Skies are beginning to clear for Indians

Pitching coming around as Cleveland hopes it has ridden out storm

June 1st, 2017

CLEVELAND -- The Indians entered June with the highest rotation ERA (4.79) in the American League -- the kind of unexpected trend from a supposed strength that can sully a season or, at the least, earn an audible "Oh boy," one of Terry Francona's signature phrases.

But the Indians also entered June with on the hill, some encouraging performances from , Mike Clevinger, and Josh Tomlin in the recent rearview and hopes that 's banishment to the bullpen will yield "2014 Carrasco"-like results.

So accuse the Indians, like the defending-champion Cubs, of the dreaded "hangover." But perhaps there's traction taking place here beyond even the return to the top spot in the American League Central.

Kluber, in his return from the bum back that landed him and his unsightly 5.06 ERA on the disabled list in early May, gave the Tribe six shutout innings in which he allowed just two hits with a walk and struck out 10 in an 8-0 win. He induced 24 swinging strikes from the free-swinging A's -- all with his curve and cutter.

More than anything, Kluber gave the Indians confidence in his condition. He'll get an extended break between starts to avoid swinging a bat in Colorado next week, but the lower back pain is no longer compromising his delivery and putting his arm at risk, as was the case in the season's opening month.

"He had gotten to the point where it started affecting his mechanics greatly," pitching coach Mickey Callaway said.

After logging a career-high 249 1/3 innings, including the postseason, in 2016, the month off might wind up serving Kluber well on a club built to be playing ball in October.

Of course, it's hard to get there if the rotation doesn't round into form. But the division has been a forgiving asset for the Indians this season. The sub-.500 showings from the Indians' supposed biggest threats in Detroit and Kansas City and the cute-but-not-overpowering improvement of the Twins has basically bought the Tribe time to find its footing.

The fits and starts from the offense, which has only recently gotten true return on investment from , is its own source of discussion. But the backbone of this particular competitive window was and is a starting set whose floor, we have found, is as low as the ceiling is high.

Callaway is the one who has had the task of trying to elevate the output. It's been a weird year for him because, as jarring as the ERA might be, there have been other indicators -- such as the second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.43) in the sport and a top-10 WHIP (1.28) and FIP (4.04) -- that insist all is well.

Interestingly, the stat Callaway's looked at most is left-on-base percentage. Here, the Indians entered June ranked 20th in the bigs, with a 70.6 mark (for context, the Astros led the Majors at 80.4). The Tribe's tally here is lower than you'd expect from a high-strikeout staff.

"[A high LOB percentage] doesn't necessarily say you're going to pitch well over the course of the season," Callaway said. "You might have had more baseunners than anybody else to leave on. But I like our guys to take pride in that, to try to leave guys in scoring position. I think that's what we've been missing the most. They've really honed in on that the last two times through the rotation."

Over the past two weeks, Tribe starters not named Salazar have a 3.28 ERA. Clevinger has pounded the low zone en route to a .190/.289/.360 opponents' slash. Tomlin's complete-game gem against the Royals on Sunday was a reminder of his capability when mechanically correct. Bauer's still ranked eighth in the Majors in three-ball counts, per Statcast™, but he's struck out 36 and walked just four in his past 24 innings. Carrasco has pitched around a brief pectoral issue to post the AL's 12th-best adjusted ERA.

But Salazar's command camp will be as fascinating. He was striking out 12.7 batters per nine yet getting lit up early in games and issuing far too many free passes (4.7 per nine). Like Kluber, Salazar looked great against the A's on Thursday, and if the Indians can sharpen his mental acuity, he could re-emerge as a starting weapon or perhaps become an intriguing multi-inning relief option, a la .

"We know for us to be a really good team, Danny Salazar has to pitch really well for us," Callaway said. "I think we wouldn't be doing our jobs if we just sent him to Triple-A or DL'd him or whatever. We owe it to him, and he owes it to us to figure this out and get him back in the rotation and clicking again."

The Tribe's rotation has not clicked with consistency. But as the neighboring Cavaliers, who opened the NBA Finals on Thursday night, displayed after their annual January swoon, the big picture is what matters. The ERA might be shrinking, and the picture might be clearing.