Sunday, August 28, 2011

Scratching, Clawing, and Limping on A Lazy Sunday

In light of all of these Thomecoming Festivities that have filled the corner of Carnegie and Ontario – which included the high socks of Friday night and the Thome bomb on Saturday night – it is important to note that the Indians are now a week away from Labor Day Weekend (with the Tigers coming to Cleveland on Labor Day) and still remain within spitting distance of the divisional lead. While some of the folks who flowered Thome with their adulation this weekend were apparently unaware that the Indians were in 2nd place (much less were still a team…with uniforms and everything), when all of the Thome hysteria settles down, the Indians need to make sure that they’re still squarely in the AL Central race…contributions of ol’ #25 or not.

Certainly, that task is a daunting one as the injuries mount and as the Tigers continue to rattle off victories (they’ve won 9 of their last 11), but the Indians have come back from their Motor City meltdown and the Mariners’ series to take the first two from the Royals (what was that again about the “soft underbelly of the schedule) and have the chance to continue to build momentum in anticipation of next weekend’s arrive of the Motor City Kitties to the North Coast…but that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
That said, there’s plenty to get to, so let’s get off on a Lazy One…

Of course, it’s been said here far too many times, but if the Indians are going to stay in this AL Central race, they’re going to have to do it by outpitching their opponents and Ubaldo’s outing on Friday night (against the Royals…I know) showed that he is still capable of dominating an opponent as he finally commanded his fastball (something Zack Meisel astutely pointed out earlier in the week as a key to his success) and settled into the groove that most expected him to live in since he arrived from Colorado. Regardless of the opponent, if Jimenez can muster together some momentum from Friday night, the Indians’ chances of sticking around in the Central (much less overtaking the suddenly-can’t-lose Tigers) grow exponentially.

Back when Ubaldo was added, the idea that Jimenez and Masterson could front a rotation and provide some shutdown innings was the main selling point that Jimenez could be a “fit” in Cleveland. Yes, Jimenez’s contract plays a role, but the idea of adding Ubaldo was predicated on the idea that he’d combine with Masterson to form a 1-2 punch that would become the envy of the Central, with the rest of the rotation falling into place around those two. Now, with news that Josh Tomlin will hit the DL (in a move that stinks of inning suppression), the burden of having to carry the Tribe’s pitching staff becomes heavier on the shoulders of Jimenez and Masterson as the back end of the Indians’ rotation continues to filter through arms due to injury.

Certainly, Carmona’s performance since his…um, “fall” in Cincinnati has restored some level of confidence in him, but with Tomlin and Carrasco on the DL, the Indians are going to have to rely on the likes of Dave Huff and Zach McAllister and Jeanmar Gomez to hold down the fort by taking up perhaps more than one spot in the rotation, for at least the next couple of weeks. The necessary usage of those arms wasn’t unforeseen because of mounting inning counts for young pitchers like Tomlin and due to the sheer volume of games that are still yet to be played, but with Tomlin now officially out (for at least a couple of weeks…and these “elbow injuries” for Tomlin and Cookie terrify me, perhaps unnecessarily) the Indians are dipping into their depth to see if they can get some performances from pitchers that were ostensibly the 7th, 8th, and 9th options coming into the season.

When Tomlin hit the DL late this week, it meant that 80% of the Indians’ Opening Day rotation has spent time on the DL with two of those pitchers (Cookie and The Fury) having two trips to the Disabled List on the season. Additionally, let’s not forget that the first pitcher called up from Columbus (Alex White) also spent time on the DL prior to his being traded, so 5 of the top 6 starters in the organization (when the season started) have now all spent time on the DL. If the Indians reportedly had rotational depth that they could lean on, surely it is being tested and that figures to continue. Of course, Talbot is still in Columbus as an option (and, it should be noted, that he cleared waivers without being claimed…which puts the league-wide opinion of him into perspective), but the Indians are now operating with the steady Masterson at the top, the horrifyingly inconsistent and undeniably talented Jimenez and Carmona…and the final two spots being filled by pitchers that spent most of their time in 2011 as Clippers.

That’s how they’re going to go to have to go after the AL Central, unless Carrasco suddenly re-appears (and is effective) as Tomlin figures to miss a couple of starts at least – and he could be shut down for the season depending upon where the team sits when he’s eligible to come off of the DL, as could Cookie – and the last two starts for McAllister and Huff bring into focus the profound difference between success at the AAA level and even competence at the MLB level. Don’t take that to mean that the Indians are unquestionably sunk as Masterson, Jimenez, and Carmona could get into a groove with the Indians attempting to find the right arm for the right situation in the back-end-of-the-rotation, but the attrition in the rotation is hard to ignore.

