Justin Masterson has to pave the way and pitch more consistently.
Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and the Cleveland Indians' starting rotation have been frustratingly inconsistent this season. It is imperative that its inconsistency improves in order for the Indians to make a push to the 2012 playoffs.
The team again teased the fanbase with a quick start and seized first place in the American League Central. They maintained that stranglehold on the top spot for much of the season until May 29 when the Chicago White Sox overtook them.
The Sox have since dropped to second one game behind the surging Detroit Tigers. The Indians are in third, four games behind first and three games behind the Sox.
The Indians are nowhere near out of the race to win the Central and are in the thick of a very bunched up race to nab one of the two wild-card berths. The Indians currently are three-and-a-half games behind the surprising Oakland A's, who hold the last wild-card spot.
The inconsistency of the starters has been one chief reason why the Indians are falling in the standings.
From batter-to-batter, inning-to-inning, start-to-start, you never know what you're going to get from the Jekyll and Hyde act that is the Cleveland Indians' starting rotation.
You get a great battle against one batter followed by a bad mistake.
A great inning is followed by a calamitous one.
Shut-down starts are followed by disastrous efforts.
The Indians starting pitching staff has to get more consistent if the team is to achieve their goals in 2012. The following slide show will analyze the chief culprits who are perpetuating this frustrating trend.
Jimenez must learn to put batters, innings and starts away.
Jimenez is the epitome of inconsistency. Whereas some of the other starters take a little digging to find out why they are inconsistent, Jimenez's issues smack you square in the face.
Case in point: July 19 against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Jimenez got himself into but worked his way out of jams up until the sixth inning. He had struck out five through five innings.
Jimenez seemed to have an easy 1-2-3 inning in store in the sixth. Jeff Keppinger and Hideki Matsui grounded out.
And then the roof caved in. Jimenez hit Desmond Jennings. Jose Molina delivered a single and Jimenez walked Sean Rodriguez to load the bases—all this coming with two outs.
Let me illustrate a huge point that typifies Jimenez's issues:
Before July 23's games, Jennings was hitting .239. Molina was at .193 and Rodriguez was at .214.
Not exactly murderers row.
The dangerous B.J. Upton then delivered a soul-crushing, two-out, three-run double to put the Rays up 4-0 to essentially nail the coffin of the Indians as they were facing one of the best pitchers in the world in David Price.
It is my belief that Jimenez has no killer instinct. He has a flat-line personality and seems to accept his failures. I want to see him get heated after getting bombed. He can't finish a batter, inning or start off. He can't back up one quality start with another. A look at some of his back-to-back starts (taken from ESPN.com) illustrate his lack of consistency:
May 6 line vs. Texas: 7 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 5 BB, 6 K, 4-2 W
May 11 @ Boston: 4.1 IP, 9 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 5 BB, 4 K, 5-7 L
June 10 @ St. Louis: 7 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 7 K, 4-1 W. This was possibly his most dominant start of the year so far followed by...
June 17 vs. Pittsburgh: 6 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 HR allowed, 2 BB, 6 K, 2-9 L
July 7 vs. Tampa Bay: 6 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 HR allowed, 1 BB, 8 K, 7-3 W
July 14 @ Toronto: 2.1 IP, 7 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 2 HR allowed, 4 BB, 2 K, 9-11 L
Only three times all season has Jimenez backed up a quality start (as defined here on ESPN as a start that lasts at least six innings with no more than three earned runs) with another one. He has never followed that two-straight string with a third.
According to ESPN.com, Jimenez had by far his best month in June and sported a 2.78 ERA with a 2-2 record. In the dominating performance against the Cardinals in June, Jimenez got a no decision for his efforts.
It appeared in that month that he had turned a corner and that he was molding into a quality starter for the Tribe.
Alas, this month, Jimenez has been just plain awful with a 1-3 record and a 7.48 ERA.
The main reason for Jimenez's inconsistency has to be his lack of command. After Jimenez's start against the Rays, his walk rate is now at an ugly 5.49 BB/9.
