Would it be easier if the answer to the question were “Ghostbusters”? Indeed it would, but unfortunately the Cleveland Indians have to build a playoff pitching rotation, and not an iconic comedy-thriller.
The recent injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar have the Indians reeling, but I think there is a good solution to the problem, if Terry Francona is willing to get outside of his comfort zone. Corey Kluber is an American League Cy Young candidate, so there’s no need to worry about his spot in the rotation. Trevor Bauer is posting a 4.00 FIP, which is not ideal, but he remains a solid option to pitch in the postseason. What to do about those other two starting spots, though?
The names Josh Tomlin and Mike Clevinger are not ones likely to inspire much confidence in the hearts of Cleveland fans, and for good reason. Tomlin has posted a line of 4.64/5.00/4.11 (ERA/FIP/DRA) with a 16.9 percent strikeout rate and a 3.0 walk rate in 27 starts, while Clevinger has put up a line of 5.08/5.41/5.10 with a 19.9 strikeout rate and a 12.9 walk rate in 9 starts.
However, it would likely not surprise you to find out that Clevinger has been significantly better in six relief appearances. His 3.18/2.16/3.64 line in 11.1 innings out of the bullpen, in spite of the small sample size, may provide us with a road map to Cleveland’s optimal playoff pitching usage. You may have also heard that Cleveland has a pretty dominant reliever in their bullpen. I’m referring, of course, to Dan Otero.
Yes, I know they have some guy named Andrew Miller too, but most don’t realize just how good Otero has been as well. Otero has put up a line of 1.49/2.35/2.94 with a truly stellar 60.1 percent groundball rate in 66.1 innings of work. Otero is also split-neutral having allowed a .554 OPS to opposing left-handed batter and a .526 OPS to right-handed hitters. Otero can certainly pitch multiple innings, especially on the rest afforded during the playoffs.
My point in all of this is to say that the Indians should use their elite relievers as “starters.” This is not necessarily a new idea, but it is still one that deserves analysis all the same. The idea behind this is that all innings are equal in a context-neutral sense, but that the most runs are scored in the first inning. Having your team’s best pitchers, whether they come from the bullpen or the rotation, on the mound in the first should be imperative. Andrew Miller and Dan Otero fit this description for the Indians.
Imagine limiting Miller and Otero to a maximum of two innings each. You can then bring in Clevinger or Tomlin, as both would likely be more effective when limited to no more than four or five innings. It is of utmost importance that neither of Clevinger or Tomlin face a lineup for a third time. This setup should allow for this restriction to work in practice just as much as in theory.