Sunday, August 25, 2013

Enjoying the Ride on a Lazy Sunday

The roller-coaster ride that has been the 2013 Indians season continued this week, as the Indians swept a 3-game series on the road from the The Angels Angels of Anahiem after dropping two of three in Oakland. After splitting the first two games of a 3-game set with Minnesota, the Indians currently stand at 70-59 on the season, 6 games back in the division and 2.5 games out of the 2nd Wild Card spot and a playoff berth. A roller coaster seems like a pretty good analogy for this years’ installment of the Cleveland Indians. They’ve had no fewer than seven separate streaks of 5+ wins or losses in a row throughout the season thus far, resulting in the fanbase feeling alternately very positive or very negative about the clubs playoff chances. Individual players like Jason Kipnis, Ubaldo Jimenez, Carlos Carrasco and others have run alternately hot and cold, sometimes from game to game. And while a roller coaster can sometimes make you nauseous from all the ups and downs, we will often pay good money to ride them, because despite the occasional stomach flip they can be an awful lot of fun. As we head down the last hill and towards the final turn of our little ride this season, the Indians are getting ready to play meaningful baseball in October for the first time since 2007. With so many other teams fighting for one of two Wild Card berths, scoreboard watching can be a confusing and time-consuming proposition. So I’m just going to sit back, cheer for the Indians and enjoy the ride. They’ve already surpassed their win total from 2012, and they have a great shot at finishing the season with 90+ wins.

There’s no real way to measure the overall affect a manager has on a baseball team. It’s pretty clear that managers look a heck of a lot better when they are managing better players. But everyone in and around the club this season agrees that Terry Francona is going a pretty good job with the Indians this year. Scott Miller of CBS Sports wrote an article on the impact Tito is having on the club, talking to everyone from Francona himself to Sandy Alomar Jr. and several of the players. Way back in March when I talked to Indians president Mark Shapiro, he talked about finding “levers” that affect more than one piece of the ballclub. There’s little doubt that Francona has been a lever that has positively impacted the team this year, even though there’s no way to assign a specific win total to the hiring of Francona over Manny Acta. I don’t think Acta was a terrible manager, and Francona has clearly had better players than Acta did at his disposal, but I do believe that Francona has done a very nice job with the team this season.

Danny Salazar has continued to impress as a member of the major league rotation, flashing two above-average to plus pitches with a level of consistency that few (present company included) saw coming in his first taste of big-league action. In his four MLB starts, Salazar has posted a 3.52 ERA with 29 K and 7 BB in 23 innings of work. His fastball is averaging in excess of 95 MPH, and is touching triple digits. His changeup is so good that he’s got people who should know better mis-identifying it as a splitter. When asked about Salazar in his most recent chat for, prospect guru Keith Law replied that he “looks like ace stuff so far. The splitter is filthy and he can hold 96-97 as a starter. Seems fair to call him at least a future 2 if he holds up.” If anything, Salazar has been unlucky; an unsustainable 1 in 4 flyballs allowed by Salazar have left the yard. Five of the fifteen hits he’s given up have left the yard, and four of those have been off his fastball. It’s a pitch that Salazar could blow past minor league hitters without worrying as much about location, but major league hitters (and Miggy Cabrera in particular) can handle velocity if it isn’t properly located. Once the 23-year old Salazar starts doing a better job spotting his mid-90’s heat, the HR rate will normalize and the ERA should drop. I think Salazar is the Indians #2 starter next year behind Masterson, and could be the high-impact arm at the front of the rotation that the Indians have been so desperately trying to develop. It will be interesting to see how the Indians manage his innings the rest of the season, as he’s 116 innings in 2013 after recording just 87 2/3 in 2012. He’s was pushed back a day prior to his most recent start, which helps but doesn’t really answer how he’ll be handled for the rest of the season. Chris Antonetti has come out to say that there’s no strict innings limit on Salazar, and the club is considering pitch counts and not just a hard innings ceiling the way the Nationals famously handled (mishandled?) the Steven Strasburg situation last year. They’re bound to be cautious with the prized young righthander, but it will be awfully tempting to try and ride his electric arm to and through the playoffs this season.

