Sunday, November 03, 2013

A Signing, a Release and the Tao of Mickey on a Lazy Sunday

The World Series is over, and the long-suffering Boston fans are finally toasting to another championship. The city hadn’t won a title since way back in 2011, when the Bruins hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup. To think, there were 2-year olds in Boston who hadn’t had the chance to witness a title parade! In all seriousness though, I am happy for Boston winning a title so soon after the horrifying marathon attacks in April of this year. That senseless and meaningless act by two loser brothers who immigrated here to leech off of our benevolent society energized a Boston fanbase that saw the Red Sox stumble to a last place finish in 2012, and a team with fewer stars than we’re used to seeing in Beantown made a somewhat unlikely run to the 2013 title. Only one Sox regular had an OPS over .842 and hit the 30 HR threshold (Ortiz) and their best pitcher (Buchhoz) was hurt for most of the season. I’m not trying to paint the big-market and big-money Sox as some sort of underdog story, but to show that they weren’t THAT much better than this year’s Indians. If the Red Sox could do it in 2013, what’s to stop an improved Indians team from making a similar run in 2014?

The Indians made two significant personnel moves on Thursday, resigning Jason Giambi to a minor league contract with a spring training invite and cutting ties with beleaguered former closer Chris Perez. The Giambi signing was pretty predictable, and it will allow him to at the very least fulfill his roving hitting instructor role in Goodyear next spring. Pauly and I discussed Giambi pretty extensively a couple of weeks ago, and we both agreed that Giambi would be back with the 2014 Indians in some capacity. Signing him the day after the World Series sends a statement about just how important the club feels Giambi was last year and how important he is moving forward, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he was a coach in the Indians organization somewhere in 2015. But for now, Tito has his MVP back in the dugout, and Giambi will serve as a pinch hitter extraordinaire with the occasional start at DH against tough righties. He can thank the versatility of Raburn, Aviles and Swisher for that, as many clubs don’t have the luxury of carrying a player with Giambi’s current skill set regardless of his impact in the clubhouse. Giambi won’t take up a spot on the 40-man roster this offseason, which will allow some additional roster flexibility come time for Rule 5 cuts.

Giambi will almost certainly begin the season on the active roster, but might not have enough gas in the tank to play the entire season. With that being said, there’s a real wild card possibility for Giambi at some point in 2014; hitting coach or even manager for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers. Before you start thinking that I’m completely crazy, I put this at maybe a 2% chance of happening, but wanted to throw it out there. If Giambi realizes in May/June that he’s just not able to help the ballclub, there’s really no immediate role for him to transition to at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. Brad Mills and Sandy Alomar aren’t going anywhere in mid-season. Moving Giambi to the short-season New York-Penn League would allow Giambi to work with young hitters, something he excels at, and remain in the organization to await a TBD role in the offseason. Sandy Alomar is likely to receive manager consideration next offseason, and if he departed to run a ballclub, it would create a natural slot for Giambi to slide in to. That is, if Giambi isn’t starting somewhere else as a manager himself. Another option would be minor league hitting coordinator, a role that would allow him to work with players throughout the organization while still spending time in BrOhio with Swisher, Kipnis and his other friends in Cleveland.

That brings us to the unceremonious dumping of Rage Perez. Again, both Paul and I predicted Perez’s departure, but the manner of his dismissal from the team caught me by surprise. The non-tender deadline is December 2, just shy of a month away from today. The Indians could have held onto Perez’s rights until then, hoping a closer-hungry team would come along and offer them something, anything, for the right to offer Rage salary arbitration (and pay him upwards of $9 million in 2014). The Tigers, Rays, Mets and others lack a proven Closer©, and the Indians could have used the month of November to dangle Perez on the trade block in the hopes of recouping a player or two in exchange for the mercurial righthander. Instead, they cut ties with him about 12 hours after the Red Sox popped their first champagne corks, sending a clear message that Perez was more trouble than he was worth this season, and they’re ready to move on.

