Sunday, April 17, 2011

Pitching In On A Lazy Sunday

After spending an extended afternoon in the Tribe Social Suite yesterday to watch the Indians take the second in a row from the O’s (whose fast start actually does look like a mirage), the good vibrations are flowing on the North Coast and the Tribe is hitting all of the high notes – and I don’t mean just because Castrovince did the dirty work for us compiling the Indians’ ACTUAL at-bat music. The music coming from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario is like nothing we’ve heard (to start a season, at least) since 2007 and while I’ll stop short of predicting that this summer will follow along the same lines as that one, it sure is fun to see the parallels.

So as the news that Grady is officially returning (hey, Travis Buck has an option) percolates and gives some sense that it perhaps really could feel like 2007 again, we’re off on a Lazy One…

With the Indians now sitting at 10-4, tied with the (gasp) Royals for (gasp) 1st place in the AL Central, the question has to start to come out as to when the “it’s too early” line reaches its expiration date. Certainly 14 games out of 162 is still a small percentage of a baseball season, but the Indians’ victories in the past two games have looked eerily close to the wins during the 8-game winning streak – paced by excellent starting pitching, getting ahead due to timely hitting, and closing out the game with bullpen progression that is developing an air of dominance.

After losing two, winning eight, and losing two, the Indians seem to be putting together another winning streak and one has to start wondering if this who the Indians are as a team and who they will be throughout the 2011 season. Even without consistent contributions from Santana and Choo (though the last couple of games show signs of a ship being righted), the Indians have scored the 3rd most runs in the AL, paced by their young SS, one Asdrubal Cabrera, about whom a scout told B-Pro’s John Perrotto, “He’s really cutting the bat loose and learning that he has some pop. He used to be content just to punch the ball through the infield, but you can see him really growing and gaining confidence as a hitter.”

To go straight to the horse’s mouth, Asdrubal told CBS Sportsline’s Scott Miller that, “I feel more strong” and with an OPS still over .900 after two weeks and no signs of slowing down (plus some dramatically improved defense), Asdrubal has started to show that the signs of hope that once existed for his ceiling may not be in vain, with a greater commitment to conditioning obvious and with the injuries that plagued him in the past. But for as exciting as Asdrubal’s start has been, it pales in comparison that of the rotation.

Just two Saturdays ago (after Game #2), I was out at a Bachelor Party in which one of my buddies asked me if I thought that the starting pitching would be consistent enough for the Indians to compete this year. After having just witnessed the team give up 23 runs in the first two games, started by the pitchers that I had the most hope for (Carmona and Carrasco) coming into the season, my answer came back a resounding “no” as the disclaimer from Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections about the Tribe pitchers (and you should read it if you haven’t, particularly with the benefit of hindsight) flitted around in my head.

In my heart, I wanted to be optimistic that Carmona would improve on his 2011 season, even if he wouldn’t be approaching Fausto v.2007 status, and I wanted to be hopeful that Carrasco and Masterson would show enough bright spots that they at least represented some hope for the future of the rotation. Maybe it was the doom-and-gloom pieces that I couldn’t avoid leading up to the season or maybe it was just that Cleveland mentality that if something could go wrong it would with these guys. After two games, I was ready to dismiss the Tribe starters, this despite writing about why there was hope for the pitching staff back in February, based on the second half of last year and the pedigree of some of the arms in the rotation.

But then something funny happened on the way to the bottom as Masterson threw a beauty in the series finale against the Pale Hose and Tomlin and Talbot followed suit against the Sawx. Carmona and Carrasco kept the good vibes going and Masterson whiffed 9 in his second start. Suddenly, before you knew it, the rotation was clicking on all cylinders to the point that the expectation was a 7-inning outing, perhaps allowing 1 or 2 runs. If you think that’s hyperbole, here is what the individual Indians’ starters have done over the last 12 games, since that Game #2 turning point:
1.23 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, .460 OPS against, 10 K and 5 BB in 14 IP

2.77 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, .618 OPS against, 11 K and 5 BB in 13 IP

1.33 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, .503 OPS against, 12 K and 4 BB in 20 1/3 IP

2.75 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, .564 OPS against, 11 K and 6 BB in 19 2/3 IP

1.46 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, .569 OPS against, 11 K and 5 BB in 12 1/3 IP

Realizing that taking 2 games out of 14 is not quite fair, those numbers are cumulative over 12 straight games with Carrasco and Tomlin’s ERA being the only ones over 2.00. Additionally, those numbers for Just Incredible (say it), Tomlin, and The Fury represent their season totals thus far, all of whom have kept opponents below a .575 OPS against through their first few starts.

