The Indians made their 95th error of the season Sunday, 23 more than the league average. Lonnie Chisenhall committed the infraction – his 16th in just 89 games at third base.
Were there some sort of bizarre award for defense this porous, the Indians would drop that, too.
While the errors themselves are quantifiable, what’s more difficult to determine is how much of an impact they’ve had on the Tribe’s still-present playoff hunt, which we’ll expound upon in a minute.
First, just know that the Indians have the worst defensive runs saved mark (minus-85) in baseball, and it’s not even close. The Twins are next on the list, at minus-45. Also know that the Indians’ are, per FanGraphs.com, on pace to post the second-worst Ultimate Zone Rating since 2002.
This is advanced analytical history in the making, folks. And it’s all the more amazing considering the Indians have a pitching staff posting one of the greatest strikeout rates (8.68 K’s per nine innings) in history and, ergo, limiting the number of balls put in play.
The Indians can’t be completely shocked by what’s transpired. Not in a season in which Carlos Santana was their Opening Day third baseman (and more on him in a minute, too). Not when the advanced defensive metrics have pooh-poohed their efforts every year since 2008.
But really, just as no metric can truly assess how this detrimental defense has altered the bottom line, none could have forecast this much frustration, either.
“With defense,” said general manager Chris Antonetti, “there’s still a lot more uncertainty with how you even evaluate it, let alone getting into projecting it. I think it’s come a long way. I think we’ve spent a lot of time internally getting our arms around it. But I think the case with us this year is that no matter how you evaluate it, it hasn’t been as good as we hoped or expected.”
Now, about that impact. Consider that third-inning Chisenhall error against the Orioles. Moments earlier, second baseman Jason Kipnis had made a heads-up play on a Nick Hundley liner to turn two for starter Danny Salazar. That brought up Jonathan Schoop with none on and two out, and Salazar got him to hit into what ought to have been the inning-ending groundball.
Alas, Chisenhall booted it, and Schoop advanced all the way to second. Salazar would expend another 12 pitches to walk Nick Markakis and get Steve Pearce to pop out to end the inning. Salazar would later show signs of fatigue in the sixth, when he left with two on and none out, and reliever Scott Atchison would give up the tying and go-ahead runs, and the Indians went on to lose, 4-1. Whether Salazar would have been any more fresh in that frame had he not needed that fourth out earlier is an open-ended question, and perhaps it’s a stretch to assume such an impact.
It is, however, no stretch to assume that the Indians have cost themselves some bullets, leads and, ultimately, wins. And now that they’re in a position in which literally every loss feels like a threat to their Wild Card livelihood, the sins of the gloves stand out all the more.
Again, the Indians knew they were taking on a defensive risk when they installed Santana as their starting third baseman at the outset of their season, but the irony there is that Santana has suddenly emerged as their most adept infield defender — albeit at first.
“He’s really good at first base,” Antonetti said. “His hands work well. His feet work well.”
Or as Terry Francona put it: “He doesn’t always look athletic. His pockets are hanging out, his shirt tail is out. But he is very athletic.”
As for the rest of the infield, well…
Chisenhall’s defensive lapses were forgivable when he was hitting .332 in the first half to seize the starting duties at the hot corner, less so now that he’s hitting a buck-sixty-five in the second half.
At short, Jose Ramirez is a definite improvement over Asdrubal Cabrera, who, by the time he was traded to the Nats, had about as much range as a dead moth. But it’s still too soon to tell if Ramirez is a staple at short, particularly with Francisco Lindor looming in Triple-A.
The defensive metrics, meanwhile, are not kind to Kipnis, though his plate power dip (.350 SLG) is still the greater source of concern.
In the outfield, Michael Brantley rates better in center field than his regular spot in left, and the Tribe’s regular center fielder – Michael Bourn – hasn’t been very regular at all because of the hamstring issues that have hamstrung his season and, it turns out, his defensive metrics. David Murphy, now out with an oblique injury, was acquired in part because of his glove in right, but his advanced numbers also went backward this year. Nick Swisher, who could be done for the year with a knee injury, played three positions in the field (first base, left and right), all of them poorly. Chris Dickerson has been serviceable. Ryan Raburn made an out-of-nowhere diving grab last week that defied his otherwise adventurous output.
Anyway, the only number that truly matters to the Indians at this juncture – 123 games into the season — is 4 1/2. That’s their deficit in the AL Wild Card hunt. Interestingly, the 2013 Indians, after 123 games, were also 4 ½ back. That Tribe club went on to go 21-6 in September to grab the Wild Card top spot, and a soft September schedule didn’t hurt. This year, the Indians have just 14 of their remaining 39 games against clubs with winning records, but they’ll also play 30 games in 30 days from Aug. 26 to Sept. 24 — no small test.
The Indians might yet have a run in them. By this point, they know what they’re getting every fifth day from Corey Kluber, who is stoically pitching his way into the Cy Young conversation. Behind him, Salazar, Trevor Bauer and now Carlos Carrasco are flashing power arms with plenty of potential.
None of it matters, though, if the gloves don’t cooperate. The Indians still have a slight opportunity to make a surge.
Will they seize it or drop it?
In the city of Trieste, a mid-sized seaport on the Adriatic, there is a statue of Italo Svevo. He was a native and largely unheralded writer who was born Aron Ettore Schmitz and gave himself a pen name that literally translated to “Italian Swabian,” reflecting his whereabouts on the border of Italy and the former southwestern Germany region of Swabia.
Svevo self-published a novel, Confessions of Zeno, that would have gone unnoticed, were it not for the persistence of Svevo’s mentor, James Joyce. And the book was influential enough that the people of Trieste honored its late author by establishing a life-sized tribute to him in the Piazza Hortis, where he used to take his daily strolls. It sits not on a dais but on flat ground, and “life-sized,” in this instance, is (and this is what I love about the Svevo statue) an unimposing 5-foot-6 or so.
