Sunday, August 11, 2013

Picking up the Pieces on a Lazy Sunday

So…that was an interesting week. The Indians came into August within shouting distance of 1st place in the AL Central with a big series against the division-leading Tigers looming. Trailing the Kitties by 3 games headed into the 4-game series, even as poor a mathematician as myself could connect the dots and see the significance of the Indians protecting their home turf and at least winning the series against the Tigers. As we all know, game one started off well enough until Chris Perez picked a poor time to have his first bad outing in quite a while, giving up 4 runs in a 4-2 loss. Perez hadn’t allowed a crooked number on the scoreboard since his disastrous blown save in Boston back on May 26, (and as we know he landed on the DL after that outing). Worse even than losing that game to the Tigers, starter Corey Kluber wound up with an injury of his own, spraining his finger and going on the shelf for at least the next 4 weeks. The Indians then proceeded to drop the final three games in the series, and then Friday night’s game against the Angels for good measure. A three game deficit in the division suddenly turned into a 7.5 game chasm, and control of the 2nd wild card spot ceded way to a 3.5 game hole. After Friday, the Indians found themselves just a half game above the streaking Royals for 2nd place in the Central Division. What a difference a week makes.

None of this means the Indians are out of the playoff hunt, mind you. The Central Division may be a foregone conclusion at this point, as the Tigers have a 7.5 game lead and the best run differential in the major leagues. They’re going to be awfully tough to catch at this point, depressing as that may be to admit. But the other contenders for the two AL Wild Card spots are having their own issues. Tampa Bay is the favorite for one of the spots, but their #2 starter (Matt Moore) is on the DL. Texas lost Nelson Cruz to the Biogenesis suspensions, although they did manage to trade for Alex Rios (and Alex Rios’ contract) on Friday. Baltimore’s starting pitchers have struggled all season, and they play a far more difficult schedule the rest of the way out than the Indians will face. It’s an uphill climb and it’s going to involve a lot more scoreboard watching than the usual September playoff fight, but there’s still a chance for the Indians to snag a wild card slot for the first time in team history. Even after the Tigers debacle, Baseball Prospectus playoff odds had the Indians at a 28.5% chance of making it to the postseason (and a 1.1% chance of winning the World Series). That’s a far cry from the Tigers MLB-best 99.5% chance at the playoffs and 23.9% chance at taking home the hardware, but hey, at least we’re not the White Sox. There’s a lot of baseball left to be played, and the Indians schedule remains undaunting. This team is much better than last year’s edition that skidded to an 18-45 finish after The Verlander Game™, and I fully expect to be able to watch interesting baseball down the stretch in September. I’m not going to go out on a limb and predict a playoff spot or anything, but I’m also not ready to write off the season just yet. When the Indians lost 8 in a row back in June, the club responded by going 14-5 over the next 3+ weeks to get right back in playoff contention. Do they have a similar bounceback run in them after the August debacle? Time will tell, but I certainly think they’re capable.

Speaking of writing things off, the Indians finally got around to DFA’ing Mark Reynolds last week, a move that has been several weeks in the making. After an uncharacteristic and electric start to the season that saw Reynolds hit an impressive .291/.367/.645 with 11 HR and 29 RBI in the first 31 games of the season, he hit just 4 HR the rest of the way and was sporting a paltry .680 OPS when he was finally designated last week. Besides the stunning demise at the plate, word around the team suggested that Reynolds wasn’t exactly a leader in the clubhouse, either. Whispers from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario started leaking out a few weeks ago that Reynolds was not handling his reduced role with a veteran’s poise, and was particularly galled when he was (more and more frequently) pinch hit for late in games. As Francona put it to reporters following the move, “I think it was becoming harder for Mark to handle not playing.” Simple words from Tito, but read into that how you will. I know from watching the walkoff celebrations against the White Sox, Reynolds was nowhere to be found, having hit the showers early rather than sit in the dugout and support his teammates.. Giambi, Kip, Swish, Asdrubal and even Santana were front and center in the traditional home plate mobbings, but not once did I notice Mark Reynolds join into the fray. I’m not sure exactly how long that trend has been in place, but if in addition to his well-documented struggles at the plate, Reynolds became a drain in the clubhouse, then it really was past time for the Indians to cut bait and move on.

