Sunday, January 11, 2015

Warming Up on a Lazy Sunday

It’s January, which usually means big-time bowl games (usually including the Buckeyes), NFL playoffs (rarely including the Browns) and cold weather/snow, particularly in our beloved Midwest. It also means that the countdown to Spring Training becomes much more real (just over 5 weeks!) and baseball writers all over the interwebs start to come out with their “rankings” for 2015. Fantasy baseball rankings, dynasty baseball rankings, pre-season award rankings, top prospect rankings…all over every sports site from here until real baseball begins in earnest this April, you’re going to see a multitude of rankings. I’m no exception, as I’m working to put out my 5th annual Indians prospect countdown sometime in early March (or at least that’s the plan). It’s quite the labor of love, with an emphasis on the “labor” part of the equation. So you probably won’t be seeing something from me every week in this space, but I’m going to do my best to make it worth it when the prospect countdown does finally come out later on this year. With that mea culpa out of the way, let’s set off to all the news that’s fit to link here on a (cold) Lazy Sunday…

Zack Meisel of the Plain Dealer had an…interesting cab ride in the waning days of 2014, and used it as a springboard to think up some “resolutions” for the Indians in 2015. One such resolution focused on Carlos Santana, who might well be the most important Indian for the upcoming 2015 season:

Now firmly entrenched at one position, produce a consistent year at the plate, one that doesn't include a .159 batting average and .628 OPS through the first two months. Santana's final numbers (.231/.365/.427 slash line, 27 home runs, 85 RBIs, league-leading 113 walks) looked fine at season's end, but imagine how they would sparkle if not for a miserable first two months.
Digging a little deeper on Meisel’s musings, Santana put up an impressive .266/.384/.488 line from June through the end of the season. That .872 OPS was fueled in part by Santana hitting 21 of his 27 HR during that timeframe, and despite a rather pedestrian .281 BABIP. If you want to stretch that June-Sept production over 162 games, Santana would’ve finished with 34 HR, 108 RBI and 112 BB (showing just how consistent Santana’s walk rate was throughout the season, even when he was struggling in April/May).

Let’s even say you’re one of those people who obsesses over Santana’s batting average (I’m most certainly not, but there are those out there who are). Looking back at his career, there’s a pretty predictable correlation between his batting average and average in balls in play:


When Santana’s BABIP is in the .250-.260 range, he hits around .230. As his BABIP (read; luck) rises, so does his batting average. This isn’t rocket surgery. More importantly, there’s one thing that’s remained consistent with regards to Santana, and that’s his OBP. Santana has never walked fewer than 91 times over a full season, and his OBP has ranged from .351 to .377. I don’t care if he hits .231, if he’s on base 35% of the time, Santana is basically slump-proof, regardless of how low his batting average is.

Why am I spending this much time on Santana? Well, as many of you have noticed, the Indians lineup is filled with left-handed hitters from top to bottom. Santana, a switch hitter, is going to be playing mostly 1B and DH this year, so the plan is to have him in the lineup pretty much every day. The only other right-handed power that one can take more or less for granted when looking at the Indians projected lineup is from catcher Yan Gomes, and as a catcher, he’ll have to take at least a game off every week. If you want to argue that Nick Swisher is going to bounce back and have another 20+ HR season, fine, but I’m not ready to pencil that in just yet. So Santana is going to be the most important hitter in the lineup, batting cleanup and representing the most consistent right-handed bat when a southpaw starter is on the mound for the opposition. The Indians aren’t going to ask Santana to play a new position in 2015 the way they did in spring and early 2014. They’re not even going to ask him to play the more difficult of his older positions. They’re simply going to ask him to go out and get on base every day, and drive in as many runs as possible.  If he’s healthy and in the lineup every day, and can match his June-Sept production over a full season (.266/.384/.488 with 30+ HR, 100+ BB and 100+ RBI), it’d be a huge step in ensuring the Indians offense doesn’t slip into the late-season doldrums that plagued them in 2014.

So if Carlos Santana is (arguably) the most important bat in the Indians lineup, who’s the most important pitcher? You could probably make an argument for pretty much any of the pitchers in the rotation, but I’m going with the reigning AL Cy Young winner. Corey Kluber was a dominant force in 2014, and much like Santana’s walks made him slump-proof, Kluber’s pitching helped to ensure that the club never fell off a cliff in terms of a long losing streak, even though there were times when we were afraid that was going to happen. The Indians had one streak of 5 or more losses (they dropped 6 in a row from April 25-30), but that was it.

