Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hard-Hitting Tomahawks

As the Indians have already started to fatten up on their April schedule with a rousing late-night victory in Seattle reminding us how magical one game on one night can be in the context of a season full of them, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves where we are. After the 480 bridge filled up after the opening homestand, the Tribe swept the Royals (who will not be legitimate AL Central contenders, regardless of what their talented lineup looks like, until they get pitching) and have the potential to build some early momentum as they finish things up in Seattle before heading to Oakland, then returning to face those same Royals at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

Beating up on the Royals and Mariners and potentially continuing that hot stretch with a trip to Oakland could allow the Indians to hide their warts for a couple of weeks and gain some goodwill among the fanbase in anticipation of them returning late next week. Sounds like a familiar script…ahem, 30-15. Since it is worth noting that they’re in an “easy” part of their schedule right now, after seeing the Royals this past weekend and watching the Twins positively crater, there isn’t much doubt that Royals and Twins as 2 of the worst 3 teams in MLB right now…and that may not change all season, unless the Royals can find some pitching or the Twins can find some hitting.

Lest you forget, the Indians play the Royals 18 times and the Twins 18 times this season (meaning they play those two teams for 22.2% of their games) and, though the Tigers (and the White Sox) will face their AL Central foes as much as the Tribe, potentially fattening up on those divisional “rivals” is going to have a huge effect on the Indians and on the AL Central as a whole throughout the season. Certainly, the head-to-head record is going to play a part (ahem…Tigers v. Tribe, 2011), but if the Indians can beat the Royals and Twins consistently this season, it could go a long way to sticking around in the AL Central race and even making some noise for the 2nd AL Wild Card now in play.
That said, let’s loose the Tomahawks…

Though it’s nearly impossible to glean anything on 8 or 10 games from a statistical standpoint, there have certainly been some bright spots for the Indians, particularly (surprise!) offensively as the Indians have feasted on the pitching staffs of the Royals and the Mariners to allay those early fears. Some of the bright spots have been particularly encouraging (Hafner hitting a ball halfway to Topeka, Santana and Kipnis having 3 HR each in their first 8 games, and the continuation of 2nd half success in 2011 for Hannahan and Duncan) and it remains to be seen how many of those bright spots will continue to shine, there’s something that caught my eye in looking at the offensive numbers of the team as a whole.

While I’ll hold off on any assertion that Shelley Duncan is ready for his Costacos Brothers poster (and please click on that link and not just for the Bob Golic poster) or that the Damon deal gave him (more) fire to excel or that The BLC (sub-.700 OPS, leads team in K) is never going to recapture his 2008-2010 form, check out these splits for a team that most make a big deal out of being almost completely LH:
Indians vs. LHP in 177 PA
.223 BA / .341 OBP / .419 SLG / .760 OPS / 117 OPS+

Indians vs. RHP in 225 PA
.268 BA / .348 OBP / .460 SLG / .808 OPS / 126 OPS+
Yes, they’re better against RHP (which is to be expected), but they’ve faced LHP in nearly 45% of their plate appearances to date (they faced LHP in only 33% of their plate appearances last year) which means that opposing managers may be throwing more LHP at them in the early going and surprisingly, they’ve actually fared pretty well.

Will that continue?
Who knows and it’s why you don’t really put too much credence in the results of 400 or so plate appearances when it will represent about 5% of the season total, but what is interesting to look at is to examine which Tribe players are thriving against particular pitchers (small sample size siren blaring in the background), if you look at the OPS leaders on the team versus both LHP and RHP:
OPS Leaders vs. LHP
Duncan – 1.357 OPS
Lopez – 1.143 OPS
Santana – 1.043 OPS
Marson – 1.000 OPS
Hafner - .909 OPS
Though Hafner’s inclusion on this list is a surprise given his recent performance vs. LHP in the past few years (and with the caveat that his .909 OPS is for 11 AB), that’s the list of players that you’d expect to post the best numbers vs. LHP and Acta’s management and utilization of those players (and Hannahan, who hit LHP last year as well, would appear next on this list) thus far has worked out well.

