Unconventional method has helped Tribe's starting rotation grow into one of the AL's elite
By Shane Jackson
CLEVELAND -- Indians right-hander Josh Tomlin frantically finishes tying his shoes and grabs his glove. Urgency has overtaken him as if he is late. But the Tribe's righty just pitched the previous night and starters typically have a scarce workload the day after a start. So why is Tomlin in such a hurry?
Tomlin stows his belongings in his locker before departing the clubhouse and running out to the bullpen in Progressive Field. There he joins fellow right-handed starters, Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer. Only ace Corey Kluber is not present for the Carrasco bullpen watch party and that is because Kluber is getting ready to pitch that night.
"We thought it would be a good chance to hold each other accountable to what we are doing in the bullpens," Tomlin said. "Not just go through the motions and try to get better in those bullpens. It just gave us that sense of accountability for each other. Everybody is watching. Try to go out there and learn from each other."
It may not seem like much, but the abnormal bullpen sessions have become a daily routine this season for Cleveland's rotation. It's an unprecedented routine for a position so individualistic but for a staff as unified as this one, it should come as no surprise.
The idea originated in an offseason meeting between manager Terry Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway. So before the exhibition game in Texas earlier this season, Callaway brought up the idea to the staff. Even though none of them had ever heard of such thing, they all agreed.
"We don't want to reinvent the wheel," Francona said. "I think it's a good game and I don't believe in trick and quick-fix stuff but we liked the idea, just because it's a group that watches each other so much. One, I thought it would make their bullpens crisper on days they didn't feel like it. Because you got four guys watching, you don't want to let your teammates down. But also they watch each other so much that they pick stuff up."
The results have been astronomical to this point in the season. According to Fangraphs entering Thursday, the starting staff has the American League's second best ERA (3.69), second highest K/9 (8.28), best K/BB ratio (3.48), and the best WAR (7.5). All while posting a 30-19 record.
Among qualified pitchers, the Indians have four starters in the top-18 in ERA. Salazar posts the second-best ERA in the AL (2.23), Bauer ranked ninth (3.20), Tomlin is 13th (3.32), and the ace, Kluber sits at 18th (3.59). Carrasco has not logged enough innings after spending significant time on the DL but he has a 3.26 ERA.
"What I think is better is when we play a different team," Salazar said. "And you start talking to your friends and they are like, 'you guys have such a deep rotation. It's perfect.' That means we are in a good spot. That makes me think and realize how good we are as a rotation."
The depth of the rotation has played a major part to build the league's most fearsome five. The fact that backend starters such as Tomlin and Bauer are able to go out there and not miss a beat is what makes this rotation so uncanny.
Bauer started the season in the bullpen after losing out on the starting job to Cody Anderson. Instead of sulking, Bauer did his job out the 'pen and waited for his name to be called again. It was called after Carrasco went to the disabled list, and Bauer has been back to being a starter ever since.
Since returning to the rotation, Bauer has posted a 4-2 record with a 2.96 ERA and 65 strikeouts compared to 22 walks.
"It's nice to see that -- especially [with] Bauer," Carrasco said of the pitcher. "He started in the bullpen and he came back to the rotation and has been throwing great. Tomlin is a different guy. The way I learn from Tomlin is everything. He doesn't throw hard but every time he hits the glove."
The depth of the rotation can be attributed back to the chemistry and the dividends of the bullpen sessions. These guys are helping each other but at the same time helping themselves by wanting to be better than the other four starters.
An example of that occurred in the last game. Bauer tossed just his second career complete game Wednesday night following Kluber's complete game shutout the night before. When Bauer departed to the clubhouse he was actually upset with himself.
"Trevor was a little upset he gave up a run," Callaway said. "Just because we didn't give up a run the night before. It's a really good atmosphere for those guys right now. They're really pulling for each other and trying to outdo each other, which is great."
Bauer's performance finished off a perfect 11-0 home record in June. In those 11 games, the starters tossed 10 quality starts capped by consecutive complete-game efforts. It marked the first time a pair of Tribe hurlers tossed back-to-back complete games with three-or-fewer hits since Aug. 21-22, 1977.
"The potential on this staff is really high," Bauer said. "It's a matter of being consistent and going out there and putting in the necessary work to be consistent and pitch well every night. When we get on a roll like this it's a lot of fun watching everyone go out there and compete."
Potential being the key word -- which mean's this staff believes it still has new heights. A scary thought for one of the league's most unified and lethal rotations.
Shane Jackson is a reporter for MLB.com based in Cleveland. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.