The Cleveland Indians enter Tuesday’s set of games with a six-game lead in the American League Central Division, but an injury to a key starting pitcher has given the Tribe a different set of issues as they attempt to nail down a spot at the MLB Postseason table.
Here are 10 random thoughts about the starting pitching staff and how they’ll be impacted down the stretch and beyond:
1. With Danny Salazar’s forearm injury putting his contributions in the playoffs in question, the pressure has never been greater for Mike Clevinger and Josh Tomlin to step up. And we’re not just talking about over the course of the regular season; With Salazar now on the shelf, one of the two will likely have to join Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer in a potential postseason rotation.
2. Maybe the Indians were hoping to use Clevinger out of the pen as a weapon in October. Maybe they were attempting to manage his innings (which may turn out to be a good decision if the rookie needs to log meaningful playoff innings for Cleveland). But now, the team has no other option other than to extend the righty back to starter’s length. He tossed 62 pitches in his last start, so he could potentially log 80+ in his next outing.
3. Some have dreams of Clevinger contributing in the playoffs like Jaret Wright did with Cleveland in the 1997 postseason. Wright, then, a 21-year-old rookie, logged some meaningful innings as a starter in the Tribe’s run to the World Series. Clevinger has the age advantage on Wright, entering the final month of the 2016 campaign as a 25-year-old right-handed hurler.
4. We have witnessed some good things from Clevinger since his recall to the big leagues in August. We’ve also seen some of the characteristics common in first-year pitchers — like some occasional pitch inefficiencies or a tendency to nibble, not attack (13.3 percent walk rate). Those are things any young pitcher must learn in his first taste of the Majors. Cleveland will need him to accelerate that process. The good news? In his nine most recent appearances (four starts), the righty has posted a 3.24 ERA and .207 batting average against over 25 innings.
5. Then, there’s Tomlin. A horrendous month of August (11.48 ERA in six starts) led to his ejection from the starting rotation. With Salazar’s injury, the veteran arm will get another shot to prove his solid first four months (3.44 ERA) were no fluke. Given his alarming home rate rates — his 19.9 HR per fly ball rate is second-highest in the bigs — some regression was always possible. But when the solo homers started turning into multi-run knockout blows, Tomlin’s performance slumped.
6. Velocity, when healthy, was never a problem for the righty. Tomlin has held his numbers throughout the season. And it’s never been about how hard the veteran throws. It’s about hitting spots and executing pitches in proper sequences. That’s where the team felt like perhaps Tomlin had his issues, maybe relying on his cutter a little too much in the second half. To their point, Tomlin’s usage of the pitch shot up from 40.4 percent in June to 42.7 percent in July and 45.1 percent in August, and the use of his four-seam fastball trended down in July and August.
7. Here’s what Tomlin had to say about that during the team’s last homestand: “I might have gotten a little too cutter happy in the second half. But you still have to execute those pitches. Some of them were kind of leaking back over the plate… There’s got to be a healthy balance between fastballs and cutters. The cutter plays off the fastball. If you throw too many cutters, it kind of eliminates a pitch that can be effective. I’ve got to get back to being more fastball dominant. The cutter plays off of that. You still have to execute when you throw those pitches, too. That’s not just one aspect of it.”
8. While the Indians hope one of the pair of hurlers can step up, questions about Salazar’s ability to contribute in October given his forearm strain are legitimate. He’s been shutdown from throwing for 10 days and is expected to be able to return to game action in 3-4 weeks. At a full month, Cleveland would need to advance to at least the ALCS for the righty to make a return to the mound. And if he does, how productive will he be? Minor League postseasons will be long over, as will the chance to log rehab innings that resemble anything close to the Majors.
9. It would seem like a big stretch for Salazar to return as a starter in the playoffs. It’s certainly far less of a long shot for the righty to pitch in a relief role in October. At least in that capacity, Salazar’s hard-throwing can be a weapon out of the bullpen, joining Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Dan Otero as talented arms in relief.
10. Having more trusted hurlers in the bullpen will give manager Terry Francona the option to have a short leash on his starters, particularly in a postseason series. First, they’ll have to get there. And to do so, they’ll have to rely on Clevinger and Tomlin, in addition to the top three in the rotation, over the course of the final 19 games.