The Cleveland Indians starting rotation is one of the most intriguing in all of fantasy baseball. The Tribe could have all five starters finish the 2014 season as mixed league relevant. That’s a tall order from a team that had maybe one pitcher worthy of a roster spot in a mixed league as recently as 2012. Three of the five starters are must-draft pitchers in every applicable format who could be useful in every pitching category other than saves. The 2014 Indians won’t be the mid-90’s Braves and it’s doubtful that any of these guys will be Hall of Famers, but this is a solid starting rotation that is worthy of attention in the coming draft season.
Justin Masterson is the de facto ace thanks to his breakout 2013 season. Masterson was building a career as a guy that would be more useful as an innings eater in real baseball than as a pitcher on a fantasy staff. No longer. Masterson ditched his changeup, used his slider more often and posted a career high 24.3% K % while lowering his BB % from 9.7% in 2012 to 9.5% in 2013. He also maintained the use of his above average sinker and induced a 58.0% GB %. More strikeouts + lots of ground balls = the breakout that Masterson observers had been waiting for.
The difference in his strikeout totals was tied to his slider usage pattern. Masterson has relied on his four-seam in two-strike counts for most of his career. His results were mediocre with a paltry 17.15% whiff/swing percentage. He used his slider as his out pitch in 2013 and managed to post a 44.61% whiff/swing in two-strike counts when using his slider. More whiffs with two strikes means a lot more strikeouts. Masterson’s breakout is completely legit and fantasy owners should be perfectly happy with Masterson as a key part of their fantasy rotation. The maturation of Masterson from prospect to solid, but flawed rotation guy to a guy that fantasy GMs should actually want on their roster has been a fascinating trip. It’s like he’s the anti-Rick Porcello. Masterson keeps evolving while Rick Porcello remains Rick Porcello now and forever.
Corey Kluber was on his way to a full-blown breakout season complete with fantasy owners writing his name with hearts around it on the back of their notebooks when he was struck down with a sprained finger and lost a month of the season. Kluber made 24 starts in 2013 and most of them were absolutely electric. Kluber posted a 4.12 K:BB with a 8.31 K/9 and a 2.02 BB/9 in 147.1 innings. Add another month of solid pitching and a few more W’s on his record and Kluber wouldn’t be someone fantasy GMs are still mostly unaware of.
Kluber relied heavily on his slider in 2013 which helped him get a lot of groundballs (47.86% GB/BIP %). His strikeouts came mostly from his slider. He did use his sinker more often in two strike counts than any other pitch (228 counts to be exact), but he only posted a 14.75% whiff/swing %. He was much better at missing bats with his slider. He posted a 35.96% whiff/swing % when he used his slider in 178 two-strike counts. He misses bats, gets groundballs and his 3.10 xFIP indicates that he out pitched his 3.85 actual ERA. Kluber will likely be had a discount rate due to his lack of name recognition. He should provide solid value as long as he’s able to keep his fingers unsprained. He’s an overdraft candidate, but he appears to have the skills and the ability to use said skills that will make fantasy GMs swoon all summer long.
Danny Salazar is the third Indians starter that fantasy GMs should flock to like he’s a pair of Norwegian pop stars on YouTube. Salazar is entering his age 24 season and he only has 52 major league innings under his belt. 52 innings in which he posted a foxy 11.25 K/9 with only a 2.60 BB/9. This guy throws baseballs like he’s mad at them. His fastball reached the triple digits and he averaged 97.0 MPH on his four-seam. He doesn’t have the off-speed stuff that Masterson or Kluber have developed and he profiles as a fly ball pitcher. He posted a 0.86 GB:FB ratio with a 39.8% FB %. His .298 BABIP actually sounds high for a fly ball pitcher, but his 13.7% HR:FB ratio actually is high for a guy who gets fly balls almost 40% of the time balls are in play against him. Fantasy GMs might want to err on the side of caution with Salazar, but he’s a worthy target for a fantasy GM looking to add strikeouts in the middle rounds. He should provide plenty of K’s, but the other numbers might suffer due to his lack of a change of pace. He might look like a typical flash in the pan, one-hit wonder, but he appears to have the actual talent to reproduce his initial results…unlike the Norwegian pop stars.