"Ubaldo couldn't throw enough strikes. When he allowed those first four runs [in the first two innings], he was barely throwing 50 percent of his pitches for strikes. You don't have to be a rocket scientist...to know you can't survive up here doing that...no matter who you are."
Jimenez has shown flashes of brilliance during starts (like against Tampa) but is unable to finish them. He has some great starts followed by complete meltdowns. He has to be more consistent to help the Indians reach the playoffs.
He has got to reduce his walk totals. Free passes from Jimenez are killing him and more importantly, the team.
Justin Masterson has to be the ace the Indians need him to be in order for the Tribe to make a run at the postseason.
Although Masterson turned in a great start against the Orioles on Monday (7 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 6 K), he has been almost as inconsistent as Jimenez during the season.
At the beginning of his last start against the Rays, Masterson was firing fastballs in the 97 mph range and appeared to be ready to mow down the impotent Rays lineup.
Then inexplicably...he lost it. Seven hits and seven walks later, Masterson was gone after only 4.1 innings pitched. He escaped with a no-decision after the Indians made a comeback but eventually lost 10-6.
Masterson has had more (six) back-to-back quality start stretches than Jimenez and has had one stretch where he had a four-straight quality start string...also in June.
Compare this to 2012 when Masterson had 10 back-to-back quality start groups and started the season with six straight quality starts. Masterson posted a 12-10 record with a 3.21 ERA throughout the season and displayed much more consistency and dominance as the Indians' true ace.
Masterson is currently 7-8 and has a 4.12 ERA. According to baseball-reference.com, his WHIP (1.37) is up from last year (1.278), and his BB/9 (prior to Monday's start) rate was also higher (3.9 compared to 2.7). Masterson's SO/BB rate is down (1.88 compared to 2.43).
Masterson's command has been very spotty this year. It is interesting to note that according to fangraphs.com, Masterson's pitch selection has been quite different this year. The following are the percentages of his pitches thrown during 2011 and so far in 2012 (prior to the July 23 start against the Orioles):
2011: 84.4 percent fastballs (including sinkers), 14.9 percent sliders, .7 percent changeups
2012: 78.5 percent fastballs, 21.5 percent sliders
The difference may be telling. Masterson is obviously going more to sliders this year than he did last season and less with his fastball. Are sliders the most effective pitches for him over fastballs?
In looking at this chart on Fangraphs, Masterson averaged around 79 percent fastballs in his quality starts and 76.8 percent in his non-quality starts. This isn't much of a difference, but a difference nonetheless; and it could help to explain his reduced effectiveness in 2012.
Let's also examine some interesting data on batted balls against Masterson from Fangraphs. The percentages shown will be the percent of batted balls that resulted in the different types of ball flights:
As stated by Steve Slowinski of Fangraphs:
Pitchers with high ground ball rates tend to give up more total hits, but they also allow fewer extra base hits. This is relatively intuitive: ground balls are harder to field than fly balls and they rarely go for extra bases (and almost never go for home runs). So pitchers who limit the amount of fly balls hit will also limit the amount of extra bases against them. Similarly, fly ball pitchers tend to allow fewer total hits, but more extra base hits.
2011: 16.9 % line drives (LD), 47.8 % ground balls (GB), 29.2 % fly balls (FB), 8.5 % home runs per fly ball (HR/FB)
2012: 16.4 % LD, 47.9 % GB, 30.1 % FB, 11.5 % HR/FB
2011: 20.3 % LD, 66.5 % GB, 11.4 % FB, 2.7 % HR/FB
2012: 19.9 % LD, 63.1 % GB, 15.7 % FB, 10% HR/FB
2011: 12.5 % LD, 45.8 % GB, 27.8 % FB, 3.3 % HR/FB
2012: 18.6 % LD, 42.4 % GB, 22 % FB, 8.7 % HR/FB
In comparing this season with an effective 2011 campaign, it is interesting to see the small differences in batted balls on fastballs, which was noted above, he has been featuring less frequently. Also noteworthy is that his usually devastating sinkers have resulted in a smaller percentage of ground balls and a larger percentage of fly balls.
His sliders are getting hit harder yielding a higher percentage of line drives and a smaller percentage of ground balls.
Every pitch type is resulting in a higher percentage of HR/FB. Masterson has already given up nine home runs in 21 starts whereas in 2011, he gave up only 11 the whole season.
It appears that a heavier reliance on his fastball will help make Masterson become a more consistent cog in the Indians' starting rotation.
Whatever the reason for the inconsistency, it is imperative that Masterson and the coaching staff figure out what is making Masterson less effective and less consistent this season because he is the ace of the staff and will be a key (if not the key) to the Indians' ultimate success or failure this season.
After Monday's start against the Orioles, Acta expressed Masterson's importance to the team on foxnews.com:
Masterson did a tremendous job. He did what we expect our No. 1 guy to do—get out there and shut down the opposition and give us an opportunity to win a ball game even when we don't score many runs.
Perhaps better and less muffled communication with Indians catchers will lead to more consistency for Derek Lowe.
Lowe's season has been inconsistent in that he was great for the first two months of the season and has been pretty awful since then.
Lowe had a 4-1 April with a 2.27 ERA and a 2-2 record in May with a 4.30 ERA. Eight of 10 starts in these two months were quality ones.
June and July have yielded far different results. In June, Lowe was 1-3 with a 6.49 ERA and so far in July, he is 1-2 with a 9.00 ERA through three starts. In these two months, Lowe has had five quality starts in nine efforts.
Fangraphs shows that in April and May combined, Lowe averaged 3.52 BB/9, 64.6 percent ground balls and 5.36 percent HR/FB. In June and July those changed to 5.20 BB/9, 55 percent ground balls and 10. 2 percent HR/FB.
The spike in HR/FB for June and July is quite striking. Balls being hit in the air are increasingly likely to go out.
Now, let's take a look at some of Lowe's best and worst starts over the course of the season and see if there's a correlation between percentage of ground balls induced and quality starts.
4-8 vs. Toronto: 7 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 SO, 68 % GB
4-29 vs. Los Angeles: 7.2 IP, 3 H, O R, 2 BB, 1 SO, 62.5 % GB
5-5 vs. Texas: 6 IP, 9 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 1 SO, 83.3 % GB (highest rate of season)
5-15 @ Minnesota: 9 IP, 6 IP, 0 R, 4 BB, 75.9 % GB (fourth highest GB rate of season)
In eight of Lowe's 13 quality starts, his ground ball rate was above the season average of ground balls induced of 60 percent.
4-18 @ Seattle: 4.1 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 6 BB, 0 SO, 2 HR allowed, 31.6 % GB (lowest rate of season)
5-26 @ Chicago White Sox: 2.1 IP, 10 H, 8 R, 8 ER, 0 BB, 3 SO, 1 HR allowed, 53.3 % GB
6-18 vs. Cincinnati: 5.0 IP, 11 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 1 BB, 2 SO, 1 HR allowed, 45.5 % GB (T4 lowest rate)
7-20 vs. Baltimore: 3.0 IP, 7 H, 9 R, 9 ER, 5 BB, 0 SO, 2 HR allowed, 41.2 % GB (T2 lowest rate)
In four out of six of Lowe's non-quality starts, his ground ball rate was lower than his season average of 60 percent.
There seems to be a definite correlation between Lowe's ability to turn in quality starts and his ability to induce ground balls. His reduced ability to induce those ground balls has led to his inconsistency. His rising walk total is also killing him. These are areas that need to be improved in order for him to once again become a solid starter.
This gutsy Texan needs to regain his pinpoint control to help the Indians.
Tomlin is currently 5-7 with a 5.34 ERA. He has given up 14 home runs in 16 starts, nearly surrendering a home run per game.
Only seven of Tomlin's starts have been quality ones.
1. Tomlin walked 21 batters in 26 starts last year. This year, in only 15 starts, he already has that same number. Still a good number, but he is clearly not showing the same command that he had last year.
2. The Indians hurler went 12-7 with a 4.25 ERA with a 1.08 WHIP and a 4.24 K/BB rate in 2011. Tomlin's WHIP this year is 1.37 and his K/BB rate has dipped to 2.43.