On the field, Perez had an up-and-down season. From the beginning of the season through May 17, Perez saved 6 games, blew only one save opportunity and allowed just one earned run in 14 IP. In the three appearances after May 17, Perez allowed 7 ER (3 HR) in 2 2/3 IP, blowing a save, taking a loss and winding up on the DL for nearly the entire month of June. Coming off the DL on June 28, Perez put together his best stretch of the season. From June 28-August 4, Rage saved 11 straight games, allowing just 2 ER in 19 IP. Then came August 5, and the real unraveling of the Chris Perez Era in Cleveland. In a high-profile game against the Tigers with the Indians still very much in the hunt for the AL Central Division crown, Perez came on in the 9th inning of a 2-0 game and promptly allowed 4 ER without recording an out. The Indians never recovered in the division race, and the already-angry fans never forgave Perez for blowing that game. From August 5 through the rest of the season, Perez did manage to save 8 games, but blew 3 save opportunities and allowed 16(!) earned runs in 18 1/3 IP. He came dangerously close to costing the Indians a home Wild Card game on Sept. 24, blowing a save against the White Sox but was bailed out by the 9th inning heroics of Jason Giambi. Simply by his performance on the field, Chris Perez was playing his way out of Cleveland.

But there was so much more than just that on-field performance to worry about. Perez dealt with minor injuries in Goodyear the past two springs, causing head trainer Lonnie Soloff to famously remark in 2012 that “His body was clearly not ready for the intensity of that bullpen session.” That could mean a couple of different things, but the implication that Perez didn’t head down to Goodyear in optimal shape was what many read into the comment. That it happened again in 2013 only reinforced that opinion. The best closers usually only throw between 55-75 innings in a season; if you’re paying a guy upwards of $7 million to throw fewer than 100 innings, it’s pretty frustrating to see him spend time on the DL every year.

In addition to the injury woes, Perez and his wife faced some off the field legal trouble in 2013. Perez famously had a package containing marijuana delivered to his house, resulting in 4th degree misdemeanor charges being filed against both Perez and his wife Melanie. Perez plead no contest to the charge, and in September was fined $250 and sentenced to one year of probation. He canceled his twitter account and instituted a season-long media ban, refusing to speak with reporters after wins, losses or anything in between. Rebuffing reporters after tough losses and leaving your teammates to clean up your mess does not exactly speak to positive leadership qualities, and there were rumblings around the clubhouse that Perez was providing more of a distraction by his refusal to talk than if he would just step up and take responsibility for his struggles on the mound.

When you look at all of the on and off the field issues, it became clear that the Indians were likely to cut ties with Perez this offseason. Eligible for arbitration for a third year, Perez was due for a raise despite his less than stellar 2013, and the two-time All-Star closer was expected to be awarded around $10 million in arbitration. Even if Perez were still performing at an all-star level, $10 million is too much for a team like the Indians to be paying a Closer©. Internal options such as Vinnie Pestano If He’s Healthy, Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw will likely be given a crack at the role, as will Joe Smith if he resigns with the club. Grant Balfour is an external name to keep an eye on, but the closer of the future is almost certainly already in the organization, which will free up a great deal of money for more economical use elsewhere. The Chris Perez Era in Cleveland is over, and he departs in 3rd place in franchise history on the saves leaderboard behind Doug Jones and Bob Wickman.

In news that should surprise absolutely no one, Ubaldo Jimenez’s 2014 option was picked up by the Indians, and just as quickly voided by Jimenez. The Big U is now a free agent, but the Indians can (and should) extend a qualifying offer so that if (when) he leaves town, they secure a draft pick in compensation. The deadline to extend the qualifying offer is 5pm on Monday, but by the time you’re reading this on Sunday I’d expect that the offer has been made. It’s really a no-brainer after Ubaldo’s remarkable 2013 season, a sentence that I did not expect to be typing 12 (or even 5) months ago. Once the qualifying offer is extended, Ubaldo will have seven days to decide whether to accept it. My guess is that he’ll reject it in search of a multi-year deal with a little more security, even if the final AAV isn’t as high as the $14.1 million qualifying offer. With Tim Lincecum getting 2 years and $35 million from the Giants, someone is likely to come along and pay Ubaldo even more than that. If that’s the case, he’s almost certainly thrown his last pitch in an Indians uniform.

Heading into the 2013 season, the biggest question mark surrounding the club was thought to be the Indians starting rotation. The lineup would be greatly improved with the free agent additions of Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Mark Reynolds, and the bullpen would be anchored by Rage Perez and Vinnie F. Pestano. But the starting rotation had no fewer than five question marks. Could Masterson bounce back to 2011 form, or was the 2012 version the “real” Masterson? Could Brett Myers make a return to a starting role after pitching out of the bullpen for the past two seasons? What could be expected out of youngsters Trevor Bauer, Zach McAllister, Cory Kluber and Carlos Carrasco? Could former Sugarland Skeeters ace Scott Kazmir make it back to the majors, and if so how long would it last? Could Ubaldo ever be Ubaldo! again? Heck, could Ubaldo ever be a legitimate starting pitcher in the major leagues again? With a couple of notable exceptions (namely the dumpster fire that was Brett Myers and Trevor Bauer), those question marks turned out to be the strength of the 2013 club. How exactly did this come about? Every team enters April with a few “what ifs?” on the roster. Rarely are so many of those question marks answered with a resounding “yes” than we saw with this year’s Indians. We’ve touched on it a few times in this space over the past several months, most recently two weeks ago when Paul referred to the “Tao of Mickey,” but Indians 1st-year pitching coach Mickey Callaway deserves a lion’s share of credit for the team’s surprising playoff run.

