Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Tomahawks Coming, Going, Hitting, & Missing


Though most of the North Coast is embroiled in a backup QB debate (a favorite past time in Cleveland, although new to May), the Indians’ season rolls on into a decidedly more difficult part of the schedule.  After leaving Chicago, the Indians welcome the big, bad Rangers (who are a cresting juggernaut right now) to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, before welcoming these same Pale Hose to Cleveland in what could be a pivotal week or so as the Indians try to keep pace in the Central against what seem to be more staunch opponents.

Whether they are able to find their offense or gain some consistency in the rotation remains to be seen but as the Indians attempt to carry their April success into May, while adapting, augmenting, and (hopefully) improving on the fly, let’s get some Tomahawks in the air.
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As the hand-wringing and wailing (justifiably) reaches a fever pitch with Ubaldo, after Tuesday night’s disaster on the South Side, we have unquestionably reached a tipping point with the player that the Indians acquired last year to front their rotation.  Having seen Ubaldo since he’s arrived to the North Coast (and particularly this year), we know what the problems are – that he’s throwing too many pitches, that he’s walking too many hitters, that he’s not missing many (any?) bats, but do you realize how poorly he’s pitching in the context of MLB pitchers in some pretty important categories?

First, he’s averaging 18.6 pitches per inning, 3rd highest among qualified pitchers in the AL, and that’s fine if you’re a GB pitcher like Derek Lowe or are a strikeout pitcher like David Price as you’re either setting the hitter up to make weak contact or to make no contact at all…but Jimenez is neither.  His GB rate this year is 38.2% (he was close to or above 50% in his last 2+ years in Colorado) and his K/9 this year (4.4) is almost HALF of what it was going into the 2011 season.

Most concerning about that 2nd number (his K/9) is that he’s just not missing bats, something that was once his trademark.  Jimenez is getting hitters to swing and miss at only 4.9% of his pitches, which is the 7th lowest amount among the 130 pitchers with 20 or more IP this year.  For a player that had a swinging strike rate near or above 9% for most of his career, it means that Ubaldo has devolved from being among the elite in swinging strike rates to the bottom of the league in the same category…and that is not insignificant.

As a result, as Ubaldo seems to know that he’s not going to miss many bats and has no faith in his fastball, we get the nibbling that we’ve seen (which accompanies the high pitch counts – that I could care less about with him as we’re not “protecting” him from anything) and the high number of free passes handed out.  How high of a number?

He has walked FIFTEEN percent of the batters he’s faced this year, highest among MLB starters and, just to provide some context here, the highest BB% last year was Gio Gonzalez’s 10.5%, which was preceded by Jonathan Sanchez’s 11.9% as the high percentage in 2010.  Again, Ubaldo has walked 15% of the hitters he’s faced to date.

While all of this may be just going deeper into what we already know (while depressing us to no end), there’s no question that the Ubaldo we’re seeing is a different pitcher than the one that plied his trade in Denver.  Whether the change is physical (his velocity is down and his command has deserted him) or mental (as this whole tiff with seemingly ALL of his old Rockies’ teammates is suddenly relevant), the fact is that this v.2012 isn’t even who Ubaldo was last year, as he seems to have regressed from his uneven 2011 season.

Without even getting tied up in what was given up for Ubaldo (Pomz recently missed a start with “forearm tightness”…not a good thing for a young arm, while Al White is in AAA after being beat out by Jaime Moyer for a spot in the Rox’ rotation), the tipping point is upon us as something has to give here in terms of what the Indians do with Jimenez.
Is there something physically wrong with him?
If not, do they “find” an injury to send him off to clear his head and re-work his mechanics?
Is he even open to that idea?

As for whether he’s open to it, Jordan Bastian passes along some interesting info in his latest blog, reporting that:
Manager Manny Acta and Jimenez both noted that the pitcher is working on some mechanical adjustments that will take a few starts. Jimenez said it involves his front shoulder, and the hope is that it will help generate more power. He said pitchign coach Scott Radinsky noticed a flaw between the pitcher’s 2010 form and what he’s been doing over the past two years. Fingers crossed.

