Thursday, July 05, 2012

Tomahawks with U, Choo, & Lou

As the Indians’ season continues to confound and astound (as the Tribe looks alternatively miserable and masterful), the Tribe looks to build some momentum heading into the All-Star Break.  And though you won’t ever hear me engage in the old “snub” game when it comes to players being named to the ASG (as I find it only slightly less interesting than the annual Hall of Fame “debate” that bores me to death), the Indians certainly have had some bright spots in the 1st Half of the season.

While most of those bright spots have consistently good (Perez, Pestano, Kipnis, Asdrubal…most notably) and have been lauded for their accomplishments to date, there have been a few players that have emerged over the last couple of months or weeks that deserve to be recognized for their recent contributions.  Because while the hand-wringing continues over the LF “situation” and as much attention is paid to the deficiencies of a team or as a player goes under a microscope when things are NOT going well (admittedly, I’m as guilty of this as anyone with Santana on my microscope slide as of late), sometimes a turnaround for a player or a hot streak goes largely unnoticed, unless it has some sort of “streak” involved in it that makes it easy to measure and laud.

With that in mind, let’s get some Tomahawks in the air on three players that looked lost for the better part of April (and May, in some cases) and whose more recent play has allowed the Indians to stay near the top of the AL Central.
So, let ‘em fly…

For as much grousing as there was early in the season about the performance of Ubaldo Jimenez, as he looked like a mechanical mess who was statistically one of the worst pitchers for the first couple of months of the season, there has been very little talk (or appreciation) of what he’s putting together over the last month or so.  Though Cleveland fans will continue to track the movement of Drew Pomeranz and Al White – as we remain the only city that complains about the lack of a splashy addition AND about what it costs to make said splashy addition – Ubaldo’s ERA has dropped a full run in his last 6 starts.

Since the beginning of June – over those 6 starts – he’s posted a 2.93 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP while striking out 36 (though walking 15) in his last 40 IP.  He’s gone at least 6 innings in each of those outings as he’s limited opposing batters to a .668 OPS in that timeframe.  While it seems as if he’s walking that tightrope at times (as we all ready ourselves for the return of “Bad Ubaldo”), Acta isn’t incorrect to say that “he’s pitching like a No. 2 or No. 1 guy right now”…and isn’t that what we’ve been looking/waiting for since he arrived?

The idea when he arrived was that he would be paired at the top of the rotation with Masterson to serve as the strength of this team going forward.  And while that idea seemed laughable a couple of months ago, take a look at where the duo sits in terms of ERA among AL starters in the past 30 days:
Justin Masterson – 1.50 ERA (2nd among AL Starters in past 30 days)
Ubaldo Jimenez – 2.93 ERA (14th among AL Starters in past 30 days)

Certainly the small-sample size siren is blaring and while MAJOR concerns exist in the middle-to-back-end-of-the-rotation, the front-end-of-the-bullpen, and in the bottom third of the order, let’s realize that the Indians HAVE been getting consistency from the top of their rotation and – if they continue to – they may be able to ride those two horses through a pretty muddled field in the AL Central.  Perhaps even more important than that is the idea that Ubaldo is still under club control through next season (with a club option for 2014 that I STILL haven’t seen an update on whether he voided it when he was traded) and while the idea that the Indians held control over Pomz and White for longer than just a couple of seasons, the way that they’re performing right now (each has bounced around between AAA and MLB, with inconsistent results thus far for the Rox), the last couple of weeks have shown why the Indians were willing to make that move for Ubaldo nearly a year ago.

Now, Ubaldo’s mechanics could have a wrench thrown into them (or maybe it just feels that way after being encouraged year after year by stretches of “Good Fausto”) and Pomz could take off in Colorado, but Ubaldo settling into the stretch of games that he is right now is one of the most pleasant developments of the past month, not only for the team as it sits today, but for the team going forward.  Maybe I’m being fooled (again) by becoming optimistic that Jimenez can assume a top-of-the-rotation spot again, but if a player is going to be raked over the coals when he is pitching poorly (and Ubaldo was), he should be recognized when he’s pitching well (and Ubaldo is) and how long he can continue his current effectiveness could have a HUGE impact on the Indians’ ability to stay in the AL Central race.

