The Indians’ Pitching Was Bound to Be Underrated

I don’t think anyone expected that. Sure, the Indians always had a chance against the Red Sox, and having a chance means a shot at a series win, but no one would’ve forecast the Indians to move on with a sweep. The Indians produced against Red Sox pitching, scoring 15 times in three games. At least as importantly, the Red Sox didn’t produce against Indians pitching, scoring seven times while batting .214. The Indians, you remember, lost two of their three best starters toward the end of the year, and that seemed to spell almost certain doom.

But really, it shouldn’t have been taken that way. No one would want to lose Carlos Carrasco. No one would want to lose Danny Salazar. Both those guys would make the Indians a stronger playoff ballclub. But we just can’t get out of the habit of over-valuing a starting rotation. Especially come playoff time. Even though we all know the game in October is different, we just can’t quite get it to sink in. So the Indians’ playoff pitching staff was going to be underrated.

This is something I tried to address when I rated the playoff teams. I wanted to try to show how good the teams actually are, based on playoff rosters and on expected playoff playing time. I like that approach, and I think it’s important, but there’s a problem: Our depth charts can’t really account for exaggerated usage. We don’t have a mechanism to fold that in for certain relievers. If you watched, you know that Terry Francona was aggressive with his bullpen in the ALDS. How aggressive? Let’s begin by looking at a different team. Here is how Ned Yost allotted his playoff playing time last year:


This is based just on batters faced, and it doesn’t account for leverage. The four leaders are Royals starting pitchers. Then you get Kelvin Herrera, Ryan Madson, and Wade Davis. They got 9%, 7%, and 6% of the playing time, respectively. That’s not bad, for Yost — that’s more than a fifth of all plate appearances, being handled by the best of the bullpen.

Here’s the same plot for Terry Francona and the Indians in the ALDS:


Starter, starter, starter. Makes sense. But then you run into Andrew Miller (15%), Cody Allen (14%), and Bryan Shaw (8%). For the sake of a little history, we have all observed that Mariano Rivera was used pretty aggressively in the playoffs, right? Rivera consistently fluctuated a little around 10% October usage. Sometimes he came in at 9%, other times he came in at 11%. That’s an awful lot of pitches being thrown by Mariano Rivera, relatively speaking. Miller just topped that, and Allen just topped that. And relievers don’t get a lot better than Miller and Allen.

For reference, in August and September, Miller, Allen, and Shaw combined to handle 12.5% of the Indians’ plate appearances. In the three games against Boston, those three pitchers combined to handle 37.0% of the Indians’ plate appearances. So relative to the stretch run, their usage was three times heavier, and that’s extraordinary. Francona knows who his weapons are, and he’s not the least bit afraid to use them.

A fairly obvious point: These numbers are skewed, because the Indians just finished the series undefeated. It stands to reason at some point the Indians will lose, and Miller and Allen can’t be used this aggressively over and over. They’ll need some days off, or they’ll need some shorter assignments. But, I like this table. In the first line, you see the Indians pitching overall for the 2016 season. In the second line, you see 2016 pitching statistics weighted by ALDS usage.

Indians Pitching Staff
Split K% BB% ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Regular Season 23% 8% 90 92 89
Playoffs (Weighted) 27% 7% 75 81 77

The Indians’ ALDS pitchers, weighted by batters faced, had a combined 75 ERA- during the regular season. That was basically supported by the peripherals, so if you just take that line, the Indians kind of just had every single inning thrown by an equivalent of Corey Kluber. That’s not bad for a team that has only the one Corey Kluber. The usage pattern will have to change at least a little in the next series, but the good news for Cleveland is there’s even more depth that went almost untouched.

You’ve heard of Dan Otero. You might not know why. He feels like someone who’s floated around. Kind of gives the impression of being a generic sixth-inning sort. Otero actually just had a better season than Allen did, statistically, thanks to his constantly throwing strikes and keeping the ball on the ground. Zach McAllister is a power reliever who’s adjusted well to the bullpen after a few years of rotation inconsistency. And it’s increasingly looking like Danny Salazar will be available out of the bullpen in the ALCS, even without his arm strength built up. Though the injury and time off makes him a wild card, he has a track record of success, and he could conceivably plug any extra innings the top five relievers can’t already handle.

The Indians’ rotation isn’t close to full strength, and that isn’t good news for their chances. Kluber’s the only guy they feel like they know they can count on, and the other two or three options require the rather vigorous crossing of fingers. We’re conditioned to account for the rotation in a certain way, and that causes us to underrate how strong the Indians still actually are. But with the depth of their bullpen, and with the high-end talent of their bullpen, and with the aggressiveness of Terry Francona using his bullpen, the Indians aren’t positioned to give many of their important innings to their starters. Much of the workload is being shifted to relief, and relief pitching might be the Indians’ greatest strength.

Yeah, their pitching staff could be better. And yeah, in the end, Miller and Allen probably won’t combine for more than a quarter of the team’s total pitches. Everybody needs a break. But when it comes to the Indians’ bullpen, opponents don’t really get a break. That’s something Terry Francona damn sure understands.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

Francona also did well in rotating his hitting lineups to get good matchups. Getting big hits from guys like Naquin and Crisp.

7 years ago
Reply to  rustydude

Also starting Chisenhall against Price. Chisenhall almost never plays against lefties but he was one of the few Indians who had a prior history of success against Price. A bit of a gamble but it obviously paid off.