Cleveland Indians: Making sense of the postseason rotation decisions
By Dan Zerby
Some Cleveland Indians fans were upset with how the postseason starting rotation was handled, but the team simply failed to execute on all ends.
With the crushing Game 5 loss fresh in our minds, hot takes and feelings of frustration are definitely acceptable. Everyone is looking for something, or someone to point their finger at. Unfortunately, the most frequent recipient of this has been Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona.
Francona made some decisions that left everybody scratching their heads, especially with the starting rotation. While I’m not going to sit here and pretend I agreed with everything Terry did, the big thing that I do stand by is the rotation.
At first glance, the decisions seemed outrageous. Trevor Bauer starting Game 1? Cy Young frontrunner Corey Kluber in Game 2? How does this make sense? It doesn’t. Until Game 5 shed some light on it.
Kluber in Game 2 instead of Game 1
Following Wednesday’s loss, a new question arose: Was Corey Kluber healthy?
Terry Francona seemed to dispel that rumor on Friday, but it is still a possibility, even if the team won’t admit it.
How does the ace of the staff and one of the best pitchers in baseball lose his arm slot right before the postseason?
With this speculation of Kluber not being in good health, it all begins to make sense. One can assume that this was not something new, and more likely than not Corey pitched through the end of the season with this assumed injury. Of course, this is nothing more than a hunch, but it makes it all come together.
On the assumption that Kluber did pitch the end of the season with a nagging injury, starting him in Game 2 made perfect sense. Best-case scenario: Cleveland would win in less than five games and he only has to pitch once. Worst-case scenario: He pitches in Games 2 and 5, but stays on his regular rest schedule.
It worked during the regular season? Why not the postseason? In hindsight, it was a good strategy that backfired horrendously.
Why was Bauer the number one starter?
Another area Cleveland fans are having a hard time wrapping their head around is the fact that Bauer pitched twice, but Carlos Carrasco got just one opportunity. Again, there is an answer.
The plan was never to start Bauer in Game 4, on three days rest. It was Josh Tomlin who was originally slated. As we all know, Game 2 resulted in a 13 inning affair, and Tomlin had to come out of the bullpen. Francona was preparing for that.
Was Francona planning on using Tomlin before Game 4? No. However, Terry knows how the postseason is, and he knew he needed to prepare for something like that. You then need to go with the guy who you feel is the more durable pitcher as your Game 1 starter.
If the series goes to four games, and you have to use your fourth starter out of the bullpen, the guy who started Game 1 is your only choice for Game 4.
Still, why go Bauer over Carrasco? The question comes down to who do you feel is more capable of pitching on three days rest. While Carrasco is undoubtedly the better pitcher, Bauer is more durable.
In 23 of his 32 regular season games, Bauer surpassed the 100 pitch mark. Carrasco did it in only 13 of his 32. You could just say this points to Carlos being more efficient, which is a part of it, but it is also because Bauer is more durable. Carrasco is also historically injury-prone, making it even more plausible that this was Francona’s line of thinking.
Why didn’t it work?
Several factors play into why the Indians’ shocking first-round loss happened. As I said before, the most common one that fans have blamed is the pitching decisions. Again, it was not the decisions themselves, but the poor execution by the Cleveland Indians.
Trevor Bauer fell victim to four of six unearned runs allowed by his defense in Game 4, which altered his entire start. While he clearly was not as sharp as he was in Game 1, it seemed he had the stuff to keep his team in it. Had it not been for the errors and missed check swing call on Aaron Hicks, Game 4 could have gone much differently.
Another factor could be that three big arms were not included on the playoff roster (Zach McAllister, Dan Otero and Nick Goody). Perhaps Tomlin would not have been needed in Game 2 if a few of those pitchers were on the roster, and him starting Game 4 would have made the difference.
Next: The danger in expectations
Take away the errors and Corey Kluber not pitching the way he usually does, this strategy would have worked. Terry Francona knew what he was doing, and this was not one of the mistakes made in this series. If you absolutely must criticize Tito, pick something else. The rotation criticism is unfair.