Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Staying Grounded

A Note from Paul: As you may have noticed, there is a new masthead up here on the site and some thanks are in order to longtime reader Joe Popa, who lent his talent to coming up with and executing the design which (you might notice) is similar in font and style to the block lettering on the home creams. As Joe wrote to me when he came up with the idea, he “thought that our Erie Warriors seem to be embarking on a new chapter” necessitating a new look for the site by, as he wrote, “utilizing some of the pieces from years gone by, and integrating them with newer components.” I think it’s great (and that’s not meant to take away from the old masthead) and hope you like it as that “new chapter” unfolds before us each and every night…

With the Indians now back from the Left Coast and back in the friendly confines, some attention has been paid to the idea that the Indians faced off against two of the top starter duos in the AL in Cahill/Anderson and Weaver/Haren (going 2-2 in games started by that quartet) with Price/Shields sitting at the Tribe’s doorstep to close out the Rays’ series. While the general public may not know that the A’s and Angels frontline starters are as good as they are because they don’t call Fenway or the Bronx their home, Cahill and Anderson are among the elite pitchers in the AL whose names are certain to be thrown around in the Cy Young conversation when the year comes to a close. Haren and Weaver are more “known” quantities, and while they may toil in some obscurity on the West Coast (just because ESPN is still inexplicably where most people go for sports coverage), realize that those two are at or near the top of just about every metric, standard or advanced, for pitchers.

Now having played the last 8 games against the A’s, the Angels, and the Rays (the “elite” in the American League, if you want to call them that), the Indians continue to hold their own and, as a quick aside here, the Indians’ Strength of Schedule is now the 9th highest in the league (the Rays have played the “easiest” schedule to date), which is particularly interesting, given that the records of the Tribe’s opponents include playing the juggernaut Indians.

Regardless, back to the top of the rotation duos in the AL in the context of the Indians squaring off against Cahill/Anderson and Weaver/Haren, the Indians figure to continue to be tested as this Rays series continues when the Tribe faces off against the Rays duo of Dave Price and James Shields. But if we’re looking at top duos in the AL at the top of rotations, how about the inclusion of a couple of guys who are helping the Indians keep up this torrid pace as they go toe-to-toe with the AL’s “elite” because the Indians aren’t winning these games with smoke-and-mirrors, they’re winning them on the strength of their starting pitching.

Of course, the obvious duo to look at in terms of effectiveness in the early going is Masterson and Tomlin, with both appearing in the top 9 in ERA in the AL with Tomlin ranking 2nd in WHIP (behind Haren, who the Indians SHOULD have beaten), but just like everybody else who has ever considered Josh Tomlin in his life (and here’s a great piece from Jordan Bastian on this very topic), I’m going to look past Tomlin – unfairly, I know – and take a look at the two pitchers that have played a major role in the Indians’ success in 2011 and how their repertoire and effectiveness portend good things for the Tribe going forward, both in terms of the specific players and as them being representative of a greater organizational philosophy.
That duo is, of course, Fausto Carmona and Justin Masterson.

While Masterson’s inclusion is obvious, the question may come out as to why Carmona is being put under the magnifying glass instead of Tomlin and to that I would answer that Fausto’s still impressive overall 3.83 ERA includes that Opening Day disaster against the Pale Hose. If you go only on the last 7 starts that Carmona has logged, you’re looking at a pitcher with a 2.22 ERA, a 1.03 WHIP, and a .541 OPS against whose Line Drive Percentage given up is NINE PERCENT since his second start. While the accepted narrative on Fausto is either that “Good Fausto” or “Bad Fausto” strides to the mound every 5th game, realize that he’s allowed 8 extra-base hits in the 48 /23 innings that he’s thrown and he’s striking out more than twice as many batters as he’s walking.

Perhaps those numbers still pale in comparison to what Tomlin has put forth for the WHOLE year, but with Carmona’s history, it is worth noticing that Fausto is doing exactly what he was doing in 2007 – inducing weak contact and bunches of ground balls while (and this is important) minimizing walks. He’s evolved as a pitcher for sure in terms of his repertoire and while I’ll stop short of saying that the kid that ignored midges has returned, look at the comparative rate numbers for Carmona in 2007 and thus far in 2011, realizing that those 2011 numbers include his trainwreck of a first start.
Seriously, is Fausto back?

While I’m not ready to make that broad assumption, let’s go back to the notion that Carmona is still inducing a fair amount of groundballs. Again, perhaps Carmona’s GB% is not quite on par with what he did in 2007, but here’s where he ranks in the AL this year, sandwiched around a couple of names you might recognize from the past week:
GB% Leaders – AL
1) Brett Anderson – 63.5%
2) Fausto Carmona – 60.6%
3) Justin Masterson – 60.4%

Remember what was written here in those dark days before the All-Star Break last July, when the GB% of the recent additions to the pitching staff were examined?

