Sunday, June 14, 2015

Talent Infusion on a Lazy Sunday

Two steps forward, one step back. One step forward, two steps back. That’s what the Indians season has felt like lately. Every time they seem poised to break out and cross the .500 Rubicon and go on an extended winning streak, the offense disappears for a couple of games. Or Trevor Bauer has his worst start of the year. Or both occur in the same series. So here we sit in mid-June, and the Indians still haven’t been over .500 since they took 2 out of 3 from the Astros in the seasons’ opening series back in April. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the main culprit continues to be the Indians subpar defense.

To help illustrate just how bad the defense has been (and how good the starting pitching has been), I’m going to enlist some assistance from the good folks over at Beyond the Boxscore. Ryan Roman of BtB penned a helpful piece this week explaining how the Indians starting pitchers might be the unluckiest group of souls in the history of baseball. If that sounds like hyperbole to you, I don’t really blame you, but bear with me for a second and you’ll see why that is Roman’s hypothesis. As of Friday, Indians pitchers have struck out 9.96 hitters per 9 IP. That’s a remarkable number, over a full strikeout higher than the 2nd place Cubs 8.92 K/9 mark. The league leaders in 2014 were these very same Indians, who posted an 8.92 K/9 ratio over a full season, a number that they’re on pace to far surpass this year. They also lead the league in another category; BABIP against. The Indians pitchers have been victimized by a .329 BABIP, well above the league average. That isn’t just luck (although luck does have something to do with it); it’s reflective of very poor defense. If both of those numbers hold up for the rest of the season, the Indians will be the first team since William McKinley’s (an Ohioan!) election to “achieve” that feat. The 2014 Indians were close, but they had “only” the 2nd-worst BABIP against in MLB. So for the last season and a half, the Indians have been historically good at missing bats, while simultaneously historically bad (and/or unlucky) at ranging to balls hit in play.

These numbers almost can’t remain consistent, except for the fact that they have. With over 220 games of data in our sample, we’re past the point where #SSS is an issue, and we’re starting to eliminate bad luck as the primary culprit. The Indians just don’t have the range to field baseballs that other teams do at this point. Fortunately, the Indians have made one move to correct this issue, bringing up slick-fielding 3B Gio Urshela from Columbus. Urshela should have at least a playable bat (his HR that cut through the Cleveland wind on Thursday was particularly impressive) but more importantly, should have an above-average glove right away. He’s being asked to replace Lonnie Chisenhall’s poor glove and .585 OPS, so it’s not as though he has an insurmountable bar to clear. The Urshela promotion is the first move that the Indians can make to shore up their infield defense and help some of that batted ball “luck” normalize for their outstanding pitching staff. The second move is of course promoting SS Francisco Lindor (hitting .400/.429/.600 in June!), but I’m not going to beat on that dead horse this week. Let’s just enjoy the Urshela experience for what it is, and know that there are further defensive reinforcements on the horizon.

Jason Kipnis put the finishing touches on an incredible month of May a couple of weeks ago, but can we really expect that sort of production from him over a full season? Well, no. He’s not going to hit .429, and probably won’t post an OPS north of 1.200. But now that he’s back healthy, Kipnis is again an all-star caliber 2B, and we can expect him to produce like one moving forward. I’ll again refer you to Beyond the Box Score, where Murphy Powell took a deep dive into batted ball numbers to show the difference between Kip v.2014 and this year.

You may know that Kipnis lost a bit of last season with a strained right oblique. And because those often linger for a while, I’m perfectly content in finding that the May version of Kipnis was just a healthy version of Kipnis. Really, that seems like a pretty reasonable conclusion, given his batted ball distances. In 2013, his average distance was nearly 193 feet, good for 72nd in the league. There was a pretty sizable drop in 2014, however, when Kipnis saw his average batted ball distance sink to 177 feet following his oblique injury in May of that year. That average put him deep in the lower third of the league, ranking 230th out of 300 listed players on Baseball Heat Maps. Now that Kipnis is (presumably) healthy again, that number has hopped back up to 191 feet.

