Sunday, November 06, 2016

Coming to Grips on a Lazy Sunday

I…I still can’t believe it’s over. As I sit down and put virtual pen to paper for the first time in far too long, I just can’t come to grips with the fact that this team’s magical run through the playoffs has actually come to an end. I’m still firmly in the “denial” stage of dealing with the events of November 2, and keep expecting that game 7 will resume after a rain delay or something. I’ve read a few tweets, responded to a few text messages asking if I’m ok (I’m not) and managed to drag myself into work (late), but I’m not really “here.” Not after last night. Not after Dexter Fowler’s leadoff HR. Not after Kluber and Miller, gassed from giving all they had to give and seeing a team for the 3rd time in 7 games, were just human enough for the Cubs to stake themselves out to a lead. Not after Kipnis’ improbable scramble home from 2nd on a wild pitch, stirring the echoes of the 1995 Indians juggernaut (that also fell painfully short at the end). Not after Rajai Davis…RAJAI FREAKING DAVIS hit a game-tying HR, making up for the run that the Cubs scored off of his throwing arm earlier in the game. And not after the rain delay, after which the Cubs would rally in the 10th to finally put the Indians season to bed once and for all. It was an incredible game at the end of an 
incredible season, and the Cubs were the best team in baseball in 2016.

The Indians trials and tribulations were well documented throughout this postseason, but indulge me if you would while I rehash some of the more noteworthy obstacles overcome by this club in 2016:
  •  Michael Brantley, arguably the Indians best hitter and inarguably their best outfielder, missed all but 11 games this season while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. If Brantley is healthy for the playoffs, Michael Martinez isn’t even sniffing the playoff roster.
  • Starting catcher Yan Gomes is limited to just 74 games after dealing with a multitude of injures, including breaking a bone in his hand during a rehab appearance juuuuuust prior to rejoining the club in September. 
  • Due to the Gomes injury, backup catcher Roberto Perez is rushed back from his own injury without a proper rehab assignment, struggling at the plate to the tune of a .096/.244/.137 line in his first 30 games this season. Perez would hit .263/.326/.438 in his final 31 games, all the while providing excellent defense and handling the pitching staff to rave reviews.
  •  All-Star and #3 starter Danny Salazar battled arm issues throughout the 2nd half of the season and was unable to make a start in the playoffs. After a blistering 1st half that saw him post a 10-3 record with a 2.75 ERA and 118 K in 104 IP, Salazar made just 8 starts in the 2nd half of the season, going 1-3 with a 7.44 ERA in 32 2/3 IP.
  • With Salazar’s availability for the playoffs already in doubt, #2 starter Cookie Carrasco suffered a broken finger on Sept. 17 in a start against the Tigers, putting him on the shelf for the rest of the season. Carrasco was 11-8 with a 3.32 ERA in 146 1/3 IP, striking out 150 hitters. This was the injury that prompted “the column” from Indians beat writer Paul Hoynes.
  • With the season winding down, ace Corey Kluber left his last start with a “minor” groin/quad injury. Kluber would be ok, but unable to start game one of the ALDS against Boston. The Indians turned to Trevor Bauer who would go on to beat the Red Sox with a little help from his bullpen friends.
  •  Speaking of Trevor Bauer, the guy who began the season in the bullpen but who was our #2 starter in the playoffs (not because he’d pitched his way up but because of the attrition in front of him), we were all introduced to the surprise danger of drone repair. That’s because Bauer injured his pinky finger in a drone repair mishap during the ALCS. It was almost funny at first, but the Indians had to move Bauer back to game 3 of the ALCS, and in that game Bauer was unable to work out of the first inning due to the blood flow from the injured finger. Naturally, the Indians bullpen would come in and shut down the Blue Jays to stake the Tribe to a 3-0 lead in the series.

