Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Offensive Arms


Improbably, the Indians are back in 1st place despite the fact that the season feels like it’s been slip-sliding away since that Tigers’ sweep nearly a month ago.  While the fact that the Tribe finds themselves atop the AL Central again may be more of a function of the rest of the AL Central (the White Sox have 3 starters with an ERA over 5.60) than an indication that the Indians are a burgeoning juggernaut, let’s enjoy the view from the top. 

After the Indians finish up with the NL Central (after the Reds leave, the Tribe heads to Houston), the Tribe embarks on a vicious part of their schedule, playing 17 of their next 24 games on the road, largely against the AL East (including EIGHT games against the Rays) with a sprinkling of the suddenly resurgent Angels as the only “respite” from the upcoming AL East gauntlet.  Once they wrap up in Houston, they will not play a team that currently has a losing record until they go to Motown on July 24th…or more than a month from now.

So, as is always the case at the end of June and in the month of July, it’s time for the Indians to either firmly establish that they’re IN this AL Central battle to be the “best” mediocre team or go the way of the 2011 season.  Much will be learned about this club in the next month and while EVERYTHING that’s being written and talked about has focused on the offensive “struggles” and how the Indians are going to find prospects to get a big bat or which players the Indians are targeting to find that big bat, let’s look at something that’s kind of instructive here in an attempt to change (or at least broaden) the prevailing focus:
Indians – 4.36 runs per game
AL Average – 4.43 runs per game

Are the Indians below average, offensively-speaking in the AL?
Yes, but their run per game average puts them 8th in the AL in runs scored per game. That is near the middle, though a little below the middle, among the 14 AL teams.  It puts them just below the Tigers (4.45 runs/game) and the Orioles (4.40 runs/game) and one spot ahead of the Rays (4.34 runs/game).  Take that any way that you want, but we’re nearing the mid-point of the season and the offense has been just about league-average, despite Santana’s massively concerning and frustrating power outage, Hafner’s injury, and with the LF “situation” seemingly causing the I-480 bridge to fill up on a nightly basis.

It is true that they have little power to speak of (though the Indians have a higher SLG than the Rays) and please don’t take that to mean that I’m Kevin Bacon out there yelling “Remain Calm…All is Well” to the stampeding masses as the offense is being largely paced by their superb middle infielders and 2/3 of their outfield.  Certainly, I don’t need to be told/reminded that LF is an issue, has been an issue, and could remain an issue because I don’t feel like finding or navigating through all of the links on what I’ve written about what should or should not be done in LF as – quite frankly – it depresses me to no end.  While I’m well aware that Johnny Damon is taking years off of all of your lives and is being vilified (rightly, in some cases…and there are some horrifying marital infidelity details from his book detailed here that I’ve never seen before) for what he is and what he isn’t, it is worth noting that the offense hasn’t been the Indians’ MAIN problem this year.

Is it frustrating and mind-numbing at times?
Of course…but in the context of the rest of the league, the Indians’ offense hasn’t been all that bad.  That’s damning with faint praise to be sure – and again, don’t take this to mean that the Indians should stand pat in terms of looking to upgrade (although there building sense that the Indians are waiting to see when/if Sizemore is going to come back before looking at add anything) their lineup with a RH bat who can play LF/1B/DH as Sizemore (when/if healthy), Hafner (when/if healthy) and Kotchman could all use rest vs. LHP – but if you’re looking at what the Indians have done as a whole, the pitching staff is much more culpable for their recent slide and for their ghastly run differential that leads so many to (rightly) be suspicious of the Indians’ season-long viability as a contender.  In terms of that run-differential, the Indians currently have the 2nd worst in the AL (only “better” than the moribund Twins) and to figure out why, you only have to look at where the Indians’ pitching staff ranks in the AL.
Indians’ – 4.57 ERA
AL average – 4.00 ERA

So, if the Indians offense is about in line with the AL average in terms of runs scored, their pitching is a half-run worse as they now rank second-to-last (above only that trainwreck in the Twin Cities) in Team ERA...and the advanced metrics aren’t much kinder.  Remember, their run per game average is 8th in the AL…and their pitching is 13th in the AL.  How this team is in 1st place in mid-to-late-June is a riddle wrapped in a mystery and, as enjoyable as it may be to relish, the ugly facts are that their starters (4.64 ERA, 11th in the AL) and their bullpen (4.45 ERA, worst in the AL) are equally culpable for the mess that is their staff.  And for as much attention as has been paid to the offense, what’s holding the Indians back is the inconsistency of their rotation and the inability to find relievers not named Smith, Pestano, and Perez that can be counted on with any sense of confidence.  

What’s most alarming though is that things don’t seem to be improving much.  Yes, Masterson looks MUCH better in recent weeks (1.80 ERA in his last three starts, not including Wednesday) and the Little Cowboy will continue to baffle me as I can’t figure out if he’s a Flyball pitcher, a K pitcher, or a GB-inducing machine from game to game (although maybe he’s just Paul Byrd…constantly reinventing himself), but as a whole, the performance of the starters is more than a little concerning for a team that is attempting to stay atop (or at least near the top) of the AL Central.

Starters by month
April – 3.93 ERA
May – 5.03 ERA
June – 4.75 ERA
Since May 1st, the rotation has an ERA of 4.93 and – if you can believe it – the Indians are actually over .500 (albeit by the slimmest of margins at 24-23) during that stretch since the beginning of May.  In the last month, Lowe has a 9.36 ERA (5 games), Jeanmar has a 7.92 ERA (5 games), and Tomlin has a 5.65 ERA (5 starts, including Tuesday’s) with Ubaldo (4.85 ERA) actually being the second-most reliable starter over the course of the last month…as terrifying as that is to think about.

And that’s what seems to be overlooked on this Tribe team as everything harps away at Damon, the erstwhile and misplaced LF, or Lopez as a clean-up hitter or finding that BIG BAT, in that it may not really matter what or if the Indians add to their lineup if they can’t get some semblance of consistency and consistent success from their rotation.  Maybe that means that they target an arm in the Trade Market (as alluded to here last week) or maybe that means that they bring Zach McAllister back to Cleveland to replace an increasingly inefficient Jeanmar Gomez, but the improvement in the rotation is likely going to have to be largely internal, in terms of Ubaldo and Lowe (in particular) finding something that resembles success and Masterson continuing to lower his season ERA with each start. 

But the issues aren’t unique to the rotation because just as concerning is the Indians’ middle relief corps, an aspect of the team that has struggled to such a degree that Acta put a player that was recently DFA’d by the Rockies (Team ERA – 5.38) in to the biggest plate appearance of Tuesday’s game.  Luckily (for everyone), Esmil Rogers pitched his way out of the jam, but the insertion of Rogers into that bases-loaded situation provided – in a nutshell – how much (or how little) trust Acta has in his relievers not named Smith, Pestano, or Perez.  In the highest of high leverage situations, Acta turned to…a guy named Esmil that had been on the roster for about a week.

Don’t get me wrong, that mistrust in the middle relief corps is completely valid as – just as the Indians’ offense is largely reliant on the middle of the infield – the back of the Indians’ bullpen is responsible for much of the success that the Indians have had as a relief corps.  To wit, the Indians’ bullpen ERA is 4.45 (and that is the highest ERA in the AL for bullpens), and their bullpen ERA without Pestano and Perez is an astonishing 5.23.  Unfortunately, it isn’t getting better as the season progresses:
Pestano and Perez since beginning of May – 1.70 ERA in 37 IP
Rest of bullpen since beginning of May – 5.55 ERA in 99 IP

Now, I’m not sure what’s more concerning here about that set of numbers – the inability of the other relievers to hold opponents at bay or that Pestano and Perez have thrown more than a quarter of the innings out of the bullpen since May 1st.  If you include Joe Smith in that usage percentage, realize that Smith, Pestano, and Perez have thrown 56 2/3 of the last 136 innings by relievers for the Indians – or 41.6% of the bullpen innings for the Tribe in the last 47 games.  What’s most stunning about that is that the trio of Smith, Pestano, and Perez generally pitch an inning at a time and STILL, they’ve been called upon to pitch more than 40% of the innings out of the bullpen for nearly 2 months now.

So where do the Indians go from here with the bullpen?
If I’m bringing McAllister up to the rotation, it might be interesting to see if Jeanmar could have any success as a long man, or maybe even if Corey Kluber would find some success as a long man, as he’s been much better as of late in AAA as he continues to strike guys out.  The fact that they’re scouring the waiver wire (Rogers, etc.) rather than bringing up the gaggle of arms (Herrmann, Ray, etc.) in the Clippers’ bullpen certainly would point to the idea that adding a piece to the bullpen is a pretty sound one.  Certainly, there is promise with guys like Hagadone and Barnes, but their uneven performances for the parent club remind us that constructing a bullpen – a WHOLE bullpen – is next to impossible and it becomes a matter of finding that lightning in a bottle and that right mix of relievers to shorten the game and protect a lead or not let a game get too far out of hand.  The Tribe has the trio in the back that can shorten the game, but they’ve been unable to find that right mix of arms to get to Smith, Pestano, and Perez with any regularity.  Maybe they call up a guy like Cody Allen or Bryce Stowell and see if they can find what they did (briefly) with Jensen Lewis and (currently) with Vinnie Pestano – another arm that can extend the effectiveness of the bullpen. 

