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Ranking MLB Rotations, Part 7: The Indians Don't Make the Top 6. Here's Why

If you missed part 4… click here

If you missed part 5… click here

If you missed part 6… click here

You’ll see 2 more of these over the next week & I hope you enjoy them all. I know these are long so I’ve bolded all of the relevant pitcher names. I’d really love to talk with you all about the rankings or baseball in general in the comments or on twitter.

Prior rankings: 30. San Diego Padres, 29. Cincinnati Reds, 28. Minnesota Twins, 27. Miami Marlins, 26. Milwaukee Brewers, 25. Kansas City Royals, 24. LA Angels, 23. Colorado Rockies, 22. Philadelphia Phillies, 21. Baltimore Orioles, 20. Oakland Athletics, 19. Arizona Diamondbacks, 18. New York Yankees, 17. Chicago White Sox, 16. Atlanta Braves, 15. Tampa Bay Rays, 14. Houston Astros, 13. Pittsburgh Pirates, 12. Seattle Mariners, 11. Texas Rangers, 10. St. Louis Cardinals

tigers 9. Detroit Tigers While the Tigers’ rotation isn’t quite at the level that it was during their 2012 run to the World Series it has also rebounded considerably since Detroit’s rough 2015 season. I flip-flopped Detroit and St. Louis a few times but ultimately ranked the Tigers higher due to more top of the rotation skill.

Justin Verlander will anchor the Tigers’ rotation in his 13th year with the team. It looked like his days as an ace were over after a 2014 when he led the league in earned runs and failed to strike out even 7 batters per 9 innings. In 2015, he regained some of that ace skill but struggled with injuries. He killed it in the 2nd half of ‘15 but that success was overlooked due to the narratives about his age, declining skill-set, and poor 1st half. Doubting Verlander was a mistake and he just put together what is probably his 3rd best season in his Hall of Fame worthy career. There isn’t much reason to doubt continued success in ‘17. Verlander’s 1.96 ERA and 10.9 k/9 per inning mark in the 2nd half will keep him firmly among the best in the business. It’s tough to say that someone as storied as Verlander is underrated but I think we adjusted our perceptions of him too harshly after his bad 2014. fulmerWhile Verlander’s best pitching came in the 2nd half, everything fell apart for Michael Fulmer (pictured) in September. A 4.76 ERA and missing the ERA leaderboard cutoff by 3 innings ruined his shots at an ERA crown in his rookie season. But still, Fulmer finished tied for 2nd (with Justin Verlander) in the AL for Earned Run Average in at least 110 innings – no small feat. Peripherals indicate that Fulmer was pitching a little above his skill level, but he also had a 2.30 ERA the first and second time through the order last season. As he ages and gains arm strength, he’ll be able to pitch more effectively later in games. The writing has been on the wall for Jordan Zimmermann since he was still with the Nats. Well, the wall straight up collapsed last year. Zimmermann struck out far fewer batters than he had in the past, he walked more, and he looked really really hitable. He missed some time due to injuries and was unlucky with the strand rate, but I don’t have too much hope in him bouncing back. Zimmermann threw a 94 MPH fastball 70% of the time back in 2014 – before the decline – now, he throws a 92 MPH fastball just over half the time. Be happy if he gives you 4th starter value, but I’d actually bet against that. Daniel Norris, just 23, was a top prospect for years and is still young enough to put it all together. In the 2nd half of the season, he kind of did. His 3.04 ERA and almost a strikeout an inning could be a harbinger of things to come. As many young arms do, Norris struggled the 3rd time through the order so that’s certainly something to monitor. I should also note that Norris has been injured a few times and that his FIP and xFIP are worse than his ERA was. That being said, we give batting prospects 2nd and 3rd chances, and Norris actually showed legitimate success last season. I believe in him in ‘17. Matt Boyd is where this rotation’s strength stops. In his 154.2 MLB innings, Boyd has a 5.64 ERA – suffice to say that is not good. However, Boyd showed flashes of decency in June and July (2.55 ERA). Really, don’t expect anything out of Boyd. Anibal Sanchez was pushed to the ‘pen and offers no real value to anyone at this point.

jays 8. Toronto Blue Jays The Jays have 4 above average starters but no real star. They did lead the American League in starter’s ERA last season and while I don’t think they’ll be that effective in ’17 – they’ve got the same group of guys.