In case you don’t (and there’s a handy link there), the takeaway was wondering if “the Indians have attempted to target pitchers who may have fallen ‘under the radar’ because of lower K rates and higher GB rates (because every team is looking for high-K pitchers) in some of their recent acquisitions”, something that has started to play out for the parent club this year because if you want to include all starters in the AL, regardless of innings pitched, how about where this duo fits into the GB% leader board:
4) Mitch Talbot – 58.8%
11) Al White – 52.9%

All told, the Indians’ rotation has the 2nd highest GB% in the AL (behind the A’s) and before moving on, it should be noted that the other observation from last July was that “one would think that the movement toward more GB pitchers would prompt some acquisitions to improve the infield defense” with the additions of Jack Hannahan and The OC justifying this seemingly prescient moment.

Ahem…regardless, what the Indians’ Top 2 have done (and I’m tagging Masterson and Carmona as the “Top 2” over Tomlin) is pretty compelling as, even with Fausto’s Opening Day start included, Carmona possesses the lowest Line Drive Percentage among MLB starters (tied with Texas’ Colby Lewis) at 11% with Masterson coming in a tick below (tied for 2nd in the AL) at 12%. So, Masterson and Carmona are among the best in the league and limiting solid contact (low Line Drive %) and are among the best in the league at inducing grounders (GB%), ranking in the Top 5 among AL starters in both categories. Even further, realize that there are only three pitchers in the AL with Groundball-to-Flyball Ratios over 1.50 – that ubiquitous trio of Masterson, Brett Anderson, and Carmona.

Going past Masterson and Carmona, if you want something to really be excited about, realize that Al White has a Groundout-to-Air Out Ratio of 2.57 in his first two starts and, while that is certainly unsustainable, it is not out of character for White, whose Groundout-to-Air Out ratio last year was 2.07 in Akron and Columbus and was 1.39 in AAA this year. For some context for that, the MLB average for Groundout-to-Air Out ratio this year is 1.05 and only 9 qualified AL pitchers have a ratio over 1.50 in 2011…two of whom are named Justin and Fausto.

What’s most encouraging about White’s early performance (and how he’s doing it) is that it lends credence to the idea that White is another BIG (6’3”, 215 lbs.), strike-throwing pitcher who induces groundballs and weak contact at a staggering rate from the rotation while the prototype of the swing-and-miss pitcher is starting to take hold in the bullpen.

Really, isn’t that what we’re seeing now in Cleveland in terms of limiting runs and baserunners, either via the groundball (rotation) or via the K (bullpen), with the results being decidedly encouraging?

Of course, if this was merely over a couple of weeks for the Indians to experience success as a pitching staff with this blueprint, it may simply be an aberration. However, this pitching staff has been together for long enough that the “fluke” moniker is starting to lose steam. There may be individual pitchers whose success is “flukey”, but as a unit, if you take away the performance of the whole pitching staff on that Opening Day against the White Sox (when Chicago scored 14 of their 15 runs in the 1st inning, by the by), the Indians’ pitching staff as a whole has a 2.92 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP.

Certainly, you could probably do that with any team by taking away their worst game of the season to massage numbers that result in a more impressive stat line, but that 2.89 ERA and 1.19 WHIP is now over 33 games and if you want to go back to the All-Star Break of 2010 as the starting point, the Indians’ pitching staff has posted (including Opening Day 2011) a 3.58 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP since the All-Star Break of last year over 107 games, with the tone being set for that performance by the starting pitching and the top of the rotation in particular.

Obviously, MLB has changed profoundly in the last two years in terms of offensive output and the renaissance in good pitching and perhaps that could have been expected, given the crackdown on PED’s as Tom Verducci writes that, “we may have entered an entirely new era in which pitching and defense continue to take back ground lost during The Steroid Era” in a piece that is worth a look for some hard numbers, something that Joe Posnanski provides as well. What has not been expected this year (among other things) is the Indians leading that charge in a “new era” focused on “pitching and defense” the Indians’ emphasis on targeting groundball pitchers that induce weak contact has resulted in the success that has been seen from the rotation in the early going.

Based on the fact that their success is rooted in repeatable and sustainable performance, there’s no reason to believe that Masterson and Carmona are going to suddenly change as pitchers that thrive due to the grounders that they induce. Because of this, the Indians should remain “grounded” as their season continues to soar…

Another note from Paul: Since he did such a fantastic job a while back in a relief role, Al Ciammiachella will be captaining the Lazy One this weekend as I’m off to the land of milk and honey (well, the old stomping grounds of Dayton, OH) for a wedding and will be indisposed.


Red Right 88 said...

Nice work on the new masthed. Very classy.

darthbith said...

Hey Paul,
I love the site and your writing, please keep both up! I have a question about your offhand remark about ESPN - clearly, ESPN is pretty bad for local coverage of, well, any city outside Boston, NY and LA (as you mentioned). But is there a better way or site or outlet to aggregate national coverage of sports that I won't pay as much attention to, without reading hundreds of local blogs?


jhf44lk said...

Nice article Al. I hope the Tribe can stay away from injuries because I think that is the only thing tat will stop them!! Keep up the great work!