While in Trieste a couple summers ago, we took a picture of my equally vertically challenged dad next to the statue and the plaque that bears the most famous line from that novel:
“Life is neither ugly nor beautiful, but it’s original!”
Here in Cleveland — specifically at Progressive nee Jacobs Field — we’re getting a new statue this weekend. It is statue of Jim Thome that, in true American form, is bigger than life. It will stand above us mere mortals, and it will showcase the Thome pose we know so well — the one where he points his booming bat in the direction of the pitcher, a la Roy Hobbs, while digging in and looking to launch one of his 612 career home runs.
This statue — symbolic, significant, persistent and permanent — is either a point of pride or a point of controversy, depending on who you ask.
Some people around here are outraged that a defector is being cast in bronze, forever hailed. They still can’t get over a guy claiming, “They’ll have to rip this jersey off of me” and then leaving for Philadelphia financial freedom.
More people, I would assume, have long ago forgiven Thome for leaving the Indians in the winter after the 2002 season, understanding the game’s economics and the Indians’ changing competitive state at the time he made his move. Thome mended many mental fences when came back briefly at the end of 2011, hit a movie-made home run on Jim Thome Appreciation Night and was largely well-received. To them, the statue sits just fine.
Then there is a third group — a group of which, I must say, I am a member.
This group recognizes that you can hold nothing against Thome the Man and still be conflicted about Thome the Statue. Because while Thome might, indeed, be the perfect subject to celebrate a unique (and this is one of the few instances in which the word “unique” is being applied appropriately) era of Indians baseball, I’m not sure the specific statue they’ve selected adequately addresses it.
Now, let’s expound upon that subject of celebration, first and foremost. Because within the chorus of complaints about the Thome statue, there is a small but vocal segment of the fan base that would prefer Larry Doby, the AL’s first black player, be immortalized before Thome.
In the grand scope of the Indians’ 114-season history, Doby is as good an option as any after Bob Feller, whose statue has rested outside Gate C ever since the Indians ended their long-term run as Municipal Stadium tenants and got a room of their own. Doby’s significance as the AL’s first black player does too often get lost in the grand shadow of Jackie Robinson. The Indians and the city of Cleveland renamed Eagle Avenue, the street that runs behind the left-field bleachers, “Larry Doby Way” two years ago… but, you know, that’s no statue.
This 114-season history, though, is not the target. The target is and ought to be Jacobs Field itself. What it meant to these people. What it meant to this city. What it meant to a long-suffering franchise. The impacts, both economic and emotional, that the ballpark had on Northeast Ohio in the mid-1990s cannot be overstated, and the 20th anniversary season serves as an appropriate time for some sort of salute steeped in relative modernity.
The Indians had long thought Thome to be a suitable point of emphasis. When they tried to woo him in that aforementioned winter of ’02, they could no longer sell themselves as the AL Central standard-bearers (his contract alone would have made it tough to maintain a consistent winner) but they could sell him on the allure of legacy. They promised him a statue. They harped on the benefits of continuity, of representing something bigger than yourself, of forever being remembered as the face of a franchise. These were things Feller himself capitalized on from the day he hung ‘em up in 1956 until the day he died in 2010, and Feller could attest that, yes, there was, indeed, monetary value in this association. It wasn’t nearly enough to bridge the financial gap between the Indians’ $62 million offer to Thome and Philadelphia’s $87 million guarantee, but it was real (LeBron James, who I’m sure will have a statue of his own here someday, will discover this, too).
I think, in an honest moment, Thome would tell you that he wishes he would have stayed, but that’s only easy to state in the retrospect of a career that never again reached the World Series stage after he left Cleveland. And by 2011, when the Indians did bring him back as August waiver wire fodder, Mark Shapiro was already waxing poetic about the value of 12 mostly standout seasons in an Indians uniform in today’s transient times. Certainly, it’s easy to understand the significance of being the franchise home run king and a homegrown product who, much like Feller, arrived like a gift from the Midwest corn fields and turned his country strength into Cooperstown-worthy production. Over time, the free-agent defection simply ceased to be all that big a deal to the Indians’ higher-ups.
So Thome gets his statue, after all. He didn’t ask for it, and he even admits he’s a little “uncomfortable” and a little embarrassed by it. This is not a surprising utterance out of the mouth of Jim Thome, whose humility and good nature are as worthy of celebration as his stats.
But here’s the problem with the Thome statue: It honors Thome and Thome alone.
I know that sounds ludicrous, because that is, unmistakably, the goal of most statues, isn’t it? But I think the Indians could have honored both the man and his time in a way that satisfies all sides.
Think about those teams, those runs to five straight AL Central titles (with a sixth title tacked on in ’01) and, most meaningfully, two AL pennants in ’95 and ’97. What is the first memory that comes to mind?
I’d venture to guess I could poll 10 of you and get 10 different answers.
Maybe it’s Tony Pena’s late-night homer heroics in Game 1 of the ’95 ALDS, or Albert Belle pointing to his bicep that same night. Maybe it’s Belle’s grand slam off Lee Smith. Maybe it’s Sandy Alomar going deep off Mariano Rivera in the ’97 ALDS. Maybe it’s Game 3 of the ’97 ALCS, Omar Vizquel botching a suicide squeeze and Marquis Grissom streaking home with the winning run on the passed ball. Maybe it’s Wayne Kirby’s game-winning hit in the ballpark’s opener. Or maybe it’s just the sight of those stands, filled night after night after night after night for 455 freaking games.
