Sunday, May 29, 2011

Setting the Table on A Lazy Sunday

With the Tribe fresh off of a relatively baffling win against the Rays to snap a 3-game losing streak, the Indians head into Sunday’s contest with an opportunity to improbably win the series against Tampa and to maintain their commanding lead in the AL Central. Though the last week or so has been the cause for some concern for the Tribe (and rightfully so), it is worth noting that no team in the AL Central has a winning record in their last 10 games with only the Indians and the White Sox posting a 5-5 record in their last 10. So while concerns exist for Cleveland, no other team has caught fire and made a run at the Indians, who continue to play .500 ball against a tough stretch of their schedule. In fact, with May coming to a close, it is worth noting that the Indians are tied with the Tigers for the best divisional record during the month, as each team is 13-10 in May, ½ game better than the White Sox. So, as the Tribe has scuffled a bit (particularly offensively) recently, the rest of the division remains firmly mediocre and the Indians’ built lead remains intact as the calendar is about to flip to June.

The Indians maintain a 6 ½ game lead in the Central and while the offense has become an…um, adventure to experience, it has become fairly obvious with the recent lineup moves that, as my friend Tyler puts it, “the team won’t upend the clubhouse chemistry or shrug off service time worries” in the interest of perhaps improving the team, even in a few obvious spots. So, as the Indians roll along, attempting to keep their hard-fought lead intact in the Central, using the “players that got them there”, perhaps the idea that the lead horse in the cavalry was Al White just might be a solitary reinforcement.

While I’m not going to continue to bang that drum (as my arm has grown tired) and since the Indians have won a few games that they probably shouldn’t have (though this is because of their pitching), I’ll save the manifesto that the Indians need to be pro-active instead of reactive and shouldn’t be resting on their laurels for the sake of continuity for another day. Reason being that just when it looks like the Indians are in for an extended stretch of losses, given the opposing starters they’ve faced, the Tribe comes roaring back to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat…again.

However, a noticeable trend is emerging for the Tribe, particularly in terms of their offense where the team has unquestionably missed Hafner and is still integrating Sizemore into the lineup. There are black holes in the lineup (that don’t seem to be close to going away…and LaPorta has too many days when he looks like MaTola), but the Indians have been paced, particularly recently, not by the middle of the lineup, but by the two players at the top – Mike Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera.

Did anyone know that Brantley and Asdrubal have combined to cross home plate 65 times already this season, representing nearly 27% of the runs that the Indians have scored?

Certainly it takes more than just one or two players to plate runs, but Asdrubal and Brantley have been the players stepping on home plate for the Indians this season and without their contributions, the early (and recent) struggles of Choo and Santana and the time lost to injury by Hafner and Sizemore, the Indians probably aren’t in the place that they are right now, atop the AL Central.

While stories about Asdrubal have been dropping from the sky from every conceivable news outlet, with the best one comes from Joe LeMire at SI, even if he uses the words “Souvenir City” to close the article. While it’s been almost impossible to not be impressed by Asdrubal this season (and have at it with the All-Star game conversation, which interests me less than Hall of Fame discussion), I’m not sure that many Indians’ fans appreciate the talent that’s been on display with Asdrubal this year. A few years ago, B-Pro’s Kevin Goldstein proclaimed that if you were looking at Asdrubal and didn’t see a star in the making that you weren’t looking hard enough, but perhaps it’s time to provide some context for what Cabrera has been as a player since he arrived in 2007.

Back in February, I mentioned that Asdrubal’s 2011 would tell us a lot about what kind of career he would have and pointed out that one of the closest comparable players, in terms of stats for players through their first 3 seasons in MLB, was no less than Troy Tulowitzki. Admittedly, even I was a little dismissive of the findings, writing this:
Is that to suggest that a Tulowitki-esque leap to superstardom awaits Asdrubal?
Certainly not, but it definitely puts the disappointment of Asdrubal’s 2010 (before and after the injury) into some perspective...

Um…well, in light of what’s transpiring with Asdrubal this year, perhaps it’s time to re-visit this comparison, as outrageous as it may seem at first glance, given Tulo’s standing among the MLB elite. Regardless, here are the numbers compiled by each through their first 3 seasons, up to the point when each was 23 years old that prompted the revelation:
Tulowitzki (2006-2008) – 281 games
.276 BA / .346 OBP / .435 SLG / .781 OPS / 96 OPS+ with 99 XBH in 1,082 AB

Asdrubal (2007-2009) – 290 games
.287 BA / .355 OBP / .411 SLG / .766 OPS / 105 OPS+ with 92 XBH in 1,034 AB

Seriously, and that’s not even bringing up this season for Asdrubal…
Now it is worth mentioning that Tulowitzki’s HR total (33) for that 3-year stretch more than doubled the output (15) by Asdrubal in his first 3 years, but the XBH were on par with each other and it is worth noting that those 3 seasons were accumulated from the time that each was 21 years old through 23 years old.

Of course, Tulo followed up those first 3 seasons with some stat-stuffing years in 2009 (32 HR, .930 OPS, 130 OPS+) and last year (27 HR, .949 OPS, 138 OPS+) while Cabrera’s 2010 was undone by a poor start and an ill-fated Jhonny Peralta dive into his forearm.

Yet if you look at what each player did/is doing in their age-25 season, you start to wonder if Cabrera was simply taken off of the track for a short time and if he and Tulowitzki are more similar players than the 2009 and 2010 season for each would suggest. By that I mean that here are Tulowitzki’s numbers from 2009, when he was 25 years old:
.315 BA / .381 OBP / .568 SLG / .949 OPS / 138 OPS+

And now, Asdrubal this season, when his is also 25 years old:
.303 BA / .362 OBP / .537 SLG / .899 OPS / 159 OPS+

What is interesting there is while Tulo’s numbers look better overall, a stat like OPS+ actually says that Asdrubal is having the better year in the context of what’s happening offensively in the rest of the league because it uses the rest of MLB as a comparison tool and relates what each player is doing in the context of the rest of MLB. Now, if you project out what Cabrera has compiled over the 2011 season, he projects to finish the season with 33 HR, 36 2B, and 10 3B, which would best Tulowitzki in each category in his age-25 season.

Maybe Asdrubal backs off of his current torrid pace, but…maybe he doesn’t and Asdrubal is starting to emerge as a special player to build a team around. Lest you forget, Tulowitzki is signed through TWENTY TWENTY (that’s the year 2020) with a club option for 2021 with the Rockies guaranteed to pay him more than $152M starting next year to the end of his current contract. Yeah, they think that much of him in the Mile High City and while this isn’t pointed out to suggest that the Indians need to be locking up Asdrubal through the end of the decade (though he becomes a FA at the same time that Choo does and I have yet to see any hand-wringing over losing Asdrubal), the Indians may have a special player whose qualifications as a “core” player could have been debated as recently as this off-season.

Now, as we watch the maturation of Asdrubal (both at the plate and in the field…where he is finally making the routine plays AND the special plays), it would seem that the top of the Indians’ lineup could have some stability from a sensational player that is currently carrying the offense on his back.

Though Asdrubal has gotten much of the ink in recent weeks (“chicks dig the long ball”), the other revelation at the top of the lineup has been Mike Brantley who, despite a recent downturn, remains at the top of the league in some pretty impressive categories for a lead-off hitter. Sure, OBP is the most important number to look at for Brantley (and his .347 OBP is nothing to sneeze at, though it underwhelms for where it could/should be), his discipline at the plate and his ability to recognize his pitch and put a good swing on it has been the most impressive aspect of his maturation as a hitter. To say that his maturation has been a pleasant surprise would be an understatement as his performance in the early going (and even in the late going) last year caused some serious concern as to where Brantley’s ceiling existed.

However, to see what he’s doing in the context of the rest of MLB is to really appreciate what Brantley is showing he can become as an MLB hitter. Sure, anyone can say that Brantley “looks” like he knows what he’s doing up there, or that his approach is very “professional”, never looking unprepared or overwhelmed by a particular pitching, but look at where Brantley ranks in MLB in some pretty compelling categories:
Line Drive Percentage – 22% (9th best in MLB)
Groundball to Flyball Ratio – 1.11 (12th lowest in MLB)

What does that mean?
Well, it means that he hits line drives more often than only 8 players in MLB (and Matt Joyce is the MLB leader here) and that if he’s not hitting line drives, he’s much more prone to groundballs than flyballs than most everyone else. Just to go further than that, only 4% of the flyballs that Brantley hits end up as infield pop-ups, which is the 6th lowest rate in MLB, meaning that when Brantley does put the ball in the air, he intends to do it to put a charge into it.

