Corey Kluber is probably the best pitcher in baseball at this moment in time. You've seen the stats! They're awesome. His ERA is under 2.00 since the beginning of June and 1.42 since the beginning of August. Lots of strikeouts, few walks, complete domination.
As a result, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona's decision to start Trevor Bauer in Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the wild-card winner (now known to be the New York Yankees) and Kluber in Game 2 seems like a puzzling choice. General rule of thumb: You start your ace in the first game of a series, especially in a short series when winning Game 1 is even more important. The team that wins Game 1 wins best-of-five series 71 percent of the time.
The first key is understanding that with days off after Games 2 and 4, the Game 1 starter could potentially start Game 4 on three days of rest and the Game 2 starter on the regular four days of rest. In that regard, if the series goes five games, it doesn't really matter if Kluber starts Games 1 and 5 or Games 2 and 5.
"We wanted to keep Kluber on his day. That was really important to Kluber, and that was really the only way we could do it," Francona said on Tuesday afternoon. "If you’re fortunate enough to win in four, you have your ace ready for the next series.”
Still, that doesn't explain the decision. Bauer is the team's third-best starter behind Kluber and Carrasco.
1. Francona wants Bauer to start at home. Bauer had a 3.93 ERA at home and 4.54 ERA on the road and saw an even bigger difference in his strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.64 at home, 2.29 on the road). That's also just one season of data. Last year, Bauer was better on the road. Plus, if you wanted to give Bauer a home start, you could still go Kluber in Game 1 and Bauer in Game 2.
2. Obviously, Francona doesn't want Kluber starting on short rest in Game 4, even though he started three times last postseason on short rest due to injuries in the Cleveland rotation. Note the difference in results. On full rest, he allowed no runs in 19⅓ innings. In his three starts on short rest, he allowed seven runs in 15 innings.
3. That, however, still doesn't explain this. To me, it seems the plan is likely that Bauer will start Games 1 and 4. He's known for his rubber arm, and Francona did say that Tomlin would be available out of the bullpen in the first three games. That suggests Francona is not locked into Tomlin starting Game 4.
Remember how loaded this pitching staff is. Mike Clevinger, who had a 3.11 ERA and 137 strikeouts in 121⅔ innings, and Danny Salazar, who had the fourth-highest strikeout rate among all pitchers with at least 100 innings, will be available out of the bullpen. The bullpen is so deep with those two that Nick Goody, Dan Otero and Zach McAllister, who each had an ERA under 3.00, won't even make the division series roster (barring a last-minute change).
With Clevinger and Salazar available for multi-inning stints if needed -- plus Andrew Miller -- Francona doesn't need Bauer to go deep into the game. His plan no doubt is to get two turns through the batting order from Bauer, assuming he's pitching well, and then turn the game over to Clevinger or Salazar, Miller and closer Cody Allen. He can then let Kluber goes as long as necessary in Game 2 without worrying about pitch counts, just as he did last postseason.
The only risk to the plan is if the Indians are trailing in the series after three games, Francona won't have the option of starting Kluber in Game 4. If Francona had gone Kluber-Carrasco-Bauer, he could go Kluber on short rest and then Carrasco on regular rest. The Indians clearly have mapped this out and decided Kluber isn't going to start on short rest.
The key is that no situation is going to catch Francona off guard. We saw this last postseason. In the postseason, too many managers are reacting midstream to the action on the field. The Indians had a clear plan heading into each game; even when Bauer's bloody pinkie forced him to leave Game 2 of the ALCS after two outs, Francona was ready with his stream of relievers, going with a short reliever in Otero, even in the first inning.
Now, there's a chance this could all backfire. If Bauer pitches poorly in both games, or Bauer and Tomlin pitch poorly and the Indians don't even get to a Game 5, this rotation order will be questioned. But if the Indians wrap it up in four games or fewer, then they are lined up in the ALCS -- Kluber in Game 1, Carrasco in Game 2.