Hey, maybe you’re masochistic, and your first memory is the generous strike zone afforded the Braves in the ’95 Series or David Justice’s clinching Game 6 home run or — gulp — Jose Mesa in Game 7 in ’97.
Actually, what am I saying? This is Cleveland. Of course, your first memory is Jose Mesa in Game 7 in ’97.
But that’s not the point. The point is that there were too many magical moments, too many crazy characters, too many flowing emotions associated with those teams to narrow it all down to a single person.
I think that’s the issue with the Thome statue. You can’t look at Jim Thome’s pointed bat and see Omar’s golden glove or Albert’s menacing glare or Kenny Lofton’s swift feet. It doesn’t evoke memories of Carlos Baerga’s “Hello, Cleveland!” commercials or Manny Ramirez’s “Baby Bull” salad days or Alomar’s All-Star Game awesomeness. You don’t look at it and remember what Dick Jacobs and John Hart built and what Mike Hargrove tended. It doesn’t point the mind to a time when established stars like Eddie Murray and Orel Hershiser and Dennis Martinez actually wanted to be here, when Cleveland was an honest-to-goodness baseball destination.
You just see Thome. And I’m sure, to some, that’s acceptable.
But I’m probably in the minority of people whose most immediate memory of Thome has nothing to do with one of his mammoth taters. It has to do, oddly, with one of this defensive plays.
It is that pop-up off the bat of Jeff Huson, sailing high into the sky on Sept. 8, 1995, landing safely in Thome’s glove near third base and igniting a party that had not been seen in these parts for 41 years:
Yes, the moment was inevitable, because that ’95 club ran away with the Central in the strike-shortened season. But as Tom Hamilton (who uttered the great call, “And the season of dreams has become a reality”) told me recently, “It was almost like a city didn’t believe it was going to happen until it actually happened.” There were hugs and tears and wild shouts of unhindered ecstasy. There was, in the immediate aftermath, an airing of Garth Brooks’ “The Dance” as a fitting tribute to Steve Olin and a reminder of how far this team, this family, had come in the wake of those awful Spring Training deaths of ’93. For hours after that out, you could hear the sound of blaring car horns in the parking lot and the city streets – a practice that would be repeated many times in October days ahead.
You could have made a statue out of that moment. Thome, left arm raised, ball in glove, triumphant. The productive product of a potent farm system completing the out a town had been thirsting for in the ballpark that, really, made it all possible.
Heck, you could even make it like the Italo Svevo statue and put it on flat ground, a reminder that the moment belonged to everybody in the building and in the city that supported it.
That, to me, would have been the more satisfying statue. It would have been a better representation of an era unlike any other around here. Those Indians teams didn’t win a championship, but they did stir something in people’s souls, and that out was the breakthrough — the moment when the travails of the past were forgiven and the door to the future sprung open.
It was neither ugly nor beautiful, but it was original.
Was that the alluring, tonal, British voice of Dido I heard coming out of Terry Francona just now?
“There will be no white flag above my door,” Francona said.
Well, no, he didn’t say or sing that specifically, but he came quite close.
“We will never raise the white flag,” Tito said after the Justin Masterson trade. “That’s not an option. We’re going to play.”
My guess is Francona will have to say something similar very soon, when the Indians do what some would say is the responsible thing and trade Asdrubal Cabrera.
Or maybe he’ll say it after the Indians acquire John Lackey.
But whether or not another move is made, Francona is right. This isn’t front-office fluff; this is the way business is done in baseball today. The notion of Trade Deadline “buyers and sellers” is far too black and white for the current competitive climate, as Chris Antonetti artfully explained.
“I think oftentimes people look at it as one or the other,” Antonetti said. “That you’re either buyers or sellers. I think teams may take a more nuanced approach to that. You may have different goals heading into the Deadline. It could be repositioning your roster, taking advantage of a position where you have some depth to supplement another area.”
Did you notice that, at the same time the Indians dealt their former ace pitcher and preached competitiveness, the last-place Cubs traded for Felix Doubront mere weeks after selling off other assets? The Deadline is free-flowing. It is a time for general managers to be opportunistic, because it is a prime time for evaluating rosters, scouting systems and, above all else, prompting action.
Realistically, the Indians’ already faint 2014 postseason hopes (12.7 percent, per Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds) aren’t much – if at all – worse without Masterson than they were with him. And they’re probably not much worse without Cabrera (whose lackluster performance in high-leverage situations I cited earlier) than they are with him.
Sure, that sounds purely pessimistic on a lot of fronts. For one, it’s pessimistic about Masterson, who, for all we know, might have two months of brilliance in him if he’s now mechanically and mentally right after his DL stay.
But the Indians would have paid a handsome price to find out the effects of that retooling period. They would have given up any opportunity to acquire young talent in exchange for Masterson (the qualifying offer wasn’t going to happen at this stage) and, oh by the way, paid the big right-hander another $3 million.
I love what the Indians did here. James Ramsey adds another outfield bat to a system suddenly teeming with them, and the offensive abyss of this era means you can never have enough bats on hand. MLB.com had Ramsey ranked as the Cards’ sixth-best prospect at the outset of the year, and he automatically becomes the Indians’ fifth-highest-rated prospect.
And as I wrote in analyzing Cabrera’s case earlier this week, the $3 million savings is not chump change. Not when 60 percent of your 2015 roster is tied up in seven guys. If they can save another $3 million in moving A-Cab, all the better.