The primary beneficiaries of the Reynolds release in terms of playing time will of course be Lonnie Chisenhall at 3B and Yan Gomes behind the plate. In my mind, anything that gets us more Yan is a good thing. He’s a far superior defensive catcher in comparison with Santana, having gunned down an eye-popping 12 of the 23 runners who have attempted to steal on him this season. That’s an outstanding ratio, one that almost has to fall off at some point. He’s allowed just two passed balls and 19 wild pitches in 408 innings behind the dish, and the ERA of pitchers throwing to Gomes is 3.77. In comparison, Santana has thrown out (hide the women and children) just 5 of 49 would-be basestealers. He’s allowed five passed balls and 41(!) wild pitches in 607 innings, and the Indians staff has a 4.27 ERA when throwing to the Axe Man. I don’t find catcher ERA to be the end-all, be-all stat for determining how a backstop handles a pitching staff, but that’s a pretty big difference. Gomes is a much better receiver than Santana, moves better behind the dish and has much, much cleaner/faster throwing mechanics. And at the plate, Gomes has simply been a revelation. He’s hitting .303/.344/.527 with 8 HR in 165 AB this year, and that’s after a slow start. Since May 12, Gomes has played in 37 games and is hitting .328/.376/.531. It will be interesting to see what the Indians do this offseason, but it’s possible that they’ve solved their long-term hole at 1B by finding a catcher, allowing Santana to play more and more 1B. It’s still hard to believe that the Indians acquired both Gomes and Aviles for just Esmil Rodgers this offseason.

Ryan Raburn had a pretty big week, making his first career appearance on the mound in the 9th inning of a blowout loss to the Tigers and agreeing to a 2-year deal worth $4.75 million and a $3 million club option for 2016 ($100k buyout). After posting just a .480 OPS in 66 games with the Tigers last year (and spending a couple of stints in AAA), Raburn has responded with the best season of his career in selective action with the Indians here in 2013. He’s hitting .274/.366/.559 with 13 HR and 38 RBI in just 68 games on the North Shore, good for a 159 OPS+. It’s not as though Raburn is doing it with smoke and mirrors; his .322 BABIP in 2013 is just a tick over his career mark of .315. It’s actually a very similar season to his 2009 campaign, in which he hit .291/.359/.533 with 16 HR in 113 games with the Tigers. The Indians have been able to play him primarily in the OF rather than at 2B/3B to hide his defensive deficiencies, and he’s been a very useful contributor to the 2013 Indians. Still, this feels like a case of “buying high,” and a team like the Indians should be able to develop their own Raburn at a much cheaper cost. Cord Phelps and Jason Donald are just two names that I thought would develop into Raburn-esque pieces, but it just never happened. Still, Raburn has been worth nearly 2 wins to the Tribe this year (1.9 WAR), and if he can keep up that sort of production in selective duty, that contract will be a bargain. Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus discusses whether or not we should expect this sort of production from Raburn through the remainder of the contract:

As a corner outfielder/DH, Raburn’s bat isn’t as valuable as it once was at second or third, and since his platoon splits past tell us more than his platoon split present, his success against righties might be a mirage. But there is some real improvement here: Raburn has become more selective, swinging at only 44.1 percent of pitches, his lowest rate on record. And his O-swing rate is also down, to 21.2 percent, the 16th-lowest mark among the nearly 300 hitters who’ve seen at least 800 pitches this season. There’s also some small-sample fluke: Raburn has hit .305/.339/.746 with runners in scoring position, the kind of clutchness that endears a player to his new teammates and fans but shouldn’t influence a front office.