While he unquestionably remains an unfinished product at the plate, the things that made some fall in love with Brantley as a prospect are starting to come through this year for the parent club as he’s helped the Indians’ offense survive some pretty debilitating slumps and injuries to keep the offense at or near the top of the runs scored category. It would be nice if he walked more (Jhonny Peralta has walked more frequently than Brantley this year) and if he saw more pitches, but even if this is who Brantley is going to be for 2011, the Indians are in good shape with him at the top of the lineup.

What’s amazing about seeing these guys at the top of the lineup (along with Choo and Santana…assuming Acta restores him TO the top of the lineup), is where they came from as Brantley was merely the PTBNL in the CC deal and – I don’t know if you’ve heard this at all recently – Asdrubal came to Cleveland for ½ of a season of Eduardo Perez. While it’s odd to see the national media finally catch on to this idea that the Indians have committed grand larceny in some of the “minor” deals they pulled off from 2006 to 2009, it doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to read about.

As much as the national media is now finding out about how Asdrubal and The BLC were netted for Benuardo, making these trades work isn’t as easy as the Indians have made it look just isn’t the norm. In a piece that my friend Al Ciammiachella pointed out my eyes to, the Pirates cleared the decks just as completely since 2008 and as this B-Pro piece shows, they just don’t have much of anything to show for it. As Al wrote to me, “sure they didn’t quite have a Victor or a Lee to deal, but they’ve gotten nothing out of the Jason Bay or Nate McLouth deals, while the Indians turned Austin Kearns, Ben Broussard and Eduardo Perez into more than the Pirates got for their entire team, to say nothing of the Blake/Vic/Lee deals.”

Think about that again and, though I realize that you know where these guys came from (though AC has a nice, clean synopsis), it does go back to those decisions made by the organization back in the summer of 2006 (Cabrera, Choo), 2008 (Santana, Brantley, LaPorta…or is it MaTola), and 2009 (Masterson, Carrasco, and C. Perez, most notably for now) when the Indians were obviously not going anywhere in their division, as they decided not to continue down the path of “what might be” with the group of players that they held in those particular years.

Rather, they ripped the band-aid (“one motion…RIGHT OFF”) and to watch these trades reveal themselves as prescient is a sight to behold and it’s not something that’s lost on the Indians. To wit, as Mark Shapiro told Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News, “Periods like this are an affirmation of why you go through those tough times…We know and accept the reality of building teams in a market like this. It’s about making tough decisions that are never popular and are challenging emotionally to both us and our fans. But when you win again with players you believe in, it is extremely gratifying.”

Realizing that this is well-worn territory in these parts, if you think back to what was happening (particularly in 2009), those moves created the perception in the minds of many fans that the team was a habitual “seller” and willing to move anything that wasn’t nailed down as they traded nearly every pending FA with the seismic shift of trading two players who weren’t FA for a year-and-a-half in 2009 rocking the North Coast to its core. If you have some time (and you should…it’s Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, what else are you going to do), go back and read what was written back in this space back August of 2009, proclaiming the “End of An Era”.
Go ahead…I’ll stay right here.

But what if the Indians hadn’t been “habitual sellers” and had maintained the status quo in those seasons or even played out the string with Lee and Victor, who wouldn’t have become FA until this past off-season?

To watch the current team and to know the pain that came pouring upon Indians fans’ (particularly in that fateful week in July of 2009) is to gain some measure of respect for the Front Office realizing what needed to be done and to go about doing it. Granted the compelling reasons to make some of those trades were self-inflicted (Mike Aubrey, Jerry Sowers, Crazy Eyes Crowe, Beau Mills…you want me to keep going), but in those mid-season moves, they unquestionably have had more hits than misses and as much as the questions were flying back then (and here’s another piece from yours truly attempting to rationalize what seemed irrational back then) as to what the organization was even doing or what direction they were headed, the Indians asked themselves the hard questions, realized that there were hard answers, and didn’t shy away from what that meant.

As Chris Antonetti told Joe LeMire of SI (who was apparently on the Indians’ beat this week) in a piece that references the mysterious DiamondView system, which is the Indians’ data analysis tool for which they own
proprietary rights, the seismic shift that occurred back in July of 2009 was prompted by some logical thought, which isn’t always the most prevalent line of thinking in professional sports as Antonetti relays the situation thusly:
We started by asking the question, what’s our quickest way back to competitiveness?
We realized that we could have let a lot of those guys complete their contracts, become free agents and get draft picks back for them. We felt that it would be in our best interest to try and expedite that by getting guys who were further along in the development process.

This is all old news in these parts I know, but the Indians found themselves in a hole (self-imposed for the most part because of their drafting) back in 2009 and punted on the 2009 and 2010 seasons when they moved Lee and Vic, slamming the window shut themselves in late July of 2009. The idea was that they could vault themselves back into contention quickly with talented players at similar developmental stages, under club control for similar stretches of time, which could mature and congeal into a winning ballclub, much as the 2004/2005 had done.

At the end of last year, few would have predicted that the group of assembled talent would do much more than continue separate itself into the categories of wheat and chaff as the team would continue to take steps toward contention. Now, just two months into the 2011 season, it’s easy to see how the Indians’ Front Office set the table for this to all happen. Sure, some of it may have already been in place from previous moves (Cabrera and Choo most notably), but the Indians spun their straw into gold with moves that flew under the radar for years, adding pieces and parts that all lined up for this 2011 season to occur.

Now, with the Indians firmly in control in their division, it will be up to the Indians to remain seated at the head of the table so their fans can continue to feast in their success…

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Tomahawks Aimed at Improvement

Two losses at the hands of the Red Sox (who are now 26-12 in their last 38 games) with Lester and Beckett on the mound and one might think that the sky was falling on the North Coast. Yet here the Indians sit, still 6 games up on the Tigers and 9 games ahead of the Royals and the White Sox before Memorial Day. Nothing quite like a terrible game (and Wednesday’s affair was terrible) to drudge all of the fears about a team, regardless of what the W-L ledger tells us. While things may not feel all that rosy on the North Coast after the last couple of games and as they head to Tampa to face off with Price, Shields and Hellickson, let’s all take a deep breath.

Feel a little better now?
Good, because this gauntlet the team is about to go through is going to serve as a major test for them as it is true that the Indians still hold their division lead, but that lead shouldn’t be treated as some sort of mandate to let things go horribly wrong and sit about waiting for things to right themselves. By that I mean that some cracks are showing and springing leaks on the team and, while strengths abound, the time to prevent the Good Ship Indians from taking on water here may not be far away.

With that said, let’s get some Tomahawks in the air…

With the Indians sitting atop the AL Central, paced by their pitching and their young talent acquired via trade, the “news” that CC Sabathia will exercise the opt-out clause that was written into his contract (as if nobody saw this coming as soon as that “opt-out” became public knowledge) that will allow him to become a FA at year’s end struck me in an odd way. By that I mean, most mentions of CC or Clifton Phifer or El Capitan (that’s Victor, not Jeets) in the past two years or so have brought me sadness as they have reminded me of what once was, what could have been, and perhaps what should have been.

But this “news” about Sabathia is one that actually has me gloating a little bit as it brings to light this idea that perhaps even the Yankees are not able to occupy this perfect place in MLB because of their revenue streams. After an off-season in which they committed 3 years and $35M to a set-up man in Rafael Soriano (who was just shelved with an “inflamed ligament” in his throwing elbow) and meted out a 3-year, $51M deal to Jeter (who has a .632 OPS, outpacing Cleveland’s offensive black hole Orlando Cabrera by .005 points), the Yankees are now coming face to face that a self-inflicted shot is coming their way with this inevitable opt-out by Sabathia.

Remember that whole idea that the Indians should have ponied up the cash to keep their aCCe and that they screwed up by not doing so?
Not only did CC take the largest contract for a pitcher in history, but he made the Yankees include that opt-out clause that allows him to essentially be guaranteed another three years on the back-end of the deal, all without assuming any risk in case of injury because the FIRST deal was all guaranteed money.

Just to keep track of all of these dollars and all of this nonsense, the Yankees have paid CC $69M since the beginning of 2009 and would be on the hook to pay him $92M over the next 4 years…if he wasn’t going to opt out. The Indians’ total payroll since the beginning of 2009 has been $192M, so CC has earned about 35% of the total of EVERY Indians’ player for the last three years, including this year’s AL Central division leader. However he’s going to get plenty more, as’s Jon Heymann points out, CC’s “friend and former Indians’ teammate Cliff Lee was offered $148 million over seven years by the Yankees. And Lee was 32 years old at the time, two years older than Sabathia is now, at the time of that offer.”

