Sunday, September 15, 2013

Alligator Blood on a Lazy Sunday

Meaningful baseball in September…when asked in March of this year what I’d be happy with out of the 2013 Indians, I said meaningful baseball in September. Well, we’re being treated to that and more, as the Indians are playing not only entertaining and meaningful baseball, they’re on track for a playoff spot and have a chance to play meaningful baseball in October this season. It’s a remarkable turnaround from 2012’s iteration of the club, as gone are Casey Kotchman, Jack Hannahan, Shelly Duncan, Johnny Damon, Shin Soo Choo, Travis Hafner, Jose Lopez, Zeke Carrera, Jason Donald, Brent Lillibridge, and Aaron Cunningham, all players who got more than 100 AB with the 68-94 Indians. New additions Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Drew Stubbs, Jason Giambi, Mike Aviles, Yan Gomes, and Ryan Raburn have replaced them, and between the improvement in personnel and the switch from Manny Acta to Tito Francona, the Indians have already won 12 more games this season. The levers pulled by Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro have resulted in a much more consistent club this year, and as we wake up to enjoy our Sunday morning cup of coffee, here they sit, just 1 1/2 back from a playoff spot. As much as people want to shovel dirt on them with every loss, the team just keeps bouncing back off the canvas to answer the bell and climb back in the race. It’s been an awful lot of fun to watch this team this season, and they’re not done yet.

Remember back when it seemed like a laughable idea that the Indians would even entertain exercising their end of Ubaldo Jimenez’s mutual 2014 option? Conventional wisdom ran that $8 million was a gross overpayment for the suddenly-soft throwing back end of the rotation starter that Jimenez had become. What a difference a year makes, as September 2013 finds us asking just how much over $8 million it would take to resign Jimenez, and how long of a deal would need to be put on the table for him to accept? Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus breaks down the Big U’s resurgence this year, and most importantly he asks whether or not Jimenez’s improvements are likely to last for the long haul. As Lindbergh breaks down in the below chart that’s so simple even I can understand it, Ubaldo’s velocity has been trending upward, picking up nearly 2 MPH on average since mid-June. The stats are just as impressive, if not more so. From June 1 through his victory on Sept. 9, Jimenez has gone 11-7 with a 2.63 ERA, 194 K and 49 BB in 102 2/3 IP. His BABIP allowed over that timeframe is .306, so it’s not like it’s been a fluke, either. And those numbers are all BEFORE Ubaldo's Saturday night performance, when he went 8 1/3 allowing just 1 ER with 8 K and one BB. He’s allowed just 8 HR since June 1, and has been pitching effectively from the stretch as well as out of the windup.

That’s a significant velo jump, and Lindbergh’s numbers are backed up by BP pitching guru Doug Thorburn’s expert analysis of Jimenez’s mechanics from June-today:

He is slower to the plate from both the windup and the stretch, as compared to where he was earlier in the year. I compared the stride times from his July 4th start (versus the Royals) to Monday's game (also against KC), and here is what I found:
Time (in seconds) from when the front foot lifts off the ground to the point that it touches down into foot strike:
7/4 windup - 1.2-1.3 seconds
9/9 windup - 1.4-1.5 seconds
7/4 stretch - 1.0-1.1 seconds
9/9 stretch - 1.3-1.4 seconds
The timing discrepancies might appear to be small, but consider that his delivery on 9/9 takes about 20 percent longer to execute, on average. He has added some additional stall tactics in the quest to keep his upper half closed until after foot strike, as he had a glaring tendency to "fly open" with the front shoulder in previous seasons (and earlier this year).
Slowing down typically opens up the window for timing to fall off track, but in this case the associated benefits of delaying upper-body rotation outweigh the negative side effects (at least in the short term). Jimenez continues to add new wrinkles to an already inefficient delivery, and though he has momentarily discovered a timing pattern that works, his mechanical positioning is otherwise inconsistent—he still has a spray chart of landing spots on the mound, for example. But the extra delay has helped his torque, and Jimenez is throwing harder now than at any point in the season, with velo that has followed an upward trend since July.
So the (multi) million dollar question of course is whether or not this is a pleasant blip on the radar for Jimenez, or whether these long-needed tweaks in his mechanics are here for the long haul? Jimenez has been historically inconsistent with his multi-part, herky-jerk delivery, so who’s to say that he didn’t just stumble across this improvement almost by accident and will be unable to maintain it with any sort of regularity? That’s the question that a team is going to have to pay millions of dollars to answer, and that’s an awfully risky proposition. See the recent past of 2012, when Lindbergh was applying his graphical talents to show a precipitous decline in Ublado’s velo, and Thorburn was devoting 2000+ words and 8 full-motion GIFs to reflect just how far removed from Ubaldo! that Ubaldo had become. The more I think about it, the less I think that the Indians will be the team that finds out firsthand whether or not Jimenez has re-invented himself on the mound. At $8 million for one season, the Indians would absolutely take him back at this point. But I think he can get more money (and a longer deal) on the open market, and I just don’t see the Indians making a significant financial commitment to such a question mark. Not with Masterson, Salazar, Kluber, McAllister, Bauer, Carrasco, House, Tomlin already vying for the 5 spots in the 2014 rotation. So while they’re sure to make at least a token offer to keep U on the North Coast for another season or more, he’ll likely fly off to greener pastures and become someone else’s risk. Here’s hoping they can at least agree to make a qualifying offer for Ubaldo to reject, the Indians will at least secure draft pick compensation for their troubles. Of course, there’s also this little tidbit from Peter Gammons giving pitching coach Mickey Callaway credit for smoothing out Jimenez’s delivery, so it’s possible that if he leaves his demise will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He may even want to stay at a discounted rate if he in fact believes that Callaway is responsible for his bounceback 2013. Either way, we can at least say that as of 2013, the Indians won the Ubaldo Jimenez trade.