And yes, there was that inning on the bump against the Tigers. Raburn and the rest of the Indians sure looked like they were having fun despite the score, and RR did manage to set down the side in order. He even blew a 89 MPH fastball past Matt Tuiasosopo for a strikeout. I’ll provide the Brooks Baseball strikezone plot below for those who are really interested, and you’ll notice that Raburn lived exclusively above the belt with his 13 pitches, and was probably lucky to face the bottom of the Tigers order and not have any balls land in the seats beyond the outfield fence.

ESPN’s Buster Olney put together an interesting piece opining that this could be a very busy offseason on the trade front, owing primarily to the weak free agent class ready to hit the market. To that end, he again lists Asdrubal Cabrera as a potential piece that may be moved, shifting Mike Aviles to an everyday role to keep SS warm until Francisco Lindor is ready to assume his eventual spot at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. Asdrubal has been allegedly on the block since before the 2013 season even began, and Olney reported that the prospect-rich Cardinals were again inquiring about Cabrera leading up to the trading deadline. I’ve been advocating moving him pretty much all along provided the right offer is on the table, but I’m wondering if the Indians missed the window that would have generated the most return. From the all-star break through August 8, Asdrubal has hit a paltry .203/.229/.316 (.545 OPS) with 7 XBH (1 HR) in 83 plate appearances. He’s also walked just twice while striking out 16 times. Maybe it’s just a bad stretch, and I’ll fully acknowledge the arbitrary endpoints, but it’s part of a season where Cabrera has declined to an OPS+ of just 96. He seems to be pressing at the plate, and the advanced metrics have never loved his defense at SS (although he’s on pace for a career-low error total for a full season).

If you and I can sit here and see that Cabrera isn’t the same player he was in his all-star seasons of 2011/12, surely the Cardinals and other teams are coming to the same conclusion. So what are the chances the right offer is even on the table? Well, if you look at the shortstop market this season (courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors), you’ll be exceedingly underwhelmed. The “best” player on the list is none other than Jhonny Peralta, and he has some…off the field issues that drag his value down. So for a team like the Cardinals who will be in the market for a shortstop, it’s pretty much the trade market or bust. I traded tweets with Zach Mortimer, one of the prospect guru’s over at Baseball Prospectus, asking if he thought the Indians could get 1B Matt Adams and pitching prospect Carlos Martinez for Asdrubal this offseason. Not only did he say yes, but thought that the Cards would throw in an additional flyer as well. If the Cardinals came calling with that offer, I would encourage Chris Antonetti to take it and run. Not sure if that offer is going to be on the table, but the weak FA crop is sure going to make for an interesting hot stove this winter.

On a more cheery note, Doug Thorburn of Baseball Prospectus penned a very informative and positive article detailing the re-emergence of Justin Credible this season, focusing primarily on the increased use of his slider. It’s a premium article requiring a subscription; while I’m not qualified to tell you how to spend your money, I will say that if you do pay for a baseball related website, it’s impossible to find better writing for your dollar than at BP. Anyway, Thorburn does an excellent job breaking down pitching mechanics and overlaying his scouting expertise with statistical evidence. It’s a perfect hybrid of the sabermetric and scouting communities, and helps prove that the two can exist in harmony with each other (despite those on the fringes of each side who foolishly insist that some sort of “stats vs scouting” dichotomy must exist). In the full version of the article, Thorburn provides some .gifs of the action on Masterson’s fastball and slider, showing how each pitch moves and can be effective to hitters on both sides of the plate. As he explains though, the improvement from 2012 to 2013 rests on the laurels of Masterson’s increased use of the slider:

Fastballs of various types make up 72 percent of Masterson's pitches this year, but his performance on heaters is very similar to 2012, a year in which he had a 4.93 ERA and 1.45 WHIP. As is the case with Liriano, the slider is the key to Masterson's statistical gains this season. The strikeouts tell the whole story: batters have struck out 99 times in 174 at-bats that ended with a slider, a ridiculous rate of 56.9 percent (compared to his 44.9 percent rate last season). Meanwhile, his fastballs have resulted in just 72 strikeouts in 430 pitch-ending at-bats (16.7 percent).