That offer to Lee from the Bronx (which was turned down) then was a 7-year offer to a 32-year-old pitcher for about $21M per. When CC exercises that opt-out in his contract (which was a brilliant maneuver by his agent, by the by), how much do you think he’s going to ask for, fully realizing that the Yankees have painted themselves into a corner with him? The only course of action the Yankees can take is to overbid on CC (once again) despite essentially bidding against themselves (once again) because they can’t afford to lose him.

Don’t take this as some sort of condemnation of CC, who has taken advantage of the rights allowed to him through MLB and through the Yankees’ desperation and largesse. However, to see all of this in the context of both the Yankees and YOUR Indians atop their divisions is interesting because CC represents what the promise of that 2007 season became for most Indians’ fans as it all came crashing down, only to rise from the ashes once again this season.

And that’s what brings this all around to the way I’m feeling now about this “news” about CC as his career path over the last 3 years has basically been the knife wound, the turning of the knife, and the salt being poured in the wound up to this point. Lest you forget, after the dismal 2008 start (and it is often forgotten that Sabathia had a 4.72 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP in his first 13 starts this year and…you know, starts to the season matter), the Indians moved CC to Milwaukee for prospects for whom the future seemed bright even if that future seemed perhaps a little far off as the Indians attempted to re-tool for 2009 and beyond.
Knife wound…

After 2008, CC moved on to the Bronx as the Brewers received only two draft picks for losing him to FA (which would be used to draft Kentrail Davis and Maxwell Walla…and you should click both of those links for some perspective as to what the Indians COULD have to show for CC had they simply gone for the draft pick compensation) and the 2009 season started painfully for Tribe fans, as Cliff Lee and Victor were traded and the strip-mining of the 2007 ALCS team was nearly complete.
That is the turning of said knife…

Just to add insult to injury, CC faced off against Lee in Game 1 of the World Series as Indians’ fans were left to face a very difficult reality that, not only were two former Indians now fronting World Series rotations, but that the Indians may have little to show for the trades of CC, Victor, and Lee.
Salt poured into the gaping wound…

Perhaps even more painful than that however, was the idea that this “gaping wound” wasn’t going to close or heal properly as the young players acquired in those deals for CC, CP Lee, and Vic looked like flawed players, lacking consistency, or looking like “misses” waiting to happen.

This is all old news I know and I’m not saying that the wound is fully healed and we’re back to tip-top shape, but it is worth revisiting the depths from which this organization has arisen from as now, here we sit nearly at Memorial Day, with the two players acquired for CC among the top 29 qualified players in the AL for OPS+, with each of them under club control through the 2015 season (LaPorta) and the 2016 season (Brantley), with neither eligible for arbitration until after NEXT year.

But just to take this further, since the players added for CC that are currently contributing to the parent club, remember how that 2005 to 2007 run was built on pitching (CC, Jake, Carmona, Lee) and how those “Waves of Arms” that were supposed to supply the fresh water turned out to be ripples lapping on the shore?

Well, the Indians’ strategy of stockpiling arms via these trades and patience has paid off as their current rotation is fronted by the main player netted for Victor Martinez with Acta asserting (in a great piece by Yahoo’s Jeff Passan) that, “great pitchers do not fall out of the sky…They develop, they come on, they put themselves up there. We have a staff with guys who are doing that this year.” Nowhere is the idea of someone putting themselves “up there” more evident than what Justin Masterson is doing for the Tribe.

Lest you think this is still some sort of flash-in-the-pan for Masterson, realize that going back to his final 9 appearances last year and including his 2011, Justin Credible has a 2.35 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP with 80 K and just 27 BB in 103 IP.
Again, that’s a sub-2.50 ERA over his last 100 IP…

Want some context for that?
Since his name provided the impetus for this flight of fancy, CC Sabathia’s numbers for the last 102 2/3 innings that he’s pitched (just so we’re using comparable timeframes here) are a 3.42 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP with 91 K and 30 BB in those 102 2/3 IP.

No, you did not misread that so let me put that into an easier to compare format so everyone can digest that:
Masterson’s last 103 IP
2.35 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 80 K, 27 BB

Sabathia’s last 102 2/3 IP
3.42 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 91 K, 30 BB

So here we sit as the Yankees are left to worry about their FA-to-be ace who will command a king’s ransom while the Indians attempt to figure out if their young ace is someone that they want to extend given that he’ll be arbitration eligible (for the first time) after this year.

And…the circle is nearing completion and while it’s been a long, circuitous, often painful journey from that horrible day in July of 2008 to today, the Indians have re-invented themselves as a contender in less than three years with the young players acquired over those three years leading the way for the foreseeable future.

It has now been a week since I proclaimed that “Santana has been one of the best hitters in the American League for going on a month now” with Santana not getting a hit since that was written. While what I wrote last Thursday is something that most would back off of (and the mainstream media is certainly pouncing on Santana’s struggles as an easy talking point), perhaps it is time to look a little deeper into what I meant when I wrote that and suggest a possible reason why Santana has struggled recently at the plate.

For starters, let’s realize that Santana posted a pretty impressive line from April 17th to May 17th, and if you’re looking at the BA listed below here as the most important …well, you can stop reading now and I’ll allow you to go back to looking at the back of your baseball cards. Regardless, here are his numbers for the month prior to last week’s post:
.256 BA / .413 OBP / .512 SLG / .926 OPS with 6 2B and 5 HR in 104 PA and a 23-game stretch

That performance led many to believe that Santana had emerged once again as the erstwhile middle-of-the-order bat that so many had predicted him to be. Now, we see him getting days off from Manny Acta to clear his head and are forced to listen to the chorus of “move Santana out of the cleanup spot” or “maybe Santana isn’t as good as everyone thinks he is” from the peanut gallery.

However, look at that date that is the end of that month, the day that essentially ended Santana’s hot streak – May 17th.
Anyone know what happened on May 17th or, more importantly, on May 18th?

If you didn’t know, May 17th is the last game that Travis Hafner has played in, as he was pulled out of the Indians’ lineup prior to the May 18th game for the oblique injury that has him currently on the DL. Just to fully fill in the paint-by-numbers here, anyone want to guess when Santana’s oft-discussed hitless streak started?

Yep, on May 18th as he has now failed to get a hit in his last 24 plate appearances (though he has walked 4 times) since Hafner was shelved and removed from behind him in the batting lineup.

Is this meant to assert that The Axe Man is still going well and that he’ll be fine?
Well, not completely as he is unquestionably scuffling at the plate in the last week…but the hitters behind Santana since Hafner’s injury have been Travis Buck and Shelley Duncan who, it should be noted, were both signed as Minor League FA by the Tribe in the previous two off-seasons. If Santana is struggling, could it be because he’s pressing or simply not seeing good pitches as opposing teams pitch around him, preferring to face the hitter “protecting” him in the lineup?

While Santana will likely be fine in all of this (and please stop looking at BA as a measure of a hitter’s effectiveness) as he is still just a 25-year-old without a full year under his belt, the fact is that the Indians need to lengthen their lineup with Hafner now out of the picture, probably until the 4th of July. As much as Travis Buck’s pedigree may excite me and though Matt LaPorta has shown flashes, the bottom of the Indians’ lineup (The OC and Hannahan most notably) has become a black hole as of late and an ancillary effect of that has been increased pressure on the likes of Santana to produce, even if he’s not being given the chances (read: the pitches to hit) to produce.

Perhaps the return of Sizemore to the lineup will give more length and balance to the lineup, but they need better hitters than what currently occupies the bottom of their lineup if they’re going to compete with their upcoming schedule. If you’d like to, you can talk about “clutch” and “veteran leadership” and put “numbers” in quotes (like I just did), but The OC has an OPS of .595 since May 17th in 121 plate appearances and…well, that’s terrible and less of a “bad month” as much as it is “Orlando Cabrera v.2011”.

While I’m tired of banging the “Cord Phelps should be an Indian now” drum, realize that over the past 14 days, the duo that is consistently in the second half of the Tribe’s lineup has put forth this “production”:
Cabrera - .569 OPS
Hannahan - .506 OPS

That toothlessness of that duo (as well as Duncan, Marson, and Everett) has put a magnifying glass on the offense and while the obvious “weak link” in the middle of the lineup is The Axe Man (.560 OPS over the last two weeks), his lack of production may be as much of a byproduct of the absence of Hafner from the lineup as anything happening with Santana himself.