It’s logical to think that Kluber will regress at least a little in 2015. After all, rarely do pitchers win back-to-back Cy Young Awards, and Kluber was almost exactly a league average (99 ERA+) pitcher in 2013. So there’s not exactly the sustained track record of success that you have with a Kershaw or a King Felix. What Kluber does have, however, are superior mechanics. Baseball Prospectus resident pitching expert Doug Thorburn recently broke down the best/worst mechanics in the AL Central in a variety of categories. Doug and Paul Sporer were two of the few national writers who were projecting a major Kluber breakout prior to the 2014 season (in their Starting Pitcher Guide), so Doug clearly knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the Klubot. He rated Klubers mechanics as the best in all of the AL Central, coming in just ahead of Tiger ace David Price:

Similar to the situation with Madison Bumgarner in the NL West, the case for Kluber was made before his Cy Young campaign of 2014 even got started. Kluber was one of just nine starting pitchers who received a grade of A- or higher in the 2014 Starting Pitcher Guide (out of more than 200 players that received report cards), and he found a way to improve his scores this past season. Kluber earns plus marks in every single category of the report card, and he was in the discussion for best in the division for all four subjects under consideration. David Price also received consideration for this award, and like Kluber, Price has plus marks in every category, but his stability took a small step backward while Kluber's improvements allowed him to leap-frog Price in the standings. The right-handed Kluber is a machine of mechanical efficiency, with a template for his delivery that portends a continued run of success.  
I’m not going to predict a repeat Cy Young award for CyKluber, but I will say that I’m confident that he’ll again rate among the best pitchers in the American League based on talent, work rate, mechanics and the continued presence of The Pitcher Whisperer in the dugout. In fact, Kluber’s mechanics are so clean that Callaway will be able to spend that much more time with guys like Carrasco, Salazar and Bauer, which only adds to the value of the Klubot at the top of the Indians rotation. This is where I remind you that Corey Kluber cannot become a free agent until AFTER the 2018 season.

While we’re on the topic of breakout 2014 seasons, a Fangraphs article from July of 2014 caught my eye this week and I thought it’d be fun to look back on it with the benefit of hindsight. Dave Cameron posted his top-50 trade value article back on July 18, and three Indians made the list; Kluber, Brantley and Gomes. That they made the list isn’t what I found interesting. Of course the 2014 AL Cy Young, MVP candidate and Silver Slugger backstop are on this list (especially considering their contracts). What I found fascinating was where on this list they clocked in. Gomes was lowest, at #50. Kluber and Brantley were right next to each other, coming in at #42 and 41, respectively. Contrast that with Jonah Keri’s yearly trade value column, penned in December 2014. On Keri’s list, the same three Indians are featured in the top 50. But Gomes clocks in at 25, and Kluber and Brantley at 15 and 16, respectively. Cameron and Keri both looked at the same factors when putting together their respective lists. Talent, age, projection and contract were all part of the equation. But perception of the Indians stars changed dramatically between July and December, and the young, talented, and relatively cheap core three became even more valuable than before. Leapfrogging 20+ spots on a list like that after just 2 ½ months of actual baseball is pretty remarkable, and shows just how impressive those three were in 2014.

This talk of value actually dovetails nicely into an article from November that I wanted to highlight here. I know it’s a little old, but I wanted to make sure to draw attention to it for a couple of reasons. One, it’s a really good article. Two, its author, August Fagerstrom, announced yesterday that he’d be joining Jordan Bastian on the MLB beat for the Indians this spring summer. I’ve long been a fan of Fagerstrom’s work at Fangraphs and the ABJ, so having him on the MLB beat is going to be a treat for all of us. Fagerstrom wrote this piece for Fangraphs back in November in which he makes a pretty convincing case that the Indians rotation (this is pre-Floyd, of course) is the most valuable in baseball based on their projected WAR and salaries for 2015. The entire article is a must-read, but I’ll draw your attention to Fagersrtom’s conclusions:

So in Cleveland, you’ve got a rotation projected to be one of the best in the MLB under contract for a grand total of about three and a half million dollars. For comparison, John Danks is set to earn $15.75 million in 2015. The Nationals will pay their staff an estimated $48 million. The Tigers, as they currently stand, will pay what projects to be an inferior rotation about $76 million.
Those five guys, who will earn less than $4 million dollars, are projected to be worth about 11 WAR in an era where 1 WAR generally gets about $7 million on the open market. That’s the definition of value, and a blueprint of how to run a small market franchise.
Again, this is all pre-Floyd. So the Indians rotation will now earn between $8 and $14 million, depending on how many incentives Floyd is able to hit in his contract (and the more the better, because that means he’s pitching well). But that’s still pretty good bang for the buck any way you look at it, and the flexibility that will give the front office in 2015 and in the future is priceless.