Speaking of looking to continue their current level of effectiveness, lost in these concerns about Santana and the crevasse at the bottom of the lineup is the fact that not only has The BLC returned to form…but he’s done so in a big way.  After his slow start garnered so much attention, he now has the highest OPS (.854) on the team, just eclipsing Asdrubal and that OPS puts him 21st in the AL, with an wOBA (.377) that puts him 14th in all of the American League. 

Considering Choo’s awful start to the season (he had a .697 OPS on May 1st), to say that he’s gotten back on track is an understatement.  Really, he has been one of the engines for the Indians’ offense and, as was written here around the time that his 2012 season took off, that’s exactly what was needed:
Obviously, Choo’s…um, “difficult” 2011 season has been well-documented, but without getting into the contract distraction, the DUI and the fallout from that (locally or, more pointedly, in his native South Korea) or the injuries, it’s interesting to look at where Choo has been in the past and in the more recent past, in an attempt to see if Choo – as we once knew him – could be coming back…because it would sure provide a spark to this 2012 team.

While this has seemingly been forgotten as Choo has struggled for more than a year, Choo’s cumulative wOBA (since we’ve already used that) from 2008 to 2010 was .390.  While that may not be all that impressive because it lacks context, how’s this for context – that was the 14th highest wOBA in that 3-year stretch, with Choo coming in just behind Josh Hamilton.  He finished just ahead of (in order) Prince Fielder, Chase Utley, Ryan Braun, Chipper Jones, Lance Berkman, and…hell, here’s the list.  During that time, Choo’s offensive contributions for the Indians so vastly outpaced anybody else on those teams (that weren’t all that good) that he was taken for granted – partly because of the fact that he didn’t have much around him, but more accurately because of his consistency.

That was written nearly two months ago and from the time that was written (almost to the day), Choo – “as we once knew him” – has come back to the point that he’s asserted himself back among the elite hitters in the AL.  No, he may not have the gaudy power numbers of others, but Choo’s consistency – something that was sorely lacking last year – is back, with his improvement starting at the beginning of May.  So he’s been doing this for about 2 months now and it isn’t hard to imagine that this is going to continue, given Choo’s track record prior to 2011.  Incredibly, Choo’s recent performance falls in line with almost EXACTLY what he did in that 3-year stretch in which he established himself as an underrated star in MLB, with the most recent spate of games actually improving on that 3-year line:
.302 BA / .397 OBP / .500 SLG / .897 OPS

Since May 4th of 2012
.316 BA / .391 OBP / .531 SLG / .921 OPS

In those last 58 games, he’s hit 21 2B and he’s improved his overall numbers to this point (.292 BA / .380 OBP / .475 SLG / .854 OPS) that they aren’t that dissimilar to what Prince Fielder is doing (.299 BA / .377 OBP / .484 SLG / .861) in Detroit…yes, he’s been THAT good offensively.  Yet somehow he (as usual) flies under the radar as, while slow and steady may win the race, his offensive contributions are largely taken for granted or somehow go unnoticed.  Unfortunately, what most people talk about with Choo is his impending after the 2013 season and while some (or…me, I guess) are already preparing for the day when Scott Boras picks up the phone to call his Uncle Mike Ilitch to tell him how great The BLC will look in RF in Comerica instead of Brennan Boesch, what he’s done over the last two months need to be recognized.

Pacing an offense that now ranks 6th in the AL (11th in all of MLB) in runs per game, maybe Choo knew what he was talking about when he famously compared his 2011 “crouch” before leaping forward…you know, like a frog.  Regardless, Choo has taken that leap forward over the past two months and, for a Tribe offense that struggles for consistency, having a consistent BLC back on board is a welcome site.