Obviously, this is not meant to exonerate Santana for his struggles of the last week (as if he really needs exoneration from anything coming in newsprint or over the airwaves), but rather to provide the proper context for his recent downturn. Certainly, he could use some time off to “clear his head” and all of that psychobabble, but would help him even more would be some protection in the lineup, something that may be missing for quite some time with Hafner out, unless Acta gets creative in providing that protection with Sizemore’s return.

Speaking of reinforcements, it’s going to be awfully interesting to see how the Indians handle their bullpen and the 5th spot in the rotation going forward. While Al White’s finger certainly throws a wrench into the idea that the Indians would lengthen the quality of their rotation with his presence, the struggles of Mitch Talbot in his return bear watching. They don’t bear watching because it was one bad outing, but rather because the Indians have built this lead in the AL Central and shouldn’t use that lead as an excuse to simply “weather the storm” with anyone on the roster, particularly a player like Talbot. To this point, they’ve set the pace by being pro-active (see the White promotion) and by allowing the performance of these players (like Pestano and Brantley) dictate how they are being used.

Given what’s coming in the schedule, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Indians keep Talbot on a short leash with Zach McAllister pitching as well as he is in Columbus (seriously, look at his numbers) and given that Justin Germano’s departure from the 40-man has left the Indians without a true long man. By that I mean, if Talbot struggles for a couple more starts, he may be slotted into the long-man role (and yes, The Fury is out of options) with McAllister coming up to take his spot in the rotation.

Going further than that, there may be some movement in the bullpen as Zach Putnam continues to thrive in Columbus, where he has now been joined by Nick Hagadone. While Josh Judy had a quick cup of coffee with the parent club, now might be the time that the Indians start cycling through Putnam, Judy, and even Hagadone in the spots currently occupied by Frank Herrmann and even Joe Smith.

Whatever is done, the Indians need to start integrating some of this talent in AAA into Cleveland (record of the parent club considered) to make sure that the Tribe doesn’t fall back to the pack because of weakness at the back-end-of-the-rotation or in the middle relief corps. Perhaps if they were lacking ready options, one could make the case that you see if Joe Smith reverts back to his dominance of RH hitters (of the 37 RH hitters he’s faced this year, 14 have reached base), but with the Indians having built this divisional lead, wouldn’t they be smart to ensure that it doesn’t flitter away by exploring some of these arms like Putnam or Hagadone as needed, to bring the future closer to the present?

While the overall performance of the bullpen remains good, some of their peripherals (the ones that matter with relievers – striking guys out or K/9, limiting baserunners or WHIP, etc.) are less than confidence inspiring, particularly when you compare them to other relievers in MLB. Just to illustrate that, there are 144 MLB relievers that have thrown more than 15 innings on the season, and here is where the Indians relievers rank among those 144 bullpen arms in terms of K/9:
Vinnie Pestano – 10.31 K/9 - 20th in MLB among relievers
Chad Durbin – 7.91 K/9 - 64th in MLB among relievers
Rafael Perez – 6.35 K/9 - 98th in MLB among relievers
Tony Sipp – 5.91 K/9 - 109th in MLB among relievers
Chris Perez – 5.40 - 122nd in MLB among relievers

Now in terms of the 144 MLB relievers in WHIP:
Tony Sipp – 0.84 WHIP – 7th in MLB among relievers
Vinnie Pestano – 0.93 WHIP – 19th in MLB among relievers
Rafael Perez – 1.12 WHIP - 54th in MLB among relievers
Chris Perez – 1.30 WHIP - 84th in MLB among relievers
Chad Durbin – 1.45 WHIP - 108th in MLB among relievers

While I’ll hold off on sounding the emergency alarm on this (and Chris F. Perez…um, now might be a good time to stop relying on GIDP by Carl Crawford here), whether the performance of the current members of the bullpen is sustainable or not is something to watch going forward. If things start to go awry, the Indians shouldn’t hesitate to dip into their depth of pitchers and start to bring up the likes of Putnam or Hagadone or to call McAllister up to the parent club in an attempt to improve the overall quality of the pitching staff before that divisional lead that the Indians have so painstakingly built is pared down into an actual divisional race.

Finally, while I’m generally loathe to do anything that draws attention to your humble host, this commercial is now airing on STO, with The DiaBride actually being the first one to catch it right after the Peavy game last week.

Yeah, this is really being run on TV’s across the North Coast…

OK, that’s pretty cool…

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Courtship of Cleveland

Despite the Red Sox breaking the 4-game winning streak on Tuesday night, Indians’ wins have been falling from the sky all year at a rate nearly on par with the rain that has been ubiquitous on the North Coast since seemingly early April. While some remain concerned about what the national media thinks of the Erie Warriors or fear a bottoming out of unprecedented levels over the next few months, perhaps it’s time to remember some words that ran in this space some time.

Nearly two months ago, some hack’s words came popping up on your computer screen, suggesting something that seemed absurd at the time, as it was written after the Indians had just won their 6th straight game on April 9th, running their season record to 6-2. Regardless, here was the “suggestion”:
It’s time to enjoy the ride that a group of young, talented players can take us on…
It’s time to fall for this team, full of potential and promise, small sample size considered…

There is a line in a Mark Twain quote that may be applicable to what Indians’ fans are experiencing, with the memory of past heartbreaks too close to ignore, when he wrote to, “love like you’ve never been hurt.”

Indians’ fans – despite the hurt that you’ve endured, it’s time to fall in love again…

That was the beginning of April and since that time, they’ve gone 24-14 and are 14 ½ games ahead of the Minnesota Twins (the prohibitive preseason favorite that has only 16 wins on the year) in their division. If you’re not “enjoying the ride that a group of young, talented players can take us on” or haven’t fallen “for this team, full of potential and promise”, well…your excuses have run out.

The Indians have swept the Reds and have split the first two games with the Red Sox (against Buchholz and Beckett) and this sense that falling in love is OK once more has become pervasive…and it’s not a feeling that’s limited to those who simply root for the team.

To wit, after Monday night’s improbable win against the Red Sox (and Mother Nature), SportsTime Ohio had Mike Brantley on as their post-game interviewee, on the strength of his game-altering AB to spur the team to victory. Upon the completion of his final answer, Brantley looked up above the cameraman to the obvious crowd that had gathered in his line of sight. With his earphones and microphone still on, but with the interview now complete, Brantley pointed past the camera, began to clap, and yelled, “Thank You Cleveland Fans”, before giving a one-man salute to the assembled crowd, pulling off the headphones and retreating from view.

The moment was so genuine, so unusual in this world of professional sports in which we occupy, and so revealing that it brought something into focus regarding the relationship between this team and this town – as much as Clevelanders are regionally programmed to be bitter and wary of success, this Indians team WANTS the town to love them. After every game in which the stands are filled, the game recaps are flush with quotes from players stating that they need to get the town’s attention and how they need to get people excited about this team.

Thus far, their efforts to entice their as yet unrequited love have been Herculean as the 35K that went to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario a few Fridays ago bore witness to a 9th inning walk-off from Hafner and the full house on Saturday saw Travis Buck play the role of the hero, presumably because it was his turn to wear the cape in that particular game. Following both games, players alluded to the idea that they fed off of the crowd and that they wanted to prove to the city of Cleveland that the team was worth their time, their attention, and perhaps even their affection.

Compare that to other teams in this city that either expect your love or manipulate the psychology of the city to garner goodwill, with a local media all too willing to fall in lock-step with their adulation or in toeing the company line. Conversely, this 2011 Indians’ team entered the season with jokes from the beginning of “Major League” (this guy here is dead…who are these effin’ guys) passing off as “analysis” of the team. Yet, here the Indians sit, with the largest divisional lead and the best record in baseball with a roster full of impossibly likable players just elevating themselves (and their team) into the elite of MLB.

While the likability of a particular group goes only so far (I thought the 1987 Tribe was a likable lot as well), the Indians’ players have the talent that is coming into full view as the season progresses. That talent has been accumulated and cultivated over a painful stretch of years for Indians fans, but if you don’t see Masterson (who has allowed 20 extra base hits in his last 103 IP, going back to last April) as a burgeoning ace or have trouble envisioning Asdrubal Cabrera as the special middle-of-the-diamond player that he is, well…you’re just not looking hard enough.

Perhaps the expectations from many coming into this season has colored the reality of what is happening as most are still fearful of the bottom falling out from the Indians, sure to sink in the Central. But given that they’ve already weathered injuries to three of their top six starters, survived TWO stints on the DL from Sizemore and have the cavalry sitting in Columbus (with the Clippers sitting on a record of 32-14…or a .696 winning percentage), doesn’t this feel like a special year coming together?