For those who missed it, former Indians GM Hank Peters passed away on January 4 at the age of 90. Peters is usually overlooked when people think of the Indians mid-90’s renaissance, but he was a key figure nonetheless. The GM immediately preceding John Hart, Peters made the first trade to acquire key pieces in the Indians’ run of sustained success, picking up catcher Sandy Alomar and 2B Carlos Baerga from the Padres (along with OF Chris James) in exchange for all-star OF Joe Carter prior to the 1990 season. Peters also hand-picked his successor in the GM role, convincing John Hart to give up his passion of managing and slide into the front office role that he occupied so successfully until 2001 (shades of Roosevelt convincing Marshall that he could do more for the war effort in Washington than in Europe, but I digress). Peters wrote the forward to and collaborated with George Pappas on “The Tribe Reborn” last year, a book that I read on my flight from DC to Phoenix for Spring Training 2014. It was a quick and entertaining read, and helped remind me of how some of the Indians building blocks slid into place to help that magical mid-90’s juggernaut come into existence. Peters’ contributions are also highlighted by Terry Pluto in his more recent “Glory Days in Tribe Town” about those same Indians teams, and both books are well-worth your time. Peters was an unsung hero for the Indians rebirth, and his passing is a loss for both the baseball and Cleveland sports worlds.

I try to stay away from Baseball Hall of Fame talk for the most part. I love the Hall itself; I’ll never forget the trip we took there when I was a kid, walking around the Hall with my dad, shopping for baseball memorabilia throughout the town and generally getting lost in all the nostalgia. But the writers who vote for the HoF are doing their best to ruin the entire experience for everyone. We have guys who intentionally submit blank ballots in some sort of bizarre protest against…well, I’m not sure what. We have guys who forget where their ballots are and don’t bother to submit one at all. We have guys who think that Lee Smith is worthy but Mike Piazza isn’t. We have people voting for Darrin Erstad. All of this just leads to frustration and anger with the process, and potentially worthy candidates like Kenny Lofton falling off the ballot entirely before their cases are even fully debated. I’ll admit that the Lofton thing makes it personal for me, as he was one of my favorite players growing up. But with all that said, I’m still going to point you to Jonah Keri’s article from earlier this week on future Hall candidacies, because it includes a look at the upcoming debates on Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome. Keri (and I) thinks Thome is a lock, but Ramirez is going to find a much tougher road due to his PED suspensions. Keri also includes a youtube link to Thome’s mammoth CF HR at the Jake, called by Tom Hamilton. That alone makes it worth a click.

Former Indians utility infielder John McDonald announced his retirement this week, bringing his 16 year MLB career to a close. McDonald was the Indians 12th round pick in the 1996 MLB draft, the only position player selected by the Tribe that June who would appear in the major leagues. He made his MLB debut with the Indians in 1999 as a light-hitting defensive specialist, and managed to turn that niche into a nice little career. Johnny Mac proved that if you had one elite MLB skill (his was defense), it’s possible to play in the major leagues for a long, long time. Anthony Castrovice put together a really nice piece detailing why four different clubs made it a point to simultaneously tweet the news of and congratulations in his retirement. Never a power hitter, he hit just 28 HR in 2434 MLB at bats. Back when Jordan Bastian covered the Blue Jays for MLB, Bastian talked to McDonald after his 16th and by far his most memorable career HR, back on Father’s Day in 2010. I won’t spoil it for you if you somehow haven’t heard the story yet, just click on the link and read Bastian’s excellent article. Just make sure you have a box of tissues nearby…it’s going to get a little dusty. McDonald is a certain bet to land a job somewhere in baseball, and has future MLB manager written all over him. All the best to one of the great guys in baseball, and hopefully he enjoys his retirement.

Finally, Anthony Castrovice put together a fun little “quiz” looking back on the year that was and the year that might be, and even helpfully links to the podcast that he and Jordan Bastian put collaborated on earlier this month. The quiz is mostly a joke, but it’s a fun enough way to spend 10 min of your Indians reading time this week, For the record, my answers were A, D, B, A, D, D, A, A, C, C, D, A. Is Castro trying to send us some sort of code? Just to be sure, I checked to see if my answers were an anagram for anything. The result? No. No they are not. While I continue to do my best Alan Turing impression on those letters, just to make sure Castro isn’t trying to tell us that Mike Trout is set on coming to Cleveland when he becomes a free agent, your time is probably better spent on thinking about the fact that Indians pitchers and catchers report to Goodyear in just 40 days…

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