August was an anomaly compared to the rest of the season as the eighth best offensive team in the Majors became one of the worst and starting pitching, that has struggled to get out of the fifth inning all season looked like a rotation of All-Stars, posting a 2.40 ERA in August. In August only six pitchers made starts with five starters accumulating 25 of 27 total. On the year, the Indians have used eight starters and 13 relievers, but they seem to have gotten things down to five starters they can trust, seven relievers and one flex player. While expanding rosters will add a few more bodies to the bullpen, it is these 13 that Terry Francona will trust down the stretch.
While the process has been costly, placing the Indians in the situation they are in now at third in the division, there has also been a benefit. Because players like Justin Masterson (98 IP) and Zach McAllister (67 IP) have eaten so many innings on the year, Cleveland will have their top pitchers going down the stretch run with a lot of energy left to finish strong.
The one starter this is not true of is Corey Kluber. Kluber has averaged almost seven innings per start through 29 for 195 innings. With five expected starts left at this rate, he could add up to 42 more innings, giving him somewhere in the mid 230’s for the season. This is just Kluber’s fourth MLB season and his highest previous total was in 2013 with 147.1 (with an extra 12.1 IP in the minors). Before that, he threw 188.1 combined innings in 2012, 155 in 2011, 160 in 2010, 154 in 2009 and 141.1 in 2008. Most of these innings were in the minors and even with them, he is already into new territory. Of course, the rest of the rotation is a whole different category.
The above chart shows the total innings thrown by the rest of the staff since 2010, including both Major and minor league appearances. Going down the line, Bauer is the youngest pitcher (23) in the rotation and the furthest along developmentally. He is also the highest paid, including Kluber, and has the best off-the field regimen to keep him ready for a large inning load. After Kluber, he has thrown the most innings, although 46 of those were less stressful innings in Columbus. He has averaged six innings per start, but at 17 pitchers per inning in the Majors (a total of 2,129), he has worked a lot harder to get through those innings than Kluber (who has averaged 15 pitches per inning). If any Indians pitcher will have to worry about his total inning by the end of the year, it is Bauer, although his differences from a normal starter make it difficult to judge how the increased load will affect him.
Danny Salazar and T.J. House are each in their first full Major League seasons and even with 25 to 30 more innings, should be well within their comfort zones. Of the total innings above, 60.2 of Salazar’s were in the minors, where he breezed through AAA hitters. Both pitchers should maintain strength throughout the rest of September, leaving them able to pitch at their highest level when the Indians need it most.
Carlos Carrasco may be the best situation out of the whole group and, like Justin Masterson and Zach McAllister’s wasted seasons, something good has come out of something bad. Because Carrasco could not throw more than three solid innings in a start in April, he was relegated to the bullpen for much of the season. This was the greatest thing that could have happened to him, mostly because he was able to regain his confidence. Since being placed back into the rotation, Carrasco has been even better than Kluber, posting a 0.74 ERA as a starter in August compared to Kluber’s 2.10. In addition, because of his extended time in the bullpen, he has now thrown just under 90 innings this year. After throwing more than 118 last season and missing 2012 to Tommy John surgery, Carrasco should be the Indians strongest starter going for the rest of the year. While it may be extreme, if Carrasco can continue this trend, he could be the Indians best option for a single win going into October. Like Ubaldo Jimenez replaced Masterson at the end of 2013, Carrasco could be a solid option over a worn out Kluber.
For proof of the importance of keeping innings low during the regular season, one needs look no further than Central Division foe and former Cy Young winner, Justin Verlander. In 2011, Verlander was unquestionably the best pitcher in the AL, winning the triple crown and Cy Young with a 2.40 ERA and most importantly 251 innings pitched. This was seven more innings than the previous season and still remains the highest total of his career. As the Tigers went deep into the post season that year, he added another 20.1 innings, but they were not the quality of his previous 251. Against the Yankees and Rangers, Verlander allowed 12 runs in those 20 innings for an ERA above 5.00. This was not a single occurrence either as the same thing happened the following season when he threw 238.1 innings during the regular season, then pitched poorly again in the post season, giving up five runs in four innings against the Giants in the World Series.
There are plenty of other examples as well, including C.C. Sabathia in 2010, 2011 and 2012, Clayton Kershaw in 2013 (Cy Young winner pitched 236 innings with 1.83 ERA, then gave up seven runs in ten innings in the LCS) and Roy Halladay in 2010 (250.2 regular season innings, Cy Young and 2.44 ERA turned into a 4.15 ERA in the LCS). There is no question that even the greatest pitchers in baseball history have a tough time against great teams in the play-offs after tiring themselves out over the regular season. While Corey Kluber may be in this situation, four of the five Tribe starters will be in prime position for the play-offs and if they can indeed get in, they should be poised for a deep run.