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Cleveland's tragically unlucky starting rotation

Through the first two-plus months of the season, the Tribe's starters have excelled in many areas, but their teammates haven't adequately supported them. This misfortune, should it continue, may reach historic levels.

With that putrid defense behind him, Kluber will bear this expression a lot more in the months to come.
With that putrid defense behind him, Kluber will bear this expression a lot more in the months to come.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

For the Indians, 2015 brought grand promises and magnificent potential — mainly because of the team's dominant starting pitching. Along with deserving Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, the team would run out late-blooming breakout Carlos Carrascoflame-throwing wunderkind Danny Salazaryoung savant Trevor Bauer, and a stable of supporting members. This consistent early-game excellence, it seemed, could elevate Cleveland to a postseason berth, or better.

Thus far, the club hasn't succeeded overall to the extent that it thought it would. After the weekend's series loss to the Orioles, the Indians own a mediocre 27-29 record, albeit with a 51.7% chance of making it to October. The starting pitching, at first glance, deserves most of the blame for that, as the group's 4.40 ERA places them 22nd in baseball. But that ranking takes into account something that the starters don't control (for the most part): balls in play. Cleveland's fielders have the fifth-worst UZR in the majors, as well as the eighth-worst DRS. Thus, when gauging by FIP, only three other rotations can best the Indians.

We'll get into the uncommon nature of that ERA-FIP discrepancy in a moment, but first let's examine one unique facet of the squad's underperformance. Thanks to the four aforementioned names, the Indians' starters have struck out an astonishing 10.11 batters per nine innings, easily the highest mark in baseball. (The second-place Padres sit more than a punchout per inning behind, at 8.84). Simultaneously, that rancid defense gives them a .334 BABIP, also the highest mark in baseball.

This comes off as rather odd. In creating the pitching metric SIERA, Matt Swartz tested and proved a number of theses; one of these was that high-strikeout hurlers generally run lower BABIPs. Since a guy allows less contact, the thinking (and reality, usually) goes, batters won't hit him as hard when they don't miss on their swings. Just how strange is this combination of hittability and unhittability?

We probably won't have to worry about regression to the mean tainting these results. Per FanGraphs' Depth Charts, the Indians' rotation should post a K/9 of 8.8 for the remainder of the year — tops in the majors. Their .313 projected BABIP ranks third behind the Rockies and Twins, but Colorado and Minnesota have low enough current BABIPs that they shouldn't pass Cleveland in the hierarchy. In other words, we can reasonably expect that when the 2015 season ends, Indian starters will have sustained the highest K/9 and BABIP in the world.

If that does happen, it will make history: No team since 1900 has done it. Ending there doesn't give us any fun, though — we can journey on. Let's say the Rockies and Twins overtake the Indians, so that the latter ranks third in BABIP for the campaign as a whole. How rare is that (i.e., an MLB lead in K/9 and a top-three finish in BABIP)?

Still pretty rare, as it turns out. Eleven teams have done it, and one of them looks rather familiar:

Team Year K/9 K/9 Rank BABIP BABIP Rank
Indians 2014 8.92 1st .321 2nd
Rays 2007 7.71 1st .328 2nd
Indians 2000 7.82 1st .313 3rd
Pirates 1983 6.71 1st .298 3rd
Indians 1964 6.92 1st .294 2nd
Dodgers 1963 7.17 1st .276 3rd
Dodgers 1958 5.94 1st .287 2nd
Reds 1947 4.32 1st .287 2nd
Robins 1925 3.69 1st .306 2nd
Cubs 1917 4.26 1st .271 3rd
Senators 1916 4.50 1st .280 3rd

Yes, last year's Indians managed to pull this off, meaning Cleveland could go back-to-back here. The 2014 rotation featured glovework even worse than the 2015 one — it came in dead last in both UZR and DRS. Maybe we should have predicted the present shortcomings.

On the flipside, the previous team to attain this feat illustrates what can happen when a club learns from its mistakes. The 2007 Rays also rounded out the majors in both defensive metrics, but managed to reverse that in 2008, and saw its starters' BABIP plummet to .286. Unsurprisingly, that team made it to the playoffs, and even captured the AL pennant.

So the Indians strike out a lot of guys, and give up a lot of hits. Who cares? The game is about results — we should look into those. As stated earlier, Cleveland's rotation has a rather large difference between its ERA and FIP, and if it maintains it, it'll make history in that regard as well.

First, let's bring in projections again. From FanGraphs, we see that the Indian starters should have a collective ERA and FIP of 3.78 and 3.55, respectively, for the rest of 2015. Averaging those figures with their current marks of 4.40 and 3.38, respectively, gives us an overall ERA of 3.99, and an overall FIP of 3.49.

Next, we'll adjust for the league environment. Progressive Field possesses a park factor of 97, and the AL has a 3.86 ERA and 3.93 FIP. Using the handily-provided formulas on the FanGraphs Glossary, and assuming American League pitchers don't implode down the stretch, we get an ERA- of 107, along with an FIP- of 92. Even when we take into account the necessary precautions, we still see that Cleveland could do something exceptional.

Let's again look to the past. To play it safe, and account for further possible regression, we'll set our error bars to 105 for ERA- and 95 for FIP-. How many team's starters have surpassed both since 1900? Sixteen — and like with the strikeout/BABIP study, one of the recent examples gives hope for the Indians:

Team Year ERA ERA- FIP FIP-
Yankees 2008 4.58 105 4.05 94
Brewers 2006 4.73 105 4.18 91
Orioles 1998 4.89 108 4.30 93
Astros 1995 4.24 107 3.77 94
Brewers 1987 4.78 105 4.16 94
Yankees 1982 4.35 110 3.70 91
Reds 1982 3.91 105 3.44 94
Indians 1976 3.96 114 3.25 91
Angels 1975 3.90 109 3.61 94
Red Sox 1972 3.53 108 3.11 91
Colt .45's 1963 3.46 111 2.87 92
Phillies 1958 4.16 105 3.69 94
Orioles 1956 4.18 107 3.49 93
Indians 1922 4.28 106 3.86 94
Terriers 1914 3.57 108 2.69 92
Phillies 1914 3.05 107 2.73 92
Athletics 1901 4.01 105 3.49 95

In 2008, New York hit a low, missing the playoffs for the first time in 15 years; their starting pitching's poor fortune contributed to that disappointment. The next year, that group improved its ERA- to 98, one of the biggest reasons why the club netted another ring in the postseason. A Cleveland turnaound could lead to similarly memorable results.

For what it's worth, the Indians' starters haven't helped themselves in 2015 — they've induced very little weak contact, and struggled to field their position. Nevertheless, plenty of other teams have come up short in those areas of the game, but few have done what the Indians may do. In the end, the team may not bounce back from its sluggish start, and if it doesn't, fans shouldn't fault the starting pitching.

. . .

All data as of Monday, June 7th, 2015.

Ryan Romano is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.