Tribe's rotation finding early groove
Starters falling in line behind Justin Masterson, a team leader on and off the field
The Cleveland Indians' pitching rotation has spent the first six weeks of the season making a statement. Now it might be time for a fashion statement.
From day one of spring training, Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez & Co. heard columnists, talk show hosts, fans and even the team's position players observe that "the Indians will go as far as their starting pitching takes them.'' Now that the quarter mark of the season has arrived and the Indians are 22-17 and tied for first in the AL Central, you can color them cautiously optimistic.
Masterson and Zach McAllister recently kicked around the idea of designing T-shirts with a shared mission statement. If Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano and the relievers could wear "Bullpen Mafia'' T-shirts last year, why can't the starters make a sartorial gesture to foster camaraderie?
Problem is, they haven't come up with a catchy name, and they're not Twitter-savvy enough to solicit responses en masse from the fan base.
"McAllister is trying to put something together, but he hasn't found the right words yet,'' Masterson said. "We've been thinking about it to see what we can do. We're not the brightest crayons in the box.''
T-shirts might seem a tad presumptuous for a group that's a combined 17-17 with a 4.44 ERA -- 22nd best in the majors. But things have taken a decided turn for the better of late. Since a doubleheader at Kansas City on April 28, Cleveland's rotation is 12-4 with a 3.17 ERA. The Tribe's starters have allowed three runs or fewer in 15 of those 18 games, and the team is 14-4 in that stretch.
"They've really made it a friendly competition within the rotation, and become a rotation instead of just some individuals who are struggling to have some success out there,'' said Mickey Callaway, Cleveland's pitching coach. "They're really coming together and getting along great and competing against each other, which is always a good thing.''
The Masterson effect
As always, it takes a village to make a rotation. After ranking 24th in the majors in Baseball Prospectus' team defensive efficiency listings last season, the Indians are third in the majors this season behind the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs. They have three true center fielders in Michael Brantley, Michael Bourn and Drew Stubbs, so anything hit in the air is a good bet to find leather.
Stubbs got a feel for how opponents regard the Cleveland outfield this week during a conversation with Philadelphia's Laynce Nix, his former teammate in Cincinnati. "He told me he was talking with Erik Kratz during the game, and they said, 'Golly, where do you hit it out there?'" Stubbs said. "I think our staff and our pitchers can really appreciate it, because a lot of balls that are going to fall in with most outfields, we're going to catch.''
The Indians also continue to see signs of growth from catcher Carlos Santana, who is doing a better job separating his offense from his defense and embracing the nuances of working with a staff -- from calling pitches to framing balls to studying the scouting reports with enough diligence to make it clear he's emotionally invested.
Beyond that, Cleveland's recent success is the product of a common sense of purpose. The starters are determined to become more consistent from one outing to the next, and they're quickly warming to the lessons imparted by a new pitching coach.
Callaway, 37, landed the job after wowing manager Terry Francona and the brass during the interview process. He has a gregarious, approachable personality, and enough failure in his recent past to relate to his pitchers when they take their lumps. After kicking around the big leagues with the Rays, Angels and Rangers, Callaway pitched in Korea and Taiwan before retiring in 2009. He served a three-year apprenticeship as a coach in Cleveland's farm system before getting his big shot.
One of Callaway's first orders of business was bonding with the staff ace. He sat down with Masterson over dinner during the offseason, and they discussed the importance of Masterson taking a leadership role on the staff in the Roy Halladay-Chris Carpenter-James Shields mode.
Masterson took the mandate to heart. Several hours before Tuesday's game in Philadelphia, he could be seen running sprints with McAllister in the Citizens Bank Park outfield. And on idle days between starts, when his work regimen is complete, Masterson might head to the bullpen and watch one of his rotation-mates throw a side session. That's something Carpenter routinely did for years with the young pitchers in St. Louis.
Sometimes it's just a matter of listening and giving a teammate an opportunity to vent. After Scott Kazmir gave up an early home run to Kevin Frandsen on a slider and proceeded to stop throwing the pitch in a 6-2 loss to the Phillies, Masterson planned to sit down with him and dissect the performance. Maybe the conversation takes place in the clubhouse or on the team bus on the way back to the hotel. When Corey Kluber labored through a difficult outing recently, Masterson quickly staked out a spot beside him in the dugout.
"If you're taken out of a game in the middle of an inning, the camera is on and you're trying not to boohoo too much,'' Masterson said. "You're sitting there just wearing it, and thinking, 'What did I just do?' Maybe I can help a guy think through it so he doesn't get too down. I've been through enough tough outings to know that feeling. I think we all have here.''