The Indians don’t have a No. 2 starter behind Corey Kluber right now. They just don’t. They have Danny Salazar finally figuring out that he needs to flash his fastball from the very beginning of outings instead of trying to go all 2011-era Justin Verlander on the opposition and ease into things. They’ve got T.J. House, who has shown some flashes. They’ve got Trevor Bauer, who has made giant strides this season. This is, by no means, an overwhelming, overpowering group. But I’d rather keep running the kids out there on a regular basis than pine for something that might never come back again. Besides, no bridges have been burned with Masterson. He remains eminently signable, remains quite fond of the organization, and his price tag has dropped precipitously.
Maybe Masterson would have become that No. 2 (or No. 1) starter again. But he would have had to do it damn quickly to make it worth the Indians’ while, and walking six guys in Columbus the other night was not a great start.
The Indians are in a position where they have to take even the slightest shot at contending seriously. But at the same time, they’re in a spot where they can’t ignore opportunities to capitalize on value. This seller’s market has afforded them a big opportunity. The Cardinals actually bid pretty boldly on Masterson’s two-month potential. The long list of clubs in need of a middle-infield upgrade could lead to a bold bid for Asdrubal.
In this particular area, the Indians were and are in a good spot. They can pounce on those opportunities without waving the white flag.
Asdrubal Cabrera makes $10 million this year.
Somehow, this is a fact that floored me when somebody brought it up the other day. The hypocrisy of the hippocampus is such that a person might quickly recall the precise date of his last dental appointment but not his own social security number. There’s really no telling what the mind will deem important enough to remember, and somehow in the midst of more pressing matters – including, but not limited to, a brilliant Food Network game-show idea that I can’t reveal much about other than to say it involves the boiling of pasta, the racing of the clock and the pressure of instantaneous mental math – the particulars of Asdrubal Cabrera’s backloaded contract escaped me. My apologies.
But I do believe you’ll join me in opining that $10 million is (in the Cleveland market at least) a lot of money for Asdrubal Cabrera.
Now, this is all a relative discussion, because Cabrera has “only” made a little north of $24 million his career, to date, while providing substantially more on-field value to the Indians. And even at this stage in which his sum far exceeds far value, $10 million for roughly league-average production from your shortstop is certainly superior to, say, the $7 million spent on Brett Myers last year or the $5 million spent on Grady Sizemore in 2012 or the $28.5 million being paid to Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher in the present.
Sports salaries are often out-of-whack with reality, players are paid for past – not present – performance and the Food Network’s not returning my calls. That’s life.
All that said, as the Indians sit a game under .500 on their last off day before the Trade Deadline, dangling on that increasingly nebulous line between the “buy” and “sell” side of the equation, Cabrera’s contract has to count for something, doesn’t it?
You keep hearing things like Cabrera “has value” at this Deadline, given the sort of lackluster options in the middle infield that keep Dan Uggla employed. But it’s hard to say what this means, exactly. Chase Headley still had “value” in the trade market with a .651 OPS for the Padres, and that “value” translated to a 27-year-old journeyman named Yangervis Solarte and a 23-year-old Class A pitcher named Rafael De Paula, <i>minus</i> $1 million.
For the Padres, it was a trade weighed against the value of literally doing nothing and reaping nothing, and they acted accordingly.
For the Indians, it might amount to a different sort of equation. The value, as it were, might lie most meaningfully in the value of dumping the prorated portion (roughly $3.3 million) of that $10 million sum. That’s not a lot, but, to a club that has already committed probably 60 percent of its 2015 payroll to seven guys (one of whom is named Ryan Raburn), it’s not nothing, either.
The Indians, therefore, would be remiss not to at least explore all options with Cabrera. No, they have no immediate plans to promote Francisco Lindor, and, in fact, the odds, at present, are probably against him coming up earlier than a month or so into 2015, given the arbitration issues at stake there. But a Cabrera trade could change that equation come September, if (and only if) the Indians are still in it, and their market size and payroll realities do demand capitalizing on situations such as these.
In this trade market, Cabrera’s value might be at its height at second base, not short. The Giants, owners of the aforementioned Uggla, have a need, as do the Blue Jays, Yankees, Orioles and A’s. With Ryan Zimmerman out with a severely injured hamstring (and Anthony Rendon, therefore, back at third), the Nats might play in that market, too.
All of this lends itself to an internal examination of what Cabrera is currently worth to the Indians. Would a combo of Mike Aviles (.626 OPS) and Jose Ramirez be satisfactory enough at short if the Indians still hope to contend? Hmm. Obviously, the status quo ain’t cutting it, as the 52-53 record and sometimes-stagnant offense demonstrate, and Cabrera’s .157 average and .517 OPS in what Baseball Reference describes as “high leverage” situations (versus a .744 OPS in low leverage spots) are telling.
That said, it is hard to trade your starting shortstop without sending a message to your clubhouse that you’re conceding defeat. And you saw how well the Indians fared when he missed most of the past week with back spasms.
It will all come down to that value equation. What Cabrera is worth to other teams, in terms of prospect or big-league-ready chips, is hard to say. It was a different market and a different time, but (courtesy of Baseball Reference) look at Cabrera’s current numbers compared to those of Jhonny Peralta (who was playing third base but essentially dealt to the Tigers as a shortstop exactly four years ago today) in 2010 with the Tribe:
Cabrera: 95 games, .249 AVG, .309 OBP, .392 SLG, 9 HR, 40 RBI, 99 OPS+, minus-0.1 defensive WAR
Peralta: 91 games, .246 AVG, .308 OBP, .389 SLG, 7 HR, 43 RBI, 94 OPS+, 0.6 dWAR
Again, all markets are different, but it is worth remembering that the Indians also sent the Tigers the remainder of Peralta’s $4.85 million salary in exchange for Giovanni Soto, a wiry teenage left-hander who is currently in Double-A and, to date, has not yet distinguished himself as the most successful player to bear his own name (Geovany Soto can still rest comfortably).
