Finger Can Trace Troubles for McAllister, Indians

A subplot perhaps lost in the wreckage of a sweep that was as disastrous a three-game series in April can be may have been, save for TJ House, the worst performance of it.

Zach McAllister’s bombing in the home opener Friday gave reason to consider that perhaps no two pitchers who once walked such parallel roads only to diverge when faced with identical impediments co-exist on a Major League starting rotation as they do now for the Indians.

No performances have better plotted the substantial current distance between McAllister and his once-comparable staffmate Corey Kluber than those in Friday and Saturday’s losses to the Tigers.

McAllister managed to fool few in the Tigers’ sizzling lineup and was lucky to give up only five runs on the 13 hits he allowed. What has been overshadowed by the sweep and the loss of Yan Gomes is that, after just a single start out of spring, McAllister has been relegated to the bullpen, though he could return later in the month.

Kluber, meanwhile, had far from his best stuff but was successful in keeping Detroit hitters off-balance, striking out 10, before the bullpen imploded in Saturday’s 9-6 loss.

It was the dichotomy of outings that has come to characterize the career paths of a pair of former unheralded returns in minor deals who toiled between Cleveland and Columbus before finally earning their stay and encountering the same rare injury.

And the fork of fate with which they were confronted that sent them their separate ways?

Middle finger sprains that, to any other organization, wouldn’t carry a remembrance much less the intrigue or trepidation.

Because in recent Tribe lore, there is no injury as stigmatized and foreboding as that of a finger affliction, especially for a pitcher.

The genesis of sorts occurred when a recurring middle finger issue truncated the career of flame-throwing 2003 first-round draft pick Adam Miller before he reached the majors. It earned further distinction when a similar incident struck 2009 first-round draftee Alex White in his third start for the Indians in 2011, which was later reported as a contributing factor to his dealing to Colorado in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade.

In the midst of a playoff run in 2013, McAllister strained his middle finger in a start against the Rays in early June. About two weeks after the time McAllister came back from his scare in July, Kluber was shelved with his.

In a physiological case study, however, both pitchers did not respond equally.

Kluber continued to pitch with similar conviction after returning in early September, while McAllister was tentative, relying almost exclusively on his fastball.

For McAllister, the before-and-after splits should paint a clear picture. When placed on the DL, he carried a 3.43 ERA and averaged six innings per start; after returning, his ERA increased nearly two-thirds of a run while averaging just over five innings-per-start. Many had hoped that his problems were behind him after the season ended, but his 2014 season was even more troublesome, as his ERA ballooned to 5.23 while he split time as a starter and reliever between Cleveland and Columbus.

It is McAllister’s pitch selection that should really tell the story: in 2012, his first season as a full-time starter, he threw his curveball 14.7 percent of the time and a nearly identical 14.8 percent before his injury in 2013. Since coming back in August of 2013, McAllister has thrown his curve at a 10.2 percent clip.

Besides the sheer decrease in secondary offerings, McAllister has also lost the nuance and refinement he had gained as a pitcher.

Pitching coach Mickey Callaway had helped McAllister add a splitter and cutter into his arsenal just a month before his injury. It’s entirely possible that McAllister suffered his sprain as a result of the strain being placed on finger; then again, the pitches appeared to be a significant contributor to the new level of success he was enjoying.

In any event, McAllister eliminated both pitches from his mix. Instead, he added a slider after the 2013 season that he has featured—as he did Friday— as his main complement to his predominant fastball.

The resulting effect has given McAllister a fastball-slider-changeup mix that is more indicative of a relief pitcher, a role in which he not-so-coincidentally seemed to excel in during limited duty last season. In addition, McAllister has continued to scrape upper-90’s velocity, a trait the Tribe pen could use more of.

But while McAllister has been relegated to a more rudimentary style, Kluber has continued to evolve. He’s developed a two-seamer, cutter and curve each at different points of his career that have helped him go from fringe Major League starter to intriguing project to Cy Young Award winner.

Kluber has never wavered from his willingness to snap one off and has in fact increased the use of his cutter and curveball since his injury.

It’s as if McAllister and Kluber have taken opposite approaches to the same problem.

But it’s fair to wonder where both pitchers would be if it wasn't for their respective finger strains.

Prior to the injuries in summer 2013, both pitchers seemed to be on similar career trajectories. McAllister and Kluber seemed primed for effective roles as starters after being jettisoned from the organizations they were drafted from for bit players.

While few could’ve ever imagined Kluber pitching at such a high level, McAllister might be an even more perplexing case.

With his pitching style lending itself better to the bullpen, the righty might have an opportunity to reinvent himself in the same vain as Royals starters-turned-relievers Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis. That wouldn’t be such a bad consolation.

As it is, it appears that McAllister has never been able to shake the inury’s effects and has since followed, at least for now, a less effective career road.

Meanwhile, Kluber, ever the poet, who on Saturday penned his most recent masterpiece, took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.
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