3. Tomlin hit three batters all of last year. This year, he has already plunked two. This again points to his reduced command of the strike zone.
4. Opponents' batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS are all up significantly from last season.
5. Baseball-Reference.com shows that Tomlin has given up 28 earned runs (and 10 home runs) in innings one through three, 23 earned runs (with four home runs) in innings four through six and three in innings seven through nine (in significantly fewer innings).
6. According to Fangraphs, Tomlin's fast balls, curves and cutters have all resulted in a higher percentage of walks over last year.
7. Tomlin's changeups and sinkers appear to be his least effective pitches as both are both resulting in a higher percentage of line drives, a lower percentage of ground balls and a higher percentage of fly balls over last year. His changeups have also resulted in a higher percentage of HR/FB this season over last year while his sinkers have resulted in a slightly lower percentage in this category.
8. Fastballs have resulted in a higher percentage of HR/FB, and curves have yielded a significant spike in the HR/FB rate from 3.3 percent in 2011 to 11.1 percent in 2012.
9. However, the Texan's fastball, cutter and curve seem to be his most valuable pitches. With the exception of cutters yielding more line drives over last year, these three pitches have resulted in a lower percentage of line drives, a higher percentage of ground balls and a lower percentage of fly balls over last season.
What do all these stats mean? They mean that Tomlin has had reduced command with his pitches this season.
Despite Fangraphs showing that his curves, fastballs and cutters are seemingly more effective than last year, it is clear that Tomlin is missing more with his pitches.
These misses are resulting in a higher walk total, a higher hit batsmen number and a higher home run probability. His misses either miss the strike zone completely (yielding walks) or he misses in the strike zone, and these misses get hit hard.
Tomlin can't afford to miss in bad spots. Even though Fangraphs shows us that Tomlin's average velocity on all his pitches is up from last year, he still only averages 88 mph on his fastball.
Unless you have Jered Weaver-type movement on your heater, you need to nibble on corners and have top-notch command in order to succeed. Tomlin doesn't have great movement on his fastball, so he has to be very fine with his command.
Tomlin expressed his disappointment to Sheldon Ocker of the Beacon Journal (via Ohio.com):
I’m pretty confident that I can throw any pitch for a strike. But in the second half of last year and this year, too many pitches are down the middle...For the most part this year, I’ve been pretty inconsistent. But I’ve got to get consistent, because I don’t have the stuff to throw it down the middle.
Tomlin's increased walk totals and higher home run totals show that he doesn't have the same control he had in 2011 when he had a successful command.
Also, as the earned runs per innings and home runs per innings stats show, he has to get off to stronger starts as he seems to get stronger as the game continues.
It appears that one solution to improve his consistency could be to go to his sinker and changeup even less than he is now because those seem to be his least effective pitches. He needs to rely heavily on his fastball, curve and cutter and get back the solid command he had last season.
Help on the way?
Who would have thought that Zach McAllister (4-2, 3.21 ERA, five of nine quality starts) would have been the Indians' most consistent starter when the season began?
As this slide show has shown, Jimenez has been terribly inconsistent, and Masterson has not lived up to his ace potential so far.
Lowe started out like a house on fire, but has since cooled considerably. Tomlin hasn't had the control he had in 2011, yielding far less effective starts.
All four of these starters need to start putting some strings of consecutive quality starts together to strengthen the Tribe.
Jimenez and Masterson must start producing the way they can in order for the Tribe to do something special in 2012, and Tomlin and Lowe simply need to produce to keep their starting jobs.
Guess who's about to rejoin the Indians? As reported by Dennis Manoloff of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the one and only Roberto Hernandez (formerly known as Fausto Carmona) is starting his three-week suspension for age and identity fraud. Provided his arm feels good, Hernandez will make his first rehab start on Thursday.
Masterson, Jimenez and McAllister are safe for now, but make no mistake about it, Lowe and Tomlin's jobs are in jeopardy when Hernandez comes back. Hernandez has flashed dominant stuff in the past, and the Indians hope that he can show it again.
If the Indians are to make a run at the playoffs this season, the starting staff from top-to-bottom must become more effective and more consistent.
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