wrote this three days ago but didn’t get the chance to publish it).
While coming into the 2017 season the general consensus was that it was Cleveland’s starting pitching that would carry them through the regular season and into the playoffs. Last night showcased the two aspects of their squad that get much less recognition and are the main reasons why they’re my AL favorite.
The two aspects are their depth and strength of their lineup and bullpen.
The headline grab from Monday’s game is obviously the 13 runs the offense put up after the third inning, but what goes unnoticed was the ability of the Indians bullpen to hold the Rangers offense scoreless after the No. 4 inning.
More times than not when a team goes down early by seven runs, the manager will turn to their long relief mop up guys hoping to collect outs and save the premier arms in the bullpen to fight another day.
However, the Indians’ entire bullpen is comprised of premier arms. Finishing the final five and two-thirds innings of last night’s game, surrendering just one ER on three H and two BB was the combination of Dan Otero, Boone Logan, Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, and Nick Goody.
All of these guys may not be household names, but only one of them showcases an ERA above 3.00 (Otero – 3.48). When you add in Zach McAllister (another sub 3.00 ERA) and, the man I believe to be the best reliever in baseball, Andrew Miller you get the most complete and dominant bullpen in baseball.
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In total, there are seven quality arms in Cleveland’s pen who all have at least 26 appearances on the season. Out of those seven, the only guy averaging less than an inning per appearance is lefty specialist Logan.
During the 2016 postseason, we saw how effective Terry Francona’s strategic, heavy use of the bullpen was. Barring any significant injuries, it looks like he will have all the tools to do it again.
The bullpen as a whole ranks in the top-3 in almost every pitching category and leads in ERA (2.59), fewest blown saves (3), opponent SLG (.336), and opponent OPS (.621).
The other teams that hover around the top of these categories with the Indians are the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Arizona Diamondbacks. Each team just so happens to be holding a spot in the playoffs right now.
With an increased importance on the health of starting pitching and limiting pitch counts in baseball, a strong bullpen carries value in many ways and is an underappreciated aspect of most successful MLB teams.
The main story of Monday’s 15-9 victory was the lineup of the Indians that put up a jaw-dropping 13 consecutive runs over a four-inning span.
This lineup was one that I thought, coming into the season, would undoubtedly be amongst the top 5 in the league. Unfortunately, everyone has underperformed this far except for Jose Ramirez and Lonnie Chisenhall.
Major offseason acquisition Edwin Encarnacion struggles at the plate have been most notable, but in the month of June, the Dominican slugger is slashing .333/.454/.654 with 23 R, 7 HR, and 18 RBI, and for the first time since June 2016, has more walks (17) than strikeouts (14).
In a lineup that has a lot of solid contact hitters, the power of Encarnacion can be the spark this lineup needs to catch fire for the second half of the season.
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The other main disappoint from this lineup has been Francisco Lindor. Lindor’s power numbers have been impressive this year with 14 HR and 21 2B in just 330 PA whereas he had just 15 and 12 HR in 684 and 438 PA in 2016 and 2015 respectively, yet his ability to get on base and steal bags has been way down this year.
His AVG and OBP are down to .253 and .316 compared to .301 and .358 in 2016 and .313 and .353 in 2015. This dip is mainly due to his .250 BABIP which is markedly lower than the .324 and .348 marks he had in 2016 and 2015, which means he is due for a positive regression over the final few months of the season.
While it may be over-optimistic to expect him to return to those levels, it is likely that number will regress towards the mean and bring his AVG up to around .270-.290 by the end of the season.
On top of these two all-star caliber players, the Indians lineup has depth and versatility across the board that allows them to matchup well against both righties and lefties. For example, Lonnie Chisenhall pinched hit against the Dodgers last week after the removal of Rich Hill, who posed an unfavorable lefty on lefty matchup, and finished the game 2-3 with a home run and five RBI against right-handed arms.
Chisenhall’s counterpart is Brandon Guyer who hits against left-handed pitchers well. Filling out the rest of the lineup are OF Bradley Zimmer, Michael Brantley, 2B Jason Kipnis, 1B Carlos Santana, and IF Jose Ramirez who have all shown the ability to go 4-4 with 2 HR on any given night. Don’t be surprised to see this lineup get hot and carry the team through the dog days of summer and into October.
This lineup reminds me of the one that carried the Royals to back-to-back World Series in 2014 and 15. On any night, the nine guys they trot out are tough outs and really make the pitcher work to get through six innings.
It has been well documented over the years that power pitching is what wins in the postseason. With a staff headed by Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar, the Indians have the potential to have the best starting rotation in the postseason.
While Salazar has been a disappointment this season and Carrasco got roughed up on Monday night, they’ve had stretches of dominance in the past and, if healthy, they can do so again in the playoffs. If Kluber gives the same level of production he did in the 2016 postseason (4-1, 1.83 ERA, 35 K, pitching on 3 days rest 3 times), the Indians will have a No. 1 Ace that can match up with the best of the MLB.
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Their rotation is finished out with Mike Clevinger, Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin, and Ryan Merrit, all of which have shown the potential to be postseason pitchers, especially with the prowess of the aforementioned bullpen behind them.
Most playoff rotations consist of three or four guys. With seven arms to pick from, everyone should have a lot of trust in Francona to put together the strongest postseason rotation in the AL.
The Indians have won 10 of their last 15 games and look to be righting the ship at the perfect time. They currently sit atop a wide open AL Central with a 41-36 record and look poised to run away with the division or at worst compete for a wild card spot. Especially when you consider the Tribe went 53-28 at Progressive Field in 2016 and are currently 16-20 at home this season.
There are numbers of ways in which the Indians can improve and will improve in the second half of this season.
Let’s #EmbraceDebate here. Let me know why you guys think I’m wrong and who you see rolling through the AL this October.