“Fingers crossed” indeed…
Perhaps Radinsky found that flaw, as he (or someone else) made adjustments to Lowe’s mechanics in 2011 and made the changes, with the results looking GREAT to date, and maybe Ubaldo puts the brakes on this rapid descent down the mountain.  At this point, that feels hard to imagine, as getting Ubaldo back to even mediocre feels like a long climb.  After Ubaldo failed to live up to (much less exceed) expectations last year as his performance played a role in the Indians’ slide in the standings (though he was certainly not solely culpable), it is now on him and the organization to fix what has broken him in the last few years.
That is, if he is fixable…
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The other big news in the Windy City is the arrival of Johnny Damon to man LF and to sit (for now) at the top of the lineup.  Damon’s arrival is the culmination of a long and winding road for the Indians to find somebody (anybody) to man LF after Grady Sizemore went down with his back injury.  Though it’s not worth re-hashing the whole timeline, the Indians tried to find some value in the scrap heap of OF and, as those players revealed why they were on the scrap heap, nearly acquired Bobby Abreu (since cut) from the Angels.  That (as well as some serious misses in trades and drafts) brings us to Damon’s debut as it sounds as if Damon will play nearly every day, with most of that time coming in LF.

As a quick aside here, prompted by the link above that plots out how integral the failure of Matt LaPorta has been to get us to this point, there will now be a moratorium in this space on Matt LaPorta/Matt MaTola (or any other reference to the player that wore #7 last year for the Indians) as the Indians have now spent more than $9M (Sizemore, Kotchman, and now Damon) to NOT have LaPorta even sniff Cleveland.  While I’m forced to endlessly read about his feats in Columbus (and this is when I point out that he’s struck out 20 times in 91 plate appearances against AAA pitching as a 27-year-old), I refuse to believe that he is a viable option at 1B or LF in 2012 or at any point going further in the eyes of the organization…and I have no issue with that.  If you figure that the two players who were NRI’s prior to the 2011 season started on the 2012 Tribe in what would have been the two options for Laporta to fill (1B and LF) and talk was given to Bobby Abreu and Ryan Spilborghs and a whole other cast of characters this Spring while LaPorta remained largely invisible in the conversation. 
“Invisible” is how he will remain in this space – 2012 performance in AAA considered…

Off the soapbox and back to Damon’s debut, having Damon on the roster essentially means that the Opening Day LF – Shelley Duncan – will revert back to his role as a LF/1B/DH who hits from the right side, a role that has always suited him best.  That’s not to say that Duncan isn’t a valuable piece for a team like the Indians, just that Duncan isn’t really a suitable everyday option, something that the Indians obviously believed from the time that Sizemore went down with his injury.

Many have asserted that Duncan’s recent stretch indicate that he is not suited as an everyday player (while I think his entire body of work is a better indicator), though it is interesting to note a particular date in Duncan’s backslide:
Duncan’s 1st 37 PA this year through April 17th
.333 BA / .514 OBP / .593 SLG / 1.106 OPS with 6 K, 10 BB, 3 XBH

Duncan’s last 43 PA this year after April 17th
.189 BA / .256 OBP / .297 SLG / .553 OPS with 16 K, 4 BB, 1 XBH

That second batch of numbers includes Duncan’s HR on Tuesday and it’s an interesting comparison to see to illustrate that just as it’s dangerous to draw conclusions on Duncan’s start (and people were hopping on the Shelley Wagon early on), it’s just as foolhardy to draw them on what’s happened to him since April 17th.

In case you were wondering about the significance of that date, Damon’s signing became official on…wait for it…April 17th.  Regardless of the effect that Damon’s signing had on Duncan’s performance, to know what Shelley Duncan is going to do this year as he’s not as good as that one set of numbers would indicate, nor is he as bad as the second set intimates.  

While we see how Acta begins to shuffle Damon and Duncan around (and I’d put Damon in LF every day and put Duncan at 1B vs. LHP to spell Kotchman), what may be even more interesting to see evolve is how Damon, Duncan, and Brantley perform in the next month or so.  What will make that interesting is that most assume that when Sizemore returns, Brantley will slot back to LF and Damon will use his “gentleman’s agreement” to find his way out of Cleveland.  But what if Damon outperforms Brantley over the next four to six weeks and Sizemore is ready to return in mid-June or so?