The 2014 Kipnis was hitting more fly balls and hitting them shorter than at any point in his career. He was pulling the ball more, hitting fewer line drives, and in general just struggling to drive the ball with any kind of authority. That all goes back to the strained oblique, and how difficult of an injury that is to recover from in mid-season. Kipnis admits that he felt pressure to live up to the big contract that he signed prior to the 2014 season, and as such he didn’t want to take enough time off to allow the injury to fully heal. Now that he’s back healthy, we can expect him to remain in all-star form for the foreseeable future.

Leaving the big league club for now, the Indians made even more headlines that one would expect with their 1st round pick last week, selecting an injured and rehabbing prep lefty by the name of Brady Aiken. Aiken was the 1st overall pick of last June’s draft by the Houston Astros, but did not sign with the Astros after a downright bizarre series of events following his selection. If you’re not familiar with the Aiken/Astros story (or just need a refresher, like I did), I highly recommend this article from our good friends over at Let’s Go Tribe. Jason Lukehart of LGT wrote up a nice synopsis (below) and also talked to Ryan Dunsmore of Crawfish Boxes, the LGT equivalent SB Nation site for the Astros (including a FANTASTIC quote from a scout that you’ll have to click on the link to read):

Two days after he was drafted, Aiken and the Astros agreed to a $6.5 million signing bonus, pending only a physical. That physical reportedly revealed a smaller than normal UCL, which is the ligament that has to be repaired by Tommy John surgery. The Astros then cut their offer all the way down to $3.1 million, which was the minimum they could offer and still receive a replacement pick in this year's draft (if Aiken declined). Many believed they wanted him to decline, preferring to get the #2 pick in this year's draft (which they did), rather than running the risk of paying millions to a pitcher they were no longer confident in. On the day of the signing deadline, the team apparently upped its offer to $5 million, but no deal was reached.

The whole thing is worth reading, as it gives pretty good perspective as to what happened, who was to “blame” for Aiken not signing, and what it might take to bring him into the fold before signing day this year.

When he’s on the mound, Aiken is a stud. He was drawing comparisons to guys like Andy Pettitte and Clayton Kershaw when the Astros were conducting their pre-draft evaluations in 2014. Aiken was considered the #1 prospect in the 2015 draft until he went down with the elbow injury in March. His sinking fastball sits 92-94 and touches 97. He has an excellent curveball that needs to be a little more consistent, and a changeup that scouts assess will be a future plus pitch. He has three potential 60-70 MLB pitches, which is crazy for a high school lefthander. I’m not going to belabor the finer points of Aiken’s arsenal, because the talent level is pretty much a known commodity at this point. It’s scouting reports like these that prompted Baseball Prospectus’ draft/prospect guru to the following assessment following the pick:

Seriously, I'm not sure anyone is better at the draft right now than Cleveland is. When healthy, Aiken is the best player—not just pitcher—in the draft, with three plus pitches and command/feel for pitching that would make a veteran envious, much less a kid who still is a teenager. There are obvious questions here that make him a high-risk selection, but the reward is a future ace. Getting one at the 17th pick is amazing. Great job, Cleveland.

Prior to the draft, I didn’t think there was any chance the Indians would take Brady Aiken. I was flashing back to my pre-season interview with Indians team President Mark Shapiro, where he stressed that the Indians were not a club who could risk millions of dollars on high-risk talent coming out of Cuba. Naturally, the Indians took Aiken, making me look even dumber than I usually do (and that’s a challenge). That’s when I went back and re-read my own interview, and realized I had missed the point of Shapiro’s original comments. I’ll re-post the relevant question and answer for clarity, and bold Shapiro’s key sentence for emphasis:

AC: Seeing the opening of Cuba as a market, more so that before with defectors, as both the Indians President and a guy on the competition committee, what do you think of some of the big deals that are getting thrown to the Cuban guys that are coming over? Do you ever see an international draft because of some of the factors in the market down there?

MS: Well, it’s a little bit, probably, Indians-centric of me as a judgement, but I’d like to see some adjustment that allows access to that talent. As it’s currently being distributed, we are going to be marginal to non-players in that area just because of the level of risk, and that risk comes from lack of information. We just don’t know much about these guys. Unless there’s information being illegally obtained, they’re being signed largely from a tryout environment. I understand, and I’d probably take that risk if I ran a large-market team, but we don’t have that luxury. It’s not an area we can play in. We can’t risk tens of millions of dollars on players that we have far less information on than players in the draft that cost a lot less. So it’s just a very tough market for us to play in. I would like to see something that allows access to that talent on a more proportional basis, that’s not so market-based.