Nothing helps set an example for the staff like pitching well. Masterson is 6-2 with a 3.14 ERA, and he provided an early-season highlight with a complete-game, 1-0 victory over the New York Yankees at Progressive Field this week.
Masterson has a .219 batting average against on balls in play, so it remains to be seen if his luck will take a turn for the worse. But his pitches per plate appearance are down (from 3.78 to 3.61) and his strikeouts per nine innings are up (from 6.94 to 8.57), so it appears that he has achieved his goal of putting hitters on the defensive. Masterson is throwing first-pitch strikes more than 60 percent of the time, the first time he's done that in his career.
Masterson is now 19 months removed from surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, and a full offseason of rehab has made a world of difference. Callaway can tell almost immediately whether Masterson is about to throw a good pitch based on the way his front shoulder comes through in his delivery.
"I use my left arm a lot,'' Masterson said. "When I'm feeling pretty good, it's getting up there and it's yanking pretty hard. It's taking almost as much of a beating as my right arm. If things are off even a tidbit, maybe you lose a little late life or some deception. With big league hitters, that can be a big deal.''
A group effort
Cleveland's 2-3-4 starters have fallen in line behind Masterson. Some numbers provided by ESPN Stats & Information help explain why:
• Jimenez has thrown first-pitch strikes 56 percent of the time -- his best ratio since 2010, when he won 19 games with Colorado and made the All-Star team. Opponents are hitting .130 in at-bats ending with his splitter this season, compared to .243 last season.
At times, Jimenez has been almost too focused on his unorthodox delivery and anxious to conform to everybody else's expectations of what a pitcher should look like. With help from Callaway, he has become less consumed by the particulars of his motion and is concentrating more on the end result.
"We've talked less about mechanics than tempo in his delivery and being an athlete,'' Callaway said. "He's a big guy with a lot of moving parts, and he's a little untraditional. But when you sit down and watch video from last year, his stuff was great. It wasn't the mechanics making his stuff bad. It was the mindset of, 'What am I gonna do with the ball when I get it?' And that's, 'Attack the hitters and make them beat me.' That's what he's done this season.''
• Kazmir, 29, has been the staff's resident feel-good story in April and May. He is averaging 91.8 mph with his fastball, and recently hit 95 on the gun for the first time since 2009.
As Kazmir is quick to point out, he's a different pitcher from the former hotshot Mets prospect or the guy who made the All-Star team with Tampa Bay in 2006 and 2008. For starters, he has added a cutter and a changeup to complement his fastball and slider. "It feels like I have a lot more in the toolbox,'' he said. He is also older, wiser and more adept at self-diagnosis after a series of failures and a stint in independent ball in Sugar Land, Texas.
"We pull for everybody, but it's hard not to pull for him a little more,'' said Francona. "He had a tough couple of years. He was pitching for the [Sugar Land] Skeeters, and now he's helping us win games. I'm happy for him.''
• McAllister, acquired by Cleveland from the Yankees in a trade for Austin Kearns in 2010, relies first and foremost on fastball command; he throws the heater more than 70 percent of the time. In his first seven starts this season, he's done a nice job of buckling down in the stretch. Opponents are hitting .250 with a .674 OPS against him with runners in scoring position, a considerable improvement over 2012.
The Indians are still looking for a definitive answer at the back end of the rotation, but they have the luxury of multiple options. Kluber gave the team a nice effort in a 10-4 victory in Philadelphia on Wednesday. Trevor Bauer has survived some control issues to give the Tribe three respectable starts while bouncing back and forth between the big club and the minors. Carlos Carrasco, who still needs to shake a reputation as a hothead and a headhunter, is 1-0 with a 1.88 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings with Triple-A Columbus. And veteran Brett Myers, who signed a one-year, $7 million deal in the offseason, is working his way back from a forearm injury.
The Indians also like what they've seen from Dominican native Danny Salazar, who is rated the organization's No. 6 prospect by Baseball America. He recently outpitched Pittsburgh mega-prospect Jameson Taillon in an Eastern League matchup, and has since been promoted to Triple-A ball.
Time, the rigors of a 162-game season and a lot more encounters with Detroit's Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder will help determine if the Cleveland starters are for real or just a mirage, but they're all pushing in the same direction. If the quality starts keep coming, they have a chance to be wearing those T-shirts in the playoffs.
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