Marco Estrada’s trade to the Blue Jays seemed like it would be a real failure when they acquired him prior to 2015, but he’s been more than just a pleasant surprise. In 2015, he finished with the 5th best ERA in the American League. Estrada’s K-rate fell a ton and his FIP and xFIP were still atrocious but at least the ERA was there, and, at the end of the day – that’s what matters. Last year, Estrada’s ERA grew but he also struck out nearly 2 batters more per 9 innings than he had in ‘15. The big time fly ball pitcher kept homers in check for the past few years (and increased his infield flyball rate by more than 5%). There’s no guarantee it continues in the future so sure it’s likely that he turns back into a pumpkin but who’s to say he can’t fake it for a third year? J.A. Happ is another huge pitching success story. No one would’ve predicted 3 years ago that he’d have the success that he has had. His peripheral stats like FIP and xFIP aren’t too strong, and he’s 34 years old now. But he did have a sub-3.00 ERA in the second half and held batters to just a .212 average and .329 slugging percentage. Despite his advanced age, Happ’s velocity has held up nicely (and is actually higher than it was between 2007 and 2013). His fastball was also incredibly effective last season and batters swung and missed at his pitches 9.6% of the time (the highest rate of his career). stromMarcus Stroman (pictured), 25, was the star of the World Baseball Classic and had a triumphant, albeit different 2016 in his return from a lost 2015. In his rookie year, Stroman induced grounders 54% of the time, last year, that same rate was 60%. In part due to this change of style, Stroman dealt with a drastic decrease in strikeouts during the first half of the year (just 6.4/9). His ERA of 4.89 was pretty horrendous as well. Things changed after the all-star break when he allowed a much more palatable 3.68 runs per 9 and K’d 8.5 guys per 9 innings. He should certainly be considered more likely to pitch near a 3.50 ERA than a 4.50 ERA. I’m a believer in Stroman in 2017. Francisco Liriano had a season to forget in 2016. He still struck out more than a batter an inning but the walks were way too high and all of the progress he made between 2013 and 2015 looked lost. One thing that might improve for Liriano is that he allowed an uncharacteristically high number of balls to leave the yard. His career average is that 11.6% of fly balls left the yard. Last year, it was 18.8% – bring that down to career norms and that’s 0.40 shaved off his ERA. His velocity stayed the same but batters were pulling the ball more. Ultimately, the main culprit for Liriano is stamina. From 2013-2015, Liriano’s ERA was an acceptable 4.25 ERA the 3rd and 4th time through the order; last year, it was 8.54. If he’s used properly, he is still a serviceable pitcher, otherwise he’ll either suck or you’ve gotta pray that 2016 was just an aberration. Aaron Sanchez is the best starter on the Jays’ staff but is currently 5th on the depth chart on MLB.com due to a very minor spring training blister. To maintain consistency, I’m writing about him last but just know that he is their most skilled arm. It was Sanchez’s first full year as a starting pitcher last year and he led the American League in ERA. Sanchez’s FIP was 6th in the AL and his xFIP was 8th in the AL so he wasn’t really the most effective arm in the AL, but his stuff is legit, he throws in the mid-90s, and he decreased his walks from 2015. Interestingly, Sanchez held lefties to a low .216 average but peripherals point to him struggling much more heavily against them in 2017. This is a good rotation, even with Sanchez, it lacks that real top talent but it gets the job done – last year, 3 Jays ranked among the top 10 AL pitchers in xFIP (and another came in at 15th).

indianss 7. Cleveland Indians The Cleveland Indians here? At 7!?!? Crazy right? I’ve seen the comments. Many have put the Indians at #1. Practically all have Cleveland top 3. I want to say very clearly that I am not trying to be contrarian. I sincerely believe that the Indians are the 7th best rotation in baseball. They have the potential to be the best rotation at the end of the year, or 2nd best, or 3rd best but right now? They are number 7. Not only are they 7th in my rankings but Indians starters actually had the 7th best ERA last season. Of the 6 teams with starter ERAs lower than Cleveland, only the Toronto Blue Jays have been ranked thus far. The team ahead of Cleveland that had a worse starter ERA last year ranked 8th overall and just added a top pitcher in Chris Sale. So I ask you, what has changed? Now that I’ve justified my rank, let’s get into the actual starting 5. For the record, I ranked the Indians’ rotation highly last season before their huge breakout so I by no means an Indians-hater.

