The Cleveland Indians have transformed into a completely different team than the team we saw reach Game 7 of the World Series in 2016. When healthy, their starting rotation consisted of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, and Josh Tomlin. Those five pitchers combined to start 139 games in 2016 with each of them throwing more than 130 innings. Bauer and Tomlin were the only players who had ERAs over 4, but considering they were the number 4 and 5 starters, that should show the strength of Cleveland’s pitching. A 25-year-old rookie by the name of Mike Clevinger made ten starts for them with an ERA of 5.93. The future of the rotation was bright, but it was mostly due to Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer, and Salazar all being young and under control for years to come.
Through the 2018 season, Kluber, Carrasco, and Bauer all held up quite well, with Kluber winning another Cy Young in 2017 and Bauer coming incredibly close to winning a Cy Young in 2018 with a 2.21 ERA in 175 IP. Salazar fell off the face of the earth following his successful 2016 campaign and was designated for assignment in 2019. Salazar’s spot in the rotation was filled quite well by Mike Clevinger who posted ERAs of 3.11, 3.02, and 2.71 between 2017 and 2019. Combined, Cleveland starters posted a 3.67 ERA (second best in MLB) and 77.6 fWAR (best in MLB) between 2016 and 2020.
Despite the success of their crop of starters, Cleveland’s 2019 season was nothing short of a disaster. They missed the postseason for the first time since 2015, Carlos Carrasco was diagnosed with leukemia, Trevor Bauer was traded to the Reds before the 2019 trade deadline, and Corey Kluber was traded to the Rangers in the offseason. In most organizations, trading away your top two starting pitchers within one year of each other would indicate signs of a rebuild. Looking forward to following the trades, Cleveland would certainly be a better team with Bauer and Kluber, but when one of their pitchers falls out of the rotation for whatever reason (injury, trade, release, etc.), they have some young arm ready to deploy from Triple-A.
In 2016, Mike Clevinger was not even viewed as one of the team’s top prospects, but with help from his good friend Trevor Bauer he transformed into an ace. The 2018 season was the year Shane Bieber broke into the big leagues, but he really took off in 2019 with a 3.28 ERA in 214 IP with the sixth lowest BB% in the majors. These two filled the spots previously occupied by Kluber and Bauer, and Carrasco made a miraculous recovery from leukemia in 2019 and has looked good so far in the shortened 2020 season. Despite trading away two of the best pitchers in the game, they have been able to keep their starting rotation as a strength without supplementing pitchers through free agency or big-time prospects.
Here we have another group of young starting pitchers who are under club control for quite a long time. This changing of the guard has come as quite a shock as Cleveland has essentially created a revolving door of starting pitchers who all could make the All-Star Team at any time. This type of rotation depth is only comparable to that of the Dodgers, who also happen to be the only team that has pitched better than Cleveland since the 2016 season. This revolving door makes one wonder whether the baseball community misjudged Bieber and Clevinger when they were prospects or if Cleveland has some magic formula and have created a legitimate competitive advantage through their front office staff.
Unfortunately, we cannot peak into their front office, but we do have the next best thing: Baseball Savant. The best approach would be to look for changes made by Cleveland pitchers over the years in their pitching approach and see if any specific trend fits most of their pitchers.
Above is a graph of how Mike Clevinger used his pitches between his rookie season and the current season. There is a clear indication that Clevinger has started throwing fewer fastballs and replacing them with more breaking balls and off-speed pitches. Clevinger’s slider ranks as one of the best in terms of spin rate according to Baseball Savant, so this should come as no surprise. This could be seen as an individualistic change and less of an organizational trend but the same shows up in Shane Bieber’s Pitch% profile shown below.
Like Clevinger, Bieber has upped the usage of his breaking pitches and we are starting to see that this very well could be a trend among the Indians young pitchers convening with the coaching staff and planning to throw more breaking pitches. We can test this theory of ours by looking at pitch usage from former Cleveland starting pitchers such as Trevor Bauer.
Trevor Bauer is arguably the most interesting pitcher on and off the field. Whether it is his Twitter antics or he is throwing the ball over the centerfield fence, Bauer has proven himself to be among the most analytically inclined pitchers in the game. If an organizational philosophy were introduced that focused on pitchers throwing more breaking pitches, Bauer would certainly be one to act. Like other Cleveland pitchers, we can see that in 2018 Bauer had a major jump in his usage of his breaking pitches and a steep decline in the usage of his fastball. Bauer’s spike is much easier to see as it was quite a drastic change from his previous seasons. In this hypothetical world where the team decides to reduce their fastball usage and increase their breaking ball usage, it is quite easy to see Bauer really embracing this philosophy and going to the extreme. Bauer leaves Cleveland for Cincinnati in 2019 via trade and so far in 2019 and 2020, he has drastically changed the way he uses his pitches.
Moving past Bauer and the young guns, we have Carlos Carrasco. He is the oldest pitcher on the staff and, as with most pitchers, his stuff is declining with age. Due to this, he might be more inclined than others to switch to more breaking and off-speed pitches. While this case is less convincing than the others, there is still some merit to the change in the way Carrasco has decided to deploy his pitches.
Could it really be a simple change in having pitchers throw more breaking pitches that causes Quad-A pitchers to turn into top to middle-of-the-rotation arms? I am willing to bet that this is part of the equation that runs the Cleveland ace factory, but it is more than likely not the only adjustment. It is certainly worth looking into how each of their starters’ breaking pitches have evolved over the years in terms of break, spin, and velocity. If you can teach your pitchers how to throw their breaking pitches with more break and spin, then it could be to their benefit to throw those pitches more often. I have a feeling Bauer and Clevinger were instrumental when it came to changing their pitch usages as the two of them are quite good friends and work out together trying to help each other gain more Bauer Units, velocity, or whatever. There is certainly something happening in Cleveland that other clubs have struggled to develop into their own systems.
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire