CLEVELAND: We’re watching one of the very best pitching staffs the Indians have ever assembled — again.
After last year’s rotation set franchise records, the 2018 edition has followed closely behind, putting together stellar performances and astronomical strikeout numbers. Without question, it’s one of the best rotations the Indians have ever assembled. But where does it stack up compared to other Indians rotations?
This 2018 edition has featured the breakouts of Trevor Bauer as a genuine American League Cy Young candidate and Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber as valuable additions to an already talent-heavy rotation. Add in the second-half surge of Carlos Carrasco, who has been among the game’s best since the All-Star break, and the two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, and 2018 figures to stack up against any the Indians have put together since their inception in 1901.
And on Saturday, this Indians rotation became the first in baseball history to ever feature four pitchers with at least 200 strikeouts, with Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer and Clevinger all accomplishing that feat. In that way, the game has never seen a rotation quite like this one.
But compared to the best rotations in Indians history? With a week still left in the season, the Indians entered the weekend third in franchise history with 21.5 fWAR. Only last year’s rotation (23.2) and the 1965 rotation (22.6, more on that later) have accumulated more fWAR.
The 2017 and 2018 rotations have been close to one another all season. This year’s iteration has the better ERA (3.45-3.52), but 2017 owns the better FIP (3.39-3.43). Unfortunately for this current group, Josh Tomlin’s disaster of a season has lessened the benefits of Clevinger, Bieber and Bauer’s breakouts. Kluber has also had a solid 2018 season (19-7, 2.93 ERA, 4.9 fWAR), but it will fall well short of his 2017 Cy Young season in which he totaled 7.3 fWAR.
It’s also possible they make up the best and second-best rotations in franchise history. Looking at different eras, there are several that can make a case.
The first is 1965, which has 2018 beat by fWAR. That rotation was anchored by Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant and Sonny Siebert. McDowell had a ridiculous 325 strikeouts to go with a 2.18 ERA that year. Siebert registered 191 strikeouts and a 2.43 ERA, and Tiant posted a 3.53 ERA and struck out 152 hitters. Altogether, the rotation posted a 3.09 ERA. That rotation’s 934 combined strikeouts fall well short of 2018’s, though.
The next is 1954, when the rotation included several of the biggest names in franchise history and three Hall of Famers, including 35-year-old Bob Feller, 33-year-old Bob Lemon and 34-year-old Early Wynn. The veteran rotation posted a 2.86 combined ERA but only struck out 521 hitters. They were among the most effective groups ever assembled in Cleveland despite lacking in strikeout totals — Wynn led the bunch with 155.
What about the famed 1995 club that went 100-44 and reached the World Series, ringing in a new era of Indians baseball? Although that team slugged its way to the biggest stage in baseball, its rotation was solid but not to the level of challenging the current rotations or those from the late ‘60s. Veterans Dennis Martinez (3.08 ERA) and Orel Hershiser (3.87) had quality seasons, and Chad Ogea was terrific (3.05 ERA) at the age of 24, but they fell short as a group in fWAR (13.9) and by strikeouts — Charles Nagy led the way with 139.
What if we extend it to a five-year span, searching for the greatest run for an Indians rotation in their history? There are two contenders: 2014-2018 and 1964-1968. Kluber vs. McDowell. Carrasco vs. Tiant. Bauer vs. Siebert. With a little Mike Clevinger or Danny Salazar vs. Steve Horgan or John O’Donoghue sprinkled in.
The '60s might have the edge. That group had a better ERA over those five seasons at 3.10. The 2014-2018 edition has a collective 3.76 ERA, but it does have the edge in strikeouts — notice a theme here? — with 4,876 compared to 4,645. The difference, of course, is that the Indians now have the lineup and the bullpen to match, creating a World Series contender.
And it certainly seems that 2016-2020 will end up being the best run in franchise history, another testament to the type of talent and control the Indians front office has assembled. Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer, Clevinger and Bieber are all under control through at least 2020. The 2017 and 2018 editions could very well be the best two put together since 1901 and, at the very least, no grouping in Cleveland has ever amassed strikeouts at such a high rate.
Carrasco, Bauer and Clevinger aren’t yet as big of names as Feller or Wynn or McDowell or Tiant. Performance wise, at least, they’ve been worth the price of admission, and the Indians are in the middle of a historic run.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.