The Cleveland Indians had one of the best starting pitching staffs in baseball last season. Times have changed.
There is one constant — Carlos Carrasco has remained the electric starting pitcher that he was when he was healthy last year, cutting down good contact off his pitches even further while continuing to strike out almost five times as many hitters as he walks. He owns a 2.60 ERA in 52 innings pitched so far this year and it’s well-deserved. The only bad omen here is that Carrasco left his last start with tightness in his pectoral muscle (upper chest), but he’s expected to make his next start against Cincinnati. As long as he stays healthy, Carrasco isn’t the problem.
Corey Kluber, on the other hand, might be. Kluber hasn’t been his usual dominant self this season for the Indians, and the reason why probably has something to do with the trip to the disabled list he just took for lower back soreness. It’s not an arm injury, which is a blessing, but there’s still no word on when he’ll return. Back injuries are tricky things, and it’s hard to put a timetable on them unless you know exactly what it is the player’s suffering from. And “lower back soreness” could mean a whole lot of things.
Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin have been fully healthy, however, and collectively they’ve thrown 121 innings of 6.47 ERA baseball. That’s a line that, were it to come from a single pitcher over a full season, would be a fairly strong indication that unless the guy was a top prospect, he might not get another chance at this whole Major League Baseball thing.
It’s hard to say that this is expected from Bauer and Tomlin, but they’re a different class of pitcher than Salazar, Carrasco and Kluber when it comes to raw talent. Bauer’s got a first-round pedigree but has never figured out how to get hitters out consistently at the major league level; his 4.26 ERA last year was the best of his career when adjusted for the league scoring environment (and at a 110 ERA+, the only season of his to break 100, which is league average for a pitcher). Bauer’s always been vocally disdainful of orthodox pitching instruction, and while his individualist approach has led to a lot of strikeouts, it’s also produced a pitcher addicted to walking batters. He led the American League in walks in 2015 with 79 despite only throwing 176 innings, and almost did it again the next season with 70.
Tomlin, on the other hand, has always been a fringe starter with great peripherals who does the opposite of Bauer — he rarely walks guys. Tomlin pounds the zone. The problem is he’s got very hittable stuff, so opposing hitters generally pound him. That’s not always the case — he managed to put together a shiny 3.02 ERA in 65 innings during his injury-shortened 2015 — but having allowed over a hit per inning for his entire eight-year career, it’s safe to say that he’s not unlocking the secret to bad contact any time soon. Point is, maybe neither Bauer nor Tomlin are this bad by their true talent, but a month and change of struggles out of either guy at some point in the season isn’t exactly shocking.
Salazar, however, is frustrating. Indians fans have been waiting for the young right-hander with electric stuff to take the next step for four years now. While he remains one of the most proficient strikeout artists in the game — this year, he leads baseball with 13.5 K/9 — he can’t stop walking guys or leaving pitches in places where batters can drive the baseball. He’s giving up home runs at twice his career rate, which is perversely encouraging because fans can reasonably hope that number comes back down to normal. But he’s also allowing more hits across the board in addition to all the walks. The stuff’s still there, the talent’s still there; Salazer just hasn’t put it together.
It’s not time to panic or start making trades. The Cleveland bullpen is still otherworldly with Andrew Miller and Cody Allen anchoring the late innings. There’s literally only one guy in the pen having a bad year — Shawn Armstrong — and so far all he’s been asked to do is pitch in games the Indians were already losing. The Cleveland offense started slow — Edwin Encarnacion in particular is notorious for his poor Aprils, though this season his slump has carried over deep into May — but while he and Kipnis have been disappointing as of yet, the Michael Brantley/Francisco Lindor/Jose Ramirez/Lonnie Chisenhall foursome has given the team solid production.
Star prospect Bradley Zimmer is making a huge impression in his first week up in the bigs. There’s a lot to like about this Indians team, and there’s no cause to entertain the kind of talk that the New York Yankees and Houston Astros are about trading prospects for new rotational anchors. This is just something the Indians have to wait out. They’re still the best team in the AL Central.
That is, unless Kluber turns out to have something a bit more serious than mere back soreness. Then it might be time to panic.