On Tuesday afternoon, the Cleveland Indians made an announcement that had many baseball fans scratching their heads. The AL Central champs declared that in Game 1 of their upcoming ALDS series against the Yankees or Twins, their starting pitcher will not be presumptive Cy Young winner Corey Kluber or even breakout star Carlos Carrasco. Instead, it will be the slightly-above-average Trevor Bauer.
Our ALDS rotation (subject to change based on how series unfolds):
— AL Central champs! (@Indians) October 3, 2017
On its face, this move bucks all common logic. Typically, teams start their best pitcher as soon as possible so they can start him again as soon as possible. If you’re the Indians, don’t you want as much flexibility as possible in how you use Kluber? Kluber will pitch Game 2, then come back for Game 5 on normal rest, so he will get two starts if the series goes long — but if the Tribe falls behind 2-1, he won’t be available to come back on short rest for Game 4, as he would have been able to had he started Game 1.
Terry Francona is a future Hall of Fame manager, and president of baseball ops Chris Antonetti is a bright executive, so Cleveland deserves some benefit of the doubt here. With that in mind, here are the reasons why maybe pitching Bauer before Kluber makes some sense (some of which Francona touched on in announcing the move).
1. This allows Bauer to pitch in relief later in the series, freeing up a roster spot for another position player. Once Bauer throws Game 1, he will likely be done starting until the ALCS, meaning he can give the Indians some bullpen innings during Games 4 and 5 of the ALDS. Cleveland can use the spot that would have gone to another long reliever on an extra pinch-hitter or pinch-runner.
This isn’t entirely convincing, however, because the Indians might need Bauer to start Game 4 in a pinch, and he would have been available out of the ‘pen in Game 5 even if he had been slated for Game 2.
2. As Bill Baer of Hardball Talk points out, Kluber has been much better this season on four days rest than he has been on five days rest, so in that way it makes more sense for him to pitch Games 2 and 5 instead of Games 1 and 5.
But as Baer also points out, those splits were the other way around last year, suggesting the whole thing could be a red herring.
3. Bauer gets to pitch in front of a fresh bullpen in Game 1, whereas innings-eating Kluber won’t need as much support in Game 2
The counter to this one is that if Kluber gives the type of start you expect him to, Bauer could have a mostly rested bullpen behind him in Game 2 anyway.
4. Starting Game 2 will put Kluber on track to pitch on less-irregular rest for Game 1 of the ALCS. If the Indians are worried about their ace being over-rested, they won’t want him pitching Game 1, then waiting eight days to pitch again if Cleveland takes care of business in the ALDS in three or four games. Asking him to wait only seven days isn’t quite as dramatic.
Of course, this theory presumes the Indians will win the ALDS, which is never a wise assumption in a short series.
5. Some people have suggested Cleveland wants to match up Kluber with its opponents’ ace. But not only would this be a risky strategy, it also doesn’t even quite make sense. With Luis Severino and Ervin Santana starting Tuesday night for the Yankees and Twins, respectively, they almost certainly won’t pitch again until Game 3 on Sunday. Carrasco (who is pitching Game 3 presumably because his numbers are better on the road) will be facing the opposing ace, not Kluber.
In the end, odds are this won’t wind up mattering. Either the Indians will win the series quickly, they’ll lose the series quickly or the series will go to five gams and Kluber will get his second start anyway. But if Cleveland heads into Game 4 down 2-1 with either Josh Tomlin or Bauer on short rest slated to pitch while Kluber watches idly, this move could wind up looking awfully silly.