As for the players that have thrived against RHP, the list looks like this:
OPS Leaders vs. RHP
Kipnis – 1.118 OPS
Donald – 1.000 OPS
Hafner - .955 OPS
Santana - .911 OPS
Cabrera - .895 OPS
Again, Donald’s inclusion is based on 6 AB and his presence on this list is surprising, to see Kipnis, Hafner, and Santana top this list should come as no surprise. The team is crushing RHP to date, with only the Cardinals, Rangers, and Rockies outpacing them in OPS vs. RHP.

Again, this is all based on NINE games, but it is certainly worth watching as the assumption that the Indians would struggle against LHP has not held up in the early going as Acta has maximized his lineup, based on match-ups to this point. Whether this holds up remains to be seen as there are plenty of more games to come against pitching staffs that are better than the ones we’ve seen from Kansas City and in the 1st game in Seattle, but the offense has been surprisingly effective, particularly in the last week or so.

That performance has allayed fears (or at least delayed them) about the offense’s ability to score runs in 2012…

Interestingly, it was thought that the Indians would be sacrificing offense in the name of defense (particularly at the infield corners this year) and of the 7 errors committed by the team this year, 4 of them belong to Jack Hannahan. Jack Hannahan has 4 errors in 8 games after a 2011 season in which he committed 5 errors in 121 games. While I’ll be the last to stress error totals (as they’re based largely on the decision made in the press box), Hannahan’s defense – which has always been his calling card – has been inconsistent this season. Now, I’m certainly not going to suggest that Jack Hannahan’s defense has suddenly fallen off of a cliff (and it is here where I am unable to avoid passing on that Lonnie Chisenhall has a 1.023 OPS in Columbus through 13 games), but it points to the idea that defense remains such a difficult skill to quantify in numbers.

It was a subject that was broached by a recent article in the print edition of SI, with Ben Reiter taking a look at teams eschewing defense this past off-season in search of the almighty HR. Though the “Mark Trumbo at 3B” experiment already seems to be over in Anaheim, Reiter posits that teams are uncomfortable making decisions on things that they can’t count or that there aren’t hard, easy-to-compare numbers for:
Although the new defensive metrics are certainly better barometers than fielding percentage, they remain inexact. Even the proprietary statistics kept by most clubs often rely on judgments made by observers watching video and are therefore subject to human error. Radar technology that will allow clubs to precisely analyze the movements of every fielder on every batted ball is still years away. Until then, it will remain far easier to assess the values of hitters. A three-run home run is definitive. Whether an outfielder failed to reach a fly ball because of his positioning or his range is not.

Just to continue that line of thought and bring it to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, Adam Van Arsdale of LGT has a great interview with Indians’ Baseball Analyst Sky Andrecheck that goes in-depth into the difficulties of quantifying defensive ability. The whole interview (part 1 of 2) is worth a read, so I’m not going to bastardize it by cutting and pasting it, but it is interesting to consider in light of Reiter’s piece about how teams are more willing to reward the “known” quantity of offense over the vagaries of defensive evaluation.

Maybe Hannahan and Kotchman (who has…GASP 2 HR) keep hitting, but their defense is the reason that they find themselves in the everyday lineup. How well they defend (and how that’s even quantified) will likely determine their usefulness to the club much more than their offensive contributions. On the other end of the spectrum, the Indians will have to evaluate how the defense of Shelley Duncan and Johnny Damon balance against their offensive contributions once Damon arrives.

Though the Indians’ offense has been the pleasant surprise of the 2012 season to date, the team was built (at certain positions) to be strong defensively and how the Indians make their decisions at 3B and LF, most notably, going forward may not be something that is going to be easy to predict or quantify, due to the unpredictably and inability to properly quantify (publicly, at least) defensive contributions.

Prior to the season, my often-astute friend Tyler e-mailed me some of his concerns about Josh Tomlin, fearing ultimately that that Tomlin was a “RH version of Jeremy Sowers” as it’s difficult to find consistent success without an effective fastball in MLB. Those concerns are nothing new as Tomlin’s 2nd half certainly generated those whispers that Tomlin may not be the middle-of-the-rotation that so many seem blindly willing to accept. In fact, the prevailing narrative is that Tomlin had a successful 2011 season and that he established himself in the rotation when…well, that really wasn’t the case and his finish to 2011 and the his start to 2012 throw up more than a few red flags.