Doesn’t this feel like a talented group of youngsters who haven’t been told that they’re not “supposed” to be doing this, knocking off divisional leader and playoff contender one after the next as they cut a swath through MLB?

There is a terrific moment in the “Cleveland Rocks” video that chronicles the 1995 Tribe season in which Indians’ pitcher Orel Hershiser reflects back on the year, full of final at-bat victories and magic from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, as Hershiser tells a story of a conversation between he and another veteran on the team. To hear him tell it, he tells the other veteran that this young group of talented players (the 1995 team) didn’t realize that what they’re doing – winning games against Lee Smith and Eck with game-winning HR – isn’t how this “happens” in MLB and that these young players don’t realize how special the ride that they’re experiencing really has become.

Think of that in the context of this year and watch the reaction of this 2011 incarnation of the Indians, where the players seem to know what they’re doing is special…they just need the city to get on board. The team is like a small child, in need of the validation that what they’re doing is good, looking to the stands and cheering on a small group of fans after a post-game interview, thanking THEM for weathering the storm of not only Monday night but since the dark day in 2008 when the team was blown apart for “another day” and for “the future”.

Well, “another day” has arrived and if this team is having fun relishing in its arrival. One needs only to look at the reactions to these wins from the dugout and on the field to see that the team on the field represents not only a new day for Cleveland sports but, more importantly, that “the future” is now and is on display on a nightly basis.

The Indians are courting the city of Cleveland and the time has arrived for the North Coast to throw caution to the wind, put their collective heart out there, and return the love…

Monday, May 23, 2011

Swingin' in the Rain

We're swingin' in the rain
Just swingin' in the rain
What a glorious feelin'
I'm happy again

I'm laughing at Chowds
Thinkin' that they're above
The win's in the bag
And we're slick with the glove

Let the naysayers wail
Cause we're setting the pace
Come on with the rain
There's a smile on my face

As we walk down the lane
With a happy refrain
Just swingin',
Swingin' in the rain

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Talking Tests on A Lazy Sunday

As the magic continues down at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, with the Indians pulling victory from the jaws of defeat taking the first two games of the series against the Reds (I refuse to call it anything else than that), there is a growing sense that something really is happening here. With Zeke Carrera drag-bunting the Indians to victory on Friday and Travis Buck blasting the team into the win column the next day, the Indians found their heroes in players that were wearing Clippers’ uniforms just last week…with all of this coming against the reigning NL Central Champs, fighting tooth and nail for the lead in their own division.

Despite being shut down for the better part of the starts of both games, the Indians scratched, clawed, bunted, and blasted their way to victory in two games that, quite frankly, they had no business winning. And it is games like these that provide this feeling that, for the first time in a long time, the Indians are the team for whom the bounces smile upon and for whom every managerial decision ends up looking brilliant.

The calendar says it’s not quite June, but there is the old baseball axiom that a team “is what it is” at the 40-game mark of a season and now – 3 games past that – the Indians are STILL winning at a clip over .650, holding a 7 game lead in their division. For some perspective on that, in 4 of the 6 divisions in MLB, EVERY team in the division is closer than 7 games off of the leader’s pace.

The last place Nationals are as close to the first place Phillies as the Tigers and Royals are to the Indians while the last place Orioles are a mere 4 games back from the division-leading Yankees…waiting a beat to let that sink in…

But it’s still early, with plenty of baseball left to be played, right?
This team is still flawed with players playing over their heads, who are destined to come back to Earth, breaking our hearts once again?

If that’s really where you’re still at in this, it’s time to live in the moment, enjoy this for what it is, to imagine “What If We All Believe?” (and this terrific team-produced video is unquestionably based on this from my friend Scott Bricker), and get off on a Lazy Sunday, of course…

From the top, let’s answer that question of whether it really is still early, something that was tackled a couple of days ago by the Wall Street Journal. With a hat tip to longtime reader Tyler, it presents an engrossing look at what a hot (or cold) start means to a team’s chances for the playoffs. While it feels wildly premature to talk playoffs, the findings of the WSJ research are more than compelling, even if they use June 1st and the 50-game mark as the lines of demarcation, because their research seems to offer a message that is contradictory to everything that was spouted from the manager’s office in the mid-to-late-90s, when the results of those seasons validate what the WSJ asserts – that starts do matter.

The piece is well-done because it doesn’t avoid the fact that it’s attempting to debunk a fallacy (that baseball men and beat writers lazily lean on) and goes right after the “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” philosophy that pervades MLB:
Since 1996, just 9% of teams with a losing record on June 1 wound up with 90 wins, the number teams usually shoot for to make the playoffs, according to data crunched by The Wall Street Journal and Ben Alamar, founder of the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports. During that early season period, the average correlation between a team’s win percentage on June 1 and its final winning percentage is 0.76.
The best explanation for why 50-games is all it takes to sort out the winners from the losers has to do with a combination of mathematics, psychology and the secrets of winning baseball games. While any bad team can have a good week or month, excelling for a 50-game stretch without very good players is virtually impossible.

The point is that the way a team starts a season means a LOT more to their playoff chances than you may have thought and that 50-game mark indicates that old “you are what you are” idea. That last line was admittedly bolded by me, though it is an absolutely fascinating piece and worth your time, even if the overall slant of the piece is to explore the expansion of the playoffs and the reasons for doing so. What is interesting is to look at it in the context of the current standings and this belief that somehow…someway the White Sox (or fill in the blank because EVERY other team in the AL Central is now under .500) are going to barrel their way back into the divisional race.

Realizing that the caveat exists that anything is truly possible in baseball, what the WSJ article and the accompanying research should alleviate is this idea that this is all going to come crashing down around us somehow (as if Zeke’s drag bunt didn’t already make that feeling go away) and’s Joe Sheehan goes further in looking at the Indians in this week’s print edition of the magazine.

In his piece, he explores the good and the bad of the Indians (and don’t take this to suggest that there isn’t “bad”), but his conclusion – when coupled with the WSJ piece – offer support that this magic carpet ride isn’t going to stop any time soon:
These Indians are not going away. Having already called up 2009 first-round pick Alex White to bolster the rotation, they could also get internal reinforcements at their two weakest positions from top prospects Lonnie Chisenhall (third base) and Jason Kipnis (second base)…The preseason cofavorites, the White Sox and the Twins, are among the worst teams in the game. Only the Tigers, winners of seven straight through the weekend, seem poised to push the Tribe.

Maybe this ends in the waning days of September. Maybe it stretches into October, with the Indians pushing to extinguish one of the great losing streaks in sports history—the city of Cleveland’s. What seems certain is that this isn’t a quarter-pole fluke. The Indians are relevant again.

It should be noted that the Tigers who were at the time of Sheehan’s piece were “winners of seven straight through the weekend” have now lost five in a row…the last two to the Pirates. Regardless, while not many needed that validation for something that became apparent to some a few weeks ago, the evidence is stacking up in the Indians’ favor (along with the W’s in the ledger) that this season has a special feeling to it.

Of course, that special feeling is tempered quite suddenly by the team being depleted in some pretty important areas as Travis Hafner will be out of the lineup for at least a month (and it is here that I note that almost exactly a month from now is when the Tribe goes to play the NL…in NL parks, meaning that Hafner may not be back until July 4th or so), meaning that the Indians are currently playing without two linchpins in their lineup as Hafner and Sizemore occupy two of the slots in a suddenly crowded DL. Though the Tribe has weathered injuries well thus far, particularly in the starting rotation, the removal of Hafner from the lineup presents a potentially crippling blow as (you may not have noticed this) here are the AL OPS leaders with more than 100 PA:
1) Jose Bautista – 1.350
2) Matt Joyce – 1.044
3) Miggy Cabrera - .990
4) Travis Hafner - .958
5) Kevin Youkilis - .958

Yeah, he’s been that good and when you consider that Grady is not supposed to join the team until the end of the week (with the red-hot Red Sox coming to town Monday), the Indians had better hope that Sizemore’s return remains on schedule and that the Grady that emerged from the DL last time is the same one that returns from the shelf at the end of the week. Reason being is that if you lower the minimum plate appearance requirement to 75 for the AL OPS chart, it looks like this:
1) Jose Bautista – 1.350
2) Matt Joyce – 1.044
3) Miggy Cabrera - .990
4) Grady Sizemore - .974
5) Travis Hafner - .958

Have the Indians won without Grady and without Pronk in the lineup, particularly recently?
Yes, but don’t forget that the two players that were thought (back in 2006 or 2007) to shoulder the load for the Indians’ offense for a long time has been their best performers to date this season. Hafner and Sizemore – when healthy (and there’s that big caveat) – are still elite offensive players, and now with a lingering knee injury for Grady and the dreaded oblique strain (anyone remember what sabotaged Cliff Lee’s 2007?) popping up for Hafner, the offensive onus has to be transferred elsewhere in the lineup. How long others need to pick up that slack remains to be seen as Hafner’s injury is one that has the potential to affect him throughout the season and there is the terrifying fact that Sizemore told’s Jordan Bastian that, “There’s definitely something lingering. I’m not at 100 percent. We’re still working through it. I’m still not even doing full activity yet.”