So eating Cabrera’s contract might be the only way for the Indians to get even a warm body back for Cabrera at this stage. While it would be interesting to see the Indians pull off a big-leaguer for big-leaguer swap and land some back-end starting or relief help in exchange for Asdrubal, I don’t know if that’s especially realistic.
Honestly, it could be that their best option — if they do move Cabrera — is to just try to recoup some cash. But try putting that in a press release.
Another option, of course, is to keep Cabrera and see where this thing goes. On the heels of a bizarre road trip that saw the Tribe take three of four from the Tigers only to drop 5 of 7 to the Twins and Royals, it’s hard to be overwhelmingly encouraged by the playoff odds. But the league at large remains remarkably forgiving. The Indians are sub-.500 yet still just 3 ½ games back of a Wild Card spot.
You could say the Indians’ 2014 season has at least successfully sorted out that which needed sorting out on the infield front. And what I mean by that is the Tribe no longer entertains visions of carrying baseball’s first-ever third baseman/catcher/cleanup hitter hybrid in Carlos Santana, no longer wonders when or if Lonnie Chisenhall will emerge, no longer has much rational reason to believe the $56 million investment in Swisher was all that much better than the $57 million investment in Travis Hafner (though it still remains to be seen if “Brohio” enjoys longer staying power as a marketing mechanism than did “Pronkville”).
Chisenhall’s your third baseman, Santana’s your first baseman and Swisher is your switch-hitting designated hitter who should probably be a bit more restricted from the right-hand side.
Shortstop, meanwhile, is the same as it ever was – Lindor in the long frame, Cabrera in the meantime.
How much more meantime will be determined in the next few days.
There is always this hyper-awareness of roster construction among media members and fans during Spring Training, when teams are making seemingly gut-wrenching but, usually, somewhat frivolous decisions about the nether reaches of their roster.
It’s a six- or seven-week dance in which all involved pretend to believe that the last guy on the bench will determine whether or not a team has any shot at October, and, come Opening Day, it gives way to the reality that 25-man inventories are living, breathing organisms subject to change, especially as a club searches to find its footing.
Through it all, front-office or managerial or coaching types preach the same gospel:
The players will make the decisions for us.
Or the alternative:
Things have a way of working out.
Which brings us to Lonnie Chisenhall.
He’s been here, on the Indians’ active roster, from day one this season on the simple premise that the Indians didn’t know what else to do with him. He had a really nice offensive spring in Arizona, a place that lends itself to really nice offensive springs. But the Indians were committed, from the get-go, to giving Carlos Santana every opportunity at third base, provided, of course, he didn’t spontaneously combust the first time a sharp in-game grounder was sent his way.
They wanted to make that experiment work, because they valued flexibility with their DH spot. Chisenhall, though, just kept hitting, kept providing reason not to dispatch him to yet another round of Triple-A time-wasting. And Jason Giambi was hurt anyway, so, well, what the heck? They gave Chisenhall a roster spot, even as Terry Francona admitted he had no earthly idea how many at-bats he’d get.
“To be honest with you, I don’t have a crystal ball,” Francona had said. “I’m not sure you really need to have one. Things happen.”
Exactly. Things happen. The players make the decisions for you.
Chisenhall got some limited opportunity against right-handers, banged out 17 hits in his 47 April at-bats and made things interesting. That’s probably as far as the Indians wanted to go in their evaluation of the 25-year-old Chisenhall at that point: He was interesting again.
They had seen him flounder at the big-league level before, and there had been distinct danger of him being relegated to the dreaded Quad-A status in which the skills that flourish at one level simply don’t translate at the highest level.
A year ago, Chisenhall looked pretty lost, batting .213 through the season’s first six weeks after being handed the third base gig and earning another demotion to Columbus. There was a point last year in which he was so desperate to get his bat going that he grew a terrible mustache, a small and unsightly concession to the gods of non-shaving superstition.
“Then I was just an ugly .200 hitter,” he would remember later.
It got worse: Chisenhall hit .145 in August. And by that point, Francona had basically made him a persona non grata against southpaws. He did, however, see something in the Chiz in that season’s final month, when he had a .920 OPS in 40 plate appearances (not to mention three hits in the Wild Card game), and, really, only in retrospect can we appreciate that as both the start of something special and as a reminder that some top prospects simply require a little more patience.
So, yeah, to see Chisenhall raking at the outset of the season — and the raking continued on into May — was interesting. A tad on the hollow side for a third base/DH type, as 24 of his first 34 hits were singles, the rest doubles. But when your regular third baseman is batting like .140, who could reasonably call Chisenhall’s production hollow?
Clearly, this was evolving into another case of a player making the decisions for his club. Chisenhall was morphing from merely interesting to purely intriguing. He was asserting himself as deserving of everyday opportunities, and – this is the most important point – he was starting to hit for more power. The first homer came in that season-shifting series sweep of the Tigers a few weeks back. Since then, he’s posted an .809 slugging percentage in 75 trips to the plate, numbers of course augmented by Monday night’s historic 5-for-5, three-homer, nine-RBI breakout in Arlington (the place where, incidentally, the Indians were playing the day Chisenhall was drafted by the club six years ago). He’s shown the ultimate sign of hitting maturity, knowing when to be aggressive in the zone and squaring up the ball with authority and consistency.
And now the Indians are not only just two games back of a Tigers team that once looked capable of running away with the Central, they’re also faced with the dilemma that all teams hope to face – actual, earnest, non-Spring-Training-concocted lineup decisions.