By that I mean that as Tomlin is lauded for his “approach”, “tenacity”, and “strike-throwing ability” and he’s an awfully easy guy to root for, but his actual results and performance have been lacking since the beginning of June of last year. Just to clarify this, look at how Tomlin’s 2011 was separated, in terms of performance and results:
First 9 games in 2011
2.41 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, with 39 H, 10 BB, 30 K in 59 2/3 IP

Last 17 games in 2011
5.28 ERA, 1.68 WHIP with 118 H, 11 BB, 59 K in 105 2/3 IP

In looking at that, the fear is that once the league had a “book” on Tomlin (that he’d throw strikes and challenge hitters early, often resulting in weak contact when he got ahead in counts) that he’d be hit and hit hard. Unfortunately, the results from June until his injury bore that out as the big issue is the hits that he gives up (more than one an inning in those last 17 games) and that hasn’t changed in his first two appearances (13 H, 2 HR in 8 2/3 IP) in 2012.

While everyone points to the fact that he doesn’t give up walks as a positive (and it is), the flip side of that is that gives up hits…and a lot of them. In his last 114 1/3 IP, he’s given up 131 hits and his ERA is 5.51 in those last 19 games that he’s pitched between last year and thus far this year. Certainly, he may find himself on the mound in a favorable match-up where he’s able to take advantage of his strengths, but the problem is that he’s getting hit A LOT. That may be fine if you’re a GB pitcher in that double plays are induced or even if you’re a strikeout pitcher in that you can get out of jams via the K. But Tomlin is neither of those…and he’s been getting hit hard since the beginning of June last year, having given up 18 HR in those 114 1/3 IP over his last 19 games
That’s a HR/9 of 1.41 and, just to put that into context, only 3 pitchers in MLB posted higher HR/9 than that last year

Maybe he makes the proper adjustments, but if you’re looking at Tomlin’s body of work in MLB, it more closely resembles that of Sowers – who had initial success that he was never able to duplicate, much less sustain. What followed was Sowers’ struggling to make adjustments and making modifications to the way that he pitched until he wasn’t even effective in AAA. Essentially, when a pitcher’s level of success is based largely on luck and poor contact, it often catches up with them as more video is obtained on them and as scouts are able to dissect patterns.

Certain players have gotten away with this (Paul Byrd is the one that comes to mind with Tomlin) and Tomlin’s tenacity is certainly endearing, but the fact is that he has a 5.51 ERA in his last 19 games and, even for a back-end-of-the-rotation starter, that’s not good enough to stick in an MLB rotation.

Please, don’t take this as a “DEMOTE JOSH TOMLIN NOW” overreaction, but it bears watching as Tomlin’s…um, “issues” that sabotaged the way he closed out his 2011 have already reared their ugly head. Additionally, there may not be a more desirable option in AAA (although Scott Barnes is turning some heads with 103 K in 99 AAA IP), but there is a growing feeling that when (although it’s starting to feel like “if”) Hernandez/Carmona returns, Tomlin may be the odd man out in the Indians rotation.
Or, unless Tomlin is able to stop his results from snowballing on him, it might be earlier than that…

As the Indians attempt to roll on in their quick West Coast trip, it’s time to petition that the Indians face the Mariners early in the season…at least as long as The Atomic Wedgie is managing the M’s. Because while the baseball season is a “grind” that you have to take “one day at a time”, attempting to “run into one” every once in a while because the you shouldn’t get too worked up about a slow start, it’s nice to be on the other side of that ledger – out to a quick start.

Last year, the Indians rode the momentum of their April and May (famously 30-15 on May 23rd of last year) and doing so again this year may give them the boost and the cushion they need to make some noise in the AL Central and – more importantly – on the North Coast.

1 comment:

Spills said...

Meant to post this in regards to the Lazy Sunday article, but did anyone hear Antonetti in the box with Hamilton for the Sox series?

This was before the Royals gifted us Sanchez, Mendoza, and Hochevar (I'd be looking forward to facing the Royals 22 times a lot more if OUR pitching could get it together), and Hammy was asking about what kind of help was out there. When he brought up LaPorta's hot start, Antonetti almost sounded disgusted. He then proceeded to throw LaPorta under the bus, saying he something around: "LaPorta has a professional swing, but not professional concentration/consistency".

Never heard this management group go so far out of their way to call out a player. Antonetti also went on to say that LaPorta was down there to develop that "Professional Consistency", and would be down there, at minimum, for a few months. One of the few interesting tidbits to come out of listening to that gawd awful 6-10 loss.