Indians Go Unconventional, Again

One of two legitimate candidates for the AL Cy Young, Corey Kluber won’t be starting Game 1 of the ALDS.
(Photo: Erik Drost)

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.

We hoped you liked reading Indians Go Unconventional, Again by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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emh1969
Member
emh1969

The odder move in my opinion was Gio Urshela making the roster. That means he’s likely the starting 3rd baseman (if Ramirez was going to start at 3rd, Urshela would have no point being on the roster). That puts Kipnis in center and Greg Allen coming in as a late inning defensive replacement.

But why not just start Allen in center and have Kipnis play second? That puts everyone at their best position, gains a little speed, and sacrifices nothing in terms of offense.

isavage
Member
isavage

I think having Urshela makes sense, but Gonzalez over Yandy Diaz is super weird. Gonzalez has barely played since they called Diaz up at the end of August. I also disagree with the Kipnis thing but they are going with that for some reason. I guess they think it more likely that Kipnis’ defense will be more costly in the infield compared to Ramirez, that he’ll have more opportunities. Looking forward to easy fly balls dropping in front of Kipnis and guys going 1st to 3rd at will on him

emh1969
Member
emh1969

I was surprised by Gonzalez as well. I guess the thinking is that, if you pinch hit for Urshela, you’ll need to replace him at 3rd. And they’d rather have Gonzelez’ defense than Yandy’s offense. Plus, if there’s an injury, Gonzalez can cover more positions.

yamborma
Member
yamborma

It seemed like they had been grooming Urshela as the backup infielder, because he got time at 2B and SS in addition to his regular 3B. My expectation was Diaz starting games and Urshela coming off the bench as a defensive replacement at 3B, but also being available for SS and 2B in an emergency.

I think if you were going to put Kipnis back at 2B, you wouldn’t have bothered with him in CF in the first place. He didn’t fail miserably out there, so they’re continuing with that plan because they like Ramirez at 2B and still want Kipnis’s bat in the lineup.

The question is whether or not Urshela can be servicable at the plate. I guess if Brantley is only going to pinch hit, Urshela will be limited to probably 2 ABs per game, depending on the score. They must value the glove at 3B enough to hit a guy who hits basically just slightly better than a pitcher.

AP
Member
AP

Or put Jackson at center? One of the networks put together a montage of Kipnis in CF and it was bad. He could easily cost them more runs then he creates.

Darkstar61
Member
Darkstar61

The ball almost never makes it to Center, especially with Lindor and Ramirez up the middle. You are looking at probably 1 and up to 3 balls going his way, with the likelihood a superior play is needed on any of them being rather small

Compare that to the number of times the ball will go to 2nd or 3rd and be handled by their best fielding lineup

Kipnis may possibly allow a Hit/Run, but Hits/Runs will almost definitely be decreased with an amazing fielding Ramirez-Lindor-Urshela infield.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

Wait, is there a reason why fly balls are unlikely to happen? Did I miss something?

Darkstar61
Member
Darkstar61

Sure they happen. Not very often, and most all are routine, but they happen

Specifically the team averages more than 10 Ks a game. That leaves 17 outs to the fielders. Of those 17, the team has been giving up a 33% FB ratio. That’s 5.6 a game. And of balls in play they also have seen 35% going to center. So of the 6 FB, maybe 2 of them over 9 innings should go to Center.

That means Kipnis plays 7 innings or so out there and he might see both, maybe just 1, 3 on a busy day

And so far he has played 71 innings in CF. In those 71 innings he has seen 17 balls hit into his zone – or one every 4.2 innings. So that also has been the same 1, maybe 2, 3 on a busy day

Then of those 17 he has seen, 14 have been routine (he caught all) 2 have been remote (he didn’t catch) and 2 have been impossible (he didn’t catch) …the likelihood of something outside routine is very low

So as I said to start, he’s likely getting 1, and up to 3 balls his way, with the likelihood of a spectacular catch being asked of him being pretty slim

It was hardly some remarkable statement, it’s just reality

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

That’s crazy. Honestly, it sounds like an outlier. But maybe not. Is there a way to check to see whether this was true of Cleveland CFs as a whole?

Buhners Rocket Arm
Member
Member
Buhners Rocket Arm

This argument would support putting EE in center field if so many balls are “routine”. Every single inning that an inferior fielder is in a position for which he’s under qualified increases the probability for him to be asked to make a play he’s incapable of making.

Darkstar61
Member
Darkstar61

@sadtrombone

It’s actually not even an outlier, the ball doesn’t go to CF often. And yes, most all times they do are pretty routine. Now with Cleveland having such a superior pitching staff they might see an even higher rate of routine plays on them, but as a whole CFers do not touch the ball as much as people apparently think

@Buhners Rocket Arm

That is reaching in a spectacularly pitiful fashion. EE is a poor fielding, now 1B limited player. Kipnis is an athletic, natural CFer who Cleveland decided to stop putting out there about 7 years ago

As Kipnis showed yesterday, he’s even still capable of making the occasional spectacular play. Took him 74 innings before he needed to show much athleticism though; otherwise he has just needed to tap into his history and read the ball halfway adequately.

And although he finally did see (and complete) his first difficult play, he otherwise got the ball just once. The very limited numbers of touches hold again.

yamborma
Member
yamborma

Not sure why this has been responded to the way it has. An article on this site was written on this very topic – the lack of chances for Kipnis as he was trying out CF. The team strikes people out at a record pace, therefore there are fewer fielding opportunities for everyone.

https://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/an-update-on-the-jason-kipnis-center-field-experiment/

Not to mention (and this may be arbitrary or the Indians staff may know something more in depth about these numbers) that they have the 7th lowest hard hit ball %, 8th lowest fly ball percentage, but the 9th highest infield fly ball percentage. So maybe with more than a quick glance at that data the Indians can make assumptions that the risk of Kipnis in the field is lower than the reward of Kipnis at the plate.