That list is provided not to make excuses as much as to give you an opportunity to lean back in your chair and think to yourself about how much this team managed to overcome just to get to last night. They swept the mighty Red Sox (opening day payroll $198 million), then took out the powerful Blue Jays (opening day payroll $137 million) just to have an opportunity to face off against THE BEST TEAM IN BASEBALL, the 103-win NL Champion Chicago Cubs (opening day payroll $171 million). I’ve added the payroll figures here for context, and remind you that your Cleveland Indians clocked in with a $96 million payroll on opening day of the 2016 season. The Indians were already the underdogs as far back as April. Suffering through the bumps and bruises of a 162-game season is never easy, but it’s a lot easier to weather the storm when your #4 starter makes $13 million (looking at you, Clay Buchholz). I’m not typically a “silver lining/moral victory” type of guy, but to not appreciate what this team did with the players in that locker room is doing them a disservice. I’ll direct you to the always-fantastic Grant Brisbee of SB Nation for some context:

Stop for a moment and think about what the Indians were trying to do. They had one super starter. They had one super reliever and one super-super reliever. They had some exciting hitters, but fewer than you might expect from a team about to win the World Series.

The Indians were hoping no one would figure out that they shouldn’t be there, that their magic rotation was hurt, and that almost every reason they expected to win the pennant back in March was turned upside down.

What if Michael Brantley were playing in Game 6? Don’t know if he would have been in left or center, but if he were in center, could he have fielded just a touch better than Tyler Naquin? And what if Carlo Carrasco were healthy, if he didn’t get hit in the damned hand by a one-in-a-million shot up the middle? What if Danny Salazar were tuned up and ready to be one of the tri-aces he was supposed to be when the Indians were AL Central favorites in spring training.

What if, what if, what if. The Indians had more what-ifs than any other team.

* * *

And the Cubs had the fewest. Forget the payroll disparity (which was massive) or the talent disparity (also substantial). Just look at the injury disparity.

Pitchers get hurt. Pitchers tire. Pitchers are Ferraris driven through sand dunes and dropped off at the mechanics when they, huh, that’s odd, don’t work anymore. And yet the Cubs had everyone healthy. Every danged pitcher.

Look at the lineup. All healthy. They won the division without Kyle Schwarber, and that was a nifty trick, but then they reached into the top hat, and there was a beefy rabbit surprise. Schwarber was healthy, against all odds.

In the first inning, Schwarber beat out an infield hit and then stole a base before the catcher got the ball. Yep, he seems fine.

That was the Cubs. They had the best IR list of any postseason team I’ve ever seen, and even then, they got their secret weapon back at just the right time.

Seemingly lost in all of this 3-1 series lead hubbub (memes) is the fact that the Cubs are really, really good. Following the Civil War, Gen. George Pickett was frequently asked why the South lost the Battle of Gettysburg. His response was generally recorded as “I've always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.” The Indians scratched and clawed and fought against the best team in baseball, undermanned and outgunned. They built a 3-1 series lead primarily off the backs of some timely hitting, a strong bullpen, Corey Kluber and the magic of Terry Francona. What was their reward for that 3-1 lead? The right to face three straight Cy Young caliber starters from Chicago in the form of Jake Arrieta (2015 NL Cy Young), Jon Lester (top-4 in Cy Young voting in 2010 and 2014) and Kyle Hendricks (odds-on favorite for the 2016 NL Cy Young). All rested and ready to go. And who did they have to oppose this troika of arms? Trevor Bauer on short rest with a bad finger on his pitching hand (wasn’t in rotation at the beginning of the season), Josh Tomlin on short rest (#5 starter out of Spring Training) and Corey Kluber on short rest after pitching on short rest.
We hear that “short rest” thing a lot, but really don’t have an appreciation for how difficult it is for a pitcher. Not only is he getting one fewer day for his arm to rest and recuperate, it completely throws off his between-starts side sessions. Baseball players are creatures of habit and routine, pitchers even more so than position players. Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post took a look at pitchers starting on short rest in the playoffs, and the results of his study are telling:

Since 1995, the first year the wild-card format was used in the playoffs, 77 pitchers have started 121 playoff games on three days or fewer of rest, resulting in a combined 35-40 record with a 4.35 ERA. Considering teams usually use their ace in this way during the postseason, those results are not very encouraging.