The always-fantastic Jonah Keri took a look at how the worst-to-first Red Sox made the return from national joke under Bobby Valentine to AL East superpower under John Farrell. The entire thing is well worth the read, even if you despise the Red Sox. But I’d like to draw your attention to the first player profiled by Keri, RF Shane Victorino. Victorino was offered a contract by the Indians this offseason, an offer he spurned in favor of an (arguably worse) offer from the Sox. Many at the time (including yours truly) thought the Indians dodged a bullet with Victorino’s refusal, and were happy to move on to the likes of Nick Swisher (3.1 WAR, 111 OPS+ in 2013) and Michael Bourn (1.7 WAR, 87 OPS+ in 2013). Well, we were all dead wrong, as Victorino has rebounded to put together an excellent season in Boston, posting a 5.7 WAR and 117 OPS+. That makes him Boston’s 2nd most valuable player in terms of WAR, ahead of Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli. Why do I bring this up? Three reasons; one, to point out how I was wrong (happens to the best of us). Two, to point out how the Indians front office was right in making Victorino the aggressive FA offer. And three, for this point that Keri makes more eloquently than I could:

It turns out the 2012 season was not the beginning of the end for the player in his age-31 season, though. It was simply a down year, and a reminder that players’ stat lines aren’t always perfect bell curves; there are random dips and spikes along the way. With Victorino producing 18 percent better than average this year while bringing stellar defense, stealing 20 bases, and providing generally impactful baserunning, he’s been more like a five-win player, and Boston’s second most valuable player in 2013.
Replace “2012” with “2013” and “Victorino” with “Bourn and/or Swisher,” and you see why I have hope for bounceback years from Cleveland’s prized 2012/13 free agent class. Does Victorino’s rebound ensure productive 2014 seasons for Bourn and Swish? Of course not, but it does illustrate through a very contemporary example how such a thing would be very possible. Here’s hoping Swish’s late season hot streak (6 HR, 17 RBI, .813 OPS in 23 games since August 17) carries over to 2014 and Bourn stays healthy for all of next season.

Indians prospect Jose Ramirez made some headlines when he was unexpectedly promoted from AA Akron to the Indians active roster on Sept. 1. Ramirez is just 20 years old, and posted a .674 OPS with 38 stolen bases for the Aeros this season. That’s not the type of player you’d typically expect to be plucked from AA and thrust in the midst of a pennant race, but Ramirez’s speed and versatility off the bench were attractive enough to Tito Francona that the move was made. Ramirez has responded well to the call-up, not looking overwhelmed in going 3-8 at the plate with 5 runs scored. Nothing incredibly special, but for a guy who was playing for the Lake County Captains at this time last season, it’s encouraging. Fantasy guru Ben Carsley took a look at Ramirez from a fantasy baseball owner’s perspective, and came away with some interesting takeaways (bold text mine):