Is it THAT hard to envision the Indians holding on to Damon and slotting Brantley as a glorified 4th OF/continued insurance against another Sizemore injury?

Certainly, a lot can happen between now and then, and Brantley has looked better but Brantley has the lowest wOBA among regular CF in the AL, with only Francoeur, Viciedo, and Boesch lower than him among all OF in the AL.  While he has continued to be hailed a top-of-the-order hitter and a speed merchant, his career OBP is now .315 in 1,030 PA and he has 29 career SB in 233 career games. 
For context on that SB total, Jason Kipnis has 10 SB in his first 57 MLB games.

While I’m not saying that Damon will be appreciably better than what we’ve seen from Brantley (or Duncan), it’s not outrageous to envision Sizemore returning and Brantley settling into the 4th OF role (around Damon, Sizemore, and Choo) with Duncan as the RH 1B/DH that suits him.  Just as the Damon signing lengthens the roster by putting Duncan in the role previously occupied by Jose Lopez, you’d be talking about jettisoning Cunningham and keeping Damon around as the LF with Brantley as the 4th OF/protection for Sizemore.

Given Sizemore’s (well-documented) injury history as well as Brantley’s injury history and struggles to date in MLB, I’m not so sure that Damon is the “rental” that some (OK...me) assumed him to be.  But there’s plenty of time for all of that to bear out as Johnny Damon is officially a Cleveland Indian as the Tribe attempts to improve their offense and overall roster, even if the improvement is incremental as any improvement – even “incremental” – is something this offense needs right now.
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With Vinnie Pestano having struck out a hitter in EVERY one of his appearances (which is wild if you think about it) and now that it looks like Nick Hagadone has arrived for good, the Indians’ bullpen is suddenly boasting some legitimate strikeout arms.  While the Tribe may not be K-heavy up and down the bullpen ladder, realize that Pestano has struck out 14 of the 41 hitters he’s faced (34% of the batters) and Hagadone has already struck out 5 of the 17 hitters he’s faced (29%) in his brief time as an Indian.  Going back to the idea that Ubaldo isn’t missing many (any) bats, realize that Hagadone (13.5%) and Pestano (12%) are the team’s leader in swinging strike rates.  Certainly, the small sample size siren blares away, but that’s all you really have with relievers and as the Indians’ bullpen continues to be a strength, see Tribe relievers miss bats (small sample or not) is exciting.

Interestingly, the propensity to miss bats among relievers is not limited to the relievers in Cleveland though as Bryce Stowell was put squarely under the microscope when Buster Olney tweeted about Stowell’s numbers to date being “very, very interesting”.  The reason they’re so interesting is that Stowell has struck out 15 and walked none in his first 7 innings pitched, but just to continue the K/Batter Faced idea above, realize that Stowell has faced 23 batters in 7 innings, or he’s recorded 21 outs in 23 batters and FIFTEEN of his 21 outs have been via the K and he’s faced only 2 above the minimum in his first 7 IP of work in Akron.

While you may want to chalk this up to a pitcher in a level that is beneath him, talent-wise, realize that these K totals are nothing new as he struck out 37% of the batters he faced in 2010, when he spent time in Kinston, Akron, and Columbus and matched that Whiff Percentage (37%) in his 2011 campaign.  Now, he’s back to his whiffing ways, striking out SIXTY-FIVE percent of the hitters he’s faced so far this year.

Yes, Stowell is 25 and dominating AA hitters and the 22nd Round Pick in 2008 probably could use some time in AAA to refine his repertoire, but his performance conjures memories of another late-round pick reliever that started his age-25 season in AA and thrived, using it to catapult him into the Indians’ bullpen and eventually into the back-end of said bullpen.  Of course, the precedent (and a hopeful one at that) is Vinnie F. Pestano, who started his 2010 season (age 25) in AA, where he struck out 33% of the batters he faced in AA in 2010, then proceeded to whiff 31% of the batters he faced in AAA later that same year.

