Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Tomahawks From the Top

As we all say thank goodness for the Twins (who are now 73-125 since they got swept out of the 2010 ALDS) to save us from ourselves after the close to the Red Sox series that had everyone running to the 480 bridge while echoing the chorus that “THIS TEAM CAN’T HIT LHP” narrative with the brilliant inclusion of Batting Average vs. LHP as the provided “proof”, it’s time to dispel some inaccuracies, use some comparisons, and look to the future for this Indians team. 

Starting with this whole vs. LHP “issue”, everyone realizes that the Indians have the 9th highest OPS vs. LHP in AL, the 8th highest wOBA vs. LHP in the AL (above the Tigers), and have the highest BB rate vs. LHP in all of baseball.  A juggernaut vs. LHP they are not (there are 14 AL teams)…but check out those links and see that while the Indians’ performance against LHP leaves much to be desired, it has been fairly middle-of-the-road compared to the league and placed in the proper context.  If you want to continue to use Batting Average (which is not a completely useless stat, just one that shouldn’t be used as a stand-alone stat), that’s fine, but the fact that we’ve evolved past back-of-the-baseball card analysis elsewhere (and OPS and wOBA are pretty easy stats to understand and pretty useful) means that we need to look past this Batting Average vs. LHP “issue”.

Saying “they’re not the worst” may feel like a flimsy argument, but we knew going into the season that this team was going to be LH-heavy.  Of course, a RH bat in there would look great, but Acta nailed the situation (probably after being badgered about this whole LH thing again) this past weekend, saying “no one is sitting here saying that Choo, Brantley, Kipnis are platoon players. They were going to play against righties and lefties, regardless of our situation. . . . Should we trade Choo and Kipnis for right-handed hitters?” 
Full disclosure that I was behind the idea of Brantley as a platoon player…but point made.

The Indians are hitting RH pitching fairly well (.754 OPS, 5th in MLB), but the fact that their OPS vs. LHP ranks 16th in all of MLB starts to dispel this notion that they’re unquestionably the WORST team in MLB vs. LHP as there are actually two teams (the White Sox – with RH Paul Konerko – and the Nationals) below the .600 OPS line vs. LHP.

Yes, a RH 1B or RH LF (and don’t you say his name because I’m getting to him while not mentioning his name because of the moratorium) would work in the middle of the lineup, but as I hope against hope that Mike Brantley has actually figured out this “hitting” thing (and I could care less WHERE he hits as long as he IS hitting, although his May OPS of .697 isn’t that much different than his April OPS of .677) and gladly welcome my Big League Choo back with open arms (1.050 OPS in the last week), I’m going to ignore this vs, LHP “issue” until someone can provide some compelling evidence that this team CANNOT hit LHP…and evidence that doesn’t rely solely on Batting Average.

With that off my chest (for now), let’s get some Tomahawks in the air…

In the wake of the Derek Lowe complete game shutout, some have started to compare this 2012 team’s start to the one from just a year ago, positing that this year’s incarnation is lacking in the starting pitching department to date since Lowe is carrying this pitching staff.  While I’m not going to disagree with that as Masterson or (gulp) Ubaldo getting on track makes season-long contention that much more possible, it is worth comparing the start to the last two seasons for the rotations, in terms of expectations and early returns.  That is to say that the early outings for Masterson and Ubaldo have been…um, uneven and that the middle-to-back-end of the rotation (mainly Lowe and Jeanmar) have kept the Indians atop the Central to date. 

But if you remember back to last May, isn’t that kind of what happened last year too?
Lest you forget, this was the rotation that broke camp last year…in this order:

Yes, Jeanmar had worked his way into the mix in April and Al White made his first appearance at the end of April, but once Talbot got healthy, that was the rotation into July for a team that was sitting at the top of the AL Central for much of that time.  Seriously, Mitch Talbot – who not even a year later is pitching for the SAMSUNG LIONS in the KOREAN LEAGUE – logged eleven starts for the team before the All-Star Break and would end the year unleashing his own particular brand of “Fury” with the 5th most starts (12) on a team that would finish 80-82.

Sure, you say…but Masterson had a great 2011 season and Tomlin had a great 1st half while Carrasco showed the type of promise that makes his injury all the more painful now.  That’s all true, but GOING into 2011, who saw that coming from Masterson or Tomlin?

Essentially, in the first couple of months of the 2011 season we saw the middle-to-back-end of the rotation become the top and the top of the rotation slip into inconsistency, making them much less effective than the pitchers that they were thought to be ahead of in the rotation when 2011 started.
Now, think of this year…

Already, we’ve seen the 3rd starter (Lowe) vault into the position of being the Tribe’s best starter (just as Masterson did last year) and we’ve seen Jeanmar throw solidly in the first month-and-a-half of the season, just as Tomlin did last year.  Yes, Masterson and Ubaldo have been overwhelming disappointments, but the 2012 rotation is getting the same kind of surprise production from arms that weren’t being counted on as front-of-the-rotation pitchers in the early going. 