You have to be impressed with what Ramirez has done this year, and he’s certainly solidified his status as a future MLB contributor, but his rapid ascent through the minors shouldn’t be confused with future fantasy stardom. Ramirez’ ability to hit at such a young age has been impressive, and a .290 BABIP and his nearly identical K% and BB% all portend sustainable success. That being said, Ramirez has no power in his bat, and that’s something MLB pitching is going to be able to exploit. His stolen-base total also suggests that he has plenty left to learn before he can be viewed as a reliable stolen base threat, although scouts do credit him with plus-plus speed.
While I do play fantasy baseball, I really don’t care about Ramirez’s potential to contribute to my (or anyone else’s) fantasy team. I, like the vast majority of Tribe fans, am only concerned about Ramirez’s performance as a real-life member of the Indians. So while he’s not going to hit for enough power to be an elite fantasy option, the very-real contributions at the plate and on the basepaths could make Ramirez an intriguing option for the Indians in the years to come. He reminds me a lot of a Chone Figgins, a speedy 2B/3B without the traditional power associated with either position but a solid contributor who can play multiple positions around the infield.  

I’ve (mostly) held to a self-imposed moratorium on attendance talk here at the DT since I took the reins from Pauly C, but a couple of solid pieces popped up on the radar this week that are too good not to link to. I’ll start outside the Indians family, as Will Leitch of Sports on Earth attended a recent contest at The Jake and came away both impressed with the friendliness of the fans and surprised by the high number of them dressed like green chairs. Not being a native Clevelander himself, Leitch was confused:

The Cleveland Indians have a reputation for losing that I'm not sure they necessarily deserve. They have a lifetime winning percentage of .509, eighth in baseball history. They've won five pennants and two World Series, and they have been to the playoffs seven times in the last 20 years. Only four teams -- the Yankees, Cardinals, Red Sox and Braves -- have made the playoffs more often in that time. They've retired six players' numbers. They gave us Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome and Albert Belle. (Those mid-'90s teams were fantastic.) The Indians might not have won a title in nearly 70 years, sure, but this is not a historically incompetent franchise devoid of hope, where nothing has ever gone right. They've had their chances, their highlights, their breakthroughs. They're not the Browns.
In what is a rare feat with all of the internets that have been devoted to Indians attendance talk over the past few years, Leitch then comes up with an angle that is completely new to me; the Major League Theory. He thinks it’s possible that the Indians are seen as a worse-off franchise historically than they really are partly due to the success of the fantastic movie Major League ingraining the “bad Indians” memory into fans across the country. Interesting, but not sure it necessarily holds water within the confines of Northeast Ohio. Leitch goes on to touch on some of the issues we’ve all seen before, from distrust of ownership/front office to the economy to the return of the Browns. It’s a really nice article from a non-Clevelander that seems to have a pretty good assessment of the fanbase, especially when he includes the following:

You don't feel forlorn at an Indians game: This is not like Miami, where not only are there few people in the stands, they're not paying any attention to what's going on either. Indians fans are as loyal as Cleveland's reputation would make you think; everyone in my section on Wednesday had been to every game of the Royals series and looked at me with suspicion, like I'd murdered the person who regularly sat in my seat rather than merely having bought his/her ticket on StubHub. (The mock sneer the woman gave me when I mistakenly sat in the wrong seat was joking, but only sort of.) There are Indians fans who adore this team. There are just a lot fewer of them than there used to be.
Because I've seen the devotion. I saw it Monday, and Wednesday, in the heat of pennant race, people screaming and yelling and sweating it all out. There weren't that many of them. But there once were, and, I suspect, there will be again. The Indians may seem like a joke. But they're not.
Like I said, very insightful for an “outsider,” not the typical drivel one expects from a national columnist, and a welcome respite from the talking heads at ESPiN who’s desire for the “hot take” of the day usually involves them screaming over each other and making shallow, nonsensical “points” at the expense of rational discourse.

Back in the family, Ryan over at LetsGoTribe takes a closer look at Michael Bourn’s plea for more fans to come out and support the Indians as they push for one of the AL Wild Card spots. Bourn is an outsider himself, coming to Cleveland this offseason as part of an unprecedented free agent spending spree for the Indians and (frankly) underwhelming at the plate in his first season on the North Coast. Ryan (and I) can’t seem to figure out why the Indians aren’t drawing more than they are, and he’s coming to the sad realization that maybe Cleveland just isn’t a “baseball town” as we like to style ourselves. So while the STO and WTAM ratings are up, the overall attendance for the club is down even from last year, let alone the heydays of the mid-90’s. I really don’t have anything too original to add to the attendance debate, hence my long-standing reluctance to even discuss it in this space.