Callaway was hired into the org in 2010 when he was named as the pitching coach for the Lake County Captains. He moved quickly through the org, serving as the Kinston (now Carolina) pitching coach in 2011, and then as the minor league pitching coordinator in 2012. When Tito was hired in the fall of 2012, he looked internally to fill his coaching staff and Callaway was promoted to fill the role of big league pitching coach. The results were immediate and drastic. As you’ll see in the below table that stressed both the limits of my Excel and math expertise, every member of the Indians rotation had their FIP decrease from 2012 in their first season under Callaway.

2012 FIP
2013 FIP
1-year delta
*Kazmir’s FIP is from 2010, his last full season as a starter in LA

For those wondering what FIP stands for, it is Fielding Independent Pitching. Basically, what a pitcher’s ERA would look like if the defense behind him were removed from the equation. As our friends at Fangraphs explain in more detail:

Fielding Independent Pitching measures what a player’s ERA should have looked like over a given time period, assuming that performance on balls in play and timing were league average…pitchers have little control over balls in play. McCracken outlined a better way to assess a pitchers talent level by looking at results a pitcher can control: strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches and home runs.
If you really want to see the raw math as to how FIP is calculated, feel free to click on the link above. Looking at the immediate and dramatic improvement in EVERY starter’s FIP lends a sabermetric side to the eye-test assessment that Callaway helped fuel the Indians 2013 playoff run. While it’s true that pitching coaches are only as good as the pitchers that they have the opportunity to coach, the ability of a guy like Callaway to come in and return immediate results in getting the most out of the talent at hand cannot be overstated. One year samples are usually not enough to draw meaningful conclusions, and it’s possible that the rotation regresses next season. But rarely do you see across the board improvement from an entire starting pitching staff like we witnessed with this year’s Indians. The improvement of one pitcher is generally offset by the regression of another. Not so under the tutelage of Callaway. While it is impossible to quantify just how much of that improvement was due to the pitching coach, it’s pretty easy to see that he had some sort of positive effect on the staff. Callaway especially deserves kudos for his handling of Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez had been tinkered with extensively over the past two seasons, trying to re-create the mechanics and results from his electric 2010 season in Colorado. Callaway recognized that the 2010 Ubaldo was no more, and rather than trying to radically alter his mechanics, Callaway made an effort to work with the new version of Jimenez to get the most out of the righthander. The result was a 10-5 record with a 2.01 ERA in 94 IP from July 9 through the end of the season, fueling a somewhat unlikely Indians playoff run. If Jason Giambi was Tito’s MVP this year, there’s no doubt that Callaway was the org’s MVC.

The Indians AA affiliate made headlines around the country this week, renaming and rebranding the franchise from the Akron Aeros to the Akron RubberDucks. My TCF colleague Andrew Clayman did an excellent job laying out the finer points of  the decision to change the team’s name on Thursday. Personally, the name of the team means very little to me, and if anything I’m glad that the teams purple uniforms are no more. If cheering for the RubberDucks rather than the Aeros gets more kids (and their parents) out to Canal Park (aka The Tub), so much the better. Akron owner Ken Babby, a 32-year old marketing guru, has taken the team in an exciting direction since he acquired it last year, and he clearly understands that people (myself included) do not attend minor league baseball games because of the teams’ won/lost record. Some attend to see what the clubs’ next big prospect looks like, some attend to get autographs, and some attend because it’s much cheaper to take a family of 5 to a minor league baseball game than a movie, theme park or big league baseball game. Rebranding the franchise has already generated more headlines for the club in a week than they would generally receive in an entire offseason. People are going to buy new merchandise. They can tie in a variety of promotions to the new name, something that was surely part of Babby’s decision. Even the people who are making fun of the name are still talking about the name, and if the old adage holds, any publicity is good publicity. So the RubberDucks will join the Clippers, Mudcats, Captains and Scrappers as mascots of the Indians affiliates, and I can’t wait to see them on the field in April of 2014. Which, not that I’m counting, is just fiveshort months away…