Just to put some hard numbers to this, compare where the Opening Day rotation stood around this time last year and where this year’s incarnation does:
2011 Staff through mid-to-late May in order of Opening Day Rotation
Carmona/Hernandez – 4.76 ERA on May 19, 2011
Carrasco – 5.16 ERA on May 22, 2011
Masterson – 2.52 ERA on May 18, 2011
Tomlin – 2.56 ERA on May 16, 2011
Talbot – 5.87 ERA on May 25, 2011

2012 Staff through May 15th in order of Opening Day Rotation
Masterson – 5.40 ERA
Ubaldo – 5.18 ERA
Lowe – 2.05 ERA
Tomlin – 4.67 ERA
Jeanmar – 3.75 ERA

Disappointment at the top and pleasant surprises in the middle-to-back in both groupings…

Two pitchers with an ERA over 5.00 on each staff, one close to 5.00 and two “surprises” to lead the staff made up your FIRST-PLACE rotation for the 2011 team at this time last year and similar production from (strangely) similar spots in the rotation for the 2012 Tribe.  While you can certainly say that the way that the 2011 rotation was unable to sustain their success provides a foreboding feeling for this group going forward, the success of Derek Lowe provides hope that the Indians can straighten out their “top 2” (or at least Masterson) this year. 

If you’ll remember, the Tribe targeted Lowe VERY early in the off-season, fleecing the Braves by trading only a minor-league arm (who is still in AA) for him AND having the Braves pay $10M of his $15M salary in 2012.  He was targeted because the Indians saw something in his mechanics that was easily “fixable” and, if “fixed”, could result in a return to effectiveness for him.  It has been an achievement in scouting and coaching (wait…by the Indians and their Polo Shirt Mafia Front Office, who spend all their time poring over spreadsheets?) and, given that the Indians were able to identify and correct Lowe’s issues, it provides some hope that they can identify and (perhaps) improve a pitcher like Masterson or even…gulp, Ubaldo.

Sure, Ubaldo may be too far gone (because he looks it) or he may not be as receptive as an eager-to-prove-himself Lowe was when he arrived in Cleveland, but the Indians (obviously) targeted Jimenez last July with the idea that they could “fix” him as they seem to have with Lowe.  “Fixing” Ubaldo may never materialize and he may become Fausto v.2.0, in terms of frustration and unfulfilled talent.  But remember that the 2011 Indians contended on the strength of their rotation, with the lion’s share of the contributions coming from unforeseen sources. 

Now that Zach McAllister has arrived for a while (and it’s easy to forget that both he and Jeanmar are only 24 years old) and the Indians’ rotation could have some moving pieces here.  While I’m not sure if a DL stint is in the offing for Ubaldo (and I think they’ve almost suggested to him that he’s injured, if only because Acta says he asks him SO much if he’s healthy) if his mechanics remain messy, but Corey Kluber (acquired for Westbrook in what seems like a trade from a decade ago) and Scotty Barnes (netted for Ryan Garko) are two other starters in AAA who are averaging more than a K an inning while limiting opposing hitters to an OPS under .700.  Neither of those guys scream “big-time pitching prospect” (though Barnes has always intrigued me), but let’s remember that Tomlin and Gomez have graduated to MLB and surprised in their brief time there.

Last year, the Indians rotation led from the back and, if the early returns provide a glimpse, we may be seeing it again with the hope that the “front” (Masterson and…have to say it, Ubaldo) can rebound to their former selves (or some semblance of their former selves) to continue to set the pace in the AL Central.

For whatever reason, every team “features” a whipping boy for fans and critics alike to rail against.  While vitriol is inexplicably always reserved for the 24th or 25th man on the roster (as I’m not sure I understand what hating Aaron Cunningham accomplishes and have NO problem with this team carrying Dan Wheeler – a veteran reliever with a track record who was here merely to mop up and absorb innings in losses – for 6 weeks), Casey Kotchman finds himself firmly in the crosshairs of most Tribe fans, who have deluded themselves to believe that a player who was unquestionably not the “answer” last year (and who still isn’t the “answer” this year…and has 1 XBH and a .557 OPS in his last 10 games) represents an upgrade, merely because he ISN’T Casey Kotchman.