In 2011, he whiffed 34% of the hitters he faced in MLB as he continued to miss bats, something that has continued this year in the back-end of the Tribe bullpen.  The lesson with Pestano – in hindsight – is that when these guys miss that many bats, you start to take notice.  Unless you’re talking about a mid-to-late-20s arm in low-level Minors, if a player is able to strike out more than 1/3 of the batters he faces, there seems to be a correlation that he would continue to miss bats as he climbs the Minor League ladder, assuming his BB rates stay in control.

Fortunately for the Indians, it doesn’t end with Stowell as Bryan Price (though older and in AA also) would be another arm to watch as he’s whiffed 19 of the 48 hitters (39%) he’s faced in Akron this year, a serious jump from his previous year at the same level.  While I’m not going to present a possibility for the jump in strikeouts for Price (the 3rd pitcher the Indians netted from Boston for Victor), it will be interesting to see if he can continue the momentum early in his 2012 campaign into positioning himself for a chance at a spot in the Tribe’s rotation going forward.

Hard as it may be to believe, the K/Batter Faced numbers for Price (while impressive) actually pale in comparison to what Cody Allen has done at three (Kinston, Akron, and Columbus…already) levels this year.  Allen has struck out a staggering 20 of the 45 batters he’s faced (44%) and has now moved up to Columbus, leapfrogging both Stowell and Price in the process.  While Allen’s success may be fleeting, realize that he’s walked 14 of the 215 batters he’s faced since joining the Indians’ organization and has struck out 95 of those hitters, meaning he has struck out nearly 7 times the batters he has walked.

How the continued promotions of that trio plays out remains to be seen, but there is one other aspect here that is worth noting, and that has to do with usage.  In case you forgot, I went off on a bit of a manifesto a couple of weeks ago as to whether a better “mouse trap” could be devised for building bullpens, given the idea that the modern bullpen has proven to be no more effective than the bullpen configurations of the past.  While I never went in-depth as to how this would be implemented in MLB, one thought that has often existed was to have relievers throw more than just one inning, to limit the amount of relievers needed per game.

Interestingly, Bryan Price has thrown 2 or more innings in each of his 5 outings this year while Bryce Stowell’s last two outings were for 3 innings (on 4-16), then 2 innings (on 4-20), and Cody Allen went 2 innings in his first (and only) appearance as a Clipper.  To provide some further intrigue, in Hagadone’s last 4 outings in Columbus, 3 of them were for multiple innings.  Seeing this, are the Indians conditioning these guys (in the Minors) to be able to pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen?

Maybe these multiple inning outings are nothing more than these arms hitting pitch counts, but if you’re looking at the top 4 reliever prospects that are closest to Cleveland, it’s probably Hagadone, Allen, Stowell, and Price (and probably in that order…although I’d put CC Lee in there as well) and all of them have thrown multiple innings in their last few appearances in Columbus and Akron

While I won’t call that the seeds of a “bullpen revolution”, it is interesting to note that these guys are throwing multiple innings and are missing A LOT of bats in Columbus and Akron.  Whether they can continue that success – the way that Vinnie Pestano did and Nick Hagadone seems to have – remains to be seen, but the Indians’ bullpen could continue to be a strength of this team as the Indians have lined up some power arms that rack up strikeouts up and down the system.
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Finally, you may or may not have noticed this, but while the Rangers run away with the AL West (yes, at the beginning of May) and as EVERY team in the AL East has a positive run differential, the AL Central boasts what look like the worst two teams in the AL (KC and Minnesota) in the early going.  Interestingly, while the Indians got fat on their early schedule, the Tigers are 2-7 in their last 9 games, including going 1-4 against the Mariners and Royals.

This AL Central race, flawed as it may continue to be, could continue to hold our interest…even longer than the annual Browns’ QB derby.








2 comments:

pilotui said...

Another great article. I love reading this site. Keep up the good work!

Spills said...

No love for Hanahan? This start to the season may be a BABIP mirage, but the guy seems to be one of most consistent tough outs on the team.

It seems like every at-bat I listen to, he's working deep into the count.