Masterson throws the slider to batters on both sides of the plate, but he favors the pitch to right-handed batters by a five-percent margin. The breaker has a more vertical trajectory than a typical slider, despite his sidearm delivery, and the downward movement aids the pitch's effectiveness against lefty bats. The slider has easily been Masterson's most dominant pitch from a performance standpoint, but what it has done to opposing righties in 2013 is downright criminal: in 85 at-bats that finished with the slider, right-handed batters have just two hits (both singles), for a .024 average and .000 ISO, in addition to 57 strikeouts. The pitch has just been filthy.

In the comments beneath the article, I asked Thorburn if he thought the improvement was something we could expect to see over the long term with Masty. His response:

Pitchers can be different entities year-to-year, but I really like the overall trend of his rising release point as an indicator of his physical improvements. 
The slider is Masterson's most effective pitch, and he has been using it more and more over the last few years, with a 3-yr frequency of 15.0% - 19.3% - 27.9%, so he is throwing it nearly twice as often now as in 2011. 
The downward movement on all of his pitches is key, and the increased use of the slider as a wipeout pitch bodes well for his K rate moving forward. Time will tell if that all carries over into 2014, but I think that you can trust him for the rest of this season.

Regardless of what happens the rest of this year, the Indians rotation is shaping up well for 2014. Between Masterson, Salazar, Kluber, McAllister, Bauer/Carrasco/House, the Indians have plenty of internal options for the rotation next season. This is good, because the rotation depth will allow Chris Antonetti and company to focus on straightening out the bullpen and augmenting an already-solid lineup.

Sticking with the rotation theme, the Indians have announced that Scott Kazmir will miss his next scheduled start due to arm fatigue, which can’t be too surprising. Kazmir has thrown 114 innings in 2013 after throwing just 1 2/3’s MLB innings between 2011-12. Carlos Carrasco is going to get the start for Kazmir next week, and it was Carrasco who came on in relief of Kazmir when the latter was roughed up in his most recent start this past Friday. Carrasco threw 5 innings of one hit ball on Friday, walking three and striking out four. It was the 1st relief appearance on the season for the 26-year old out of Venezuela, and the Indians are still holding out to see if he can harness his considerable talent for good instead of evil. His most recent MLB start was a disaster, as he allowed 7 runs (6 ER) in a loss to the Tigers back on July 6. His well-documented struggles at the MLB level this year notwithstanding, he has actually been pretty good for AAA Columbus. He’s 3-1 in 14 starts for the Clippers, posting a 3.14 ERA and recording 79 K and 21 BB in 71 2/3 IP. I’ve long been one of Cookie’s more devoted believers, but even I’m down on the not-so-youngster after his well-documented struggles this season. I still believe in the talent, but I’m getting more and more concerned about his ability to handle the mental side of the game. A good start on Wednesday won’t mean he’s figured it out, but it sure would be a good sign after the season he’s had.

Lastly, Grantland’s Jonah Keri did a fun piece on the somewhat subjective topic of the “bestcoolest” hitters he’s seen in his time as a baseball fan. Keri’s memories start in the early 80’s, and (spoiler alert) Barry Bonds snags the #1 overall spot on his list. Cleveland does feature prominently on his list, as the entire 1995 Cleveland Indians take the #5 slot (the only team to appear on the list). There’s a classic YouTube video embedded in the article, one that brought back some of my favorite moments as a sports fan. So enjoy that as we wonder if the 2013 version of Chief Wahoo’s Tribe can pull a rabbit out of the hat and put together another run to the postseason.

No comments: