Sunday, September 29, 2013

It All Comes Down to this Lazy Sunday

Baseball is an amazing game. After 161 games, the Indians, Rays and Rangers are separated by just one game in the standings. A long season that started way back in April comes down to a single game for these three teams, with a playoff berth on the line. The “every game is important” mantra was one that Indians fans learned well in 2007, when one more Tribe victory would’ve given the Indians home field advantage in the ALCS against the Boston Red Sox. We all know how that turned out. Here we are again six years later, and one game could make the difference between a postseason run and hitting the golf course in the first week of October. The Indians have won 91 games already, not bad for a team that Vegas put the over/under at 76 ½ coming into the 2013 season. They’ve won 23 more games than they did in 2012. They’ve won 20 games in September, including 14 of their past 16. And yet, it could all be for naught if the Indians lose today and Tampa Bay and Texas both win. That would trigger a complicated scenario in which the Indians would host Tampa Bay on Monday, with the loser of that game traveling to Texas, and the winner of those two games making the playoffs as the two AL Wild Card representatives. All of the potential scenarios are laid out here, including who plays where and when regardless of who wins tomorrow. Worst case scenario, the Indians have two cracks at a tiebreaker game, both of which would be played at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. But the whole thing will be academic if the Indians take care of business in Minneapolis tomorrow afternoon. So really, it’s simple; win tomorrow, host the AL Wild Card game. Win that, and it’s on to Boston. It’s both exciting and stressful, and twitter follower @themadlibs used the very appropriate term awesome/awful to describe the adrenaline rush associated with watching the Indians down the stretch. Living and dying with every pitch is a great feeling, one that hasn’t been associated with Indians baseball since that fateful Game Seven in Fenway Park back in 2007. My stomach has been churning and sleep has been hard to come by the past few nights, but I’ll gladly take this over another September spent playing out the string in a series of meaningless games while other teams plan for the playoffs.

Naturally, not everything is all sunshine and roses. Unless you’re new to Indians fandom, you are aware that Chris Perez has not been without some struggles in both his personal and professional life this season. He was actually having a decent season heading into September (massive breakdowns against the Red Sox and Tigers notwithstanding), but the wheels have really come off the cart in the last month. In 10 appearances here in the final month of the regular season, Perez has thrown 9 1/3 innings, allowing 10 ER on 18 hits, striking out 13 and walking 5. Amazingly, the Indians are 9-1 in those 10 appearances, and Perez does have four saves. Opposing batters are hitting (hide the women and children) .419/.490/.814 (1.304 OPS!), and over half of the balls put in play off of Pure Rage have turned into base hits. Yikes. The only good thing that’s come out of Perez this month was that his blown save against the White Sox set the stage for one of my favorite walk-off HR’s that I’ve seen as an Indians fan, called here perfectly by Tom Hamilton. And if you don’t think that I bought this “Mardi Gras in September” t-shirt that the good folks at came out with immediately after the game…well, we just don’t know each other that well.

So after giving up 6 earned runs over his final two appearances of the regular season, blowing one save and nearly losing a 5-run lead in the other contest, Tito Francona announced on Friday that Perez is no longer his closer. That of course begs the question as to who exactly will fill that role for the rest of the regular season and (hopefully) beyond. The most obvious candidate is righty Joe Smith, who has been the Indians primary set up man with Vinnie Pestano’s struggles in 2013. Smith has a 6-2 record with a 2.32 ERA, striking out 53 and walking 23 in 62 innings of work this season. Unlike Perez, Smith has improved as the season has progressed. Since August 1, Smith has thrown 23 2/3 innings, allowing just 2 ER (0.76 ERA) with 23 K and 8 BB. Opposing hitters have posted just a .590 OPS against Smith in that timeframe, and he’s given up just 1 HR. Perez has allowed three HR in his past two outings, more than Smith has given up in the past two months.

Any other season, Smith would be the easy choice for closer. But this year, there’s a wild card option that Francona has to be considering; his ace, Justin Masterson. Masterson went down with an oblique injury on September 2, and didn’t pitch again until a one-inning appearance on September 25. In that inning, Masterson struck out a pair while allowing a hit, and looked very similar to pre-injury Masterson. He hasn’t been stretched out over more than one inning of work in a game situation yet, and might not be ready to start a playoff game. If not, it would be an incredible luxury to be able to go to your best pitcher in the 9th inning of a one-run game. Not your Closer ©, but your actual best pitcher. Now, being that Masterson is the Indians best pitcher, he’s obviously much more valuable if he can start multiple games in a 5 or 7-game series. If Masty is ready to start, he should start. With Ubaldo starting today’s season finale, Masterson should be the Wild Card starter if the Indians are able to clinch today. But if Tito and Mickey Callaway feel like he’s not ready to start and pitch up to his normal workload, then he’d be awfully nasty out of the bullpen. For his part, Masterson has stated that his plan is to go back to the starting rotation if the Indians make the playoffs, but that’s something that will be determined more by his body than by his mind. When asked who would close, Tito Francona mentioned Smith, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Masterson as possibilities, so he’s clearly keeping his options open heading down the final stretch of the 2013 regular season.

In what was a low-key move at the time, the Indians acquired lefty relief specialist Mark Rzep…ok, I’m just going to call him Scrabble…for minor leaguer Juan Herrera. It was the Indians only move at the trade deadline this year, and GM Chris Antonetti was widely panned for not “going for it” when the Indians seemingly had a shot at winning the division.  Conventional wisdom at the time held that the Indians needed at least one more starting pitcher to have any shot at the playoffs, and many lamented Antonetti’s failure to offer enough for starter Matt Garza, who will be a free agent following the 2013 season. Well, maybe Antonetti knew what he was doing after all, as the Indians starting pitching has been outstanding in the 2nd half of the season, and Scrabble has been the consistent lefthanded arm the Indians bullpen so sorely needed. Since coming over from the Cardinals, Scrabble has allowed just 2 ER in 19 2/3 IP, striking out 19 and walking just 6. He has faced 41 lefthanded batters since coming over from the NL, and just 6 of those 40 have reached base. All told, lefties are hitting just .143/.231/.229 off of Scrabble, and righties haven’t been much better (.222/.323/.370). It was an under the radar move, but it’s paying big dividends down the stretch for Antonetti and the Indians. Rich Hill has been inconsistent at best, and the slightly surprising reliability of Scrabble has been a calming influence on what has been a restless bullpen this year.

Speaking of under the radar trades, I feel the need to remind everyone that Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes were acquired this offseason in exchange for Esmil Rodgers. Rodgers was a useful bullpen arm for the Indians in 2012, going 3-1 with a 3.06 ERA with 53 K in 53 IP after coming over from Colorado in exchange for cash. Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos decided that Rodgers could start, and agreed to send the Indians Aviles and Gomes in exchange for the righthander. Rodgers went 5-9 with a 4.77 ERA in 137 2/3 innings for Toronto striking out 96 and putting up an 86 ERA+. Baseball Reference credits him with 0.4 WAR. Meanwhile, Gomes has put up a 135 OPS+ and has contributed 3.9 WAR, and Aviles has been a valuable utility player with 0.6 WAR of his own. I don’t find WAR to be a perfect stat and tend not to rely on it, but it can be helpful when trying to compare position players to pitchers. Going by WAR alone, the Indians are 4.1 wins in the black when it comes to the Gomes/Aviles trade for this year alone. And I’d actually submit that Gomes has been worth more than 3.9 wins, especially when you consider the defensive gap between Gomes and Santana behind the dish. It was an outstanding trade, and we wouldn’t be sitting here on the last day of the season talking about playoff possibilities if Chris Antonetti hadn’t pulled it off this past November.

In what is becoming a nice recurring theme, Baseball Prospectus included some scouting notes on Indians 2013 1st round draft pick Clint Frazier. This time it was Nick Faleris writing about the Flying Ginger, listing Frazier as his most memorable scouting experience this spring:
I had more fun following Frazier June 2012 through June 2013 than any other draft prospect I can recall. Frazier doesn’t make the game look easy, as so many highly touted prospects do, but rather appears to attack the game and, through sheer will, impose himself upon it. In each of my looks in on him, Frazier stood out as a potential future impact major leaguer in all facets, showing plus speed in the field and on the bases, elite bat speed and big raw power, and steady improvement in center as a new convert to the outfield.
The highlight of my scouting year was a high school game between Frazier’s Loganville High and fellow first-rounder Austin Meadows’ Grayson High. During batting practice, Frazier launched more than 20 home runs, while roughly 70 pro evaluators watched on, and that was just the opening act. In his second at-bat of the game, Frazier took a first-pitch fastball and drove it over the left field wall, past a road running parallel to the fence, and into a tree line some twenty feet beyond the pavement. It was such an impressive shot even Grayson second baseman Jeril Dawson gave Frazier a big grin and handshake as he rounded the keystone (video here). Later that evening the future fifth-overall selection homered again, for good measure.
So…yeah. If you didn’t click on the link for Frazier’s monster HR, please do so. He hit the ball so far that the opposing 2B felt the need to shake Frazier’s hand on his way around the bases, something I’d never seen before. Here’s an alternate view of the titanic blast, and here’s a look at the 2nd HR he hit that night. I’m getting irrationally excited about the Clint Frazier era, and it is still (at least) several years away from the North Coast. 

 So this is it…less than ten hours from the time this column appears on the interwebs, we’ll know whether or not the 2013 Indians are a playoff team or if they’ll have to earn their way in with a 163rd (or even 164th) game. The disastrous August series with the Tigers feels like it happened a year ago, and the seeds of hope that were planted with the Indians unusually active offseason are finally ready to bear fruit. Ubaldo Jimenez, the pitcher we all want on the bump, has the ball today (can you imagine someone seriously writing that sentence back in April or May?) Meanwhile, I’m sure the national media are surely already racking their brains for a fun name to attach to another potential Cleveland heartbreak if the Indians fall short. Here’s hoping Tito and the boys take care of things on the field today and we all get to hang out on the North Coast for playoff baseball later this week. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Are You Not Entertained on this Lazy Sunday?

Well…are you? This week along saw another dominant performance from the Big U, a walk-off single from Matt Carson, Nick Swisher hitting (.313/.400/.578 with 5 HR in September), and the ups and downs of scoreboard watching around the league, I can safely say that I’ve enjoyed watching competitive September baseball. This has been a rough week for me schedule-wise, so I’m apologizing in advance for the brevity of this week’s Lazy one. Between work, house hunting, and family stuff, I’m finding myself away from a computer and unable to put any thoughts to “paper” from Friday night until you’re reading this here on Sunday morning.

As far as a late-season retrospective on the wild ride it has been with this year’s Indians, there’s really very little that I can add to this piece other than to simply say that Castro gonna Castro. One of the biggest free agent losses in recent years has been Anthony Castrovice’s departure from the Indians beat, and that’s no disrespect to Jordan Bastain who is excellent in his own right. As he is wont to do, Castro stepped up and knocked one out of the part this week with his look back/forward at how the 2013 Indians got to where they are today and what we can reasonably expect from them over the next seven games. The thesis is simple enough for a campaign slogan (It’s the rotation, stupid), but the prose is evocative of so much more. If you haven’t already, please go read it. His description of the starting pitching is as long (“better than any ordinary human being could have realistically envisioned”) as his description of the offense (“complicated”) is short, and there is so much more there to enjoy.

I’ll confess to rarely reading the New York Times, but this is the first time that I can remember a random, positive article about the Cleveland Indians appearing in that publication. In it, Times reporter Tyler Kepner discusses the positive impact that Tito Francona has had on the 2013 Indians, and touches on how the relationship between Francona and the front office made the hire a slam-dunk decision for both sides this offseason. There’s not a whole lot in there that Indians fans will find new, but I did enjoy this little tidbit:

After his introductory news conference in Cleveland last fall, Francona flew to Arizona with Antonetti, who has a home in Goodyear, where the Indians train. Francona stayed over and fit right in.
“I feel so comfortable, I’m walking around his house in my underwear,” Francona said. “There’s just no barriers. I can tell him anything — and I have — and I know that when he leaves my office, he’s got my back.”
For some reason, I’m picturing Tito and Antonetti heading to the fridge for a late night snack at the same time and running into each other with Tito in his underwear, Antonetti in khakis and a polo shirt. If that image doesn’t at least bring a smile to your face…well, I don’t know what to tell you.

We discussed Ubaldo Jimenez in this space last week, and then he went out and threw another 7 innings of one-run ball this past Thursday, striking out 9 without walking a batter in what became an extra-innings Indians victory over the Astros.’s Jeff Passan basically cobbled together a couple of older articles on Jimenez to produce this piece earlier in the week, but did manage to offer one original piece of info. Passan agrees with me that Ubaldo will decline the $8 million mutual option and head to free agency this offseason, but he guesses that Jimenez will make “at least 10 times” that much on the open market. I’m bad at math, but Passan is predicting (conservatively) an $80 million deal this winter, which seems a tad aggressive. But if the Indians make the postseason and Jimenez pitches them deep into said postseason, all bets are off. Ubaldo’s numbers since May 27 are startling; he’s gone 13-8 with a 2.45 ERA, striking out 127 and walking 54 in 125 IP. For comparison’s sake, Clayton Kershaw, who is probably the best pitcher on the planet, has gone 11-10 with a 2.22 ERA, 142 K and 32 BB in 149 2/3 IP over that same timeframe. And that’s playing in a pitchers park in the National League. Kershaw’s numbers are better, but he’s Clayton Kershaw. So, like we were all predicting heading into the 2013 season, Ubaldo Jimenez will probably garner a few stray Cy Young votes during this winter’s award voting.

Jason Cole of Baseball Prospectus was lucky enough to spend some time in Arizona during the Arizona Summer League this year, and got a brief first-hand look at Indians draft pick Clint Frazier, AKA The Flying Ginger. As we would hope, he came away impressed:

Not sure he’s as tall as his 6’1” listing, but I don’t think it matters much. He’s plenty strong; irresponsibly quick hands with sturdy wrists and large forearms; hammered belt-high fastball over plate to center for a long home run; most raw power in AZL this season by a good margin; has swing-and-miss, though pitch recognition seemed okay; tracked breaking balls well; highly aggressive approach and expanded zone at times; given solid recognition, I could see his K rate improving as he matures; made an impressive mid-AB adjustment; after pulling off two breaking balls, stayed on one with two strikes and singled up the middle; appeared to play with #rig; good present athlete who moves around well in center field; one-game look provided little opportunity to evaluate his glove; many scouts believe he’ll likely move to a corner, but I’m looking forward to forming my own opinion on that over the next couple weeks.
Do the Indians finally have a home-grown, impact OF prospect on the horizon? Time will tell, but Frazier has been drawing rave reviews from those in the industry since making his professional debut, and I’m extremely excited to get a first-hand look at him next spring in Goodyear. His ceiling is as high as anyone in the organization, and that includes SS prospect Francisco Lindor. Lindor has a higher floor and is much closer to making it to the major leagues, but Frazier’s ultimate upside is right there with him. He’s a sure bet to be a top-100 prospect in all of baseball when the offseason lists start rolling out, possibly even in the top-25 range. Pretty good for a kid who just graduated high school three months ago.

If (like me) you are both a baseball fan and history buff, I think you’ll enjoy this piece on the true origins of the game from Ben Curtis that ran on earlier this week. Curtis profiles the baseball archeology work of David Block, who is painstakingly searching 18th century texts from across the pond for the true “birth” of baseball. Abner Doubleday was a war hero, having taken over I Corps command (including the famed Black Hats of the Iron Brigade) from Maj. General John Reynolds on day one of the Battle of Gettysburg and buying time for the rest of the Army of the Potomac to arrive on the scene and entrench themselves on Cemetery Ridge. But he did not, as some still believe, invent the game of baseball. The honor was falsely bestowed upon him without his knowledge or consent, and if anything has (ironically) taken away from his actual historical accomplishments as a leader of men in the American Civil War. Block is finding references to baseball from before the French and Indian War, and he’s already written a book on the subject. Before I get too far down the rabbit hole here, I’ll leave you with the link to Block’s book and this teaser from the Granland article:
Block has discovered a 245-year-old dictionary and a 258-year-old comic novel and other "interesting things" that point toward the answer. But that afternoon, he left the room and came back with a copy of his newest find: a 264-year-old English newspaper called the Whitehall Evening-Post. The paper has news of inmates attempting a jailbreak from Newgate Prison, and of a chestnut mare that disappeared from a local forest. On Page 3, there is a small item. It reads:
On Tuesday last his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and Lord Middlesex, played at Base-Ball, at Walton in Surry; and notwithstanding the Weather was extreme bad, they continued playing for several Hours.
The date of the game was September 12, 1749. That's 90 years earlier than, and 3,500 miles away from, baseball's alleged conception in Cooperstown, New York. The "Base-Ball" player is the heir to the British throne. Block is rewriting the prehistory of the game. He is exposing a century's worth of lies. He has come up with a shocking answer to the riddle of baseball's parentage.

While it is not at all surprising that the September weather in Surry sucked (I tried to golf there last September; it was not nice out), it is a little bit shocking to read that the Prince of Wales (King George III’s father) was playing baseball in 1749. And if you want to further discuss Doubleday’s legitimate role in American history, I’m happy to sit down over a beer and talk through Meade’s unwillingness to fight at Gettysburg, Sickles’ move to the Peach Orchard, why Longstreet gets a disproportionate amount of blame for the Confederate defeat or any other aspects of the Battle of Gettysburg.

In what is becoming a nice trend, Cleveland native and Baseball Prospectus author Russell Carleton reminisces on days gone by, this time harkening back to the days of Alex Cole and his rec-specs patrolling center field at old Municipal Stadium. Sparked by Billy Hamilton’s electric introduction to the Reds starting lineup, the team at B-Pro put together a list of their favorite stolen base related memories. Carleton recollects the 8th game of Cole’s professional career, in which he stole 5 bases in 5 attempts en route to a 40 SB rookie campaign. You read that right; Cole didn’t even debut with the Indians until late July, and he still managed to steal 40 bases! On that magical night in August, Cole went 2-2 with a walk, 2 runs scored and was hit by a pitch. He batted leadoff, ahead of cleanup hitter Sandy Alomar, 3B Brook Jacoby, 1B Jeff Manto, and RF Cory Snyder. Greg Swindell started and won the game, throwing 7 innings of one-run ball, and Doug Jones struck out zero (of course) in a clean two-inning save. Pat Tabler was actually a member of the visiting KC Royals. In short, it was the most Indians game ever, and while Cole’s SB tear didn’t lead to much of a career on the North Shore (the 40 SB in 1990 ended up as his career high for one season), it was a nice prelude to the Kenny Lofton era in the mid-90’s.

With that reminder of how bad things really were back in the 80’s, I’ll again apologize for the short and somewhat stale nature of this week’s edition of Lazy Sunday. Here’s to hoping that next week we’re talking about nailing down a playoff roster and rotation, and where to meet up before the Indians home wild card game on October 2. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Alligator Blood on a Lazy Sunday

Meaningful baseball in September…when asked in March of this year what I’d be happy with out of the 2013 Indians, I said meaningful baseball in September. Well, we’re being treated to that and more, as the Indians are playing not only entertaining and meaningful baseball, they’re on track for a playoff spot and have a chance to play meaningful baseball in October this season. It’s a remarkable turnaround from 2012’s iteration of the club, as gone are Casey Kotchman, Jack Hannahan, Shelly Duncan, Johnny Damon, Shin Soo Choo, Travis Hafner, Jose Lopez, Zeke Carrera, Jason Donald, Brent Lillibridge, and Aaron Cunningham, all players who got more than 100 AB with the 68-94 Indians. New additions Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Drew Stubbs, Jason Giambi, Mike Aviles, Yan Gomes, and Ryan Raburn have replaced them, and between the improvement in personnel and the switch from Manny Acta to Tito Francona, the Indians have already won 12 more games this season. The levers pulled by Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro have resulted in a much more consistent club this year, and as we wake up to enjoy our Sunday morning cup of coffee, here they sit, just 1 1/2 back from a playoff spot. As much as people want to shovel dirt on them with every loss, the team just keeps bouncing back off the canvas to answer the bell and climb back in the race. It’s been an awful lot of fun to watch this team this season, and they’re not done yet.

Remember back when it seemed like a laughable idea that the Indians would even entertain exercising their end of Ubaldo Jimenez’s mutual 2014 option? Conventional wisdom ran that $8 million was a gross overpayment for the suddenly-soft throwing back end of the rotation starter that Jimenez had become. What a difference a year makes, as September 2013 finds us asking just how much over $8 million it would take to resign Jimenez, and how long of a deal would need to be put on the table for him to accept? Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus breaks down the Big U’s resurgence this year, and most importantly he asks whether or not Jimenez’s improvements are likely to last for the long haul. As Lindbergh breaks down in the below chart that’s so simple even I can understand it, Ubaldo’s velocity has been trending upward, picking up nearly 2 MPH on average since mid-June. The stats are just as impressive, if not more so. From June 1 through his victory on Sept. 9, Jimenez has gone 11-7 with a 2.63 ERA, 194 K and 49 BB in 102 2/3 IP. His BABIP allowed over that timeframe is .306, so it’s not like it’s been a fluke, either. And those numbers are all BEFORE Ubaldo's Saturday night performance, when he went 8 1/3 allowing just 1 ER with 8 K and one BB. He’s allowed just 8 HR since June 1, and has been pitching effectively from the stretch as well as out of the windup.

That’s a significant velo jump, and Lindbergh’s numbers are backed up by BP pitching guru Doug Thorburn’s expert analysis of Jimenez’s mechanics from June-today:

He is slower to the plate from both the windup and the stretch, as compared to where he was earlier in the year. I compared the stride times from his July 4th start (versus the Royals) to Monday's game (also against KC), and here is what I found:
Time (in seconds) from when the front foot lifts off the ground to the point that it touches down into foot strike:
7/4 windup - 1.2-1.3 seconds
9/9 windup - 1.4-1.5 seconds
7/4 stretch - 1.0-1.1 seconds
9/9 stretch - 1.3-1.4 seconds
The timing discrepancies might appear to be small, but consider that his delivery on 9/9 takes about 20 percent longer to execute, on average. He has added some additional stall tactics in the quest to keep his upper half closed until after foot strike, as he had a glaring tendency to "fly open" with the front shoulder in previous seasons (and earlier this year).
Slowing down typically opens up the window for timing to fall off track, but in this case the associated benefits of delaying upper-body rotation outweigh the negative side effects (at least in the short term). Jimenez continues to add new wrinkles to an already inefficient delivery, and though he has momentarily discovered a timing pattern that works, his mechanical positioning is otherwise inconsistent—he still has a spray chart of landing spots on the mound, for example. But the extra delay has helped his torque, and Jimenez is throwing harder now than at any point in the season, with velo that has followed an upward trend since July.
So the (multi) million dollar question of course is whether or not this is a pleasant blip on the radar for Jimenez, or whether these long-needed tweaks in his mechanics are here for the long haul? Jimenez has been historically inconsistent with his multi-part, herky-jerk delivery, so who’s to say that he didn’t just stumble across this improvement almost by accident and will be unable to maintain it with any sort of regularity? That’s the question that a team is going to have to pay millions of dollars to answer, and that’s an awfully risky proposition. See the recent past of 2012, when Lindbergh was applying his graphical talents to show a precipitous decline in Ublado’s velo, and Thorburn was devoting 2000+ words and 8 full-motion GIFs to reflect just how far removed from Ubaldo! that Ubaldo had become. The more I think about it, the less I think that the Indians will be the team that finds out firsthand whether or not Jimenez has re-invented himself on the mound. At $8 million for one season, the Indians would absolutely take him back at this point. But I think he can get more money (and a longer deal) on the open market, and I just don’t see the Indians making a significant financial commitment to such a question mark. Not with Masterson, Salazar, Kluber, McAllister, Bauer, Carrasco, House, Tomlin already vying for the 5 spots in the 2014 rotation. So while they’re sure to make at least a token offer to keep U on the North Coast for another season or more, he’ll likely fly off to greener pastures and become someone else’s risk. Here’s hoping they can at least agree to make a qualifying offer for Ubaldo to reject, the Indians will at least secure draft pick compensation for their troubles. Of course, there’s also this little tidbit from Peter Gammons giving pitching coach Mickey Callaway credit for smoothing out Jimenez’s delivery, so it’s possible that if he leaves his demise will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He may even want to stay at a discounted rate if he in fact believes that Callaway is responsible for his bounceback 2013. Either way, we can at least say that as of 2013, the Indians won the Ubaldo Jimenez trade.

The always-fantastic Jonah Keri took a look at how the worst-to-first Red Sox made the return from national joke under Bobby Valentine to AL East superpower under John Farrell. The entire thing is well worth the read, even if you despise the Red Sox. But I’d like to draw your attention to the first player profiled by Keri, RF Shane Victorino. Victorino was offered a contract by the Indians this offseason, an offer he spurned in favor of an (arguably worse) offer from the Sox. Many at the time (including yours truly) thought the Indians dodged a bullet with Victorino’s refusal, and were happy to move on to the likes of Nick Swisher (3.1 WAR, 111 OPS+ in 2013) and Michael Bourn (1.7 WAR, 87 OPS+ in 2013). Well, we were all dead wrong, as Victorino has rebounded to put together an excellent season in Boston, posting a 5.7 WAR and 117 OPS+. That makes him Boston’s 2nd most valuable player in terms of WAR, ahead of Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli. Why do I bring this up? Three reasons; one, to point out how I was wrong (happens to the best of us). Two, to point out how the Indians front office was right in making Victorino the aggressive FA offer. And three, for this point that Keri makes more eloquently than I could:

It turns out the 2012 season was not the beginning of the end for the player in his age-31 season, though. It was simply a down year, and a reminder that players’ stat lines aren’t always perfect bell curves; there are random dips and spikes along the way. With Victorino producing 18 percent better than average this year while bringing stellar defense, stealing 20 bases, and providing generally impactful baserunning, he’s been more like a five-win player, and Boston’s second most valuable player in 2013.
Replace “2012” with “2013” and “Victorino” with “Bourn and/or Swisher,” and you see why I have hope for bounceback years from Cleveland’s prized 2012/13 free agent class. Does Victorino’s rebound ensure productive 2014 seasons for Bourn and Swish? Of course not, but it does illustrate through a very contemporary example how such a thing would be very possible. Here’s hoping Swish’s late season hot streak (6 HR, 17 RBI, .813 OPS in 23 games since August 17) carries over to 2014 and Bourn stays healthy for all of next season.

Indians prospect Jose Ramirez made some headlines when he was unexpectedly promoted from AA Akron to the Indians active roster on Sept. 1. Ramirez is just 20 years old, and posted a .674 OPS with 38 stolen bases for the Aeros this season. That’s not the type of player you’d typically expect to be plucked from AA and thrust in the midst of a pennant race, but Ramirez’s speed and versatility off the bench were attractive enough to Tito Francona that the move was made. Ramirez has responded well to the call-up, not looking overwhelmed in going 3-8 at the plate with 5 runs scored. Nothing incredibly special, but for a guy who was playing for the Lake County Captains at this time last season, it’s encouraging. Fantasy guru Ben Carsley took a look at Ramirez from a fantasy baseball owner’s perspective, and came away with some interesting takeaways (bold text mine):

You have to be impressed with what Ramirez has done this year, and he’s certainly solidified his status as a future MLB contributor, but his rapid ascent through the minors shouldn’t be confused with future fantasy stardom. Ramirez’ ability to hit at such a young age has been impressive, and a .290 BABIP and his nearly identical K% and BB% all portend sustainable success. That being said, Ramirez has no power in his bat, and that’s something MLB pitching is going to be able to exploit. His stolen-base total also suggests that he has plenty left to learn before he can be viewed as a reliable stolen base threat, although scouts do credit him with plus-plus speed.
While I do play fantasy baseball, I really don’t care about Ramirez’s potential to contribute to my (or anyone else’s) fantasy team. I, like the vast majority of Tribe fans, am only concerned about Ramirez’s performance as a real-life member of the Indians. So while he’s not going to hit for enough power to be an elite fantasy option, the very-real contributions at the plate and on the basepaths could make Ramirez an intriguing option for the Indians in the years to come. He reminds me a lot of a Chone Figgins, a speedy 2B/3B without the traditional power associated with either position but a solid contributor who can play multiple positions around the infield.  

I’ve (mostly) held to a self-imposed moratorium on attendance talk here at the DT since I took the reins from Pauly C, but a couple of solid pieces popped up on the radar this week that are too good not to link to. I’ll start outside the Indians family, as Will Leitch of Sports on Earth attended a recent contest at The Jake and came away both impressed with the friendliness of the fans and surprised by the high number of them dressed like green chairs. Not being a native Clevelander himself, Leitch was confused:

The Cleveland Indians have a reputation for losing that I'm not sure they necessarily deserve. They have a lifetime winning percentage of .509, eighth in baseball history. They've won five pennants and two World Series, and they have been to the playoffs seven times in the last 20 years. Only four teams -- the Yankees, Cardinals, Red Sox and Braves -- have made the playoffs more often in that time. They've retired six players' numbers. They gave us Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome and Albert Belle. (Those mid-'90s teams were fantastic.) The Indians might not have won a title in nearly 70 years, sure, but this is not a historically incompetent franchise devoid of hope, where nothing has ever gone right. They've had their chances, their highlights, their breakthroughs. They're not the Browns.
In what is a rare feat with all of the internets that have been devoted to Indians attendance talk over the past few years, Leitch then comes up with an angle that is completely new to me; the Major League Theory. He thinks it’s possible that the Indians are seen as a worse-off franchise historically than they really are partly due to the success of the fantastic movie Major League ingraining the “bad Indians” memory into fans across the country. Interesting, but not sure it necessarily holds water within the confines of Northeast Ohio. Leitch goes on to touch on some of the issues we’ve all seen before, from distrust of ownership/front office to the economy to the return of the Browns. It’s a really nice article from a non-Clevelander that seems to have a pretty good assessment of the fanbase, especially when he includes the following:

You don't feel forlorn at an Indians game: This is not like Miami, where not only are there few people in the stands, they're not paying any attention to what's going on either. Indians fans are as loyal as Cleveland's reputation would make you think; everyone in my section on Wednesday had been to every game of the Royals series and looked at me with suspicion, like I'd murdered the person who regularly sat in my seat rather than merely having bought his/her ticket on StubHub. (The mock sneer the woman gave me when I mistakenly sat in the wrong seat was joking, but only sort of.) There are Indians fans who adore this team. There are just a lot fewer of them than there used to be.
Because I've seen the devotion. I saw it Monday, and Wednesday, in the heat of pennant race, people screaming and yelling and sweating it all out. There weren't that many of them. But there once were, and, I suspect, there will be again. The Indians may seem like a joke. But they're not.
Like I said, very insightful for an “outsider,” not the typical drivel one expects from a national columnist, and a welcome respite from the talking heads at ESPiN who’s desire for the “hot take” of the day usually involves them screaming over each other and making shallow, nonsensical “points” at the expense of rational discourse.

Back in the family, Ryan over at LetsGoTribe takes a closer look at Michael Bourn’s plea for more fans to come out and support the Indians as they push for one of the AL Wild Card spots. Bourn is an outsider himself, coming to Cleveland this offseason as part of an unprecedented free agent spending spree for the Indians and (frankly) underwhelming at the plate in his first season on the North Coast. Ryan (and I) can’t seem to figure out why the Indians aren’t drawing more than they are, and he’s coming to the sad realization that maybe Cleveland just isn’t a “baseball town” as we like to style ourselves. So while the STO and WTAM ratings are up, the overall attendance for the club is down even from last year, let alone the heydays of the mid-90’s. I really don’t have anything too original to add to the attendance debate, hence my long-standing reluctance to even discuss it in this space.

As I have said before, far be it for me to tell you how to spend your hard-earned entertainment dollar. But I do think that with consistency from the club will come better attendance numbers. Not just consistency in terms of contention, but consistency in terms of players, particularly those that fans can connect with. The Indians of the mid-90’s and the Browns of the 80’s before them became beloved in Cleveland because the players and fans connected on a level not seen by the Indians since the turn of the century. We didn’t grow up cheering for the Browns jersey, we grew up cheering for Kosar, Slaughter, Matthews, Minnefield, and Dixon (I could go on).  If your earliest Indians memories focus on the mid-90’s powerhouse clubs, you had guys like Lofton, Thome, Ramirez and Nagy to pull for year after year. It was more than just rooting for the Indians; we felt a connection with those guys that has not been seen in this town since those salad days. Can Tito, Kipnis, Swisher, Pestano, Masterson and Gomes provide the stability and charisma needed to both win and connect with another generation of fans? I think (hope) so, but only time will tell for sure. This year’s playoff run, whatever the outcome, should fuel the fires of optimism for next season, and if the 2014 Indians start off on a hot streak, the fans should take notice. If not, then I’ll really be worried. Because at that point, we’ll start seeing more pieces like this one, again from Peter Gammons. It’s brief, but disturbing and significant:

“Everyone talks about the plight of Tampa Bay and Oakland, but the franchise that I worry about is Cleveland,” says one GM. “Chris (Antonetti) and Mark (Shapiro) did a great job putting together a team that could well end up in the playoffs. Ownership spent money. Terry Francona has given them credibility and great leadership. But can the Indians survive? It’s a difficult question for Major League Baseball.”
So…yeah. The survival of the Indians in Cleveland may be a difficult question for major league baseball. That’s a scary thought for one of the original 8 American League clubs. If you’re not going to the games, what are you waiting for? Does the team really have to be 20 games up in the Central Division like they were in the mid-90’s?

Finally, in a trip down memory lane, the good folks at Baseball Prospectus combined to put together a list of unlikely and unexpected pitching performances throughout recent years. Our very own Chad Ogea (career record of 37-25 with a 98 ERA+) for his two unlikely victories over Kevin Brown (career record of 211-144 with a 127 ERA+) in the 1997 World Series. As Russell Carleton relates to us, “…if you forgot that Chad Ogea played in MLB, I can't say that I blame you. After all, it was the mid-90s and there were other, more famous OJs that were in the news back then. But had Jose Mesa held that lead in the ninth inning of Game Seven, Chad Ogea would have been MVP of the 1997 World Series by improbably out-dueling a guy he had no business beating. Twice.”

Could we see a name like Kazmir, Kluber or Salazar added to that list? Quite possibly. If the Indians manage to make it to the postseason, they’ll have done so on the backs of a starting rotation that came into 2013 as a real question mark. If they make any sort of noise once they reach the postseason, it will be one (or more) of those formerly-unheralded names playing the hero. Here’s to hoping that 15 years from now, we’re reading an article about Zach McAllister surprisingly outdueling Clayton Kershaw for unlikely Indians victories in games 3 and 7 of the 2013 World Series.