Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Memorial Lazy Sunday

Nearly two months into the 2015 major league baseball season, the Indians pretty much are who we thought they were. That “we” even encompasses those (myself included) who thought they were a playoff team in 2015. They’re a decent team with exceptional starting pitching, a solid (if unspectacular) lineup, a below-average bullpen and a dumpster fire defensively. Again, this is more or less what we saw coming into this season. If anything, the starting pitching has actually been better than expected, and a bounceback season from Jason Kipnis has helped propel the offense to the upper half of the AL. But the defense has been worse than anyone could’ve possibly imagined, dragging the club down in the AL Central standings like an anchor. To help illustrate that point, I’m going to have to throw some “advanced” stats at you, so bear with me here.

The Indians team ERA sits at a rather pedestrian 4.31 (all stats as of Friday). That is “good” for 24th in all of baseball. Pretty poor, really, and if you’d asked someone in 1994 if the Indians pitching staff was good, they’d say “absolutely not.” But you and I, we’re smarter than that. We watch the games. We see the Klubot, Cookie, Bauer and Salazar striking out hitter after hitter, only to see soft groundballs somehow leak through the infield with nary a glove nearby. We watch Mike Aviles (sorry to bring this one up) try to track down a ball in center, coming up empty and wondering what he was even doing in CF to begin with. We know that the Indians starting pitching has been outstanding, but with the team ERA being what it is, we don’t really have a way to quantify that in a single, all-encompassing stat.

Fear not, fellow frustrated fan. We DO have a stat that looks at every aspect of what a pitcher can and cannot control and assigns a value to what he and he alone does on the diamond. No, I’m not talking about WAR. WAR is nice, but it’s not really predictive and isn’t as useful in such small samples. I’m talking about cFIP, or contextual fielding independent pitching. An improvement over the traditional FIP, cFIP accounts for everything going on in a game; the pitcher, hitter, defense, umpire, catcher framing, ballpark, hot dog race participants…everything. Here’s a complete primer on cFIP from Jonathan Judge of Hardball Times if you’re interested in learning more, but I’ve snipped a couple of key excerpts here that help us understand why it’s such a useful stat:
cFIP has multiple advantages: (1) it is more predictive than other pitcher estimators, especially in smaller samples; (2) it is calculated on a batter-faced basis, rather than innings pitched; (3) it is park-, league-, and opposition-adjusted; and (4) in a particularly important development, cFIP is equally accurate as a descriptive and predictive statistic.
The last characteristic makes cFIP something we have not seen before: a true pitcher quality estimator that actually approximates the pitcher’s current ability. I recommend both its use and its further refinement.
When is a pitcher quality estimator actually isolating true talent? My answer is this: when there is a substantial similarity between the estimator’s descriptive and predictive power. If an estimator is truly isolating a pitcher’s talent, there should not be much difference between the two. If an estimator is doing well in one aspect and poorly on another, then it is not estimating a pitcher’s true ability: rather, it is over-fitting past results to better explain what happened (primarily descriptive) or under-fitting past results to minimize future error (primarily predictive).
So now that we’ve established that cFIP is an excellent tool for both analyzing past performance and predicting future success, where do the Indians rank in terms of cFIP? Why, first in all of baseball, with a cFIP score of 82 (like OPS+, cFIP is scored so that 100 is exactly average. Lower cFIP is better than higher). That number is especially remarkable when you consider that the next-closest club is the Clayton Kershaw-led Dodgers at 92. That 10-point difference between the Indians and Dodgers is the same as the difference between the #2 Dodgers and #22 Atlanta Braves. The Indians have the best pitching in baseball, and it’s really not even close.

So why are the Indians scuffling along with fewer than 20 wins in the season’s first 40 games? Look no further than the defense, which yet again is THE WORST in all of baseball. They’re dead last in both Defensive Efficiency and Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. They’re last in BABIP against, with opposing offenses hitting a robust (and probably unsustainable) .331 against them when they make contact. The 2nd-worst are the Washington Nationals, all the way down at .322. The Indians are 28th (hey, progress!) in Defensive Runs Saved. This confirms all of our offseason fears about the defense. They can indeed be bad enough at fielding the ball to counteract just how great they are at pitching the ball.

There are, however, encouraging signs to be found within this sea of statistics. The Detroit Tigers, for instance, lead baseball with a .334 BABIP. Kansas City is 2nd at .322. Both of those numbers are likely to regress at some point. Kansas City has been just as lucky in the field as they have been at the plate; KC’s BABIP-against is a paltry .260, a full 71 points lower than the Indians, and a number that can’t help but rise as the season progresses. The Indians are likely to improve on their record, and the Royals (and to an extent the Tigers) will surely cool off after their sizzling start. Will the three clubs’ respective move towards the mean be enough to see the Indians pass one or both of their AL Central rivals for a playoff spot? Time will tell, but if not, we know where to place the blame; squarely on the defense.

But do we really have to wait until September to look back and curse the horrendous defense that ruined such outstanding pitching? Is there really no solution available in mid-season that could fix what ails this club? Well, it just so happens that there are reinforcements on the horizon. In the near-term, the Indians are getting Yan Gomes back today. Gomes is an above-average defensive catcher, and will slide average defensive catcher Roberto Perez back to a reserve role where he belongs. Perez has been serviceable as a fill-in for Gomes, but is far better suited to be a backup than an everyday catcher at the major league level. Gomes return to the lineup is akin to the tide coming in; the Gomes tide will lift the boats containing the defense, pitching and the lineup all in one fell swoop. That’s both the easiest and most imminent move to improve the D (and the team).

Move two is something I won’t belabor, because it’s a train I’ve been aboard for a while now. That, of course, is to promote Francisco Lindor to the major league roster and play him as the everyday shortstop. Lindor is a superlative defender who would be an immediate upgrade over Jose Ramirez, who is flat-out overmatched as an everyday shortstop. Ramirez has value, but that value is as a super-utility guy who can play 2B, SS or 3B several times a week, spotting Chiz/Kip against tough lefties and filling in at SS when the need arises. But he’s a poor defender at SS, and the 22-year old switch-hitter is hitting just .195/.265/.264 this season. Even if Lindor’s bat isn’t a finished product (which it isn’t), it’s hard to offer less value than a .526 OPS. Lindor makes this team better today by virtue of his defense alone, and that’s worth having him on the major league roster sooner rather than later.

My third idea is to move David Murphy to a club hungry for outfield help in exchange for a bullpen arm. Despite the mentality of Indians beat writer Paul Hoynes, Murphy is expendable, and with him off the roster the Indians would be able to bring up the more versatile James Ramsey. Ramsey will likely be a better defender than Murphy, and can play all 3 OF spots. He’s a better hitter than Tyler Holt, and will help prevent Mike Aviles from ever appearing in CF again. If Murphy can fetch a contributing bullpen arm, I’d do this deal in a heartbeat. Murphy is playing well right now, but he’s more or less redundant with all of the other left handed hitting OF on the roster. He’s doing a nice job this season, hitting .312/.341/.481 primarily against right handed pitching, but that .822 OPS would be the 2nd-highest of his career over a full season, and is unlikely to continue at that rate. Murphy is a good guy and a solid player, but he’s a subpar defender and I’d rather have another bullpen arm right now.

Moving on from the current team’s struggles for a moment, Joseph Werner from Beyond the Box Score has a nice write-up confirming what most of us had already concluded; the Indians “won” both the C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee trades. Or, at the very least, they’d pull the trigger on each of those trades again even with the benefit of hindsight. Judging a trade in the immediate aftermath is silly, especially when the deal involves acquiring prospects in return for an established major leaguer. The Indians front office was roundly roasted for not getting enough in return for their Cy Young Award-winning pitchers after Matt LaPorta flamed out and Jason Knapp reinjured his shoulder. But here we are in 2015, with an OF coming off of a 6-win season and a solid #2 starter, both under team control for the long term, and those trades are looking awfully good:
And for the first five seasons after dealing their pitching stalwarts, it looked as if all the front office had to show for their collective efforts was a league average regular left fielder, who hit like a center fielder and lacked the pop for a corner spot, and a frustratingly fringy back-of-the-rotation arm. They were, in every sense of the word, the last men standing from their respective deals as the other prospects petered out.
Something funny happened over the past season-plus – not funny in the traditional sense, mind you, but more in the way of nobody-saw-it-coming – both players took developmental leaps forward. The corner outfielder hit like a legitimate middle-of-the-order impact bat and the maddening, inconsistent right-hander suddenly became, well, consistently dominant.
The Sabathia and Lee trades, the Ubaldo deal, Casey Blake for Carlos Santana, YAN GOMES and Mike Aviles for Esmil Rodgers…the Indians front office has done a remarkable job acquiring talent via trade over the past decade.

