Cleveland Indians: Starting Rotation Bears Same Potential as the New York Mets’

How similar is the Cleveland Indians’ young starting rotation to that of the New York Mets?

When speaking of great pitching staffs, many baseball fans think of the New York Mets. The Mets absolutely rocked the baseball world last year with their plethora of young, elite pitchers. Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and Noah Syndergaard all accumulated more than three wins above a replacement player, per FanGraphs, despite not pitching more than 200 innings and all being less than 28 years old. As if this was not good enough, Steven Matz impressed during his six starts.

The Cleveland Indians also received much attention for their young power pitchers. Last year, the team led the American League in strikeouts and came second in average fastball velocity. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar all crossed the four-win threshold, and Trevor Bauer provided flashes of brilliance.

Further examination reveals that the two teams posted remarkably similar statistics in 2015. The Mets and Indians ranked 7th and 8th in fWAR, respectively, and only one-fifth of a win separated the two teams. In WAR terms, that is a negligible difference.

Let’s further explore these similarities by examining a few interesting statistics that show just how similar the two teams were.

*Statistic Definitions: AVG stand for opponent batting average, and WHIP stands for walks plus hits per inning pitched. ERA- is earned run average on a scale such that an ERA- of 90 means that the given ERA is 10 percent better than the league average. FIP- does the same thing for fielding independent pitching; xFIP-, park-adjusted fielding independent pitching.*

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One interesting note is that as similar as these pitching staffs are and for how much publicity both teams have received for their young starting pitchers, the similarities begin to breakdown once we look at only the starting rotations. Here are the same statistics, but this time only including starters.It seems fair to say that FanGraphs, the site I use for my statistic queries, could switch these two stat lines and barely anyone would notice. Perhaps a few die-hard fans would find the one-point difference in WHIP, but the average fan could easily be mistaken. Among these five statistics, the only category with a large discrepancy is xFIP-.

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This leads us to the crux of the question: how do we want to determine team similarity? If we solely look at the numbers, they look quite similar at the team-level, but the Mets’ have a superior starting rotation. Sure, Kluber and Carrasco are just as good as, or better than, Harvey and deGrom, but there is no comparing Salazar and Syndergaard. Let’s not even think about putting Matz and Bauer on the same level.

Again, both teams posted similar numbers in the WHIP, FIP-, and xFIP- categories, but the differences in batting average and ERA- are quite large. As for other statistics, the Mets’ starters have nearly a win and a half lead over the Indians’ starters, and there are also sizable gaps in the strikeout and walk categories. To explain this, we must bear in mind that the Indians had a revolving door for their third starter last year and that Trevor Bauer was less than inspiring for the majority of his outings. 

Perhaps a second determination of similarity, one that looks at the potential, is what we need. Both Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer have the potential to be aces, as they are both former top prospects who have at times pitched flawless games. In the case of Salazar, he has yet to make the leap from great to excellent; but for Bauer, he has yet to show prolonged success. Following this logic, it is easy to envision a world in which both teams possess four aces.

Unfortunately, FanGraphs’ Depth Charts projections, which adjust other projection systems to more accurate playing time, do not predict this outcome. The projections see Kluber, Carrasco, and Harvey as top-ten starting pitchers while deGrom comes in at 11th on the list. Syndergaard is in the top 20, Salazar the top 30, and Matz the top 60. Trevor Bauer, however, does not even make the top half.

At the end of the day, the Indians and Mets have starting rotations with comparable potentials but differencing outcomes. Both teams will rely heavily on their starters in 2016, and a breakout or collapse could be all it takes to send them deep into October. Perhaps we will be having this conversation again in November, discussing the great pitching matchups witnessed in the 2016 World Series.