Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Nature vs. Nurture

It was about a week ago that the “Five Stages of Grief” was mentioned in this space and – at the risk of invoking another topic based in deeper topics of human nature – the events of the last week certainly all have us feeling like we’re on the psychologists’ couch again, either attempting to cope with this unprecedented (well…probably unprecedented) collapse of the Indians, trying to figure out what went wrong or attempting to be rational and even try to hazard a guess as to where it goes from here.  So even though I’ve already leaned on the psycho-babble for column fodder in the recent past, the events of the last month and quotes from the last month have me wondering about how this team fell off the cliff so profoundly and whose fault it is. 

Because coming into the season, there was some thought that the young players that showed promise in 2011 would build on their successful (to varying degrees) years last year and would keep the Indians around in the AL Central pennant race, with the Indians needing a little luck and a lot of good health to perhaps make a push towards contention throughout the season.  At this point, with September on our doorstep, to say that none of that has happened (developing players, pleasant surprises, health) is too sweeping of a statement, but it isn’t that far off-base.  While so much of the focus has been placed on the failures of the past off-season, with Santana’s power outage, Masterson’s regression, Cabrera’s ordinariness, and Kipnis’ recent struggles, the players that looked like they could form a backbone to a team that resembled a contender disappointed and put the onus of production on a supporting cast that was poorly-designed and ill-equipped to assume it.

So what happened here?
While I’m not about to launch into a series akin to the 2008 “Things Fall Apart” series, where the reasons for the Tribe’s non-contention and the beginning of the tear-down were examined in minute detail, the question that I keep coming back to on this is that THESE  young players – that are faltering so badly down the stretch and whose development seems to have stalled to the point that a “window of contention” built around them seems more laughable with each loss – were supposed to carry this team in 2012 and they simply haven’t.  So who bears the responsibility for that?

Is it the Front Office for assuming that these players were/are more than what they seem to be?
Is it the Manager and the Coaching Staff for not putting these players in the best situation to succeed and – to borrow a trite football phrase – “coach them up” to the point that they are maximizing potential?
Is it the players, who seem as lifeless and helpless as I can remember ANY Tribe team as the string is slowly – and painfully – played out?
To expand on the title of the piece, is it these players’ individual shortcomings (their DNA) or is it the failure of the organization to develop them and put them in the best environment to succeed?

There’s enough blame to go around here, but as this team becomes increasingly difficult to watch and is certainly less compelling and less likable than ever (and the fact that I returned from some time away last weekend to find an e-mail from a TMZ…um, operative regarding this ugliness with Chris Perez in Oakland provides a pretty concise indication of how horribly this team has fallen) as a group of players, it seems that the internal discord has started in terms of pointing fingers.  The first finger was pointed by the Tribe’s manager when Acta dropped this bomb, regarding how the struggles of Kipnis and Asdrubal (apparently, he hasn’t noticed Choo falling off of a cliff in the last month) aren’t the “problem” for this team:
“Realistically, I can’t expect those guys to be on top of their game for 162 games,” said Acta. “That’s why we do need more than four guys in our lineup to be productive.”
How will the Indians correct that for 2013?
“It’s no secret, we’re going to need to improve our offense,” said Acta. “We’re going to have to find a solution in left field, we’re going to have to find a solution at first base and we’re going to have to find a solution at DH. That’s pretty obvious.
“And the third base situation is not determined either. Lonnie [Chisenhall] has a broken arm. The guys that are here right now are fine and doing what they can, but we expect more.”
When Acta was told that’s quite a shopping list, he said, “We gotta have it.”

Though I remain firmly on the record that the rotation is this teams’ biggest issue – both now (starters’ ERA is now FIVE POINT SEVENTEEN) and going forward – if Manny wants to talk about offensive deficiencies, I’ll play along…

So as the current manager, coaching staff, and Front Office runs for cover, Acta’s comments – while not untrue – struck me as oddly reminiscent of the ol’ Cholly Manuel line that the Front Office was giving him 3-tool players (he was referring to Milt Bradley) and telling him to win with all of the 5-tool players that they’d assembled in that it looks on the surface like a stinging indictment of the supporting cast around those “four guys” (and it is), but it also sounds to me like Acta is saying that those “four guys” are not impactful enough to carry an offense.

Going into this season, it was easy to look at 1B, LF, and 3B as probable problems and though we were forced to read all Spring Training about how Shelley Duncan deserved a shot to be a full-time LF and Hannahan switching to a heavier bat meant that he had suddenly turned into an effective hitter with the LASIK surgery for Casey Kotchman leaned on as the “reason” for his improved offensive numbers, anyone who was pretending that those players represented even suitable options was being pretty optimistic.  But more than those spots being black holes (and they were…and are), it’s hard not to see how the likes of Choo, Cabrera, Santana, and Kipnis were being counted on to do much of the heavy lifting for this offense by design with their track records, both long (Choo) and short (Santana, Kipnis) providing some inkling of optimism that the quartet – with some hope that other pieces like Brantley and/or Chiz would emerge or that Grady (oof) or Hafner (double oof) would be healthy – could lead the Indians offensively, with similar hope for young(ish) pitchers - most notably Masterson - to do the same for the pitching staff.

But that simply hasn’t happened and, though there have been some offensive bright spots, those players that were thought to perhaps form a core going forward have been too inconsistent to legitimately carry an offense (much less a pitching staff) on their own or even as a group.  What’s happened is that they’ve looked like complementary pieces – granted, nice complimentary pieces – and that’s pretty much your worst-case scenario here, particularly for players like Santana, Masterson, and Kipnis.  Yes, those three (and the two offensive players in particular) are young players that are still developing and maturing, but with 2012 representing a step back for them, who gets the blame for that?

Did the Front Office assume too much from a player like Santana to anchor the lineup or did the Coaching Staff fail in helping Santana (since I’m using him as the example) make the necessary adjustments to continue to succeed or does some of the blame fall at Santana’s cleats?

Obviously, these are all hypothetical “blame” questions that have been around as long as baseball, but with this group of assembled players – acquired because they’re similarly-aged and similarly-controlled – supposed to be taking that next step in 2012 and actually falling backwards down the steps (in what has to be the longest flight of stairs in recent memory), that’s what we’re left doing, asking questions that have very ambiguous answers.

And while some will firmly purport to have those “answers”, assigning “blame” in black-and-white terms is akin to predicting success or failure in absolute terms from Lake County to Cleveland. 

Why did Santana’s power desert him?
Was Masterson’s 2011 a mirage?
How did someone not see that LaPorta couldn’t hit an MLB curveball?

Maybe you think all (or at least most) of the blame falls at the feet of the Front Office for assembling THIS particular group of players and hoping for the best, or for their failure to augment this group of players externally in the off-season, and those aren’t unfair criticisms.  But for as much as I hear “WILLINGHAM” screamed amid a cacophony of “harrumphs”, everyone knows that Ryan Ludwick has a higher OPS than Josh Willingham right now, right?

That’s not meant to add “LUDWICK” as a new calling cry amidst the “harrumphs”, but Ludwick was signed in early February for $2.5M with a 2013 option by the Reds, after the Indians had added other OF “options” (and this is a great recap of all of those off-season “options” added from Andrew Clayman) to hopefully help the assembled talent.  So was Ludwick all set to “break out” this year and the Indians simply whiffed on him, or is he a product of his environment in Cincinnati last year and he would be – had he signed with the Tribe – mentioned in the same breath as Duncan and Kotchman and every other “unsuitable” addition to this team?

Because isn’t that what gnaws at us as fans?
To see Beltran and Willingham and (now) Ludwick succeed while the Indians’ LF continue to flail away, with the manager joining the chorus heard across the North Coast begging for an answer?

But that’s where this thing gets cloudy in terms of “Nature vs. Nurture” in talent acquisition as the White Sox are competing this year with a motley cast of characters, with players that were thought to be injured, flawed, or AWFUL additions (Rios, Dunn, Peavy) carrying that team, augmented by a group of lesser-known players that are thriving with little fanfare.  So Kenny Williams is lauded for pulling this group of players together – on the fly and with a barren farm system…and if someone can explain to me how he poached Youkilis and Liriano, giving up nearly nothing in return, I’m all ears – even if nobody can figure out how he’s doing it.

But is Williams simply prescient when it comes to acquiring these guys or are they developing and contributing at the MLB level because they’re being put in the right positions to succeed while being coached to maximized their potential?

Remember when Brennan Boesch (the 15th ranked prospect IN THE TIGERS’ SYSTEM, not in all of MLB, prior to the 2010 season) came out of nowhere a couple of years ago to post at least league-average production for the Tigers or how Quintin Berry (a 27-year-old rookie) held down the fort this year when Austin Jackson was missing in Detroit?

How are those teams hitting on those under-the-radar additions to plug holes while the Indians languish away and continually struggle to build depth of any kind?

Certainly, some of it is the black hole of drafting for the better part of the decade (though things have gotten better, laid out in Al’s terrific piece this weekend to Adam Van Arsdale fleshing out the 2005 to 2010 drafts), but there are TWO players on the White Sox with more than 75 PA this year that were drafted by Chicago and those two (Beckham and Morel) have been two of their worst offensive contributors.  In Detroit, 4 of their drafted-and-developed players have more than 200 PA, but Boesch, Avila, Raburn, and Dirks (the Tiger draftees) have not paced their offense.

Though I know I’m not comparing apples-to-apples here as the White Sox are winning with a rag-tag group of players assembled (some off of waivers, with some big price tags on players that were pretty unattractive when they arrived on the South Side) by Kenny Williams while the Tigers are winning on the largesse of Mike Ilitch’s dying wish (and yes…I know he’s not dying) to win a World Series as the Tigers’ owner, it is worth noting that the White Sox and Tigers get production from unlikely sources (particularly on offense) with the question coming back as to why that is, when that does not seem to happen for the Indians on a regular basis…

Obviously, you could say that the White Sox are paced by Konerko, just as the Tigers are led by Miggy, Prince, and Jackson, but doesn’t that get back to that point that Acta made?

He seems to be saying that the Indians need 7 to 8 productive bats in the lineup – since he names Choo, Cabrera, Kipnis, and Santana as his “quartet” and says he needs bats for 3 more positions (LF, 1B, and DH) while leaving Brantley and Chiz out of the conversation – when that kind of up-and-down-the-lineup production isn’t all that prevalent…well, anywhere.  Most teams are built on the backs of the middle-of-the-order hitters with the ancillary pieces fitting around them and that reason is one of the things that keeps leading me back to this idea that Acta doesn’t think that the hand he’s been dealt is all that compelling – with issues surrounding those purported “middle-of-the-order hitters” perhaps being the unspoken message.

What’s so troubling about this idea – that Choo, Santana, Kipnis, and Cabrera (plus Brantley and Chiz) CANNOT pace an offense – is that those are the pieces that were put in place when this rebuild/reload/whatever started (with LaPorta) and continued in earnest.  And if those guys are not good enough to form a productive offense as 2/3 of a lineup, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for hope for them maturing into those pieces as a group, much less individually.  Sure, you can say that LF and 1B, most notably, have been complete black holes, but their production from C has been middle-of-the-road, and their OPS from 2B and CF are merely a little above-average as we enter the final month of the season.

And with expectations high for players like Santana and Kipnis coming into the season, if this is what is to be expected from the players that are thought to be the burgeoning top-to-middle-of-the-lineup, suddenly a full-scale blow-up doesn’t seem as implausible as it may have just a couple of weeks ago.  Maybe that’s extreme and asking too much of too many young players, but AC sums it up pretty well here:
You start to wonder if the Indians would, indeed, be best to move the most attractive pieces from a team that wasn’t all that good to begin with in order to bring in some younger, projectable bodies you can place around the likes of Jason Kipnis, Chisenhall, Santana and Brantley.

Yes, that could mean trading Shin-Soo Choo, who wants to be with a winner as much as he wants to sign a fat free-agent contract. Yes, that could mean trading (Chris) Perez, though his reputation will undoubtedly precede him in trade talks. Yes, that could mean even mean parting with Asdrubal Cabrera, who has once again seen his production wane in the second half.

Maybe that seems harsh, but we’re essentially watching the team that is going to be around for 2013 and unless you’re seeing a big leap forward for some of those players (the ones that didn’t take those leaps this year) in 2013, you’re looking at a team that now has the FIFTH-worst record in all of MLB after being 2 games out of the AL Central Lead on the Fourth of July (and check out this graphical representation of the playoff chances for the team just dropping off of a cliff from a 41% likelihood on July 5 to a 0% chance just 31 days later on August 6) and a team that now sports the SECOND-worst run differential to boot, lest you think that the bad (and getting worse) record was “flukey” in some way.

The freefall somehow cannot find a bottom and with the Manager sniping at the Front Office as the young players that were thought to lead this team in 2012 and beyond continue to struggle with their consistency, the question that sticks is whether those players are struggling because they’ve been misevaluated on the high side or if they’re not reaching their potential because of a lack of adjustments. 

It’s a question that becomes more pointed with each loss, with an “answer” (however that is gleaned) likely costing someone in the Indians’ organization their job this off-season, with the hope that the correct “answer” is eventually found.


Unknown said...

Paul, I like your blog and have been reading for a couple of years now. I particularly like this piece and looking at it from different angles. The only comment or criticism I have of this piece and pieces of the past is that your blog entries are becoming more and more difficult to read due to inordinately large amount of side comments in parentheses which seemingly is every few sentences. Why not just type what you mean instead of adding those quips in parentheses? I counted 38 such instances in this entry alone, wow. Take or leave my comment, just my observation. It kills the flow of your thought and my flow as a reader. Again, love the work and contributions to what has become a beyond depressing baseball team.

MTF said...

"How are those teams hitting on those under-the-radar additions to plug holes while the Indians languish away and continually struggle to build depth of any kind?"

Great question, and I hope Tribe leadership ponders this one consistently and not just now or over the winter. Comparing your own performance to competitors is a good idea.

I say let's just ignore the ugly sniping. We all recognize, now anyway, that the team was and is a couple of bats (and not just one bat) away from contending. As bad as that is to hear, it's worse to realize we have an even bigger problem in starting pitching. Antonetti has his work cut out for him, as do the Dolans.

Adam said...

I think the Indians do a pretty good job of internally evaluating players. They also seem to do a decent job of evaluating players outside of their system in the minors, as evidenced by the numerous nice pick-ups of minor league guys the franchise has made over the past 7-8 years (e.g. Choo, Cabrera). But whatever system the Indians have in place clearly does not work well when applied to guys from other teams at the major league level. The Indians' free agent acquisitions are just littered with wretched failures.

Elia said...

I haven't commented here in a while. I have to admit that, even before the slide, I find these Cleveland Indians completely uninteresting and not watchable. I have been trying to put my finger on it all year. This feeling started when the Trive traded Pomeranz and White for Jimenez last year, although I don't think that was the reason my "Indians funk" continued into this year. In fact, I can't remember feeling this way about my Tribe since the 1980s.

Anyway, all this conversation about hitting is fine. But it isn't the lineup that cost this team a chance at the playoffs. Is it a flawed team? Of course. LF, DH, 1B and 3B are not contributing at all. But as a lineup the hitting isn't horrendous and the defense is solid.

What's really bad is the rotation. And I don't just mean really bad. There just aren't enough reallys in the English language to talk about how bad. And being behind every game by the second inning by multiple runs, and expecting a bullpen to pitch five innings every night, just compounds the problems in either of those other categories.

But all the talk is about how Santana, Kipnis and Cabrera aren't good enough to hold up the team. Right now we have two #4-5 starters and three other guys who shouldn't be pitching in the majors. You want to point to the destruction of this season? Start with the rotation.

CLohse said...

The note below should read "This blerg does not allow anonymous comments" because "blerg" is my vocal response to questions about how the Indians fix anything right now... not that anybody's asking me. The number of people who care enough to ask is shrinking, in fact, as more and more people say "blerg" and turn their attention to things more interesting, like knitting or trimming fingernails or catching flies with chopsticks (see also: likelihood of seeing an Indians victory).

(Was that too many parenthetical statements there, Shamik? Sorry.)

I suspect that, given the state of the farm system, we aren't likely to see sunnier skies over Regressive Field for about 5 years. Even Chisenhall will be approaching a non-Cleveland payday or an extended stay in quad-A ball by then. If there's good news it's that Tomlin will probably be recovered from Tommy John surgery around that time.

We don't have a player anywhere close to superstardom. Choo was our best bet this season and he's done nothing to stabilize his value at "good with potential for more" but, instead, seen it devolve towards "semi-productive." I don't see him even returning that much in a trade. Perhaps a team that wants to capitalize on his popularity in the Far East will overpay for him, and we'll get a decent starting pitcher prospect in return. Beyond that, I don't see a roster move that helps much.

What might help much more than Choo's trade is some shuffling in the front office but, as a mere fan, boy is it hard to tell if that's the answer. Acta won't be around to see Aguilar hit the bigs. He won't be around to see Lindor's prime wasted (yep, that's a touch of cynicism) in an Indians uniform. So is it time for him to be replaced? It's not for me to judge (at all, in the least), but if I had to guess, I'd say that Acta's value lies primarily in his ability to inspire young players (that's how he was sold to us) and not in his ability to shift defensive alignments (which I've seen him lauded for). One of those things is a lot harder to quantify statistically, of course. Antonetti gets to try and quantify paying Acta going away + paying a new manager against fan reaction (blerg). Good luck with that, Antonetti, and good luck finding a pitching staff for the next several years.