Speaking of Carlos Carrasco, Mike Podhorzer of Fangraphs has a nice breakdown of Cookie’s 2014 vs his 2015. Carrasco lowered his ERA to 4.74 with a win against the Reds Friday night, so there may be those out there who see him as a disappointment after his electric 2nd half last year. 
Podhorzer goes deeper into Carrasco’s 2015 to show that he’s actually pitching much like he did last year, but he’s been let down by luck and the defense (surprise!) thus far. Carrasco’s K rate and walk rate are nearly identical, and he’s actually throwing more strikes this year than he did last year. His FIP is 2.62 (he finished with a 2.44 FIP last year), but his ERA is more than 2 runs higher (4.74 this year to 2.55 last year). The biggest difference is in BABIP. Cookie limited hitters to a .274 average on balls in play last year, but that’s jumped to a whopping .359 this season. There’s no way that lasts, even with the Indians horrific defense. Carrasco remains an excellent pitcher, so please don’t be “that guy” at the water cooler citing his high ERA as a reason why last year was a fluke. It wasn’t, and Carrasco’s numbers reflect that.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the incredible season that Jason Kipnis is having, as he’s in the midst of one of the best stretches that I’ve seen from an Indians hitter in years. As the Indians leadoff hitter, Kipnis is hitting a sizzling .387/.480/.632 with 4 HR and 15 RBI in 26 games. In 20 games during the month of May, Kip is hitting .463/.546/.732, good for a 1.278(!) OPS. In terms of wRC this month, his 259 trails only Bryce Harper’s 296 mark in all of baseball. He’s leading the American League with 57 hits, and his 2.5 WAR are more than he accumulated in all of last season. His defense has been better this year as well, as he’s been worth 0.4 dWAR (1.1 better than his -0.7 dWAR in 2014). He’s fueling an offense that ranks 5th in the AL with a combined .730 OPS, and the Indians have been a different team since he moved into the leadoff spot. The challenge for Kipnis will be to sustain this success throughout the season. He’s a career .325/.396/.554 hitter in the month of May, but has averaged a sub-.700 OPS in July-September. If Kip can maintain anything approaching this pace for the rest of the season, it’ll go a long ways towards supporting the Indians’ outstanding starting pitching down the stretch. 

It’s Memorial Day weekend here in the US, an occasion that some see as significant because of the day off work and the start of summer BBQ season. Fortunately, we have a couple of excellent articles that both tie into baseball and remind us of the significance of the holiday. Zack Meisel of the Plain Dealer wrote a fantastic piece about a local baseball star who gave up his major league dreams for pilot’s wings, becoming a Special Forces helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. He tragically perished while flying a team of US Navy SEALS into enemy territory attempting to rescue Marcus Lutrell and the other SEALS in Operation Red Wings. This op would eventually be detailed the book and movie “Lone Survivor.” As Meisel himself tweeted, if you only read one thing he’s written, make it that article.

In addition to Meisel’s fabulous effort, Graham Watson of Yahoo Sports penned an article about Chris Moon, Atlanta Braves draftee and University of Arizona baseball star who dropped out of Arizona to join the Army in 2007. Moon volunteered for the airborne, then for sniper school and wound up in Afghanistan as a sniper for the 82nd Airborne. Moon was killed by a coward with an IED near Kandahar. He was just 20 years old.

Brave men and women have been fighting and dying for America since before we were even a country. Memorial Day was established in the wake of the Civil War as a time to honor those soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice. So by all means, enjoy a couple of cold beers and a burger (or three) at a barbecue this weekend. But while you do, take a moment to appreciate the men and women who have fought and died over the past 250 or so years so that we can live in freedom to enjoy baseball, BBQ and apple pie.