To date, the Indians have had 10 separate pitchers start games and have three pitchers who have 25 starts or more. While every team generally dips into their pitching depth (the Tigers have four pitchers with 25 starts or more, for some context), the Indians are facing the injury bug in their rotation at the worst possible time.

However, it’s not just the rotation that is limping to the finish here, as the Indians’ DL is currently populated by Hafner, Sizemore, Brantley, and Kipnis with Choo having just arrived back and still experiencing soreness in his side that took him out of the game again last night and threatens his availability in the near-term. Amazingly, the only key players from the Opening Day roster that haven’t spent time on the DL this year are Asdrubal and Santana. You could include Hannahan, The OC, and Kearns if you’d like, but if you figure that Hannahan and The OC were supposed to be simply placeholders for The Chiz (who hasn’t been the same since getting hit in the face) and Kipnis (on the DL), the Indians have had to endure more than their fair share of injuries…and not just to bit players.

Since every team endures their fair share of injuries over 162 games, it is worth noting that the Indians have THREE players with more than 375 plate appearances on the season and one of those players (Brantley) is currently on the DL…and probably should have been on it sooner. The BLC’s 355 plate appearances place him 4th on the team – and he broke his thumb and missed 6 weeks of the season. Just behind Choo on the plate appearance leaderboard for the Tribe is Uncle Orlando (traded nearly a month ago), followed by Matt LaPorta, who spent time on the DL and is now (correctly) being used sparingly.

For some perspective on that, the Tigers have SIX players with more than 375 plate appearances, with Austin Jackson being the only among those six who doesn’t have an OPS over .800. What that means is that not only have the Tigers been healthy this season, but that they’ve been healthy where they NEED to be healthy as Miggy Cabrera leads the team in PA with 557, which is 19 fewer plate appearances than Hafner and Sizemore have COMBINED for this season. By the way, Hafner and Sizemore have 11 more combined plate appearances than Mauer and Morneau (who are both now healthy) on the year, who play for those “oh-so-injured-and-snakebitten” Twins.

Perhaps the caveat exists that Hafner and Sizemore (just to use them as the examples) were injury risks coming into the season, but the Tigers have received largely healthy seasons from the middle of their order hitters (Miggy, Vic, Jhonny, Boesch, and Avila) while the Indians have used Shelly Duncan as their cleanup hitter and have had their five best hitters (Asdrubal, Choo, Hafner, Sizemore, and Santana) in the lineup together FOURTEEN times, or about 11% of their games played to date.

With that knowledge, the fact that this team is team is still even close to the top of their division (although, in full disclosure, a .500 team is only close in the AL Central) is stunning and speaks to the resiliency of the club as they’ve continued to scratch and claw their way into relevance in the division. Interestingly, the only portion of their team that hasn’t been horribly affected by injury has been their bullpen and yet, for as healthy as their bullpen has been, there are cracks that are beginning to show in the foundation as the recent struggles of Chris Perez have certainly been reason to give pause to the idea that he should continue on as the closer.

With the role of “closer” more than any other “position” on a baseball team, emotion plays as large of a role in perception as any and while the whole “all that matters is getting those last three outs” philosophy is one that we’ve seen spouted by many, the even moderate effectiveness of Perez in the 9th inning has allowed the Indians’ relief corps to settle into roles that they have thrived in. Given what was seen on the North Coast in 2006 and 2008 know what a volatile 9th inning option can do to a bullpen, much less a team, and Perez’s performance (particularly in the 1st half of the year) afforded the Tribe bullpen some stability and allowed guys like Pestano, Sipp, Smith, and R. Perez to settle into the roles in which they’ve thrived.

That said, with Perez’s continued struggles cause more than a little worry. In his last 16 appearances prior to Saturday night, Perez had allowed runs in 7 of them as he had walked the same amount of hitters (8) as he had struck out and his ERA of 4.11 over those 16 appearances was actually probably lower than it should be due to his .239 BABIP over those 15 1/3 IP. While the small sample size alarm is blaring, it is worth noting that relievers really only deal in small sample sizes and, while I loathe the “Save” as an actual statistic, the notion of a “Blown Save” is pretty cut and dry in that a reliever comes in with a lead and blows it. That’s pretty easy to understand and doesn’t involve knowing whether the tying run ever makes it to the on-deck circle or any of the other absurd qualifications for a “Save”. The fact that he’s allowed runs in nearly half of his last 16 appearances, given that he’s generally starting an inning, well…that’s not good and with the stressful Perez appearances that are suddenly becoming the norm, perhaps a change should be in order.