Obviously, nobody is here to assert that this is what the Indians’ pitchers are going to do all year as the 1954 pitching staff’s legacy is going to be threatened and Anthony Castrovince has a great lines in a piece that you should probably read all of, when he says that “two and a half turns does not a rotation make,” going further to point out that “the starters will come back down to earth a bit”.

That’s absolutely true, but it begs the question that even if the “starters come back down to earth a bit”, given what we’ve seen, what does that mean for expected ERA at the end of the season? Could guys like Carmona and Masterson finish in the low-to-mid-3.00’s, or could Carrasco finish with an ERA in the high-3.00’s, or could Talbot and Tomlin even end the 2011 campaign in the low-to-mid-4.00’s?

Maybe that’s putting the cart before the horse and jumping to conclusions based on “two and a half turns” in the rotation, but’s Joe Sheehan has an interesting piece delving into the fast start for the Indians, specifically looking at the improved K/BB numbers for the starters, concluding that “these numbers reflect a change in skills that has shown up on the scoreboard”. If we’re talking about a “change in skills” for these pitchers, one that started in the 2nd half of last year and that has continued through the first two weeks of the season, what’s to stop it from continuing?

Maybe not at this high level, but remember how the Indians’ pitching staff posted a 3.89 ERA after the All-Star Break last year (4th in the AL)…yeah, maybe these first two weeks have shown that it wasn’t a fluke. To wit, going into Saturday’s game, the Indians’ pitching staff had a 3.34 ERA, good for 5th in the AL and the amazing thing about looking at that number is realizing that the starters have posted a 3.44 ERA (6th in the AL) and the relievers have posted a 3.09 ERA (3rd in the AL), meaning that the pitching staff has not been simply carried by a particular portion in the early going, as success has been realized throughout the staff.

Speaking of success “throughout the staff”, for as exciting as it has been to watch the Indians’ starters thrive, everyone realizes that the run given up by Vinnie Pestano in Saturday’s game is the FIRST EARNED RUN given up by the four arms that ostensibly make up the back end of the bullpen, right?

With Pestano allowing a run on Saturday, the quartet of Pestano, R. Perez, Sipp, and CF Perez have now thrown 24 innings between them and have allowed that one run while tallying 19 cumulative K and 8 cumulative BB in those 24 IP and while allowing just 7 hits on the season…between the four of them in two weeks.

Could it be that this strategy of stockpiling arms – and power ones at that – has ALREADY paid off for the Indians? Certainly, it looked like the Indians would have the arms to compete in the AL Central, but this year?

With Carmona and Masterson throwing their heavy sinkers, Talbot and Carrasco posting high K numbers by changing speeds, and Tomlin doing…well, whatever it is that Josh Tomlin does to succeed in MLB (he now has a career 4.18 ERA in 92 2/3 MLB IP), the Indians rotation looks as solid and as deep as it has in years, and not just full of “could-bes” and “what-ifs”, but with players that are producing.

But that whole “stockpiling arms” thing that the Indians set out to do when they moved so many of their veterans in the last 2 years…yeah, that still holds up as the player acquired for Ryan Garko (23-year-old LHP Scott Barnes) has 17 K in 11 IP in Akron, while LHP Nick Hagadone (from the Victor deal) has transitioned cleanly to the bullpen, holding AA hitters to a .211 OPS against while whiffing 6 in 6 IP…and those are just two instances as Gio Soto (acquired for Peralta) and Corey Kluber (acquired for Westbrook) have impressed in the early going as well.

But it isn’t just the young arms that entered the organization via trade that are thriving as (you may have heard by now) Drew Pomeranz has struck out 17 of the 37 hitters he’s faced in his first two starts in Kinston (landing him #1 on Baseball America’s initial Prospect Hot Sheet) while Al White has a 1.64 ERA in Columbus, striking out 13 in his first 11 innings for the Clippers, limiting AAA hitters to a .568 OPS against.

