Cleveland’s historically good, hard-luck rotation

At first glance, Cleveland’s starting rotation could be considered one of the league’s poorest in terms of performance: their 4.32 ERA has them 9th-worst in the majors, and the fact that the Indians are 27-29 (though seemingly improving) probably doesn’t help them shed that label. Those surface-level numbers hide a lot, however. In fact, they obscure what is on pace to be one of the most strikeout-heavy rotations in the history of baseball, one whose on-field performance is being negatively impacted by factors largely outside of their control. Where does the 2015 Cleveland starting staff rank so far in a historical context of some of the great rotations throughout history? Let’s find out.

We’ve talked about Cleveland’s woeful defense in this space before. There’s a reason for that: it’s both historically terrible (since 1950, only the 2007 Rays converted fewer balls in play into outs than the 2015 Indians), and it impacts the pitching staff to a great extent. The Cleveland defense has become something of a hot topic: by all accounts, it’s basically turning the pitching staff into a bunch of pumpkins.

What the Indians rotation should be is a markedly different story from what it currently is: if we boil down the numbers only to what pitchers can control (i.e. if we take the terrible defense out of the picture), Cleveland’s rotation is at the very top of the league: by one measure, Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), they’re the third-best starting staff in baseball. By another (xFIP), they’re number one.

This means that Cleveland’s defense has probably let them down to a serious extent, and also that they’ve been unlucky — though the elevated batting average on balls in play (BABIP) the Indians rotation has shown might be due in some part to the types of pitchers that Cleveland likes to bring through their system (hard throwers who are prone to giving up hard contact). Taken together, however, all of these factors should give us some optimism that there might be better times ahead for the rotation, even if the defense doesn’t improve very much.

The conversation about the rotation’s hypothetical vs. real-world results is just the introduction to why we’re really here, though. Now that we know Cleveland’s rotation has been subject to some unfortunate outside influences for the first two months of the season, let’s compare this rotation to other rotations throughout history, especially in terms of strikeout rates.

In terms of absolute strikeout rate, the 2015 Cleveland rotation is, well, the best since 1950. Take a look at the top-15 rotations since 1950 by strikeout rate:

K%_1950_2015

That’s a lot of strikeouts! You might notice a clear issue with this leaderboard, however: all the teams highlighted are from after the year 2000. That’s because strikeouts are far more frequent these days than in decades past, as both offensive priorities and pitching performance have shifted. A strikeout for a pitcher in 2015 doesn’t quite mean what a strikeout meant in 1965.

To remedy that issue, we’ll do a quick and simple adjustment to compare each team’s numbers in relation to the league average for that particular year. That will put everyone on more even ground for comparison, and tell us whether Cleveland’s strikeout rate this year is truly exemplary for this era.

The actual calculation is as follows: we’ll take each team’s strikeout rate, divide it by that particular season’s strikeout rate (so the 1965 Yankees will be divided by 1965’s league strikeout rate), then times it by 100. That will give us a value that is either over 100 (with every point above being one percent above league average) or below 100 (% below league average). Now let’s take a look at the top-15 rotations again, this time by sorted by the highest results, which we’ll call K%+:

K%+_1950_2015

This paints a much clearer picture of where this Cleveland rotation ranks with the best strikeout staffs since 1950. This isn’t meant to knock this group down from their perch at the top; quite the opposite, in fact. With the 2015 Indians sitting inside the top-3, this leaderboard reads like a Cy Young /Hall of Fame roll call.

At the top, there are the Dwight Gooden/David Cone-led 1990 Mets just beating out a 1976 Angels team that featured Nolan Ryan (327 strikeouts) and Frank Tanana (267). This year’s Indians team comes in third, followed by the 1960 and ’61 Dodgers rotation that included Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale (they also show up further down the list for 1959); there are the ’76 Mets with Tom Seaver, and the 2001 Red Sox with Pedro Martinez‘ unfathomably great year at the peak of the steroid era. The 2003 Cubs with Kerry Wood and Mark Prior and the 2002 Diamondbacks with in-their-primes Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling round out the top-10; finally, there are three more Angels teams that were led by Nolan Ryan, just for good measure.

The bottom line: this is a historic strikeout-heavy rotation that Cleveland has shown so far in 2015, assuming they’re able to continue on this pace. Whether this sort of strikeout ability can continue is certainly a question mark, but it’s certainly fun to see them putting up the sort of numbers we only see once every decade or so compared to the teams around them. Whether that approach can translate into wins hasn’t been seen on a consistent level, either; however, as we’ve seen with Cleveland’s defense and luck, that mostly isn’t the fault of the starting staff.

With a healthy Corey Kluber, a consistent Carlos Carrasco, and the emerging duo of Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar, this rotation is primed to put up incredible strikeout numbers for years to come. Whether they’ll be counted among the greats we see above at the end of 2015 remains to be seen. The fact that they’re in the conversation two months into the season? Incredible in its own right.