While I’m not going to let my imagination wander on that (because that’s what Sizemore kept saying last year with his other knee injury), there’s no doubt that the Indians are in full “shuffle the deck” mode with Zeke Carrera arriving from Columbus (and playing ahead of Kearns) and with Travis Buck finding himself with an expanded role – assuming his toe issue isn’t one that affects him too greatly. It’s true that Sizemore is scheduled to be back this Friday or so (when the balance of the outfield will be restored), meaning that the Indians may be able to pull their thumb out of that hole in the dam sometime soon. However, with Hafner likely out for a month (actually probably 6 weeks), the Indians are presented with a much more difficult assortment of pieces to juggle.

By that I mean, how they fill Hafner’s spot in the lineup is going to be intriguing as Shelley Duncan can certainly face LHP but should NEVER face RHP as Duncan has .494 OPS in 30 AB (his OPS against LHP this year is .778…which is lower than I thought it would be, but still higher than Hafner) and that’s where the loss of Hafner is going to hurt the Tribe the most – against RHP. On the season, the Indians have thrived against RHP on the whole, but their bench offers only options that have been destroyed by RHP, small sample size considered.

Supermanahan and The OC have struggled against RHP and Duncan, Kearns, and Marson all have an OPS under .500 (again, small sample size considered) with Travis Buck probably offering the most compelling option as a RH DH in the short term. That said, I’d prefer to see Buck in the lineup everyday in Hafner’s absence, whether it be at DH, in the OF, or at 1B, giving days off as they’re needed to other players and getting the everyday plate appearances that many felt that his Spring (and his pedigree) justified. That way, Acta can continue to use Duncan as he’s best suited – as a power RH bat off of the bench to start in a spot against LHP or in a PH role.

Is it going to be a step down from Hafner?
Of course, as just by looking at what Hafner has done this year, nearly every option is going to be a “step down”. If Buck struggles in Hafner’s place, don’t forget that the Indians signed Nick Johnson to an off-season deal, with a contract provision that he had to be on the roster by July 1st of this year (when was it again that Hafner is scheduled to return) so Johnson could become an option at some point for the DH spot. That assumes health for Johnson (a long leap of faith given his injury history), but the Indians could have a Plan B and Plan C built in to at least fill the HUGE hole created by Hafner’s oblique.

Past Buck and maybe Johnson, if they want to look internally, they can always look at a guy like Cord Phelps, who has posted a 1.022 OPS vs. RHP this year as a Clipper and, while Acta has gone on the record that the Indians aren’t interested in developing platoon players, if you’re looking for a way to integrate Phelps into the mix, this is the perfect opportunity to do so, playing him at 2B and 3B with days at DH when he’s not in the field.

Already, I can hear from here “if the Indians are thinking that they’re going to stick atop the AL Central with Buck, Nick Johnson, and Phelps as potential DH, this team is going to fall fast”, and while that may be the prevailing notion, it ignores the transition in MLB as a whole and the fact that most teams have started using DH as a kind of “catch-all” position in the lineup, without a lot of production coming from the DH position for plenty of teams. If you think I’m making that up, realize that ½ of the AL teams have gotten an OPS of .720 or lower from their DH position this year. For some context on that, 6 of the 9 main position players for the Indians this year have an OPS over .720 with only Choo, Hannahan, and Cabrera coming in under that mark.

Actually, now that Choo’s name has been mentioned, remember how it was mentioned about a month ago that Choo was starting to show signs of life back at the end of April, when he posted this line from the beginning of the Baltimore series to the end of the Detroit series?
.288 BA / .358 OBP / .492 SLG / .850 OPS with 6 extra-base hits in 67 PA

Anyone remember what happened in Sheffield Lake the night that the Tigers’ series ended…right before that West Coast trip?

Certainly, it’s an evening that Choo will never forget and it sent him into a tailspin on the West Coast (.374 OPS in those 6 games) just when he was finally catching some life in his bat. However, since he’s returned from that West Coast trip, Choo has put forth this line over 9 games through Friday:
.303 BA / .410 OBP / .515 SLG / .925 OPS with 4 extra-base hits in 39 PA

So…Santana has started to produce, and now perhaps Choo is on the cusp of re-capturing the form that put him among the AL elite in terms of hitters?

Perhaps the “struggling” Santana and Choo are about to emerge to carry the Indians’ offense at a time when they’re most needed here. While the season-long numbers for Choo remain wildly disappointing, since I realize we’re talking about small sample sizes here in looking at numbers from 6-game stretches and 9-game stretches, perhaps it is instructive to look at some larger amounts of plate appearances and deal in rate statistics (instead of BA, HR, etc.) to see how Choo v.2011 stacks up against what he’s done in years past. There’s no question that Choo’s production is down in 2011, but compare his numbers so far to what he’s done since playing full seasons in 2009 and 2010 and note that his rate stats are about the same, except for his Batting Average on Balls in Play, or BABIP.

Seriously, go look at those comparative numbers and notice that Choo’s striking out at the same pace he has every year since his 2008 breakout, while hitting about the same percentage of line drives, with about the same ratio of groundballs to flyballs as he has over the past 3 years while he was establishing himself as an elite MLB player.

The only major difference for The BLC from year’s past is how many of the balls he’s putting in play that result in hits. By that I mean, his percentage of plate appearances in which he puts the ball in play has remained pretty much the same since 2008 up to and including this year (between 61% and 65%), but the percentage of those balls put in play that result in hits has seen a DRASTIC reduction.

For year, Choo’s BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) has been unusually high as his BABIP from 2008 to 2010 averaged out to 36% of those balls turning into hits. For some context on that, it’s generally a rule of thumb that the average BABIP is around an even 30%. What we’re seeing this year is Choo’s BABIP drop to closer to 28% and, while that may not look like that big of a difference from what the MLB average is, in comparison to what Choo had compiled in the previous three years, it’s a BIG difference.

So the question becomes whether Choo has just been a victim of bad luck or if his good luck has run out. In the past, the idea was that Choo’s high BABIP was made possible by how hard he was hitting the ball (sorry, there’s no measure for me to prove that) and if his rate stats are comparable, it would seem that he’s making similar contact with the ball. If you want to delve deeper into his swings and contact rates, Fangraphs shows again that Choo’s 2011 is about on par with what he’s done for the past three years.

That being said, his numbers are what they are and his season-long numbers still are disappointing with ¼ of the games having been played. Maybe it’s just a matter of him “breaking out” and maybe it’s something that we’ve already seen. If it has already “happened”, it would be precisely what the Indians need as they need him to start producing at a level that was expected of him for the Indians to weather this rash of injuries that has the potential of taking some of the teeth out of the Tribe offense.

The offense needs some stability and perhaps Sizemore provides more of it when he comes back, presumably on Friday, but the young players that had to take steps forward this year (and here’s a great piece from Adam Van Arsdale, examining those steps taken) is what was needed for the Indians to get out to a hot start and that needs to be sustained for the Indians to stay atop the AL Central. Now the onus is on those young players to either continue to produce (Mike Brantley, Justin Credible, The Axe Man) or to perhaps even improve upon what they’ve already done (LaPorta and Carrasco) while the Indians need production from some familiar places (Choo and Sizemore) to continue to improve.

Additionally, the Indians are going to need to continue to benefit from pleasant surprises (like the ones that Josh Tomlin and Vinnie Pestano have provided) because they are about to be tested in a big way in terms of their upcoming schedule as, after the Reds leave town, their schedule breaks down like this for the next month:
Boston – 3 games at home
Tampa Bay – 3 games on the road
Toronto – 3 games on the road
Texas – 3 games at home
Minnesota – 3 games at home
New York – 3 games on the road
Detroit – 3 games on the road

If you’re keeping score at home (and you really shouldn’t be), that’s the other two AL divisional leaders in the Yankees and the Rangers, the 2nd place teams in the AL East and the AL Central (Rays and Tigers), a Red Sox team that has gone 22-11 since their slow start, and a Toronto team that remains over .500.

