Winning streaks aside, the Cleveland Indians starting rotation is making history

The Tribe has won a team record 13 games in a row, but it's the dominance of their starting rotation that should be creating the bigger buzz all summer long.

It seems strange to say when you’re talking about an all-time franchise record, but the Cleveland Indians’ 13-game winning streak might actually be obscuring the more significant accomplishments of the past two weeks. The last time the Tribe hit the No. 13 mark—during the Bob Feller / Larry Doby era in 1951—they outscored opponents by a whopping 63-30 margin during that run. This time around, it’s an even more eye-popping 80-26 gap, launching Cleveland’s season run differential from a respectable +40 to a phenomenal +94, second only to the Cubs in all of baseball.

Researchers have had a ball digging into the historical archives for precedents for this type of sustained dominance. For example, it’s apparently been exactly 100 years since a team last posted a streak of this length AND had its starting pitchers allow three or fewer runs in every game during the run. We’re talking about the 1916 New York Giants and Christy Mathewson there. Christy Mathewson! It’s just ludicrous territory. But again, the actual streak part of the equation is really just window dressing. The real story is the emergence of a historically great starting rotation. And even a loss or two this weekend isn’t going to kill that narrative. all due respect to the Indians’ torrid offense—which is averaging 6.15 runs per game during the streak and giving the pitching staff a lot of early leads to work with—it’s just difficult to avert your eyes from numbers like this: 14 Ks in 7.1 innings. That's Carlos Carrasco's effort against Toronto's powerful line-up last night. Or how about 10-0 with a 1.86 ERA. That’s the combined output from the quintet of Carrasco, Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, and Josh Tomlin since June 17—the beginning of the streak. Production like that, much like the streak itself, is completely unsustainable. But calling it a fluke is also a step in the wrong direction.

The truly exciting thing about the 2016 Cleveland Indians is that there hasn’t been anything particularly magical about the way they’re winning. What they’ve done these past thirteen games hasn’t felt like a “crazy ride” or an “improbable feat.” The fact is, every single night, with this group of five starters, you can’t help but like your chances—not for cosmic reasons, or some sort of LeBron related karma, but because they’re just better than everybody else.

It’s been widely agreed upon by most amateur baseball historians that the 1954 Cleveland starting rotation—which included the same Big 4 as the 1951 version—was the best in the club’s history, and one of the best in league history. Maybe that reputation was a bit unfairly boosted by the ’54 team’s 111 wins and famous run to the World Series [I'd actually wager that the '55 rotation, with Herb Score joining the fold, was even better], but nonetheless, the perception has persisted now for more than 60 years. If a Cleveland rotation wanted to call itself anything “all-time,” they’d have to ask Bob Feller, Early Wynn, Mike Garcia, Bob Lemon, and—to a lesser extent—Art Houtteman, for their permission.

"The truly exciting thing about the 2016 Cleveland Indians is that there hasn’t been anything particularly magical about the way they’re winning. They're just better than everybody else."

With that in mind, the 1968 starting staff of Sam McDowell, Luis Tiant, Sonny Siebert, Stan Williams, and Steve Hargan certainly knocked on the door. In the early ‘80s, Len Barker, Rick Sutcliffe, and Bert Blyleven co-existed for half a second, and a decade after them, Greg Swindell, Tom Candiotti, Bud Black, and John Farrell had their moments. In more recent years, there have been plenty of Cy Young Award winners—Sabathia, Lee, and Kluber—but even during the Era of Champions, the rotation was often lopsided and/or out of sync, peppered in with Dave Burbas, Jason Davises, and Ryan Dreses.  

Analytical types have liked the constitution of this current crop of Tribe starters for several years now, warning of a potential perfect storm if the whole group ever caught wind in their sails at the same time. We got hints of it last season, and in fact, the rotation’s strikeout numbers are actually down a bit from a year ago. Everyone is also a better pitcher than they were a year ago, however, including a healthy Josh Tomlin, a wiser Trevor Bauer, and a briefly injured but now also seemingly very healthy Carlos Carrasco.

Obviously, we’re only cruising into the halfway point of the campaign, and things can go all sorts of wrong in the next three months. It’s not too soon, though, to start pondering if we’re witnessing—no hyperbole intended—the greatest rotation in Indians history. Sure, I guess a more important question would be, “are we witnessing a championship team in the making?” But that sounds like crazy talk born from overreactions to win streaks and recent downtown parades. Besides, we should remember that while baseball produces a championship team every single year (except when the Expos are loaded to win one); an all-time great pitching staff only comes along once every generation or so.

Right now, 78 games into the season, five of the top six players on the 2016 roster—in terms of WAR—are starting pitchers. That’s not normal. As a unit, Kluber, Carrasco, Salazar, Bauer, and Tomlin—should they remain healthy and even somewhat close to their current courses—will absolutely enter the conversation against their 1954 counterparts. And yes, some postseason heroics would help their cause.
Head-to-head comparisons are notoriously challenging across eras, even when you’re using adaptable metrics like ERA+ or WAR. One advantage the ’54 Tribe rotation has over the 2016 group was its experience and pre-existing notoriety. There were THREE Hall of Famers on the staff, and everybody was pretty well aware of it. Of course, experience also comes with age, and all four members of the Big 4 were over 30 by this point, with Feller entering the downside of his career at 35. The current rotation is comparatively much younger, with still untapped potential (Bauer, 25, and Salazar, 26) alongside established, reliable workers (Kluber, 30, Carrasco, 29, and Tomlin, 31).

Pitching in the era of the strikeout, the current guys have much fancier K rates than the ’54 crew, but Wynn and Co. threw in the time of rubber arms and small bullpens—meaning three starters on that staff tossed 250+ innings, something not even Kluber is currently on pace to match.

The 1954 Indians’ main five starters had an average ERA+ of 128, while the 2016 version averages out at 159. The combined WAR in ’54 was 16.9, and 2016 currently sits at 13 with half a season to go.

If you judge a pitching staff on the pooled career accomplishments of its members, then 1954 may always remain the gold standard in Indians history. If you’re looking for one year in which all five pitchers in a rotation were simultaneously functioning at the peak of their powers, however, 2016 may be your year. Sit back, relax, and enjoy. Even when the inevitable loss comes, you’ll still be witnessing history.

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