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Orbiting Cleveland: What to expect from Zach McAllister?

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Graphic created by Lianna Holub

As the Hot Stove season continues to heat up, questions are swirling in regard to just exactly what the Cleveland Indians will do.

Will they sign a bat? Will they get an arm? Will they make a trade? These are the prevailing questions in the minds of Tribe fans at the moment.

Instead of looking at the what ifs though, let’s talk about what we know, and what we know is that at least four members of the Indians’ 2014 starting rotation appear to be set in stone. Barring any significant changes, Justin MastersonDanny SalazarCorey Kluber and Zach McAllister seem to be locks to enter 2014 as members of the team’s starting rotation.

All four of these players are coming off of good to great 2013 seasons, but outside of Masterson, they all also seem to have some question marks that surround them.

Perhaps none of them are more puzzling than McAllister. Just exactly who is Zach McAllister?
That’s a question that Indians fans could easily answer for at least the first part of 2013.

In 11starts through June 2, McAllister went 4-5 with a 3.43 ERA. By all accounts, it appeared as if he was well on his way to cementing himself as an above-average, middle-of-the-rotation type.

Yet, then the finger injury happened.

At one point or another, McAllister suffered a right middle finger sprain, and its effects were much more significant than one might think.

The reality is that McAllister probably pitched through the injury for a bit too long, and there is no denying that it had an effect on him and his performance. After he finally did return from the disabled list, he simply was just not the same guy.

In 13 starts following the injury, McAllister went 5-4 with a 4.06 ERA. It doesn’t seem like a huge difference, but there were other indicators that are somewhat troubling.

For one, McAllister did not offer the same length in the second half of the season that he offered in the first. For example, prior to the injury, McAllister averaged 5.97 innings per start and was well on his way to reaching the 200-inning milestone.

Yet, after the injury was different story. Following the injury, he averaged just 5.28 innings per start. It’s a noticeable difference, and sadly it does significantly affect McAllister because much of his value is tied to his ability to log innings.

In 2014, the Indians are going to have to count on McAllister to stabilize the back of their starting rotation, but is that something that they can count on? Can they expect to see the ever-consistent McAllister from the first half of 2013 or the laboring version that was present on many occasions in the second half?

There is another reason to be concerned. When McAllister first injured his finger, one of the fears was that he might have been pitching through the injury for quite some time. That fear seemed to be justified by the fact that he didn’t seem to throw many breaking pitches in his final start before heading to the disabled list.

In fact, in that June 2 start, McAllister threw a total of 90 pitches, yet he did not throw a single slider. Knowing that, it seems fair to conclude that he was probably in pain during that final start, but how long had the pain been there? Was it present in preceding starts as well?

This might all be a moot point if there weren’t noticeable differences for McAllister once he returned from the injury — but there were. Prior to that injury, the slider was a weapon for McAllister; in fact, as he continued to develop it, it started to become a true outpitch for him.

Yet, here’s he startling thing. After he returned from the disabled list, McAllister’s use of the pitch decreased significantly. Just take a look at the graph below.

In April and May, McAllister threw his slider 16.47 and 16.35 percent of the time, respectively. Yet in July, August and September, he threw it 12.56, 9.52 and 10.65 percent of the time, respectively. That is a noticeable difference from earlier in the season.

So now, let’s speculate. Could it be that McAllister was still in some pain, which is ultimately what led him to throw the pitch less and less? Or was McAllister perhaps afraid of reinjuring himself, which is why he stayed away from the slider?

The reality is that McAllister and the Indians will probably never come out and answer that question directly. However, it’s not hard to see that McAllister was not nearly as effective in the second half when compared to the first half, and there has to be a reason for that. On the surface, the one noticeable change is that he was throwing his slider less, so that it could be concluded that that probably factored into his performance.

As noted earlier, McAllister was not able to provide nearly as much length once he came off the disabled list. In fact, in his final six starts, he eclipsed the six inning mark on just one occasion, and he failed to eclipse five innings on three occasions.

There were many times where McAllister was removed after he saw the lineup for a third time. It appeared as if hitters made their adjustments at that point, and they were then able to make solid contact on McAllister’s pitches.

While this is only speculation, one has to believe that McAllister’s limited use of his slider played a role in this. Had he been throwing his breaking ball more often, McAllister would have been able to keep hitters guessing, and they would not be able to just sit back and tee off on his fastball. Without the slider, he essentially just throws a fastball, cutter and changeup, so he really needs that breaking ball to keep hitters honest.

This is where the concern starts to settle in. We know that McAllister is going to be counted on to play a large role in 2013, but how can he be expected to succeed if he’s afraid to throw a breaking ball?

The key thing to remember is that it was the development of the slider that really pushed McAllister over the top from an organizational guy to a legitimate Major League starter. When the Indians acquired him in exchange for Austin Kearns in 2010, the slider was still very much a developing pitch for McAllister. However, he continued to tweak it along the way, and that really paid dividends for him as he seemed to be on his way to becoming a staple in the team’s rotation.

So, unless McAllister regains his confidence in that pitch, it’s hard to be anything more than cautiously optimistic in regard to his outlook for 2013.

Yet, there are some positive signs moving forward.

When McAllister first entered the team’s starting rotation in 2012, one of the most positive takeaways was that he looked like a guy capable of generating some swing-and-miss. In 22 starts that season, McAllister averaged 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings.

That was not the case in 2013 though. Even with his strong performance, McAllister was averaging only 6.17 strikeouts per nine innings before he was placed on the disabled list after the June 2 start.

However, McAllister made significant strides in this area after he came off the disabled list. Across his final 13 starts of the season, the big right-hander punched out 7.34 batters per nine innings. This was a significant difference from his first-half numbers and also very encouraging for a back-of-the-rotation starter.

Now, imagine if McAllister would have been able to consistently throw his slider in the second half of 2013. It’s reasonable to believe that his strikeout rate might have been even higher if that were the case.

Also, while much of McAllister’s 2013 success came in the first half of the season, his FIP and xFIP were actuallybetter during the second half. While McAllister posted a 3.43 ERA before hitting the disabled list, his FIP and xFIP was 4.21and 4.59, respectively.

In comparison, McAllister had a 4.06 ERA in the second half, but a FIP and xFIP of 3.86 and 4.48, respectively. Was he just a tad unlucky?

That’s a question that will probably be answered throughout the 2014 season. Regardless of what the numbers say, there is no denying that McAllister did not seem to pitch like himself once he was finally recovered from the middle finger injury.

That leads many to question whether he was ever actually fully recovered, and that concern seems to be justified by the decreased usage of his slider.

If McAllister is healthy once again, the Indians could be looking at a very above-average back-of-the-rotation starter. However, if it seems as if he’s unwilling to throw any breaking pitches, then it could be that there may be a pressing issue that lingers.

Ideally, this will become a non-issue, but it’s hard to not be at least a bit concerned, especially with the team’s history of finger injuries ala Adam Miller.

If anything, the entire situation just goes to show how difficult it can be to gauge and analyze starting pitchers. Just over a year ago, many were clamoring about McAllister’s potential and his ability to possibly be even more than a middle-of-the-rotation starter. Yet, now there are questions as to whether he’s even that.

The rotation is already in trouble with the losses of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir. That makes it even more crucial that McAllister goes out and reestablishes himself as a quality Major League starter in 2014.

One thought on “Orbiting Cleveland: What to expect from Zach McAllister?

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