That’s a rough stretch of games on the horizon, so how the Indians react to some adversity is going to be telling in terms of whether this hot start will be remembered as just that or if the hot start represented a harbinger of things to come.

Watching games like those on Friday night and Saturday afternoon give the sense that the first two months of the season represent that harbinger (with the WSJ providing the evidence that the first two months means more than you might have thought), but the Indians are going to have to weather the coming storm for the next month.

To do so, they’ll have to continue to overcome obstacles that loom large in the windshield. Then again, those ones in the rearview mirror looked pretty big at one point too…

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tomahawks From All Angles

While the rain has actually stopped for a moment (allowing me to continue working on the nearly-completed Ark in the backyard) and with the Indians in the midst of a couple of odd 2-game AL Central series, perhaps now is a good time to get some odds and ends that I wanted to clear out of the system here. Getting some Tomahawks in the air every once in a while is what we do around here, so watch ‘em fly…

Though this breaks my (oft-broken) moratorium on attendance, I thought that most would be interested in this as the lack of ticket sales so far this season has resulted in more gnashed teeth and furrowed brows than has really been necessary. Regardless, I’d like to report that I headed down to the Tribe ticket office to purchase some tickets from the Saturday game (DAY GAME!) on Wednesday afternoon and was told that the game was “nearly sold out”. While I was able to score some tickets behind home plate in the upper deck for me and the fam, the Tribe drew nearly 34K last Friday (being rewarded by that Pronk bomb) and they’ve “nearly sold out” Saturday’s game against the Reds.

Perhaps the “woe is Cleveland” narrative will be put to rest (at least for a while) and while I’m not going to make the leap to assert that Cleveland has suddenly become a great baseball town, it is nice to see Clevelanders respond to this team appropriately by plopping themselves back down into the green seats at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

If you’re going on Saturday, be sure to get there early (and I don’t just mean for the SS Choo jersey) as the pre-game video up on the JumboTron features video clips of the Tribe with the song “Dog Days Are Over” blaring over the loudspeakers…meaning that somebody down there gets it in terms of turning the organizational corner.


Speaking of “turning the organizational corner”, I keep reading things from Indians’ fans complaining about a perceived “lack of respect” from national writers or complaining that the Wahoo Warriors are not featured more prominently on a nightly basis on the 4-letter word that emanates from Bristol. While I understand that most Tribe fans want some recognition for this fast start and want some validation from some well-known sources that this Indians team is “for real”, color me confused as to why I should care what ESPN says (or doesn’t say) about the Tribe or what some hack writer at CBSSports or some other news aggregator suggests about the Indians.

Is this some sort of low self-esteem thing that the city has or the inferiority complex that Dan Gilbert is always exploiting?

I’m all for civic pride, positivity and fighting the good fight to defend my hometown, but if a certain ESPN writer is going to remain obstinate about his stance that the Indians are going to lose 90 games (still) without offering compelling evidence as to why he thinks that, why should I care?

Would the Indians leading each episode of Baseball Tonight or SportsCenter really make you THAT much more content about the Indians start?
Really…are the wins, and the manner in which they’re winning these games, not enough?

Perhaps I’m in the minority here, but I haven’t watched ESPN for longer than a few minutes (outside of an actual game) in more than a few years and don’t go out of my way to visit their website for anything other than stats, standings, and the occasional Jayson Stark or Buster Olney snippet that somebody sends to me. The problem is that ESPN devolved long ago into a marketing arm of the Disney Corporation and their deplorable “agenda” (and I’m not just talking about baseball) and their insufferable talking heads make me feel dumber when I accidentally find myself on the network for too long.

Don’t get me wrong, there are bright spots still there (College Gameday and well…) and they still have college basketball games that I’ll watch, but ESPN went further down the tubes from just being a marketing arm (the “Budweiser Hot Seat” was the tipping point for me) with the TMZification of the network, “creating” stories and sensationalizing “news” to the point that they dictate the news cycle, rather than simply reporting and riding that news cycle.
Anyone hear anything about Jorge Posada this week?

Truthfully, I haven’t been disgusted by wall-to-wall Posada coverage because it doesn’t cross in front of my face. I’m not entertained by an reporter pimping his book about Derek Jeter because…well, because nothing could interest me less. I’d prefer to read about the Indians or other AL Central teams or most other MLB teams…it’s just that I prefer to read analysis of actual substance over the rabble-rousing that has become pervasive at the Mothership.

So why is everyone still so chained to ESPN when in this digital age of “Like” and “Follow”, you can customize the manner in which you receive your information – from where and from whom?

That’s not to say to simply avoid dissenting voices or opinions that differ from your own, but the ability to choose the coverage that most interests you (Twitter, Google Reader with a customized RSS feed) is almost too easy NOT to do at this point. If you want MLB coverage with an analytical and smart (aleck) slant, read Craig Calcaterra and Aaron Gleeman at Hardball Talk. If you want longer-form analysis, create a reading list that includes Joe Posnanski, Jeff Passan, the bevy of talented writers on the Opinion page (including our guy, all grown up…AC), or Joe Sheehan at SI. If you want more stats-based analysis, do yourself a favor and subscribe to B-Pro, or read The Hardball Times, or (at your own peril) Fangraphs.

If you need TV stimulation to feed your baseball fix, anything on the MLB Network is preferable to what comes out of the WWL and MLB Network’s show “Quick Pitch” harkens back to the day when highlight shows actually showed…you know, highlights and didn’t let ignorant analysis and clumsy banter get in the way of watching baseball. Watch one episode of it (I think it runs all morning long) and you’ll never watch Baseball Tonight or wait for MLB highlights on ESPN again.

Of course, that’s if you need your national MLB fix from avenues that don’t run through Bristol and, if you’re around these parts, you’re aware that the hunger for Tribe information is best satiated by a steady diet of news that doesn’t show up on the majority of Clevelanders’ doorsteps every morning…wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

The bottom line is that if ESPN’s coverage of sports and baseball infuriates you, simply change the channel or stop visiting their site. While this assumption that ESPN is still the rainmaker out there is hard to ignore, enough better outlets and voices exist out there to inform, entertain, and enlighten to make ESPN obsolete…something that it became in my universe a few years ago, and I’m no less informed, just less infuriated.

Speaking of things that work hard to make themselves obsolete, I was unfortunate enough to hear a local sports talk radio conversation (and it was a conversation that included Paul Hoynes) while in the car recently revolving around when Acta was going to move Santana down in the lineup because of his “struggles” at the plate. Normally, I dismiss the blather that comes through my car radio from local shows because it’s so misinformed that it actually embarrasses, but this rhetoric seems to be accepted by the general public as fact, largely because Santana’s Batting Average is still .227…which is embarrassingly stupid as a starting point in the conversation.

Thus, allow me to stand up on this soapbox here and point this out – Carlos Santana has been one of the best hitters in the American League for going on a month now and to assert anything different from that is willful ignorance and simple stupidity.

If you think that’s harsh, a quick search with this keyboard and this mouse shows that in the last 30 days, The Axe Man has an .875 OPS, good for 15th in the AL and you can click all over the headers on that Fangraphs leaderboard if you want to see where Santana ranks in some of the other (standard and advanced) stats…and it’s near the top. In those 30 days, he’s hit 10 extra-base hits in 23 games, including 4 HR in just 81 plate appearances. Perhaps most impressively, since April 18th, he’s walked more (22 BB) than he’s struck out (18).

If you want some perspective on that last part, the only players in the AL that have walked more than they’ve struck out over the last month WHILE posting an OPS over .800 are Jose Bautista, Miggy Cabrera, Carlos Santana, and Mark Teixeira.
In that order…

Please spare me the Santana is struggling because “his BA is .blahblahblah” (and not just because the usefulness/uselessness of Batting Average conversation is not one I’m interested in having) and that he should be moved down in the lineup because he’s a young player who is not ready to anchor a lineup because he’s been doing it already for a month right now and the feeling still persists that he’s just scratching the surface.

In terms of players that anchor a lineup, I’m not sure if you saw the fun little bracket from Andrew Clayman as to which player in Indians’ history would be the most deserving to be remembered as a statue outside of Progressive Field, other than Rapid Robert. The criteria is interesting and the breakdown of the “brackets” presents some frivolity that is a nice little detour while everyone looks at run differential, regression, and sustainability.

In terms of one of the “options” in the bracket, while I am (obviously) too young to remember Rocky Colavito, I did get an interesting e-mail from a group that is spearheading an effort to put The Rock into Cooperstown. They come armed with comparative stats and are attempting to gather signatures on a petition to garner some momentum for the Veterans’ Committee to consider Colavito for Hall of Fame induction.