However, if you go into this realizing what Casey Kotchman is (and isn’t), what he’s done is pretty much what we’ve expected – he’s played stellar defense and will have hot and cold stretches at the plate with the cold stretches likely to cause the hand-wringing and moaning that we experienced in April.  However, Kotchman has a .759 OPS in May (nestled between Choo and Santana for the month to date) and – while that won’t make anyone begin making a bronze casting for Cooperstown – it certainly brings him into the level of acceptable or respectable production.  What his recent run at the plate has done is raise his season totals to the point that he’s creeping ever closer to a .600 OPS.  And while that’s said with the tongue firmly in cheek, check out where he now ranks among MLB 1B in OPS, above Eric Hosmer, Justin Smoak, Gaby Sanchez (who, admittedly was on my “wish list” this off-season), Al Pujols and Ike Davis.  Unfortunately, that perspective is what gets lost too often as people rail against this player or that player as Kotchman’s 3 HR mean that he has more than Adrian Gonzalez, Carlos Lee (another player that everyone wanted to target this off-season), and the aforementioned Pujols and Gaby Sanchez.

Don’t take this to mean that I’m comfortable just putting Casey Kotchman out there at 1B for the rest of the season…it’s an attempt to provide some context to the situation.  That is, Kotchman is who we knew who was, is getting paid $3M (the Tribe signed Branyan to a $1.5M deal in 2010 and traded him in late June of that year) for the season, and once (or if) a better alternative presents itself, I’m all for upgrading the roster by improving at 1B.  That doesn’t mean that Kotchman would go the way of Branyan or any of the other Tribe 1B of the past (meaning that he wouldn’t automatically become a Mariner) as his defense is a special skill, but that alternative hasn’t presented itself and – almost, but not entirely, independent of Kotchman’s performance at the plate – he should stay there until it does.

With that said, it is fun around this time of the year to play the “would this guy be available” game and while I’ve seen or heard the Josh Willingham and Kevin Youkilis conjecture (and here is Buster Olney thinking that Youkilis may not be long for Boston) dating back to last off-season, there was something in a recent article on B-Pro that caught my eye.  The article focused on where the Padres are going (which is nowhere) and how San Diego may become a trading post, and perhaps very soon.  In the piece Geoff Young (who is the founder of Ducksnorts, a Padres’ blog) goes in-depth into the Padres’ roster, providing some insight into some different players that may be made available if the Padres’ season continues to circle the drain.

Carlos Quentin, LF (29): The man that Josh Byrnes let get away in Arizona, formerly represented by Jeff Moorad (he almost owned the Padres, sort of, for a few years... until one day he didn’t) started the season on the disabled list and is currently rehabbing in the minors. There was speculation when the Padres traded for Quentin that they might try to lock him up long-term, but given his spotty health record and the fact that Petco Park isn’t the ideal place for a slow, slugging outfielder (Ryan Ludwick sends his regards), this may not be the best option. As with Huston Street, though, he needs to get healthy before any moves are made.
I don’t expect Street or Quentin to fetch much. If I were the Padres, I’d be looking for more middle-infield depth in the high minors; failing that, I’d take a shot on guys at lower levels with live arms who maybe haven’t translated stuff into results.

When Quentin was moved in the off-season from the South Side to San Diego, it felt like the type of move that the Indians should have been in on, even if their…um, relationship with the White Sox Front Office (one minor trade since 1994) probably prevented it.

Realizing that Quentin is hurt (and his “repaired” right knee may not be all that healthy if it flares up when he gets into his batting stance) and that he may or may not even be on the field until June, unless Johnny Damon can break out of his “Spring Training mode” with a flurry, the Indians could be looking to upgrade in LF…again.  Maybe the Tribe is thinking that Sizemore’s return will push the suddenly rejuvenated Brantley to LF, but if Young is right that the Padres would target “middle-infield depth in the high minors”, that’s something that the Indians could actually offer in the form of Cord Phelps or even the recently-demoted Jason Donald.  As the author says, he doesn’t expect “Quentin to fetch much”, but he could become a nice option in LF or at DH for the 2nd half of the season…assuming health, of course.

Regardless of what’s to come or how the Indians attempt to find another band-aid in LF or 1B (or if they even are able to), let’s go back to what was written this past weekend and realize that this is fun.  This is fun to follow a 1st place team and fun to target other teams’ players as possibilities for Trading Deadline reinforcements.  While it isn’t ALWAYS fun, it is hard to remember what Carlos Santana once famously said…“this is the baseball”.


Jeff said...

One counterpoint to your "vs LHP" argument...looking @ OPS, the Indians have the 4th largest drop-off in OPS (104 points) vs. LHP as compared to RHP, better than only the Nationals (110 points) Cubs (111 points) and White Sox (122 points). So while you're absolutely correct that, empirically, the Indians are *not* the worst in the game at hitting LHPs, they do experience one of the largest declines in
performance when facing LHP.

Here's a link to the quick spreadsheet I threw together to calculate:

Paul Cousineau said...

That's fair (with some great legwork on the splits) to point out. I suppose my attempt was more to debunk this idea that as soon as the Indians faced a LHP, their bats turned into toothpicks as that seems to have become an accepted narrative when it isn't really all that true.

They're MUCH better vs. RHP (as you point out), but it's not as if they're completely worthless against LHP, which is how many are painting them.

Kante Luis said...