With the small margin of error that the Indians are currently operating with, they need every aspect of their ballclub that they can control and maximize to be operating at full capacity and, as the last couple of weeks have started to unfortunately show, having Chris Perez at the back end of the bullpen may not be utilizing the assets in the bullpen in the best-possible manner. Admittedly, I know little of clubhouse dynamics and how certain players feed off of each other, but Perez (histrionics on the mound and Twitter presence considered) is far from the Indians’ “best” reliever right now and the growing sense that the already-tenuous Indians’ season could be adversely affected by his struggles is growing.

As a quick aside here, there was an interesting piece written by Tyler Kepner of the NYT on the Braves’ bullpen and how the components of that bullpen (best in MLB) came to be. Much of the focus is placed on the Braves’ 22-year-old closer Craig Kimbrel as Kepner writes that “Kimbrel, though, is otherworldly. He has struck out 41 percent of opposing hitters — 103 of 251 — and has averaged 14.56 strikeouts per nine innings. Only five pitchers have ever had a better ratio with at least 60 innings pitched.”

What does this have to do with the Indians or Chris Perez?
Well, if Kimbrel is “otherworldly”, what can be said of the performance of another rookie pitcher, this one toeing the slab for the Wahoo Warriors?

Allow me to point this out for a moment:
Craig Kimbrel 2011 – 14.56 K/9, 4.12 K/BB, 1.01 WHIP, .475 OPS against
Vinnie Pestano 2011 – 12.32 K/9, 3.58 K/BB, 1.09 WHIP, .583 OPS against

Are Kimbrel’s numbers better?
Sure, but Pestano has struck out 1 in 3 batters that he has faced this year (68 K, 204 batters faced) and if the better measures of a reliever are his ability to strike hitters out, limit baserunners either via hit or walk, and limit damage when hits are given up, what Pestano has done this year puts him among the elite in the AL:
Pestano’s K/9 – 12.32 (3rd among AL relievers with more than 40 IP)
Pestano’s WHIP – 1.09 (19th among AL relievers with more than 40 IP)
Pestano’s OPS against - .583 (14th lowest among AL relievers with more than 40 IP)

Now, compare those numbers and ranks to those that C. Perez has compiled:
C. Perez’s K/9 – 5.55 (55th among AL relievers with more than 40 IP)
C. Perez’s WHIP – 1.23 (31st among AL relievers with more than 40 IP)
C. Perez’s OPS against - .646 (29th lowest among AL relievers with more than 40 IP)

Now, it is worth noting here that Tony Sipp’s K/9 is 7.86 (29th highest among AL relievers), his WHIP is 0.99 (8th lowest among AL relievers) and Sipp’s OPS against is .595 (16th lowest among AL relievers) and Joe Smith is having a nice statistical year (.528 OPS against), but there seems to be this idea that there is a “closer mentality” thing at play here that somehow forces the Indians to stick with Perez as the closer because…well, because he’s been doing it since Kerry Wood left last year.

While the whole “closer mentality” thing is a bit overblown in my opinion (Joe Borowski’s “closer mentality” still gives me night sweats), is it absurd to think that Vinnie Pestano could come into the game in the 9th inning in MLB and have the same success that he’s had in the 7th and 8th innings?

Pestano is no stranger to the 9th inning as Pestano finished 43 of the 48 games he pitched as an Aero in Akron and he finished 20 of his 25 games for the K-Tribe in Kinston. Please note that I’m using “games finished” here and not saves as the idea that Pestano actually “closed” these games out is far more important than any “save situation” that was out of his control. All told, Pestano finished 136 of his 166 games in the Minors and while his success this year is a surprise (he is a 26-year-old 20th Round Draft Pick), if the Indians want to use their “best” reliever in the 9th inning, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Pestano is that “best” reliever.

Back in 2007, the Indians had their “best” reliever (Betancourt) pitching the 8th inning and most fans worried less about the 7th (R. Perez) and 8th (Betancourt) innings combined than they did about the 9th (Borowski) inning, but if Acta is going to stick to the somehow-universally-accepted idea that his “best” reliever should pitch the 9th inning (instead of using relievers based on hitters coming up in the lineup, regardless of inning), Pestano should probably supplant C. Perez as the 9th inning reliever.

At this point (and particularly with Choo’s side perhaps putting him out for a couple of games here…if not more), given the injuries that have decimated their lineup and thinned out their rotation, the Indians need to be capitalizing on every advantage they can take as they attempt to keep pace with the Tigers in the Central. While the rotation is going to be full of hopes and prayers and the lineup figures to be a patchwork combination of players until certain cogs can get healthy (if they can), the Indians’ bullpen could be a place that they make a move to solidify a portion of their roster that has become shaky in recent weeks.

