Remember a few years ago, when the AL Central was the laughingstock of the majors?
Oh, how the times have changed. The Royals won back-to-back pennants in 2014 and 2015 — topping the Mets in the World Series in the latter year — and this season, the Indians may extend the division’s streak further, by representing the AL in the Fall Classic. As Cleveland takes the field tonight, they have not lost since September 28th against Detroit; tonight Cleveland has the chance to advance to the World Series for the first time in nearly 20 years.
In the process of getting there, though, they’ll put a good deal of strain on their top arm. Corey Kluber got the nod on Friday, twirling six shutout innings as the Indians took Game 1 over the Blue Jays. A mere four days later, Terry Francona has tapped Kluber to finish off the series. With a victory, Cleveland will head to the World Series, but is that opportunity worth pushing Kluber to start on short rest? Should the Indians think short-term or long-term for Game 4?
Well, let’s look at their other courses of action. With Carlos Carrasco done for the year and Danny Salazar still rehabbing, the Indians find themselves short on starters. Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer (barely) took the hill in Games 2 and 3, respectively, meaning they’re off the table. Mike Clevinger and Cody Anderson haven’t shown anything resembling competence at the major-league level this season, so Cleveland would like to avoid them if it can.
That leaves one possible alternative to Kluber: Ryan Merritt. The 24-year-old southpaw has pitched only 11.0 innings in the Show — all of which this year — but he owns an impressive resume down on the farm, where he’s earned a lifetime 3.39 ERA. As a minor leaguer, he pounded the strike zone (lifetime walk rate: 3.8 percent) while fanning the occasional batter (lifetime strikeout rate: 16.7 percent). That recipe worked out pretty well for him, which explains why the Indians considered giving him the start tonight.
So why did they ultimately decide to go with Kluber? Simply put, he seems to be the superior option. Merritt put up a 1.64 ERA in those 11.0 innings, but he won’t realistically keep that up going forward; FanGraphs’s Depth Charts project him to earn a 4.53 ERA next year, and that’s in relief. If the Indians were to start him tonight and stretch him out to 75+ pitches, we should probably expect him to have an ERA around 5, at best.
Kluber, by contrast, should do better than that, regardless of rest. This season, he posted a 3.53 ERA on four days’ rest, and a 2.65 ERA on more than that. Assuming the former represents his true talent level for a normal pitching schedule, we shouldn’t debit him that much for three days’ rest. Jeff Sullivan’s informal study from the 2013 postseason found that short-rest pitchers allow about .67 earned runs more per nine innings than hurlers with a standard break. Add that to Kluber’s results, and you get a 4.20 ERA — which, while completely unremarkable in every conceivable way, is nevertheless pretty solid.
Plus, handedness could impact the two pitchers’ effectiveness. The fact that Merritt is a lefty doesn’t match up well with the Blue Jays, who have a heavily right-handed lineup. In Game 1 of the ALDS against Texas, Toronto stacked its batting order with eight righties against Cole Hamels; Ezequiel Carrera was the lone lefty to start in the 10-1 blowout. A Merritt start, going through that ringer of a lineup, probably wouldn’t end well, whereas Kluber and his right-handedness might have the upper hand.
So Kluber gives the Indians the best chance tonight. That’s not all, either: they really don’t take on much risk for the future by putting the pressure on him. While Kluber has piled up the pitches this year — including the postseason, he’s thrown 3,393 pitches — he hasn’t set a career high: Back in 2014, when he took home the AL Cy Young, he fired off 3,500 pitches in total.
A quick turnaround for Kluber shouldn’t hurt him: Russell Carleton’s research has suggested that three days’ rest doesn’t harm a pitcher’s arm all that much. With the exception of a minor groin strain in September, Kluber has a pretty spotless injury record, which is the most effective predictor of future injuries (thanks again to Pizza Cutter). Dealing out 100 or more pitches tonight may stress Kluber, but it wouldn’t seem to be anything he can’t handle.
With all of this, we should also think of the implications for the World Series. A healthy Kluber, and a well-rested one, would presumably start Game 1. That’s scheduled for October 25th, a full seven days away. Even with the start tonight, he’d have six days to relax before taking the mound again — and so will everyone else on the team. Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, and the other overworked Indians could sorely use that respite to prepare for a grueling Fall Classic.
The mantra of “flags fly forever” can often taint a team’s decision-making. Here, though, the Indians have made the right choice. Despite missing several of its top players, Cleveland has a 3-0 lead over Toronto, and no man is better suited to bust out the broom than the club’s ace. For now and for the future, Kluber will carry the Indians to greatness.