The success for the arms in the system has been nearly universal and while it was assumed that guys like White and Josh Judy and Bryce Stowell would eventually emerge from AAA to augment the parent club that may have been in need, the success of the Indians’ pitching staff is allowing the Tribe to create those…dare I even say this…Waves of Arms that they can use to overcome the injury and attrition that comes along with any young pitching talent.

Perhaps instead of small ripples arriving on the shores of Lake Erie, the Indians will be able to look off onto the horizon and expect guys like White, Pomeranz, Joe Gardner, Barnes, and Corey Kluber to arrive to the rotation and players like Hagadone, Cory Burns, Judy, Bryan Price, CC Lee and others to arrive to do exactly what Tony Sipp and Vinnie Pestano are doing for the parent club.

While it’s too easy to get ahead of ourselves in dreaming on these arms, let’s keep it to the parent club in terms of the here and now and, in light of the pitching that they’re getting and the hot star that they’re on, the logical question that sits in the back of everyone’s head is whether it is going to be enough for this year for the Indians to contend?

Have the Indians shortened up the timeframe for this “Rebuild/Reload/Whatever” to the point that they’re legitimate contenders just a year-and-a-half after the Victor and Lee deals?

While obviously it is still early (and yes, that still applies to answer the question from above), just looking around the AL Central, it’s hard not to see the Indians sticking around in this divisional race. Even if Joe Mauer’s leg soreness is not serious (and is now a bad time to mention that he’s just NOW in the first year of his 7-year, $184M deal), with the Twins’ pitching staff underwhelming from Liriano through the bullpen to Nathan, some warts are showing in the Twin Cities. On the South Side, Jerry Reinsdorf said before the season that the White Sox will have to draw 2.6 to 2.8 million people to break even – they currently rank 20th in attendance in the AL – with their slow start likely not helping the team’s short-term or long-term chances as Ozzie Guillen throws his entire bullpen under the bus on what seems to be a nightly basis. Despite their recent climb back to respectability, the Tigers already look old and thin in the rotation…because they are. As for the Royals – well, we’re about to get a first-hand look at then at the beginning of the week.

Regardless of what is happening in the rest of the AL Central – and for some reason, I take great joy in other teams’ bullpen implosions and have shades of “shoulder debridement” talk hearing this Mauer injury – the Indians are likely to go as far as their starting pitching takes them and with the way they’ve pitched from the third game of the season to today, contention doesn’t look too unrealistic as the Indians have started the 2011 season on the right foot…thanks to their starters.


jim said...

great way to start a sunday...seeing the tribe in 1st place and reading your usual insightful observations, PC.
it is all about the central division. if we keep pace with our counterparts, we are in it. maybe i should be saying that is might be them trying to keep pace with least for now.
starting pitching has been the key, but i feel compelled to throw a bone to the infield defense. what they are doing out there is directly connected to the success of our starters and i am loving it.
hoping we keep it going. could be a really fun summer.

Les Savy Ferd said...

wrote a long post talking about how good it felt to be watching this Indians team having fun and winning games but the internet devoured it.

here goes v2.0

In a strange way i think your pieces might even be more important when the Tribe are down, as you conscientiously seek sound talking points rather than regurgitating the dreck other sportswriters wallow in, but it must feel good to write about success!

I'm one who refrains from posting when things are bleak, but just know I've been appreciating your hard work.

The team is winning, firing on all cylinders. Gonna be a nice summer.

Cy Slapnicka said...

i second that.

i got a message from my father in law that said "glad to see grady is back, if he stays healthy..." i wanted to scream, "are the #@%& '...' necessary?!"

so nice to hear a positive voice...

BrainOfJ said...

Les Savy Ferd ... is your name a reference to Les Savy Fav? If so, that's the most awesomely random online handle ever.
Also, Paul, what exactly IS the social media suite?

Paul Cousineau said...

Oddly, it is "easier" to write about a bad team as opposed to a good one (and I do like to think that what I do here is the polar opposite of the MSM, whose job is to just ride the wave of public perception), as there's only so many ways to write "this team is playing well...and here's why". Not that I'm complaining about it, but reading most of the national stuff on the Tribe feels like some level of vindication for the stuff that's been here, even if it might have been something that's been covered here ad nauseum.

Regardless, I'll take a winning team any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

The Social Suite is an empty suite on the 3rd base side that they committed to have bloggers, Twitterers, social media folk in to catch a game. It's a nice gig as the tickets are gratis and you can hang out in the suite (which pumps in the radio call) for the game.