Nick Swisher could be back Thursday, and he’ll create a roster crunch for Tito and Co. The easy decision – the one Chisenhall has made for the higher-ups – is to give Chisenhall the everyday opportunities at third and be done with it. Hopefully, there is still ample opportunity to keep Mike Aviles active in the mix on the days Chisenhall, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis get a breather, but at this point is there really any reason to deny Chisenhall the stability of a regular position? He’s no longer merely interesting or purely intriguing. He’s just plain real (and he’s hitting .520 with a 1.236 OPS in 28 plate appearances against lefties, for the record).
This naturally proves problematic in the first base, DH and catching departments, where Carlos Santana has finally shown some signs of life (1.168 OPS in his last eight games, sandwiched around a concussion), where George Kottaras, surprisingly, has looked like more than just roster fodder, and where Swisher and Giambi hold veteran sway.
I don’t suspect the Indians will make major roster modifications based on Kottaras’ small sample, but I am generally beginning to wonder how long the Indians can afford the luxury of a player-coach. The simple truth is that they’re not going to sit Santana, and they’re not going to put the $56 million bro on the bench, either. Ryan Raburn has a .537 OPS, but he also has a two-year contract. The roster, in short, is getting increasingly squeezed.
The primary problem right now is that Santana’s history with concussion limits his usefulness behind the plate, and that could detract from his viability as a plug-and-play option at three (four, if you count DH) positions. It is that positional flexibility on Santana’s part that provides the Indians with the opportunity to carry the 43-year-old Giambi as a DH option against right-handed pitching. That’s an option the Indians clearly hope to retain.
Frankly, I’m not sure how this all shakes out for Giambi and Swisher and Santana – who starts where and on what days. All I know is that the gospel is truth: The players do, ultimately, make these decisions with their performance.
Chisenhall is shining proof.
UPDATE: This Hardball Talk headline (“Lonnie Chisenhall’s brilliance could spell the end of Jason Giambi’s career”) states it a bit stronger than I did. My hunch is that, when Swisher returns, the Indians will return to the scenario in which Santana serves as the backup catcher, which would leave Kottaras as the odd man out. As I wrote, the Indians value Giambi in his current role, and they’ve gone to significant lengths the last two years to retain that luxury. But I do think Santana’s concussion history (not to mention “Babe” Kottaras’ surprising offensive contributions, to date) complicate that issue a bit moving forward. So we shall see.
UPDATE 2: The other option, of course, is going back to a seven-man bullpen, which may very well happen. But here, too, is another piece of flexibility that Francona has demonstrated a fondness for, and eight-man ‘pens are becoming increasingly common in today’s game, given the general lack of multi-inning relievers. Plus, the Indians have doled out a lot of work to the back end guys, so that flexibility might prove important.
ALSO: Please check out my column on Michael Brantley… and the strange stipulation that allowed the Indians to land him in the first place.
Right now, the Indians are bad.
That’s the best word to describe a team six games under .500 with a minus-25 run differential, a 9-19 road record, the fourth-highest starters’ ERA and the most errors (by far) in the Majors.
The bright side is that it’s a good year to be bad. And “bad” — as illustrated when they swept the Tigers last week — is not necessarily binding.
Stepping away from the particulars of the AL Central, where the Tigers have cooled considerably and yet still hold a four-game edge on the White Sox and a 7 ½-game lead on the Tribe, the Indians are deeply indebted to the mediocrity of the league in which they reside. It’s a league in which only one club (the A’s) has a winning percentage of .600 or better and the current second Wild Card holder is a Yankees team just four games over .500.
That puts the Indians, in spite of their uninspiring 24-30 record, just five back in the Wild Card chase. A year ago, a White Sox team that started out 24-30 was already 6 ½ back of the second Wild Card by that point.
That 1 ½-game difference might not sound like much now, but it could mean everything in a crowded late-season field.
Point is, while the Indians currently rate as bad, they’ve got company in the category. Five AL teams have a positive run differential right now. That’s it. Five.
But at some point — perhaps soon — relying upon the mediocrity of the rest of the league won’t be enough. Just as it’s not enough to say that the Indians’ slow start is attributable only to injuries or poor luck or weather or whatever.
Now, there is hope in the re-tooling the rotation received at the end of April, when Carlos Carrasco was sent to the ‘pen (and he’s looked good there), in mid-May, when Danny Salazar was shipped to Columbus to iron out his issues, and this past week, when Zach McAllister went on a well-timed DL trip.
Trevor Bauer has shown he can command a Major League game when he establishes his fastball, Josh Tomlin has served his purpose of providing strike-throwing efficacy, and T.J. House was terrific Wednesday night against the White Sox, so that provides potential (and is it possible House is actually the younger sibling of Mickey Callaway, because they look like bearded brothers reunited?).
But on a strategic or structural level, the rotation is what it is, from the standpoint that the Indians’ decision-makers, who I doubt will enter into the tangled trade market, have already made the most major revisions they had up their sleeves. They can’t will Justin Masterson’s velocity back, and they can’t go back in time and reclaim Scott Kazmir, either. All they can do is hope the rotation, which has a 4.57 ERA in May, stabilizes and Salazar puts on the pressure for a promotion.
As far as the defense is concerned, well, I don’t know what to tell you. The Indians have done early work to increase aptitude and they’ve backed off early work to decrease fatigue. They’re definitely aware of the errs, and they’ve addressed them as best they can from a work standpoint, but it’s not like there are major personnel moves to be made here.
Everybody fretted about Carlos Santana’s defense at third, ignoring the obvious fact that Lonnie Chisenhall has his own issues at the position, as evidenced Memorial Day. Nick Swisher, before he went on the DL, looked like he could barely bend over at first base. Asdrubal Cabrera has range limitations (and maybe, at some point soon, you move him and push Francisco Lindor through the pipeline). Etc., etc. The defense has impacted the pitching, and sometimes that, alone, is enough to sink a squad. Here, again, they just have to hope it gets better.