kluberCorey Kluber (pictured left) is a star. He won the Cy in ‘14, had a fine year in ‘15, and finished 3rd in the race last year. The soon-to-be 31 year old was obviously dominant again but his K/9 dropped to the lowest it’s been since Kluber established himself as a star (it’s still a stellar 9.5/9 by the way). His walk rate grew to 2.4 (much higher than it has been in past years), and his FIP and xFIP were each higher in 2016 than they were in 2014 or 2015. Kluber’s 2.52 ERA in the 2nd half was great but his 2nd half bb/9 (2.90) is not trending in the right direction. Now, I’m not too sure what to make of this switch but Kluber has a career GB/FB ratio of 1.36 – in the 2nd half of last season, that rate completely flipped to 0.93 – it’s something to watch going forward. Carlos Carrasco is one of the best number twos in baseball but he’s 30 and has only capped 150 innings one time in his career. Compound that fragility with the fact that his earned run average is 25th best in all of baseball over the past two years (among those with at least 330 innings pitched). Top 20 is great but 5 of the teams ranked above the Indians have 2+ guys within the top 25 and the 6th team is the Dodgers (with Kershaw, the only guy with a sub-2.00 ERA in that span). Carrasco also saw a small drop in velocity – putting his average fastball 1.5 mph behind what it was in 2014. Opponents made contact off of him at a greater rate than they had in past years and his swinging strike rate fell from 14% to 12% – a pretty substantial change. Finally, we can’t discount the fact that he had a 4.17 ERA after the break. I’m not arguing that Kluber and Carrasco aren’t star pitchers – because they are – but the 6 teams ranked higher than the Indians have star pitchers too. salazarDanny Salazar (pictured right) is an ace when he’s on but the 27 year old isn’t always on. For that matter, he isn’t always pitching. Salazar has eclipsed 140 innings just once in his big league career. His 10 and a half strikeouts per 9 is great and strikeouts are sexy, but his walk rate would’ve been 5th worst if he had qualified for the ERA title. I also haven’t yet brough up his struggles in the 2nd half. Sure he was injured for part of it but he was also downright ineffective. In 32.2 innings, he allowed 29 runs (27 earned) and opponents his .317/.395/.533 off of him – those are not ace-level statistics. I’m a huge believer in Salazar when he’s healthy but the strikeouts and the fact that the Indians team is so good both factor into Salazar’s overvaluation. A few years ago, I would’ve pegged Trevor Bauer as a future top-of-the-rotation arm. He isn’t that. Bauer has never had an ERA below 4.18 and while the strikeouts aren’t bad (8k/9), he takes way too many pitches to get those Ks which inhibits his ability to work deep into games. Hopefully you’re noticing a trend – one that’s a bit peculiar considering the Indians reached the World Series – but Bauer struggled in the 2nd half too. He had a 5.36 ERA in 89 innings and only James Shields allowed more earned runs than he did. He’ll get Ks and he’s got more potential than most #4s but, again: he isn’t a star. If Bauer isn’t a star then Josh Tomlin certainly isn’t. Tomlin limits the walks, in fact, his BB/9 of 1bb/9 was lowest among qualified starters. He doesn’t take full advantage of this command because, well, it’s tough to be truly dominant when you’re maxing out below 90 mph on your fastball. Batters swung and missed on just 7.4% of his pitches (2% less than the 9.4 in 2015) and opponent contact rates grew by nearly 4 percentage percentage points. Tomlin is the 4th Indian starter to have a much worse 2nd half than 1st half but his 5.59 ERA after the break was 5th worst in baseball. To be fair, most of that damage is from an August when he allowed 34 earned runs in 26.2 innings and his September ERA was a measly 1.69, but we know what Tomlin is and that’s a back-end starter.

Be on the lookout for part 8 tomorrow!