Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Indians "Rotation of Death" appears primed for takeover: Between Innings

The Cleveland Indians won two out of three against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Tribe's rotation is finally healthy. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin, and Trevor Bauer have been pitching well and expect to continue to be a dominant force through the rest of the season.

After 62 games, the Cleveland Indians (35-27) have survived injury, suspension, and groin shots (Yan Gomes must now pass the frozen peas to Juan Uribe) in order to lead the AL Central Division by three games. Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (27-36) were no match for the Tribe as the Indians won both the Friday and Sunday games by jumping out to huge leads early and cruising. The Angels won the sandwich game, but the Halos needed a walkoff effort after the Indians had rallied to tie. The offense continues to surprise (in a good way), but it is the the rotation falling into place, which will cause opponents to view the Indians placement on their schedule with the anticipation of a dentist appointment with an aching tooth.

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Statistics courtesy of baseball-reference.com, fangraphs.com, and Pitch f/x via brooksbaseball.net

Danny Salazar, the AL Cy Young Award candidate

Salazar, the latest to return after a brief rest for shoulder fatigue, locked down the Angels on Sunday. The bad news (I guess) is that he only lasted 5 2/3 innings as he was in strikeout every single batter that steps into the box mode. This mode of operation tends to increase his walk rate (four walks on Sunday), but is a beauty to behold as hitters flail aimlessly attempting to do anything against his arsenal other than watch and hope the umpire calls a ball. Salazar would up with eight strikeouts to take back the AL lead in SO/9 (10.824) from Chris Archer.

The AL pitching leaderboard is littered with Salazars name throughout. He dominates the bWAR (3.3) category with second place being a full 0.7 WAR behind him (almost a full win!). That strikeout rate helps but so does his ERA (2.19, 2nd), FIP (3.13, 4th), hit rate (5.716 per nine, 2nd), batting average against (.180, 2nd), and home run rate (0.61 per nine innings, 4th).

Lest one think his home run rate is pure luck, Salazar has adjusted his pitching style to become a heavy groundball pitcher this year (when hitters actually make contact). His 49.7% groundball rate is six points higher than any rate he has had in his career. With Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Juan Uribe, Jason Kipnis, and Mike Napoli roaming the infield, having hitters put the ball on the ground makes sense. Of course, Salazar also still has his 96 mile per hour fastball to pair with his 95 mile per hour sinker and 86 mile per hour change. The changeup is perhaps his best pitch (setup by the fastball) as hitters are swining at them 63 percent of the time, but missing the ball 26 percent of those swings.

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Corey Kluber, Klubot Activated

Klubot has been activated. Corey Kluber has given up two runs or less in four of his last five starts, while striking out at least six batters in each. On Friday against the Angels, the efficient Kluber pitched a complete game, two run, three hit effort with eight strikeouts and just one walk.

The season has shown how spoiled the Indians are to have Kluber on their team. While he has not been quite the dominant version that won the 2014 AL Cy Young Award or has yet to have an awe-inspiring performance such as when he struck out 18 St. Louis Cardinals in 2015, his name is still affixed the AL leaderboard quite prominently. Kluber has shown he is still getting the job done through his fWAR (2.4, 2nd), FIP (2.89, 3rd), strikeout to walk ratio (19.4%, 2nd), WHIP (1.015, 3rd), complete games (2, 3rd), and home run rate (0.71, 6th).

Kluber also knows how to generate outs on batted balls with the infield defense behind him as his groundball rate has risen to 49 percent in 2016. While Kluber doesn't have the fire emoji attached to his fastball as Salazar does, 94 miles per hour tends to do the trick. But, that is likely why he uses his sinker far more often, while using his changeup and slider to fool batters into whiff oblivion.

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Trevor Bauer, Production meets Potential

An overall ERA of 3.69 is good, but Bauer is capable of more than good, which is scary when he is the fifth starter in the rotation.  The past three starts, Bauer has pitched 22 2/3 innings, struck out 19, walked five, and allowed just 18 hits and six earned runs (one unearned run), which is good for a 2.38 ERA. He has pitched both deep into games and shown a measure of control that makes one drool when paired with his pitching arsenal. On Saturday, the comeback mentioned was only possible due to Bauer keeping the Indians in the game with eight innings.

As with his performance last week, Bauer has ditched the reliance on the electric but uncontrollable four-seam fastball for his two-seam sinker to be his primary pitch. By mixing in the fourseamer with his other secondary pitches, he is striking out far less batters, but also walking less. In fact, Bauer has yet to walk more than three hitters in any game in 2016, and he is pitching deeper into games with an ERA that keeps dropping. Bauer came into the season as an X-factor in the rotation and living up to his potential would make the Indians a dominant force.

Oh, and there might be a theme going here for a team with Lindor leading the defense, Bauer's 46.8 percent groundball rate is seven points higher than any other in his Indians tenure.

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Josh Tomlin, Go ahead and doubt him

Today is June 13 in the year 2016 of our Lord. Josh Tomlin has remained in the rotation throughout the year, and he has thrived. Tomlin is among the AL leaders in wins (8, 2nd), winning percentage (.889, first), walk rate (0.936, first by over 0.6 walks), strikeout to walk ratio (6.429, 1st by over 1.4), and WHIP (1.13, 10th). Tomlin also has the second-best ERA among Tribe starters at 3.48 though his FIP (4.36) indicates there is potential for it to rise. But, Tomlin is no stranger to having a much lower ERA than FIP as he finished 2015 with an excellent ERA (3.02) but mediocre FIP (4.43).

Tomlin has been a blessing for the Indians since returning from injury in 2015. In fact, over the 2015 and 2016 seasons, Tomlin has the eighth best ERA (3.25) in the AL (minimum 21 games started) and is 15-3. Sure, pitcher wins are not perfect indicators, but Tomlin has kept the Indians in almost all games he pitches and the team has won those games.

And, while Tomlin's batted ball against profile will never mirror the others on staff, pitching coach Mickey Callaway must be having the staff listen to Tom Hamilton call Lindor defensive plays in their sleep. Tomlin had a 46 percent flyball ratio in 2015 (and, as noted, to great effect), but he has cut that down to 38 percent in 2016. He has seen his groundball rate rise over 40 percent for the first time since 2012 (clockwork 37.5 percent each of the past three seasons). Anyone who doesn't have Francisco Lindor on their mid-season MVP ballots is out of their mind.

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Carlos Carrasco, Return of the Cookie

Carrasco was pitching the best in the rotation when his hamstrings betrayed him against Detroit on April 24. At the time, he had a 2.45 ERA with 20 strikeouts to just five walks in 22 innings pitched. Cookie has not been as dominant in his first two games back off of the DL though. He has struggled a bit giving up seven runs (three home runs) with only eight strikeouts in 11 2/3 innings. His ERA has risen to 3.48 (still tied with Tomlin for second-best on the team), but his FIP (4.86) warns of danger looming.

However, Carrasco has continued his Mastersonesque worm-burning ways. His 53.6% groundball rate would be a career high for a pitcher who customarily uses his sinker and changeup to put the ball on the ground. His issue has been that his hard-hit rate has risent to nearly 40%, which is unsustainable. His career norm of 30 percent hard hit rate should normalize his overall profile. Remember, Carrasco has been a pitcher who could argue has been just as good as a starting pitcher as Kluber over the past two seasons. Once his hamstrings allow him to regain his overall form, the Indians should see a return to the real Cookie.

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