Speaking of “leap” forward, everyone knows that Lou Marsonis now SEVENTH in the AL in OBP for players with more than 100 PA, right?

Yes, the same Marson that had 11 plate appearances in the whole month of April and who had a .147 BA / .293 OBP / .206 SLG / .499 OPS on Memorial Day of this year.  What’s happened from that time has been nothing short of astonishing as Marson’s played 16 games since the beginning of June with 5 XBH in those games while getting on base at a .460 clip!

Though it is true that the Indians need Carlos Santana to become the “Carlos Santana” that we saw last year and dreamed about all off-season, to see Marson perform like this plants the idea that Lou may be more than just a defense-first backup catcher.  Lest you forget, he WAS a Top 75 prospect in all of MLB at one point and most encouraging is the fact that Marson’s numbers in the Minors mirror what he’s doing now – posting a high OBP while showing occasional power.  Certainly, nobody has ever questioned his defense or his arm, so if Marson can perform even at a fraction of what he’s doing now, the Indians may have an answer about what to do at 1B next year because they could slot Marson in at C and slide Santana up to 1B.  Though I know that plan has its detractors due to Santana’s bat not being as valuable at 1B and his defense there perhaps lacking, but there’s plenty of time to sort that out.

For now, Marson is on a roll and what is perhaps most interesting is that Marson’s struggles against RHP have not carried over to this year as he’s actually hitting RHP better than he is LHP, so maybe even this idea that Marson should play out some sort of platoon (with Santana going to 1B vs. LHP) is outdated.  While I’m not saying that this success is sustainable for Marson at the plate, he has the past prospect pedigree and the MiLB numbers that suggested an improvement over what he had put forth in MLB to date was possible, if not probable.

That’s starting to bear itself out now and the Indians may want to find ways to get Marson’s bat into the lineup as much as possible right now.  Maybe that means a little less Kotchman at 1B or maybe that (hopefully) means that Hafner gets some days off in an attempt to lengthen his effectiveness, with Santana going to 1B or to DH more regularly (as they do still need him to get going) with Marson getting more time to don the tools of ignorance.  But the way that Lou is hitting right now – and with the bottom 1/3 of the lineup performing like it is/has in recent weeks – it would behoove the Indians to find out what they have in Marson…because there may be a pleasant answer to that question in the offing.

Whether that trio can sustain their re-captured (or recently captured) success is going to play a big role in terms of whether the Indians can hide their obvious blemishes or disappointments in the rotation or the roster and keep pace in the wildly winnable AL Central.


Adam said...

Great stuff Paul. Certainly Acta deserves tons of credit for putting Choo in the leadoff role. I think people forget that having a leadoff hitter who hits for power can be a very effective thing. After the greatest leadoff hitter of all-time Ricky Henderson, had substantial power. That being said, I really think this team needs an upgrade in LF. After watching Johnny Damon take an excuse-me swing on a 1-0 count last night, I think I've seen just about enough of him. Rumor has it that the Philles are shopping Victorino. What about picking him up and moving Brantley over to LF? Would they take some combination of Phelps, Gomez and some minor league arm?

Cleveland Fan said...

Hey Paul, Great stuff as usual. I was wondering how much value there is to BABIP? Looking at your link to Fangraphs, I found that Choo was first in BABIP over the last three years. I put in the filter a min of 1000 PA over the last three years and Choo is at a .360 avg. So,when he hits the ball in play he is getting results.

Paul Cousineau said...

Trying to figure what it would take to get this guy/that guy is always a tough proposition, so I'm not going to pretend to know what it would really take to get Victorino...or Quentin for that matter.

Choo's BABIP has always been high, to the point that it's almost expected that he's going to post a BABIP over the "normal" .300 level. The high BABIP recently is a great sign that he might be getting back to the player that he once was.

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