What, though, can be done about a lineup that has scored three runs or fewer in 52 percent of the Indians’ games and two or less in 37 percent of games?
Well, in one sense, the answers are obvious. Santana, once no longer concussed, needs to stop batting .159, Swisher, once his knee’s done barking, needs to stop OPS’ing (is that a usable verb now?) at .631, Cabrera needs to make more of his contract year and it would help if Michael Bourn at least outpaced the league-average OBP for leadoff men or Michael Brantley could just bat every inning.
Clearly, there are many individual issues at play here, and all of them play into Terry Francona’s evolving batting-order concoctions, none of which have yielded consistent fruit just yet.
I do wonder, though, if there is an adjustment to overall approach that might help here.
The Indians have espoused the plate discipline upon which many clubs rely on in this era of OBP awareness, but are they doing so to an extreme degree?
Opposing starters are averaging just 5.03 innings per outing against the Indians, much lower than the AL average of 5.85 innings. Maybe that sounds good, until you remember that today’s specialized bullpens, loaded with high-velocity hurlers, are no picnic. Last year’s league-wide relief ERA (3.58) was the best in 21 years, and this year’s relief mark (3.59) is substantially better than the starters’ mark (3.88). Starters are giving up hits at a .256 clip; relievers are giving them up at a .242 clip. “Getting into their bullpen” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
This is reflected in the Indians’ team OPS: .738 in innings one through six, .670 from the seventh inning on.
The Indians see more pitches per plate appearance (3.99) than all but two AL teams (the Twins and Red Sox, who rank 10th and 11th, respectively, in the AL in runs per game). The Tribe is disciplined, taking 56.3 percent of the time (the AL average is 55.1) and swinging and missing just 20 percent of the time (the AL average is 21.4).
Our basis of belief is that this overall discipline is a good thing, but here’s the stat that makes me question whether the Indians’ passivity is an absolute positive: The AL, as a whole, is slugging at a .572 clip on first pitches. The Indians are slugging .457 on first pitches. It could be a “if you don’t play, you can’t win” scenario, because the Indians swing at the first pitch just 24 percent of the time (league average: 25.6).
While pitching coaches are espousing the value of first-pitch strikes, the Indians are going to the plate with the mindset of taking them. Their entire offensive philosophy seems to revolve around going deep into the count (where they do, indeed, have the best two-strike OPS (.577) in the AL).
But are they missing opportunities to be more aggressive, more assertive early?
I’m just throwing that out there, and maybe it’s a wild pitch. But an evaluation of offensive approach seems worthwhile, given that the Indians have basically done all they can do to address the rotation, from a personnel standpoint, and the defense, from a work standpoint.
Granted, it could just be that the parts don’t add up, and the Tribe stays bad. That happens, you know.
But for now, the Indians are in a good position relative to their badness, which means they still have a chance to resuscitate their season.
Maybe they should take a swing at it.
When the Tigers finally arrived to Progressive Field on Monday afternoon, their unexpectedly long Boston layover behind them, Victor Jose Martinez arrived with them.
Nine years old, husky and happy as ever, “Little Vic,” as he’s come to be known, has spent countless hours at that ballpark, following faithfully in the footsteps of his famous dad and immersing himself daily in the pregame rituals of a sport he clearly loves. But on this day, he was wearing an aqua T-shirt bearing the name of a basketball player:
“Uhoh,” his dad said with a laugh. “He doesn’t know any better!”
We’ll forgive the transgression, because Victor Jose still has Cleveland in his heart, much like his old man. And that leads to a conversation that, while taking place obnoxiously early, is worth bringing up on the day the Indians activate a 43-year-old Jason Giambi off the disabled list for the second time in the young season.
Could Victor Martinez, a pending free agent, reunite with the Indians this winter?
Martinez, for one, is intrigued by the possibility.
“Anything can happen in this game,” he said. “It would be special. The Indians were so great to me and my family. I’ve got three kids. The first two were born here. It would be special, but we’ll see.”
Alas, there are a couple obvious obstacles to this potential reunion:
1. The finances. The way Indians aren’t exactly drowning in dough, and Martinez’s incredible production at this early stage of the season points to a proper pay day that might be out of their reach, particularly given his defensive limitations and the value Terry Francona, like the majority of AL managers today, places on flexibility with the DH spot.
2. The compensation issue. It’s simply not a free and open market for guys tied to Draft pick compensation, and, the way things are looking, the Tigers would have every incentive to extend a qualifying offer to V-Mart. This would likely be a deal-breaker for the Indians, given their evergreen need to stock the system. The only solution is not a satisfying one: If the Indians finish the season with one of the 10 worst records in baseball, their first-round pick would be protected. (Right now, only five MLB teams are off to a worst start than the Tribe.)
So, yeah, those are some big hurdles, and, as we’ve seen with Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn so far, post-prime position players can be an awfully inefficient area in which to do business, especially at a time when so many teams are starved for offense.
Where the Victor possibility lives, then, is purely on the sentimental side.
Who knows? Maybe that’s enough. Per Baseball Reference, he’s made nearly $73 million in his career, and, knowing how much this team and this town means to him (he still leaves tickets every home series to his host family from his Mahoning Valley Scrappers days) the incentive to finish his career where it began might be a strong one. Of all my memories from the years I’ve been around this team, that image of Victor Jose sitting on his daddy’s lap and the two of them crying at his locker on the day he was traded (Victor Jose had asked that morning, “Are we still an Indian?”) remains the most distinct.
