Welcome back to our regularly scheduled, albeit pandemic-delayed, Cleveland Indians programme. The 2020 season is underway and we have baseball to watch, enjoy, and dissect at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
Thus far, the Indians have been a mixed bag. The headlines have focused primarily on their poor hitting. Cleveland rank last in the entire league in batting average (.196 AVG) and isolated power (.105). And only the Pirates are worse than the Indians’ .610 OPS. Their superstar, Francisco Lindor, hasn’t found his groove yet and the supporting cast have been largely disappointing.
Away from the lifeless lineup though, fans in Cleveland have something to celebrate. The Indians’ rotation, so long the strength of this team, have been outstanding. Like, “we have the best rotation in baseball” outstanding.
The Indians have sent six starting pitchers to the mound this year and enjoyed terrific results. I’m writing this the day after the Tribe shutout the Reds in a 2-0 victory, and so far the Indians’ rotation have made 17 starts in total. They’ve pitched 108⅓ innings and recorded a 2.24 ERA with a 10.97 K/9 rate, the best in the American League. Their total of 132 strikeouts currently leads every team in the majors, by some margin. Opposing teams are not enjoying their time against the Tribe’s starters this year, that’s for certain.
The group is led by the ace of the staff and reigning All-Star Game MVP Shane Bieber. Our very own Russell Eassom recently took an in-depth look into Bieber’s success and what makes him one of the most elite pitchers in the game. Bieber has been everything we wanted so far in 2020. Over four starts he possesses 1.63 ERA, to go along with an AL-leading 37.6% K-BB percentage. He’s making guys swing and miss with such amazing regularity (43 strikeouts in 27⅔ innings; that’s 14.0 K/9), while effectively preventing guys from reaching base via the free pass. Bieber developed a devastating new cutter over the offseason which is causing misery for enemy hitters, especially when combined with his already notorious curveball. It’s hard to believe this is just his third season. Bieber already feels established as the ace of this team.
Mike Clevinger was initially in line to be the leader of the staff before a Spring Training knee injury derailed his 2020 preparation. The delayed start to the season allowed Clevinger sufficient time to recuperate, and he’s been working his way back into form. Through three starts Sunshine has recorded a 3.24 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 16.2 innings. Clevinger has suffered with his location at times, issuing 10 walks, but he’s beginning to find that mojo that made him one of the premier pitchers in the American League the last few years. The patchy beard he’s rocking is up for debate, but his blazing fastball and disarming off-speed stuff is not.
Carlos Carrasco, restored to the rotation after a 2019 campaign battling leukaemia, has been seriously impressive in his three appearances. Making his first start in over a year against the Royals, Cookie was lights-out over six innings, recording 10 strikeouts on the way to victory. The 33-year-old veteran was hit hard against the homer-happy Twins, giving up three big flies, but Carrasco still battled through six innings of work and was in position for a better result, but he received no offensive support. The restricted the Reds to just one hit in his third outing while striking out eight. It’s so nice to have him back, let alone pitching at such a high level. His leadership and steady hand (or should I say arm) will be key to the Tribe’s pursuit of success in 2020.
Rounding out the backend of the rotation has been Aaron Civale, Zach Plesac, and Adam Plutko. Each man has been stellar when called upon, proving what incredible depth this Indians team has in the pitching department.
Civale has been Mr Consistent, pitching six innings and recording nine strikeouts in each of his outings, for a 3.75 ERA. Even in the game that Civale lost in Minnesota, he still looked dialled in and was keeping Twins hitters guessing all afternoon. His 2019 season was an unexpected but welcome revelation. Those following him on a regular basis can expect an even more impressive breakout in the future.
Plesac has also featured twice and proven that his 2019 rookie season success was no fluke. Over 21 combined innings, the 25-year-old right-hander has struck out 24 and limited hitters to just two walks, all for a 1.29 ERA. I have Plesac on my fantasy team this year so there’s an extra incentive for him. Cheers Zach.
[Editor’s note: Presumably to the delight of Ash’s fantasy league opponents, Plesac was sent home for violating MLB’s COVID-19 protocols by going out with mates in Chicago after Saturday’s stunning outing. You can read more here from the excellent Ken Rosenthal in the Athletic]
Last but least is Plutko, who made one spot start for the Tribe against the White Sox, and picked up the win for his efforts. Plutko pitched six strong innings, giving up just two runs along with four strikeouts. What most teams would give to have a spot starter effortlessly slot in and pitch six victorious frames. Plutko’s value and role on the club cannot be underemphasised.
That old adage “pitching wins championships” has regularly been proven true down the years, and perhaps in this shortened sprint of a season, it could be the case once again. If that happens, the Indians find themselves ideally placed. If they can ride their vaunted rotation into the postseason then who knows how far they can go?
Whatever happens in this crazy year, behind Bieber, Carrasco, Clevinger and co, the Indians will push to go all the way.
Ash Day is covering the Cleveland Indians throughout 2020 as part of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @AshDay29