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2012 Indians: Improving the Pitching and Defense

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Improving the Starting Pitching

The 2011 Indians rotation shut out the opposition four times, held them to one run 15 times (Cleveland went 13-2 in those games), held them to two runs 24 times (18-6), and held them to three runs 25 times (17-8). Overall, in games the Indians pitching staff held the opposition to three runs or fewer 68 times, and the Tribe went 52-16 when they did.

The Indians’ starting pitchers are a worm-burning staff who led the AL with a 48.3 percent groundball rate. They didn’t strike a lot of batters out, ranking 11th with a 15.2 percent strikeout rate and 631 total punchouts. The good news is they don’t walk a lot of hitters: they finished 5th in the AL with a 6.9 percent walk rate in 2011.

The staff’s inability to strike batter out and reliance on the defense to record outs combined with the Indians’ defensive efficiency being very poor bled through to several other statistics. The opposition hit .268 against Tribe starters—the fourth-highest average against in the AL. Cleveland also had the second-worst left on base percentage (67.3 percent), and finished 10th in ERA (4.51). The Indians starters measured slightly better with a FIP of 4.15, but that still ranked them ninth in the AL. The starting pitchers also finished 10th in the AL in innings pitched, which may have resulted in a tired and overexposed bullpen at the end of 2011. On top of not going very deep into game, the Indians’ starting staff was decimated by injuries and poor performance over the course of the season.

Only Justin Masterson (player profile here) and Roberto Hernandez (Fausto Carmona) were able to make 30 starts in 2011, and the Indians required 10 starting pitchers to complete the season. Of the five starting pitchers who opened 2011 in the rotation (Masterson, Carlos Carrasco, Hernandez, Mitch Talbot, Josh Tomlin) only Masterson and Hernandez were still part of the rotation in September. Carrasco was lost to Tommy John Surgery, Talbot was demoted and returned to make just one late season start, and Tomlin’s (player profile here) season ended in August due to inflammation of the elbow.

Last July the Indians acknowledged their lack of proven quality starting pitching depth by trading top prospects Alex White, Drew Pomeranz, and Joe Gardner to the Colorado Rockies for Ubaldo Jimenez (player profile here) The point of the move was to solidify the top of the rotation not just for the 2011 pennant run but for the 2012 and 2013 seasons. The Indians are hoping that Masterson and Jimenez will be the two pillars at the top of the rotation and that the remaining three starters will be able to take the ball every fifth day, remain healthy throughout the season, pitch into the sixth inning each time out, and exit the game having given the Indians a good chance to win.

The search for durable starting pitching picked up as soon as the 2011 season ended. On October 31 the Indians traded minor league pitcher Chris Jones to the Atlanta Braves for veteran starter Derek Lowe (player profile here), an innings eater who has led the NL in games started in three of the last four seasons. To make the deal work, the Braves agreed to send $10 million of the $15 million owed to Lowe in 2012 to Cleveland.

The plan for the rotation hit a speed bump in January when Carmona was arrested in the Dominican Republic for using a false identity. As most Tribe fans now know, Carmona’s real name is Roberto Hernandez Heredia (Roberto Hernandez) and his 2012 season is in jeopardy as he goes through the legal process of obtaining a visa under a new name.

To soften the blow, the Indians immediately pulled off a deal with the Colorado Rockies for pitcher Kevin Slowey. They also held onto their minor league depth and had Zach McAllister, Jeanmar Gomez, Scott Barnes, and David Huff in camp and battling for the fifth spot in the rotation before Gomez was named the Tribe’s No. 5 starter.

The Indians are hoping that the defensive upgrades from Casey Kotchman and Jason Kipnis and the return of Shin Soo-Choo in right field that they will be able to help the Indians starters not only in run prevention but by enabling them to go deeper into games and allow the bullpen mafia to shut the door.