Perhaps the Indians will keep their bullpen progression in the interest of stability, but the instability in the other aspects of the team may compel the Tribe to act to strengthen the team in any way possible. Given that the “strengthening” that is occurring in the rotation and the lineup amounts to internal options from Columbus being put in key situations when they’re either underprepared or ill-equipped for them at times, the Indians should continue to throw everything they have at this divisional race to see what sticks.

Somehow, the Indians are still in 2nd place in their division and have the opportunity to make one last push before the Tigers arrive on Labor Day. If they’re able to stay within striking distance for the next week or so, it will be because of the tenacity of the team (plus their upcoming schedule) as the Indians are keeping things together with gum and chicken wire as they approach the final month of the season.
That they’ve stuck around this long is a pleasant surprise, so maybe more pleasant surprises are still in store…


CLohse said...

I know you love your progressive, stat-based baseball moves, so why should we worry about where Perez pitches? We see R. Perez enter the game with runners on and generally fare pretty well. With the K rate for C. Perez looking so very mediocre, doesn't it make sense for him to enter the game with the bases empty. As long as we can all agree that Pure Rage will be entering the game at some point for the major league club, why not in the ninth inning, especially as it allows, as you pointed out, for the other relievers to experience success when they enter the game? Anyway, with all the other problems the team is experiencing just now, it probably doesn't make a lot of sense to go and try to fix the one piston in the engine that's still firing normally. I can definitely understand the impulse to poke at Perez these days, however, as he's about the only player on the team that can be evaluated without wondering if his performance has been hampered by injury. Well, him and LaPorta.

Paul Cousineau said...

I guess the point is that if the Indians are going to make a run at this (and that feeling is dissipating), I'd hate to see them leaving Perez in that 9th inning role, instead of maximizing the guys they have out there and have it cost them in terms of the standings when they can least afford it.

Like you said, there's enough going on, so this kind of sinks to the background, but I wouldn't be surprised if Pestano is the closer for this team at some point, maybe even next year.

Hyde said...

Another question that arises regarding the continuing usage of Perez as the closer is that this is going to be another arbitration year for him, and given his obvious drop in effectiveness (his strikeout rate/9 innings has to be among the lowest I've ever seen for a Tribe closer) and the need to spend some money to fix issues such as first base, the brass is going to have to decide if that is where our money is best spent. Yes, I think non-tendering Perez should be on the table, though I seriously doubt it will be.

I notice some snark at the expense of Minnesota ("'oh-so-injured-and-snakebitten' Twins"), but that team really did overcome massive injury concerns last season, which is why I'm not really joining in the "nice try" round of applause as it becomes clear the Indians won't be winning for the 63rd straight year. Let's face it, missing the playoffs--and probably finishing under .500--after starting 30-15 is pretty terrible. Unfortunately, too many Cleveland sports fans are conditioned to believe that they deserve failure, and thus are way too sanguine about what looks to the rest of the sports world like a disastrous collapse.

Paul Cousineau said...

Excellent point on the arbitration, particularly considering that arbitration still uses stats like Saves to determine a player's worth instead of numbers more indicative of the value of a player. Just like Choo's "value" was lower because he didn't have the big HR or RBI totals (despite his OPS) when it came to arbitration, Perez is going to benefit from high Save numbers and get a bigger payday.

As for the Twins, your snark-detector picked it up and while they unquestionably overcame injury issues last year, the 2011 Minnesota team has endured the same kind of injury bug as the Tribe. Though the Tribe has started to slip down the standings because of those injuries (while the Twins have been at or near the bottom all year because of the timing of said injuries), it was mainly pointed out to show how much the Indians have had to endure this year in the context of the 2011 Twins.

By the way, 8 games remain against the White Sox, 6 against the Tigers. That's 14 of the remaining 32 games.

Halifax said...

Deal Perez instead of a non-tender.

CLohse said...

The Indians should absolutely get rid of Chris Perez when his trade value is at its lowest.

Halifax said...

I don't know that his trade value will be at his lowest. The guy throws mid 90s and has closed games. If the Indians didn't have other options they wouldn't even consider it.

He's far from worthless.

But Clohse, if you think they should pay him a ridiculous arb figure based on his closer status and saves, I guess you can do that if you were the GM.

I'm just saying I would just cut him loose on a non-tender.

Halifax said...

would NOT just cut him loose...duh.
Wish I could organize thoughts and type effectively...

CLohse said...

They'll pay him, he'll make $4-5 million, and if the team's in contention next year and he pitches well, they'll be glad they did. If they're not in contention and he pitches well, they'll consider trading him if the bullpen depth shows itself to be competent. If they're not in contention and he doesn't pitch well, they will be glad they aren't paying him Kerry Wood money.

CLohse said...

Buh'bye, MaTola! Buh'bye!