While I’m generally loathe to engage in these HoF discussions (that get more acrimonious with each passing year, holding my interest less and less) it is something that is worth your time and fun to look at The Rock’s case for Cooperstown.

Finally, while I realize that the talk has turned some to whether or not the Indians are going to be “buyers” or “sellers” come the Trade Deadline, let’s all look at a calendar and realize that the Trade Deadline is more than two months away. That means that there’s more baseball to play from now to July 31st to what’s been played from Opening Day to now.

Realizing that it may be fun to imagine the Indians making the phone calls instead of answering the phone at the end of July, let’s all hold off on the “you know what the Indians could really use X and also Y” talk until we get to…I don’t know, mid-June or so?

The next month is going to reveal a lot about the Indians, given their upcoming schedule and it is worth remembering what Al wrote when he was sitting in the captain’s chair this past weekend in terms of the Indians having internal options for their current “deficiencies” (2B, 3B, RHRP, RH OF) that are likely to be exhausted before the Indians go out and consider acquiring any players to fill their “needs”. And really, that’s the thing about sitting here in mid-May, identifying “needs” as what is lacking today may suddenly become a strength (through internal promotion or further steps taken for a current player) and things that look to be “strengths” right now may be adversely affected by health and regression.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with taking joy out of the idea that the Twins are probably going to be “sellers” come July with even their own fans acknowledging that the team is filled with Unloadable contracts and unattractive veterans, mixed in with a batch of young players that have underwhelmed, all with their payroll increasing and playing in a shiny new ballpark that was supposed to catapult them past the ALDS.

Meanwhile, the national media will have to find another team to point to as a small-market team doing things the right way and competing in the face of competitive imbalance and with a payroll smaller than the pitching staff of the “haves”.
Actually, there’s one I’m thinking of right now…

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Less Sizemore

While the Indians pad their lead in the AL Central and as the Royals sink like a stone in the division, the big news to hit the roster front this week came when Grady Sizemore’s bone bruise landed him on the 15-day DL. While the move was retroactive and Sizemore can return on May 27th (which is next Friday), the implications of the injury and the DL stint are noteworthy in terms of the team as it stands without Sizemore and the way it figures to look upon his return.

If you’ll remember, Sizemore’s blazing return prompted intimations that Superman had emerged once more from the phone booth to save fair Cleveland and the fact that Grady is currently tied for the team lead in HR and 2B while playing in basically ½ of the games is a testament to how effective he was (until recently) upon his return. Of course, the Indians marked their first game with Grady on the DL by putting a 19 on the board in KC and following that up with another victory in the City of Fountains by exploding again on the KC pitching staff.
Who needs Grady, right?

Well…not really, as the performances of the offense over the last two nights are largely attributable to guys named Davies, Mazzaro, O’Sullivan throwing from 60’ 6” instead of players with Price, Shields, Weaver, Haren, Cahill, and Anderson on the back of their jerseys. As much as I’d like to assert that the Indians will be fine without Sizemore (19-1 win or not), all those words written about the Indians’ “found” superstar as they pertained to Grady when he was bashing XBH (he had 16 extra-base hits in 84 plate appearances) all over the yard still apply.

Yes, the youngsters are taking major strides (most notably Brantley, LaPorta, and a re-emerging Axe Man on the offensive side), but if the Indians are going to stick around in the AL Central this year, some of the burden is going to have to be shouldered by their veterans that have a track record of success – most obviously Choo (he of the OPS below…wait for it…Orlando Cabrera), Hafner (who has been “shouldering” the load), and Sizemore, who (if you’re into this kind of thing) leads the Indians in WAR and is 16th in the AL, despite playing ½ of the games of most of the other regulars around the league in a metric in which time on the field plays a major role.

Of course, the question remaining for Sizemore isn’t whether he was healthy when he returned a month ago, it’s whether he’s going to be healthy a week from now. While the Indians’ reportage of injuries has certainly not bought them any benefits of doubt, this move to the DL for Grady (assuming it is nothing more than a bone bruise) reeks of the idea that the Indians almost need to save Sizemore from himself as he gets “healthy” from microfracture, because he’s not going to take his foot off of the accelerator on his own. Grady is Grady – on the basepaths and in the field – and by shelving him for this stint gives a glimpse as to how far the Indians are willing to go to protect the player that is still likely their best, when healthy.

That’s the whole point of this “protection” and “precaution” path with Sizemore as the Indians sticking around the AL Central race gets a lot easier to see contention with him (again, 19-1 win or not) and maximizing his health and his ability to be on the field is what the focus should be. Truthfully, this DL stint is likely a reminder of the plan to ease Sizemore back into playing everyday. That may seem obvious, but there were only two games that Sizemore didn’t start from the time he came off of the DL until his injury, an 18-game stretch.

Perhaps the Indians will pull back on the reins with Sizemore when he returns as he did show some signs of fatigue just prior to the injury as in the 8 games leading up to the injury, Sizemore had posted a .603 OPS with 10 K in those 8 games. Some of that was a result of facing the aforementioned sextet of elite pitchers from the Rays, A’s, and Angels, but it is worth remembering that Grady may need more than the occasional day off (assuming he returns healthy) to maximize his effectiveness through the end of the season. If the Indians are going to stay in this AL Central race “through the end of the season”, having a healthy Sizemore contributing (even if it isn’t every single game) is tantamount to carrying the offensive load into the Fall.

Certainly, you could imagine that the Indians wanted to give Sizemore more days off in the last month but were reticent to do so because of the struggles of his obvious replacement on the roster at the time – Austin Kearns. In case you were wondering, Kearns’ .450 OPS ranks 327th among the 333 MLB players who have accumulated 50 plate appearances on the year (although he is ahead of Shoppach) and the performance of Kearns to date (and the manner in which the Indians have used Travis Buck since being recalled from Columbus) seem to point to the idea that Kearns left holding the short straw when Grady does return from the DL, in terms of roster turnover.

Lest you prepare your “he’s RH” or “he was one of the only FA signings of the off-season” arguments, realize that since the Tribe traded Kearns last year, here’s his line over 175 PA:
.210 BA / .314 OBP / .283 SLG / .597 OPS with 7 extra base hits in those 175 PA

If you figure in that in the two years prior to initially joining the Indians in 2010 he posted this line - .209 BA /.320 OBP / .312 SLG / .633 OPS with 28 extra base hits in 568 PA - with the Nats, you realize that the performance that Kearns put forth in Cleveland last year may be the aberration and that Kearns may have been available as a Minor League FA last off-season for a reason. That’s not to discount the production that Kearns contributed last year in Cleveland (when the Tribe was badly in need of it), but the time is coming near in which the Indians thank Austin Kearns for netting them Zach McAllister and for his contributions as an Indian, wish him the best while keeping those paychecks en route to him, and simply move on

If Kearns does, in fact, draw that “short straw”, it would mean that Travis Buck sticks around on the 40-man roster and, if you’re still thinking about that “RH bat” idea, remember that Shelley Duncan has usurped Kearns as the RH bat off of the bench (who can play OF…if only nominally) and that Buck is a superior defensive OF to Kearns. So, if Kearns isn’t the first RH OF option off the bench and isn’t the best defensive OF option off of the bench, what purpose is he serving on the roster?

Maybe the idea exists to get Buck consistent plate appearances in Columbus, but if you go back to the idea that Sizemore is going to need periodic days off and realize that the rest of the Indians bench is decidedly RH (Duncan, Marson, Everett), keeping Buck around – as a better short-term AND long-term option – is the best course of action. Going past that notion is to harken back to all of those warm-and-fuzzies that floated around Buck after ST, as a former top prospect in need of a change of scenery who is under club control through the 2014 season.

Buck, in the here-and-now, represents a likely upgrade over Kearns at the plate (unless he completely craters from now until next Friday) and certainly in the field when Sizemore needs to sit, offering the Indians more depth in 2011. Past that, the club control and the promise that Buck has shown suggests that Buck can perhaps represent another Indians’ reclamation project that is under club control longer than both Sizemore and Choo.

Regardless of what happens when Sizemore returns, his performance upon his return is going to provide a glimpse as to what might be expected from the Indians’ offense for the final four months of the season. Because while Mike Brantley has improved greatly and Choo figures to get on track eventually (and this is me crossing my fingers), the Indians’ offensive engine is purring when it’s fueled by the contributions of a healthy and effective Sizemore.

Whether a “healthy and effective” Sizemore returns in a couple of weeks has become a major topic to consider…again.