Indians banking on deep 'pen plan for ALDS

Bauer will take ball for Game 1, Kluber slated to start G2

October 3rd, 2017

Amid the instant tweetstorm of frustration and confusion from Indians fans that arrived when word came out that -- not the likely American League Cy Young Award winner -- would be the starter in Game 1 of the AL Division Series presented by Doosan on Thursday vs. the Yankees, there was one optimistic voice in the din:

So let's do the sensible thing and start there. Manager Terry Francona has won three AL pennants and two World Series titles and might, in fact, know what the heck he's doing. The Indians' decision-makers, as a whole, have built one of the most successful and arguably the most balanced teams in baseball this season, so, yes, they know what they're doing. There is a not-small chance all this uproar about the Tribe's pitching alignment proves to be nothing more than unnecessary (perhaps even Bauer fuel) in the long run.

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The Indians' plan dovetails nicely and neatly with what advanced analysts (and even not-so-advanced analysts like myself) love to point out about baseball's postseason: It is, more and more, a bullpen-oriented game. Last postseason, starters worked just 56.8 percent of innings pitched and faced a record-low 255 batters the third time through the lineup. The Indians are carrying Mike Clevinger and -- young starters with great raw stuff -- alongside in their 'pen, which means they are loaded with multi-inning options that prepare them for whatever unusual situations the postseason presents.

"The main reason is trying to turn a 25-man roster basically into like 27," Francona said, "by having some of your starters available in the bullpen if need be."

Why is Kluber starting in Game 2? Because Bauer's uniquely conditioned to pitch pretty much every day, if he had to, and the Indians feel they can piggyback him properly in Game 1 -- and possibly in Game 4 if they're up against it. Also, because they like the idea of having Kluber available on regular rest for a potential Game 5 (Game 2 is on Friday and Game 5 would be the following Wednesday).

"Not that you go into a game thinking you're going to lose, but if you do, you have your ace coming back," Francona said. "The biggest thing was keeping him on his five-day [routine]. That was really important to Kluber. That was really the only way we could do it. Again, you don't want to put the cart ahead of the horse, but if you're fortunate enough to win in four, you have your ace ready for the next series."

OK, so that, briefly (and without getting into the home/road splits that likely led the Indians to prioritize Bauer over ), is why the Tribe is rocking the boat.

Now, let's shoot some holes in that boat.

First and foremost, there is this: If you lose Game 1, you have surrendered the home-field advantage you worked so hard to earn. Teams that have lost Game 1 of the best-of-five Division Series have come back to win it just 28.2 percent of the time.

So if Bauer flounders while one of the best pitchers in the game waits in the wings, it's a bad look.

Also, as Francona noted, the Indians are prioritizing having Kluber on regular rest -- as opposed to five days' rest (he last pitched on Saturday) -- for a potential Game 5. But he will have had five days' rest before Game 1. It seems a possibly non-existent Game 5 is being given more weight than a very-much-existent Game 1, which, yes, is odd.

If you pitch Kluber in Game 1, he is available on regular rest for Game 5 and available on short rest for a Game 4 on Monday, should the Indians find themselves in a 2-1 hole. The Tribe used Kluber on short rest three times in the postseason last year. He's proven he can do it. So why rid yourself of that option completely?

And what about rain? There is only a 10-percent chance for Thursday's Game 1, so that's good. And if Game 1 were to be rained out, you could still have Kluber pitch on Friday (this time in a Game 1) and life is basically back to normal.

But what about Friday? In Cleveland, this stuff can change by the minute, but there is a 90-percent chance of rain on Friday. If Game 2 gets pushed to Saturday, the rest of the schedule is unaffected (unless of course there's rain in the other Division Series city, but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves), which means Kluber would now only be available to pitch on short rest in a Game 5.

So, yeah, the Indians are definitely taking a risk here. And you could certainly argue it's an unnecessary one.

In a vacuum, I love the creativity that takes place in October and, all things being equal, I like the idea of prioritizing your deep 'pen at a time of year when bullpens matter all the more. I get what the Indians are going for, in theory, and, again, there's a really good chance we're wasting our energy analyzing it.

But all things aren't equal here, because Kluber has few equals. There's nothing wrong with orthodoxy when it involves starting one of the best pitchers in baseball in a crucial Game 1.