 Unfortunately, until the Indians are able to get some length and quality out of their starting rotation and unless they’re able to find more bullpen arms outside of Smith, Pestano, and Perez to lean on, it isn’t going to matter if Jose Lopez is hitting clean-up or if Johnny Damon is raising blood pressures across the North Coast.  Fully realizing that seeing Lopez as the clean-up hitter or Damon at all in the field are TOTALLY occupying the talk on the Reservation, the truth is that the rotation and the middle relievers are KILLING this teams’ chances at running away with a very winnable division. 

Perhaps the Tribe will find some consistency in their rotation and a bullpen arm will emerge on the upcoming road trip (and they better feast on the Astros before their schedule turns brutal through the end of July) but the Indians’ contention is likely to hinge on their pitching staff.  While the offense receives most of the attention (and figures to continue to), the ability of the pitching staff to keep the team in games – instead of behind in them…early – is going to dictate whether the Indians can make it through their upcoming gauntlet of the AL East teams (where runs are plentiful) as an AL Central contender or as a pretender…




7 comments:

David Hubler said...

I appreciate the analysis, but I'm not sure that the bullpen usage is that out of line. Looking quickly at the White Sox and Tigers for the season:

White Sox team relief IP: 190.2
White Sox top 3 relievers IP (Jones, Thornton, Santiago): 89 (46.7%)

Tigers team relief IP: 206
Tigers top 3 relievers IP (Benoit, Coke, Below): 91.1 (44.3%)

The Indians' usage seems fairly in line with those two. Maybe other teams have a different picture, or I might have done my math wrong. This isn't to say that there aren't issues, but the usage of the Indians' 3 good relievers doesn't seem out of line.

Beyond that, Accardo has a 127 ERA+ with a better SO/BB than Pestano and Smith, although probably mostly in lower leverage situations.

MTF said...

Also, those three relievers pitched 40% of our relief innings last season (by my admittedly quick count). So the numbers don't look terribly out of line with either other teams our past usage.

What's concerning to me is that, last year, the margin for error on any given night for any given reliever is thinner than last year. Acta could reliably go to Raffy, to Sipp, even to Herrmann (or the group of try-out relievers at times), but this season he's had trouble developing other options. The top three are really being leaned on.

Paul Cousineau said...

That's extremely interesting (and nice legwork) in that I had no idea that the workload was so heavily weighted towards the back-end, regardless of team. Thanks for providing the proper context.

What MTF says is what caused me to look at it though as they have to find someone else other than that trio because if something (knocking firmly on wood) were to happen to one of those guys as we go down the stretch, it weakens that pen to the point of major concern.

Mike said...

Paul, not sure I follow this:
"The fact that they’re scouring the waiver wire (Rogers, etc.) rather than bringing up the gaggle of arms (Herrmann, Ray, etc.) in the Clippers’ bullpen certainly would point to the idea that adding a piece to the bullpen is a pretty sound one."

I'm not sure why the waiver work is greater evidence of bullpen need than shuttling guys in from Columbus, or am I reading this wrong?

I'm also not sure why the Indians haven't called up Herrmann yet. Per Baseball Cube, he's posting career highs in K/9 and BB/K ratio. It does look like he's giving up a bunch of hits, maybe that's it.

Paul Cousineau said...

Mike,
I suppose I could have worded that better in that I was surprised that the Indians pulled a guy like Rogers off the waiver wire instead of giving the guys in Columbus (and Herrmann is having a good year there) a shot to augment the pen.

Essentially - and maybe I'm looking too deeply into this - I took it to mean that they don't see their AAA relievers as all that compelling and are willing to add from outside the organization. With that in mind, it wouldn't surprise me if they attempted to add a more substantial bullpen arm in the coming weeks.

Al Ciammaichella said...

The best bullpen arms in Columbus at the beginning of this season were Hagadone and CC Lee. Hags is here, and Lee is out for the year with TJ surgery. Zach Putnam was traded before the season. Sipp came up in 2009, Pestano in 2011. It's a lot to ask of a farm system to deliver more than two legit backend bullpen arms per season year after year, so it makes sense that they're looking for outside options.

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