This isn’t like Cuba; the Indians HAVE information on Aiken. It’s in Aiken (and his agent’s) interest to provide medicals to teams pre-draft, otherwise it looks like they are hiding something. So I’m sure the Indians had a chance to look over a pretty detailed report concerning Aiken’s surgically repaired elbow. Now that they’ve selected him, they’ll have the same opportunity that the Astros had to put him through a pre-signing physical to ensure that there are no further concerning anomalies before they offer him upwards of $2 million. If Aiken clears that final hurdle, the Indians will have a chance to bring in a potential lefthanded ace with a mid-1st round draft pick. Those chances don’t come along every year, and it’s both exciting and a little bit scary that they took that shot this year.

The best-case scenario for what the Indians are trying to do here is currently playing out in Washington, where Lucas Giolito is a top-10 pitching prospect in all of baseball. Giolito was in the mix to be the first prep righty ever selected #1 overall in the draft back in 2012 before an elbow injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery (and bonus concerns) pushed him down to the #16 overall pick. Giolito signed at the deadline for $2.925 million ($800,000 over slot) and began his rehab as a member of the Nationals organization. Giolito blew out his elbow in 2011, and pitched 2 innings with the Nats Gulf Coast affiliate in 2012. The Nationals handled him with kid gloves in 2013 (as expected), as he pitched just 36 2/3 innings between the rookie league, short season and low-A. In 2014, Giolito was allowed to throw 98 innings in low-A, striking out 110 and walking 28. He’s already pitched over 70 innings here in 2015, and could be a member of what’s already a very formidable Nationals rotation as soon as 2017 (more likely 2018).

The worst-case scenario for the Aiken selection is, ironically enough, also taking place in our nation’s capital. The Nationals selected TCU righthander Matt Purke in the 3rd round of the 2011 draft and signed him to a major league deal worth $4.15 million. Purke had a shoulder injury at the time, but had been one of the top pitchers in college baseball and was considered a potential #1 overall pick. Instead of succsessfuly rehabbing the shoulder and slowly increasing his workload as Giolito did, Purke’s shoulder got worse, eventually requiring surgery. He then hurt his elbow in 2013, which required Tommy John. Purke is now a 24-year old starter in low-A, and has pitched just 149 2/3 innings since he was drafted 4+ years ago. The Nats basically lit $4.15 million on fire, and wasted a 40-man roster spot to boot. Hopefully Aiken turns out more like Giolito than Purke.

In the 12th round of the draft, the Indians made Terry Francona the happiest man on the planet when they selected switch-pitcher Ryan Perez out of Judson University in Illinois. Oakland reliever Pat Venditte brought national attention to the existence of this phenomenon when he made his major league debut for the A’s last week. Indians media asked Tito about Venditte, and Francona responded that it was a “dream scenario” for the bullpen aficionado, adding that he’d “wear him out” if he had Venditte on the roster. As Jordan Bastian details here, Tito had a predictable reaction when Mike Chernoff informed him that the Indians had selected a switch pitcher in the draft:

"I thought he was kidding," Francona said on Wednesday. "He might not even go to the Minor Leagues. I don't care if he gets anyone out -- just the idea that he can go both sides. I thought they were messing with me."

Perez learned to switch pitch thanks to his dad, who would encourage him to skip rocks with his left arm growing up in addition to his right. This is hilarious, as my friends and I frequently joke that for any of us that have sons, we’ll tie their right arms behind their backs so they can grow up as southpaws and have a better shot at pitching in The Show (or at least getting college paid for). Perez’s dad didn’t go quite that far, but he’s given an idea to wannabe MLB dads everywhere. Don’t just make your kid switch hit, get him to switch pitch as well. Chris Crawford of Baseball Prospectus projects Perez as a middle reliever who can be effective against hitters on both sides of the plate, but does note that he’ll need some mechanical adjustments from the right side (which is ironic considering he’s a natural righty). He sits 92-94 from the left side with a solid curveball, which is probably enough to get by as a reliever. Regardless, it’s a fun story, and he’ll be an interesting guy to monitor on his way up through the system (if Tito doesn’t force him onto the MLB roster the day he signs).