Kyle Downing: Yo Bro! Zach McAllister should start the 2015 season as the Tribe’s fifth starter.
Jeremy Klein: No Bro! Zach McAllister should start the 2015 season in the bullpen.
KD: Zach McAllister has proven himself to be a viable option as a major-league starter. During his first full year in the big leagues (2013) he posted a respectable 3.75 ERA with a reasonable 4.03 FIP. He kept the ball in the yard (7.5% homer-to-fly-ball ration), and gave the Indians 134.1 solid innings, giving the team 1.6 wins above replacement. He dealt with back issues early on in 2014, but his FIP as a starter (3.80) showed that he was much, much better than that ugly 5.67 ERA in the rotation. He continued to keep balls in the park with a nearly identical HR/FB ratio of 7.7%, and even managed to improve his ground ball rate to 41.7%; four points up from 2013.
Simply put: McAllister’s rough start to 2014 was largely a product of bad luck. The Indians have a valuable starting pitcher in Zach McAllister, and being that he’s out of options, they’d be wise to give him the fifth starter job in 2015. If he loses it eventually, fine, but why relegate a perfectly good starter to a career in the bullpen? Z-Mac should be given the benefit of the doubt this year, allowing Danny Salazar and T.J. House to serve as valuable depth in Columbus until they’re needed in Cleveland.
Sep 28, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher T.J. House (58) throws during the first inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
JK: Zack McAllister isn’t a bad starting pitcher, but let’s not get carried away here. In your defense of McAllister you failed to mention his command ratios. Throughout his career as a starter, McAllister has registered an 18.6% strikeout rate and a 7.8% walk rate. That equates to a 10.8% K%-BB%, which is almost perfectly average. That exemplifies McAllister to a tee: average or worse in strikeout rate, walk rate, groundball rate, fly ball rate, FIP, etc. (HR/FB rate is notorious for being luck-driven and not a repeatable skill for a pitcher). Add it all up and you have an average or worse starter. The best thing about McAllister as a starter is his ability to eat innings, which he couldn’t manage to do last year.
But ultimately, the best reason to move McAllister to the bullpen is roster optimization. The Indians have six starters better than McAllister. They also have a bullpen that’s been ridden harder than any other in baseball the past couple seasons and hasn’t seen any major additions this offseason. Even if McAllister doesn’t turn into Wade Davis, we’ve already seen how much his stuff can play up in short spurts. The Indians are a better team with Salazar or House in the rotation and McAllister in the bullpen.
KD: While it is certainly the case for most pitchers that HR/FB rate is largely luck-based, a select few pitchers have proven exceptions to the rule. Matt Cain, for example, was able to consistently keep his HR/FB rate dramatically low for his first several seasons in the big league. And although McAllister’s command ratio is about average, his stuff is definitely sharp. He is also the only option for the fifth spot that has more than 30 starts at the major league level. Experience is a big deal and should be taken into consideration.
As far as roster optimization, your case calls for the Indians to use two roster spots, while I’m only asking them to use one. Danny Salazar and T.J. House both have minor-league options, so they don’t need to take up a spot on the 25-man roster if they’re not in the rotation. McAllister does, however, as he has to make the team or risk being claimed by another. Perhaps Salazar has more upside, but as we saw last year when the Indians used eight different starting pitchers over the course of the season, the need for depth is no joke. Once McAllister is pushed to the bullpen, it’ll be difficult to stretch him out as a starter again. Salazar and House, however, can remain in shape for the starting rotation while working on their skills in AAA.
JK: So let me get this straight: his inflated ERA in 2014 when compared to FIP was a product of bad luck while his HR/FB rate was a product of skill? It must be nice to have all the bad stuff explained away by luck and the good stuff explained by skill. If keeping the ball in the park is a skill McAllister possess, then it would likely show up in an elevated infield fly ball percentage. McAllister’s career 9.3% infield fly ball rate is actually below league average, and even his 10.9% rate in 2014 is right about average. There’s nothing in his profile to indicate he has an innate ability to limit homeruns.
Also the idea that McAllister couldn’t transition back to the rotation once put in the bullpen is just incorrect. It may take an outing or two, but stretching him out isn’t a big issue. The San Francisco Giants did that exact thing with Yusmeiro Petit in 2014 (12 starts and 27 relief appearances). Starting pitching depth is a necessity, but putting McAllister in the rotation doesn’t mean he disappears.
All of that comes before mentioning that one of the reasons the Indians needed eight starters last year is because McAllister was either injured or ineffective. Now the team should bend the roster to squeeze him in the rotation?
KD: There is a key difference between FIP-ERA and HR Allowed-HR/FB%. The difference between FIP and ERA is largely a product of luck, but also of the defense behind the pitcher. As we all know, the Indians were proven to have poor defense last year (which we assume will be better this year). HR/FB% is dependent on luck and other factors the pitcher can control, such as pitch type. Perhaps McAllister’s pitches manage to create high fly balls that the wind can knock down, or just fly balls that go higher than they go deep. It’s unlikely, but still a possibility. The point is, there is a small part of that number that comes due to the type of contact the pitcher creates.
Although I don’t disagree that he could transition back to the bullpen, an outing or two is sometimes time that a team doesn’t have. We’re talking a ten day span just to stretch a pitcher back to the point where he might be able to throw 80-90 pitches comfortably. And the team doesn’t need to bend the roster to squeeze him into the rotation; as I mentioned earlier, using him in the rotation creates more flexibility. Relievers are a dime a dozen for the most part, and it would be a shame to see someone with McAllister’s stuff pushed to the bullpen so soon after he was a reasonably effective starter. His time in the bullpen may have even helped him to be a better starter. In his 6-inning start against Houston in which he threw 64 of 91 pitches for strikes was very encouraging; he managed to keep his fastball velocity up to his relief appearance averages and struck out six batters in six innings while walking none. I know it’s just one game, but to me the most encouraging aspect of his performance was the velocity.
JK: Again, it can’t go both ways. It doesn’t make sense for McAllister to have the ability to limit home runs while also allowing enough hard contact that his fielders struggle to make plays behind him. If McAllister has the ability to generate weak enough contact to keep the ball in the yard, then the balls that do wind up in play would generally be weaker as well, easing the burden on the defense behind him. Besides, if the Indians’ defense is your concern (and it’s certainly a valid one) than the team should go with the better strikeout artist in Danny Salazar.
McAllister simply hasn’t given the team enough reasons over the past three seasons to justify sticking him in the rotation ahead of Salazar and House. But that’s okay! The Indians just happen to have a need for a reliever to ease the load on Cody Allen, Bryan “Don’t Call Me Brian” Shaw, Scott Atchison, and Marc Rzepczynski. There’s no shame in becoming a good or possibly even great reliever, and there’s no doubt this ball club is better with Salazar or House in the rotation and McAllister in the bullpen as opposed to having McAllister in the rotation with Salazar and House both toiling away in Triple-A.