While growing up in the 70’s and early 80’s, there was no team I cheered for like the Cleveland Indians. As a high school student, like most of that age, I knew that the teams I pulled for were always going to be the best. There was no doubt about it!
When I was seventeen in 1982, I was sure the Cleveland Indians were set to have a pitching staff that could rival most in the AL. I was sure that with guys like Len Barker, Rick Sutcliffe, and Lary Sorensen (all age 26), and veterans like John Denny and Rick Waits (age 29 and 30 respectively), the Indians were set to contend in a rugged AL East.
I mean, according to Connie Mack “Pitching is 75% of the game”, isn’t it?
Barker was coming off of a couple of solid seasons with the Indians. Sutcliffe had a fantastic season with the Dodgers in ’79, and was finally healthy when the Dodgers traded him to the Indians. He was our solid number two. Lary Sorensen was a capable pitcher as a third starter, as we was coming off 4 years in a row with ERA’s in the 3’s with Milwaukee and St. Louis. John Denny and Rick Waits were competent fourth and fifth starters; however, Waits was clearly on the downside of his career.
Well, so much for a 17 year olds knowledge of a game that has been around for more than a hundred years, and rarely goes as planned. That season, while Barker and Sutcliffe performed well, with sub 4 and 3 ERA’s respectively; Sorensen, Denny and Waits were anything but solid and the Tribe finished six games under .500. The team had a 4.11 ERA, which was good for 11th in the AL.
So fast forward to 2014, and let’s look at the staff the Indians have built going forward, mainly because I am getting that same feeling I had back in my youth. This time though, I hope I am tempering it with patience and some logical thinking.
As good as Barker was, Corey Kluber is better. His progression over the last 3 years has been nothing short of remarkable. He throws similar innings to Lenny, giving up fewer earned runs, and has the demeanor you need from a solid #1. Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar should be in the 2 and 3 spots in the rotation. Both look fully recovered from their arm injuries, and both have movement on their fastballs now, that was not there when they first came back from their ailments. They compare favorably to Sutcliffe and Sorensen for a couple of reasons. They are both younger, and they throw harder with better location. While they lack the experience, youth in the starting rotation may be a big plus later in the dog days of a season when teams need that enthusiasm for a final push.
The biggest difference in the starting rotation though may be in the fourth and fifth starters. Denny and Waits were both significantly older than Trevor Bauer and TJ House (4 and 6 years respectively). Bauer is learning to harness his ability now as a 23 year old, and has a professor with a very respectable track record in Mickey Callaway. It is rumored that he has a 10 pitch arsenal; however, to be effective, with his talent, may only need to use 2 or 3 with improved location, which should reduce stress on his arm. TJ House, much like Waits relies on locating his pitches to be effective. The difference is that by 1982, Rick Waits had 7 years in the league, and his better ones were behind him. After that season, he only started 5 more games in his career. TJ has a much higher upside as a 24 year old who improved significantly throughout the last two months of the season, as well as pitching in some pretty big games.
Another difference is that this staff has a couple of potentially capable starters when injuries occur. Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin are both young, and have the ability to carry the back end of a staff for short periods of time (though McAllister may end up in the bullpen, based on his performance at the end of last season from there).
The biggest advantage that this staff has however, may be in the bullpen. Francona and Callaway have the ability to mix and match with enough capable lefties, and hard throwing right-handers. The 1982 version had no real left-handers in the pen. Ed Glynn and Neal Heaton were the only lefties with innings, and neither had an ERA under 4.00. The current staff has three lefties with ERA’s under 3.00 (Rzepczynski, Crockett and Hagadone).
Both starting staffs featured four right-handers with a locating left-hander for a fifth starter. Both staffs had an average age of 27, and both staffs had a lot of promise.
Last, both staffs had just something short of horrific defenses behind them.
In looking at the defense, the 2014 Indians kicked the can around 116 times for a fielding percentage of .981, with 72 unearned runs allowed. The 1982 Indians were slightly worse; however comparable, with 123 errors, a fielding percentage of .980 and 78 unearned runs allowed. Last year’s team though, had a significant amount of player movement. In 2015, this should be limited, which should help cut down on the errors.
That may be where the comparisons end though. In 2014, the pitching staff had a team ERA of 3.57, which was more than a half run better than the promising 1982 staff. This staff is younger, and has bulldogs at both the front end of the starting rotation, and the back end. As mentioned above, this staff has a significantly better bullpen, with a manager that knows how to extract the most from said pen. The bullpen has a closer (Allen), a set-up man (Shaw), and a seventh inning pitcher (Atchison), who, if not overused, are all as close to guarantees as any threesome at the back end of the pen in baseball.
Last, what the front office did with this staff from a contract standpoint is also very commendable. In the projected starting staff, no one is eligible to be a free agent until 2017 (Bauer) at the earliest. In the bullpen, our relievers are locked up as well with last year’s mid-season extension given to Atchison.
For the above reasons, I am once again, as sure as I was as a 17-year old, that this pitching staff has the ability to carry the team that I root for, the team I have always rooted for, to great things in 2015 and beyond. This time though, I hope that with age has come the wisdom to think these thoughts through, and provide more logical reasoning. I guess we will have to wait and see.