One of the more disappointing players this season (for me at least) has been OF/1B Nick Swisher. The first (and primary) big $$ free agent signing for the Indians this offseason, Swisher went into Saturday night’s game hitting just .241/.339/.404 with an 111 OPS+, 15 HR and 43 RBI in 112 games. All of those figures would represent his worst totals since his 2008 season in Chicago. After four remarkably consistent seasons in the friendly confines of New Yankee Stadium, his overall production has really fallen off this year back in his home state of Ohio. Looking inside the numbers though, there’s hope for Swisher to regain last year’s form. His HR rate is down 1.1%, but BB%, K%, GO/AO ratio and other numbers are virtually identical from his time in NY. His BABIP is down .020, even though his line drive rate has jumped from 20% to 27%. So part of his down season can be put down to bad luck, as his flyballs aren’t leaving the yard at the same rate and his line drives aren’t finding holes as often as they have in the past. Since the (admittedly arbitrary) date of August 7, Swisher has shown signs of returning to his old self, hitting .254/.338/.508 with 4 HR and 10 RBI (15 games). It’s a small sample size, but it is an encouraging trend as the Indians offense has struggled to find someone to rely on from month to month. If Mark Reynolds could carry the team through April (1.019 OPS, 8 HR and 22 RBI), then it doesn’t seem crazy to think that Swisher can get hot and be “THE GUY” ™ in September.

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, Indians beat reporter Jordan Bastian wrote an article with a quick blurb on an argument that manager Terry Francona had with home plate umpire Mike DiMuro in a game against Oakland. Tito was arguing an erroneous strike three call that DiMuro blew with Jason Kipnis at the plate, and despite seemingly knowing that he was wrong, DiMuro refused to change his call. As Francona relayed to Bastian:
"He foul tipped it, but the ball hit the dirt," said Francona, who argued the play on the field. "There was a big mark where the ball hit. The umpire kept saying, 'You're making a good point.' I said, 'I know, but you called him out.' He goes, 'Well, I can't change it.' I go, 'But look at the mark.' He just kept saying, 'You're making a good point.'"
I had to read that three times before I believed it; “you’re making a good point,” said the umpire. DiMuro knew he was wrong, but it would have been embarrassing to admit that. So he carried on with the call, and Kipnis remained an illegitimate strikeout victim. If DiMuro had simply swallowed his pride and made getting the call right his first priority, he’d have admitted his mistake and returned Kipnis to the batter’s box. But MLB umpires have some sort of absurd code that never allows for them to admit that they’ve made a mistake. It’s as if they believe that they’re infallible, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Umpires are people too, and they’re never going to get every call right. But at the very least, when they realize that they have blown a call, they should have the courage to admit it and do the right thing. Carrying themselves with inexplicable arrogance and refusing to change an obviously incorrect call only serves to intensify the calls for instant replay. The good folks over at Baseball Prospectus came together to build a list of 11 plays that they wished had the benefit of instant replay, complete with video. It’s a fun list that contains some of the more egregious blown calls throughout history, is an entertaining article to read when you have the time. Thanks for bearing with me there, and the #umpshow rant is now over.