The overall performance is just as bad when these pitchers are asked to go on short rest in elimination games: 9-18 with a 4.34 ERA. Only 20 of these 45 performances ended in a quality start and just nine pitchers went more than seven innings. The latest to do so was Clayton Kershaw in 2015, but before that it had been 10 years since the last seven-inning performance by a player pitching on no more than three days’ rest (Tim Hudson in 2005).

There’s a reason starting pitchers throw every 5th day. Looking a little further at those numbers, there has been an average of 3.85 starts on short rest in every playoff season since 1995. The Indians were starting more than that on short rest in the World Series alone. I’m struggling to find a way to say this that makes sense, but the Indians were starting more pitchers on short rest in the World Series than the yearly average of every team in every playoff series from 1995-2015. That’s just insane. I couldn’t find numbers from pitchers throwing back-to-back off of short rest who also pitched off of short rest the series prior. I’m either not that good as a researcher, or it’s never happened before. There was no ALCS/NLCS until 1969, and it was a 5-game series until 1985, so don’t come at me with the “Old Hoss Radbourn” arguments.

With all of that being said, this loss hurt me more than 1995, or even 1997. I was 16 in 1997, and had the benefit of the innocence of youth on my side for that heartbreaking loss. I still remember exactly where I was when Edgar Renteria singled just past the glove of Charlie Nagy into CF. I remember the looks on my friends faces, but I also remember thinking that they’d be back. The mid-90’s Indians were a juggernaut. Power hitting, power pitching, come at me bro attitude on the field combining with sellouts in the Jake every night providing the biggest home field advantage in baseball. Surely they’d be back in the World Series soon enough, right? They even went out and re-signed Kenny Lofton before the 1998 season! But baseball, particularly playoff baseball, is a fickle mistress. The ’98 Indians ran into the 114-win Yankees in the ALCS. The ’99 Indians collapsed against the Red Sox when Dave Burba went down in game 3 of the ALDS. The 2000 iteration won 90 games but fell one painful game short of the playoffs, which was our first hint that this run might not last forever. In 2001, they pushed the 116-win Mariners to the brink of elimination in the ALDS but fell agonizingly short. And just like that, it was over. The rebuilding process began in 2002 in earnest, and the 8-year run of sustained success that many Tribe fans grew up on was done.

The Indians would not play on baseball’s biggest stage again until 2016, where they met a Cubs team that hadn’t been there since Truman’s first year in office. These Indians are a solid ballclub with outstanding starting pitching and are in excellent position to contend for the pennant in 2017 and beyond. But this is baseball. Nothing is guaranteed. Injuries and unexpected slumps can and will occur. They could be right back in the World Series next year, or they could miss the playoffs entirely. Being old and jaded as I am, I recognize that it’s entirely possible that the Indians could go another decade or more without playing a World Series contest, let alone one where they enter the bottom of the 9th in game 7 with a better than 50-50 chance to win it all. That’s why this one hurts so badly, despite the wonderful ride and sense of pride I feel for cheering for this club. I’ll never forget the 2016 Indians. The 14-game winning streak, Kluber’s dominance, the Andrew Miller (and almost Lucroy) trade, the emergence of Francisco Lindor as a bona fide superstar, Kipnis scoring from 2nd in game 7, Rajai’s HR, JRam the Goat, Naquin's walk-off inside the park HR, Uribe’s cup, #PartyAtNapolis…it was a special season, that’s for sure. That it came up one run short in the end stings right now, but that will fade in time and we’ll be left with the good memories down the road. So I’ll suck it up and figure out a way to progress through all the stages of grief in the near term, and look forward to the levers that Chris Antonetti and company decide to pull this offseason as they prepare to defend the American League Pennant in 2017.

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