As I have said before, far be it for me to tell you how to spend your hard-earned entertainment dollar. But I do think that with consistency from the club will come better attendance numbers. Not just consistency in terms of contention, but consistency in terms of players, particularly those that fans can connect with. The Indians of the mid-90’s and the Browns of the 80’s before them became beloved in Cleveland because the players and fans connected on a level not seen by the Indians since the turn of the century. We didn’t grow up cheering for the Browns jersey, we grew up cheering for Kosar, Slaughter, Matthews, Minnefield, and Dixon (I could go on).  If your earliest Indians memories focus on the mid-90’s powerhouse clubs, you had guys like Lofton, Thome, Ramirez and Nagy to pull for year after year. It was more than just rooting for the Indians; we felt a connection with those guys that has not been seen in this town since those salad days. Can Tito, Kipnis, Swisher, Pestano, Masterson and Gomes provide the stability and charisma needed to both win and connect with another generation of fans? I think (hope) so, but only time will tell for sure. This year’s playoff run, whatever the outcome, should fuel the fires of optimism for next season, and if the 2014 Indians start off on a hot streak, the fans should take notice. If not, then I’ll really be worried. Because at that point, we’ll start seeing more pieces like this one, again from Peter Gammons. It’s brief, but disturbing and significant:

“Everyone talks about the plight of Tampa Bay and Oakland, but the franchise that I worry about is Cleveland,” says one GM. “Chris (Antonetti) and Mark (Shapiro) did a great job putting together a team that could well end up in the playoffs. Ownership spent money. Terry Francona has given them credibility and great leadership. But can the Indians survive? It’s a difficult question for Major League Baseball.”
So…yeah. The survival of the Indians in Cleveland may be a difficult question for major league baseball. That’s a scary thought for one of the original 8 American League clubs. If you’re not going to the games, what are you waiting for? Does the team really have to be 20 games up in the Central Division like they were in the mid-90’s?

Finally, in a trip down memory lane, the good folks at Baseball Prospectus combined to put together a list of unlikely and unexpected pitching performances throughout recent years. Our very own Chad Ogea (career record of 37-25 with a 98 ERA+) for his two unlikely victories over Kevin Brown (career record of 211-144 with a 127 ERA+) in the 1997 World Series. As Russell Carleton relates to us, “…if you forgot that Chad Ogea played in MLB, I can't say that I blame you. After all, it was the mid-90s and there were other, more famous OJs that were in the news back then. But had Jose Mesa held that lead in the ninth inning of Game Seven, Chad Ogea would have been MVP of the 1997 World Series by improbably out-dueling a guy he had no business beating. Twice.”

Could we see a name like Kazmir, Kluber or Salazar added to that list? Quite possibly. If the Indians manage to make it to the postseason, they’ll have done so on the backs of a starting rotation that came into 2013 as a real question mark. If they make any sort of noise once they reach the postseason, it will be one (or more) of those formerly-unheralded names playing the hero. Here’s to hoping that 15 years from now, we’re reading an article about Zach McAllister surprisingly outdueling Clayton Kershaw for unlikely Indians victories in games 3 and 7 of the 2013 World Series. 


Elia said...

I'm confused: you mentioned a long list of 2014 pitchers battling it out in your Jimenez section. In that list the name McFarland came up. TJ McFarland? Did I miss something? Last I heard the rule five selection was pitching in Baltimore's bullpen.

Pizza Cutter said...

When I watched that Game 6, I was convinced that the Tribe could do it the next night too. Game 7 broke my heart.

Al Ciammaichella said...

Meant TJ House, not McFarland. Case of my brain thinking one thing and my fingers doing something completely different. It's fixed now.

Game 7...still can't rationally think about that night, even after all these years.

hawk1228 said...

I think the Cleveland main stream media has been unkind to the Indians front office and its ownership. Some fans do not have any idea as to why we had to trade away the likes of CC and Lee and want to blame ownership being cheap. The Dolans get such so much criticism yet are the only team that has created a stable front office which can work within the confines of Baseball and its unlevel playing field. Too many times I hear people blame the Dolans for ruining what Jacobs built. Hoynes and the rest of the beat writers should stick to writing what they see on the field. Paul did an excellent job in explaining why the front office did what they did in past years and made it easy to understand. More of that type of writing is needed so those fans that rip into the Dolans have a better understanding. I know that the lease expires in a short 10 years, if I owned this ball club I would be thinking about a move, an owner that went out and spent trying to play meaningful games in September who listened to the feedback and lowered concession food and drink. Provides excellent entertainment on Friday nights with cheap dogs doesn't deserve to draw maybe 1.6 million.