Those who have read my stuff for a while now know that back in my playing days, I would don the tools of ignorance and settle happily behind home plate on a daily basis. As such, I’m probably a little harder on Carlos Santana’s defensive effort than most. I think he has the raw tools to be an average to above-average defensive catcher, it just seems like he’s more interested in the offensive side of his game. He has an above-average arm and is a good athlete, but throwing mechanics and footwork are sloppy, and he’s a very poor receiver. He doesn’t do his pitchers any favors with his attempts at framing close pitches, and probably costs them more strikes that anything. In that vein, I’d like to point you to Ben Lindbergh’s (free!) weekly column over at Baseball Prospectus in which he takes an in-depth look at catcher framing around the league. Lindbergh’s fantastic and incredibly in-depth work lists Santana as one of the league’s worst at framing (backing up my amateur guesswork) and shows that a whopping 445(!!!) pitches that Santana has caught in the strike zone this season have been called balls, while he’s turned 208 balls into strikes. Favorite Tom Hamilton whipping boy Jesus Montero appears on the worst list as well, with Ryan Doumit leading the way as the worst of the worst. Lindbergh includes some of the best and worst frame jobs from the past week in GIF form throughout the article, and they’re worth watching if only for the batters reactions when pitches that are clearly out of the zone are snapped back in by a Molina brother, resulting in a strike call from an umpire that is clearly both confused and impressed by the sleight of hand. Yan Gomes doesn’t appear on either the best or worst lists, but this earlier article from Lindbergh features Gomes as his “frame of the week” as he took a pitch from Joe Smith that was more than 6 inches outside of the strike zone and turned it into a called strike.

The Indians most visible fan, drummer John Adams, celebrated his 40th anniversary as a fixture in the leftfield bleachers on Saturday. It’s hard to believe that Adams and his bass drum have been attending nearly every Indians game since August, 1973 when he was a young man of 21. Interestingly, it was a reporter’s lie that helped Adams decide to show up at the ballpark, rain or shine, night after night for the last 40 years. As reporter Zach Meisel relates to us:
A photographer for the Cleveland Press snapped a portrait of him, and Sudyk later called him for an interview. The reporter asked whether Adams planned to attend the Indians' next game that Tuesday. Adams told him, "No."
"When the article came out," Adams said, "at the very end, it said: 'If you want to hear John's drum, come to the game tonight.' So not to make a liar out of the fifth estate, I said, 'Oh, why not?' So I went down there that Tuesday night and Wednesday night."
Still, for an English major at Cleveland State who worked in a phone company's accounts information department and was pursuing his Water Safety Instructor certification, there were not enough hours in the day to accommodate a daily trek to the ballpark.
Even when approached by Indians promotions director Jackie York, Adams declined.
"She said, 'We really like what you're doing here, banging on the drum for the team. Would you come to every game?'" Adams said. "And I said, 'No.' And I've come to virtually every game since."
Adams never brought his drum out to the ballpark looking to become a celebrity, local or otherwise. I’ve seen fans approach him for autographs or pose for pictures, and he always sheepishly agrees. He’s been to over 3,000 Indians games in his lifetime, having missed just 38 games in 40 years. That’s less than half of one season’s home games, spread out over 40 years. It’s crazy to think about, and Adams does it without his own webpage, publicist or stylist. He does have a (seldom used) twitter account and Anne Keegan in the Indians front office does sometimes bring him ice cream, but that’s about it. He’s not banging on his drum because he’s trying to land a spot on a reality TV show; he’s doing it because it is fun and he’s a big Indians fan.

Sorry for the short column this week, but work responsibilities and (bleh) house hunting have been grossly interfering with my “free time.” Anyway, the Indians now have 33 games left this season. It’s going to take 20+ wins to secure a playoff berth, regardless of what the teams in front of them do. Can they make it? Will John Adams and the rest of us get to watch playoff baseball at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario this season? I’m honestly not sure, but I know I’m going to enjoy watching them down the stretch to find out. The updated Baseball Prospectus playoff odds gave then a 26.6% shot at the postseason as of Saturday afternoon, which sounds about right. Would I have taken those odds at the beginning of the season? Probably, especially considering the question marks in the starting rotation that we were all wondering about back in March. I feel like those odds will be much better at this point next season, but for once, we’re not stuck with looking towards next year in late-August. It’s been a fun ride, and I have a feeling that this roller coaster still has a few surprises before it pulls into the station at the end of the season.

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