The Cleveland Indians Rotation: Legendarily Bad Luck?

The Cleveland Indians have plenty of talent in their rotation. They have Corey Kluber, last year’s AL Cy Young award winner, who has excellent command of a sweeping, knee-buckling breaking ball. They also have Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, who have fastballs that average 95 mph and are good enough secondary pitches to join Kluber in the double-digit K/9 rate club. And they have Trevor Bauer, who has good velocity and something like 10 pitches in his arsenal.

It’s an excellent rotation — and yet Indians starters have the sixth-worst ERA in baseball (4.41).

As it turns out, this disconnect between stuff and results has actually reached a historic level. Only four rotations in history have ever had a bigger gap between their FIP — an expected ERA based on strikeouts, walks, and home runs — and their ERA.

Let’s see if we can figure out why the Indians’ rotation is less than the sum of its parts right now.

First problem: They’re allowing too many balls in play to be hits.

Usually teams that have large gaps between their expected and real outcomes have one thing in common: They’re not very good. That’s not the case here. This group can be dominant, and it misses a lot of bats. In fact, the K/9 rate of Indians starters this season is 9.80, almost a full strikeout better than the next-best mark (Cubs, 8.88).

So we must dig deeper. The next culprit for a sizable difference between a FIP and an ERA is a high batting average on balls in play (BABIP). That makes sense considering FIP is based on homers, strikeouts and walks, and balls in play are the missing link between FIP and ERA. The top 20 teams historically had a BABIP that was 10 percent worse than the league average, and Indians starters currently have a BABIP that is 9.1 percent worse than league average.

Second problem: They’re allowing hard contact.

The Indians’ is giving up more hits than you’d expect from a strong-armed rotation. They lead the league in average velocity, and they are top six in the league in hard contact allowed. Are the pitches coming in hard and leaving hard?

There is a link between pitch speed and batted ball speed, for sure. Physics professor Alan Nathan took a look at the relationship between bat speed, pitch speed and batted ball speed, and came up with the following equation: Batted Ball Speed = 0.2*pitch_speed + 1.2*bat_speed.

So pitch speed matters some, but not a ton. Think of the ball hit off a tee — you can hit it far, or you can hit it close, and the velocity on the ball is the same each time (zero). In general, bat speed is six times more interesting than pitch speed.

And when it comes to hard hit rate, we have to acknowledge some limitations to the statistic. It has some scientific elements — hang time and distance are included — but it’s still tied to batted ball classifications like “line drive.” This means there’s an element of human appraisal in the stat, and therefore possible error.

Can we focus on a cleaner, more scientific number that describes how hard the balls are leaving the bats facing the Indians rotation? We do have batted ball speed numbers at our disposal now, so let’s use those. Stephen Ray Brown has done work on batted ball speed an expected outcomes for batters, and he found that the batting line on balls in play that left the bat at 100 mph or more has been .603/.603/1.196 this year. Batted balls slower than 100 mph were worth a more modest .289/.289/.390 number.

So have the Indians’ starters given up more 100-plus-mph batted balls than most pitchers? No, it doesn’t look like it, at least not their top four starters. The table below shows what percentage of their pitches were hit at 100-plus mph, as well as the sample average. The rank goes from lowest percentage to highest percentage of the 133 qualifying MLB starters.

Rank/133 Player Total Pitches BIP > 100 mph % of Pitches
10 Trevor Bauer 1209 28 2.32%
13 Corey Kluber 1429 34 2.38%
55 Carlos Carrasco 1165 36 3.09%
63 Sample Average 1148 37 3.21%
114 Danny Salazar 1143 45 3.94%

Bauer actually has given up the tenth-fewest batted balls over 100 mph, and both Bauer and Carrasco are better than league average. Salazar has had some issues with this, but the difference between his results to date and league average is eight batted balls. That’s not enough to explain the issues the group is having.

So let’s move on. Do the Indians’ starters — who have the seventh-best walk rate in the American League — throw it in the zone too much? Probably not. There’s no correlation between zone percentage and home runs or batting average on balls in play. And the Indians are right in the middle of the pack in zone percentage and walk rate. They are 22nd in Heart%, a statistic designed by Bill Petti to measure how often a pitcher throws to the heart of the zone. Probably nothing here.

The likely culprit

So we’ve determined that too many balls in play are becoming hits, and there’s nothing in the four main pitchers’ numbers to suggest why that is. We’ve also determined that those pitchers are allowing a lot of hard contact, but not excessively hard, according to Brown’s metric. This leaves us with one overwhelming thought …

It’s not the pitchers’ fault.

The Indians are simply not good at defense, no matter how you slice it. They are currently the 56th-worst team of the 420 team-seasons that have been evaluated by Ultimate Zone Rating. They’ve been the second-worst defenders over the last two years by UZR. Defensive Runs Saved, another defensive rating, agrees. They have the worst range in baseball.

Bad defense is an easy way to turn outs into hits, and the Indians have their share of poorly-rated defenders. David Murphy, Mike Aviles, Nick Swisher, David Murphy, Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis — they’re all rated as below-average defenders by UZR. And if we return to the top 20 teams by ERA-FIP split, we see that the modern teams all had below-average defense, and averaged defensive value that would end up in the bottom five this year (-4.4 UZR/150). This is the thing all the bad luck rotations have had in common.

Still time to change things

Another thing you’ll notice on the list of the worst gaps between rotation process and outcomes is that there are three 2015 teams near the top. That suggests less that something is in the water this year and more that there’s still time for these teams to normalize and get off the list.

And the Indians are well on their way to rectifying the issue. By calling up defensive ace Francisco Lindor to play shortstop, and by displacing Lonnie Chisenhall with Giovanny Urshela — a rookie known for his plus defense and arm strength — the team has made two big steps that should help their starters put up ERAs that fall in line with their talent.

After all, it’s still true that if you strike everyone out and don’t walk anyone, you’ll have good outcomes more often than not.

We hoped you liked reading The Cleveland Indians Rotation: Legendarily Bad Luck? by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

2 Responses to “The Cleveland Indians Rotation: Legendarily Bad Luck?”

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  1. revolution7882 says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    David Murphy named twice in the list of bad defenders will always make me chuckle.

  2. ChristianLaFontaine says:

    I enjoyed that as well, wonder if it was intended or just a happy accident.