Many preseason predictions had the Cleveland Indians picked to win the division because of the strength of five guys. The starting rotation seemed stacked and ready to go. The unflappable Corey Kluber, the dominating Carlos Carrasco, the wise guy enigma Trevor Bauer, the flamethrowing eccentric Mike Clevinger, and the emerging Shane Beiber. On paper, this had the chance to be a historically good rotation.
All of that means nothing if you can’t stay healthy. Clevinger went down almost immediately. Kluber scuffled through April and had his arm broken by a line drive early in May. Carrasco didn’t look like himself and he was eventually shut down. Carrasco has since been diagnosed with leukemia. Injuries mixed with adversity that transcends baseball itself, that’s all the Indians have had to overcome.
Regardless of those tremendous hurdles, only the Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros can boast a better pitching performance in the first half in the American League. A team ERA of 3.94 is nothing to scoff at when the league average is a full half run higher. This has been an impressive group. Who are these guys who have saved this decimated pitching staff? Let’s rank the top performers for the Indians in the first half of the year.
1. Brad Hand 4-3 (23 saves)/2.17 ERA/55 K- My pick for the Indians most valuable pitcher comes from the bullpen. Without a ton of run support, the Indians have needed every run they can muster. For nearly two months the offense sputtered and Hand was as good as anyone at shutting the door on close games. His slider has been tremendous, and outside of a couple of bad outings, he’s almost unhittable. Hand is the leader of a bullpen that has taken this team and put them on its back.
2. Shane Bieber 8-3/3.45/141- The fifth starter as the season began, Bieber is the first starter on this list. His stats read almost identical to Bauer’s until you get to the walk column. Bieber has easily been the team’s most consistent starter with 12 quality starts in 18 appearances. Almost the forgotten member of the beginning of the season rotation, he is the only one of the five who will represent the AL in the All-Star Game.
3. Trevor Bauer 8-6/3.61/149- Love him or hate him, Bauer is one of a kind. Bauer has thrown a lot of pitches this season. He is almost always deep in counts, and he doesn’t seem to care. Some nights this season, he’s managed to work around all danger. Through most of May, he paid for every mistake. It’s been a rollercoaster season for Bauer, but he closed 2018 on an upswing. He hasn’t quite been as effective as he was a season ago, but we’ve got a long way to go.
4. Oliver Perez 2-1/3.00/29- Perez is the veteran presence in a bullpen that has certainly overachieved this season. While at this point in his career he is called upon generally as a left-handed specialist, Perez has excelled at his role. His experience gives him an edge in the value department, so I put him in the number four position.
5. Tyler Clippard 0-0/3.16/25- Another journeyman who has delivered when called upon, Clippard has held batters to a team-best .170 batting average over the first half of the season. Limiting baserunners is his specialty as he also leads the team with a 0.90 WHIP.
6. Adam Cimber 4-2/3.06/23- Indians fans got to see some of Cimber’s growing pains at the end of his rookie season. The young man with the oddball delivery has come on strong in his sophomore campaign to be yet another key piece of what has become a strong bullpen. While fans still cringe at his delivery, they haven’t been able to cringe at most of the results.
7. Nick Wittgren 3-0/3.24/35- Wittgren was a rock early in the season when runs were at their most premium. While more recent struggles have bumped him down the list a bit, we shouldn’t forget that 4-7 on this list are almost interchangeable. Sadly for most of this season, the majority of the rotation has been by committee. When their bullpen is still spoken of as one of the best in the league, it’s a testament to the depth they have. Wittgren is just another example of a bullpen arm who helped win some games this season.
8. Zach Plesac 3-3/4.00/33- Injuries have been so bad that Plesac’s eight starts are the fourth most on the team this year. He’s made the most of some of them. That’s all you can ask sometimes of a youngster who is forced into some important ball games. Plesac looks extremely promising. If the injury bug lingers, he better expect to have to log some big innings in the near future.
With many question marks on returns for the second half of the season, it will be interested how things play out. Being within striking distance of a playoff spot will make the decisions on pitching even tougher. Kluber should have a window to make his return. Carrasco is hopeful he will be back before the season ends. While Clevinger has returned, the trade deadline is looming. A team that looked dead in the water a month and a half ago suddenly is in the thick of it. Some people still believe the Indians will be sellers at the trade deadline regardless. What a strange July it is going to be at Progressive Field.