CLEVELAND — While a lot of talk here and elsewhere has focused on bullpen-ing (not such a bad idea, right, Yankees?) and creatively leveraging pitching staffs early in the postseason, the Indians appear to be pursuing a different kind of unconventional strategy.
The club announced yesterday that, while staff ace and AL Cy Young candidate Corey Kluber will be fully rested for Game 1, he will not pitch Thursday against the Yankees. Trevor Bauer, one of the game’s best starters in the second half, will get the ball instead.
In this unexpected scenario, Kluber will start Game 2 and, if necessary, Game 5. Carlos Carrasco will start Game 3 in New York. Carrasco has been a significantly better road pitcher than home pitcher for his career (3.13 road ERA vs. 4.45 home ERA, 3.86 home FIP vs. 2.98 road FIP). He could face Luis Severino in that game, with Severino on regular rest. Or, since Sevenrino didn’t make it through an inning Tuesday, he could perhaps be available in Game 2. Josh Tomlin is penciled in as the tentative starter in Game 4 for Cleveland
It’s not often you see a team with a fully rested, legitimate ace choose not to use him at the first opportunity in the postseason. Indians manager Terry Francona explained the decision to a crowded media room Tuesday in the depths of Progressive Field.
“We want to keep Kluber on his day [regular day of rest], that was the reason for two and five,” Francona said.
Francona said Kluber was involved in the process. As early as a “couple weeks ago,” he’d sat down with Kluber to talk about aligning the postseason rotation.
“I think on a number of reasons it makes good sense,” Francona said. “Not that you’re going into this game [Game 1 on Thursday] thinking you are going to lose, but if you do, you have your ace coming back. The biggest thing was keeping him on his fifth day. That was really important to Kluber. That was the only way we could do it. Don’t want to put cart ahead of the horse, but if you’re fortunate enough to win in four [games or fewer], you have your ace ready for the next series.”
So the Indians have their reasons. The most prominent being, ostensibly, to keep Kluber on regular rest for his second start if needed. If he started Game 1 and Game 4, the second start would come on short rest. If he started Game 1 and Game 5, the second start would come on extra rest. And if the Indians are betting on themselves being good enough to advance to the ALCS, avoiding a Kluber Game 4 or 5 start would mean that he could open Game 1 of the ALCS on Oct. 13, and potentially start three games in that series when the Indians might become more aggressive with his usage.
Francona said he didn’t want to “overcomplicate” matters regarding the rotation while trying to create flexibility by making Bauer available later in the series after pitching Game 1. While Tomlin is listed as the tentative Game 4 starter, Bauer is available to pitch in that game, as is the wild card that is Danny Salazar, who also made the ALDS roster. Bauer has a resilient arm.
There’s some reward potential here, and it potentially sets the Indians up better for the ALCS should they advance in four or fewer games.
But are the Indians actually the ones overcomplicating matters? You can argue that this decision increases the chances for an upset.
The team that wins the first game of a five-game series has a 68.75% chance to advance, all things being equal in terms of roster strength and home-field advantage — which, of course, is never the case.
Here’s my math …
In this specific case, that percentage would be less severe for the Indians, since Kluber would still make two potential starts and Cleveland has home-field advantage.
But Game 1 could be a more favorable matchup for Kluber and the Indians, as Severino could potentially pitch in Game 2 following his short-lived outing in the Wild Card game. If you believe in things like added player pressure, you could argue this places more pressure on Bauer in Game 1 — and potentially on Kluber in Game 2 — if the team is trying to avoid an 0-2 deficit. There’s also the argument to be made that the team should want Kluber available on three days rest to pitch a Game 4 if the club is down 1-2 in the series. This is a formidable Yankees team that is second only to the Indians this season in run differential in the majors and has built an uber pen.
How many times have we heard coaches and mangers tell us about playing it one game at a time? This runs contrary to that cliche and approach, which is interesting and debatable.
The Indians don’t have any bad options available to them.
Bauer has had an excellent second half and enjoyed a breakout season. Jeff noted recently that Cleveland might actually have the best pitching staff ever. Francona and the Indians pushed many of the right buttons last year to advance to the World Series with an injury-depleted staff. The club employs a bunch of really smart people who have more information than we have on the outside; they have their reasons (do they want Kluber on extra rest to begin October anticipating heavy usage?), and this decision could provide reward.
But Kluber has been the best pitcher on the planet since he returned from the disabled list earlier this season. If the Indians lose in four games or fewer in the ALDS, Kluber will have only pitched once in the series. That will be second-guessed for the entire offseason. If the Indians drop Game 1 without putting their best option on the mound, they’ve increased their chances of being upset.
The Indians don’t have any poor options, really, but this is nonetheless an interesting risk/reward play.