The Tribe’s decision to trade Martinez and Lee in July ’09 — one year and two months prior to their free-agent eligibilities — is still a source of fascination to me, and not because the Lee trade has netted them literally less than nothing (combined Cleveland WAR of Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Lou Marson and, um, Jason Knapp: 2.0; Lee’s WAR from August 2009 to the end of ’10: 5.9).*
*By the way, if you’re really into the WAR game (generally speaking, I’m not, but it’s an easy way to get away with analyzing complex situations), Victor’s WAR in his one year and two months with Boston was 6.1, while Justin Masterson’s WAR in three full and two partial seasons with the Indians, so far, is 7.5.
The reason it’s fascinating is because, in the grand scheme, it wasn’t that long ago, and yet the sport has fundamentally changed enough in that short span that it’s hard to imagine a team in the position the Indians were in at that point making moves of a similar magnitude today. Punting not only on a current season but the following season, now that there are two Wild Cards, a bigger influx of national TV money and a greater sense of competitive balance, would be inconceivable (at least, to me), even in this market.
And yes, to some, it was inconceivable back in 2009, too.
Anyway, that’s all analysis of the rearview. The real focus here is speculation about the future, which is probably more fun. And the basic point is that perhaps Victor’s sentimentality is strong enough to lead to a reunion.
And hey, while we’re at it, maybe LeBron will come back, too.
If you thought instant replay review and the policing of home-plate collisions were the biggest rule changes in Major League Baseball this season… um… you’re right.
But a much-lesser change must be noted here: The policing of at-bat music.
(It is, however, enough time for A’s fans to be treated to the sweet and soulful sax that opens WHAM!’s “Careless Whisper” when Josh Reddick comes to bat, so all is not lost.)
Anyway, at-bat music lives on, in some measure. And I’ve been doing these posts compiling the songs used by the Indians each season since 2008, back when Michael Aubrey and Josh Barfield still roamed the earth. They’ve been pretty enjoyable.
But people much smarter and trendier and marketing-savvy than me realized it would be a good idea to synthesize most of this information into the useful At the Ballpark app, so I’m not sure how much value there is to this little dog and pony show anymore. This, therefore, might be the last at-bat music entry here.
With the help of scoreboard operations manager Annie Merovich (and as a lead-in to Friday’s Springsteen fireworks extravaganza), let’s take a stroll through the sounds of Progressive Field, shall we?
(One important note: These guys have been changing up their songs even more than usual this year, especially in the midst of some slow offensive starts. So these are always subject to adjustments.)
Asdrubal Cabrera: “Ready 2 Go” by Ale Mendoza, “Ella Lo Que Quiere Es Salsa” by Victor Manuelle, “6 a.m.” by J Balvin. Favorite “Ready 2 Go” lyric: “You turn me into a crazy man…” when you rule my cycle-clinching triple to be a double and an error.
Nick Swisher: “Buzzin’” by Mann, “Check Yo Self” by Ice Cube. I know on Opening Day he used “Happy,” but then he started out 10-for-61, so he was probably less happy. Favorite “Buzzin’” lyric: First you wanna step to me, now your #$@ screamin for the deputy.” Remember that, Lofton.
Jason Kipnis: “Satisfaction (RL Grime Remix)” by Benny Benassi & The Biz, “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” by Busta Rhymes. Favorite “Put Your Hands..” lyric: “Look at shorty, she a little cutie yo/The way she shake it make me wanna get all in the booty yo.” That’s how dad met mom.
Carlos Santana: Every year, it seems, there is some mystery to Santana’s choices when I get this list. This year, all it says is, “Two Spanish songs.” Rather than ask follow-up questions, I prefer to offer blind speculation that one of them goes a little something like this…
Michael Brantley: “Walk Thru” by Rich Homie Quan. Favorite lyric: “I done walk thru with Gucci on my feet/Who got more money, you or me?” Definitely you, Dr. Smooth.
Ryan Raburn: “Kiss My Country $#@” by Rhett Atkins, “Whistlin’ Dixie” by Randy Houser.”
Yan Gomes: “Dream” by Lecrae. Favorite lyric: “Dream of being the player that will lead a team to Christ.” So this song clearly has the same vibe as “Check Yo Self.”
David Murphy: “Where I Belong” by Building 429, “City On Our Knees” by TobyMac. They play these songs on that station David Puddy listens to.
Jason Giambi: “Wolfpack” by C-Murder. Theme song for New World Order in World Championship Wrestling. They don’t play this on that station David Puddy listens to.
Mike Aviles: “Hit ‘Em Up” by Lil Wayne. Favorite lyric: “Quit the diarrhea.” Hey, believe me, I’d love to, but the Pepto-Bismol ain’t working.
Lonnie Chisenhall: “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne.
Michael Bourn: “We Dem Boyz” by Wiz Khalifa, “Show Da World” by Lil Boosie and Webbie, “My First Song” by Jaz-Z. Favorite “My First Song” lyric: “I’m bout to go golfin’ man/Ay, I might even have me a cappuccino.” Totally did not see that coming.
Nyjer Morgan: “Flight of the Valkyries” from WWE. What? You expected T. Plush to come out to some Jim Croce?
Justin Masterson: “Rebirthing” by Skillet.
Zach McAllister: “Return of the Mack,” by Mark Morrison.
Corey Kluber: “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons, “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC. These two tunes get Kluber really fired up. He looks like this when he listens to them…
Danny Salazar: “Humo” by El Alfa & Musicologo, “Jefe” by Daddy Yankee, “En El Cielo No Hay Hospital” by Juan Luis Guerra.
Josh Tomlin: “A State of Texas” by Old 97’s. Favorite lyric: “Where the stars at night are a hell of a sight/And the honkey-tonks never close.” If there’s one thing people from Texas love, it’s Texas.
Scott Atchison: “Heartland.” At first, I thought this might be the great U2 song. But then I remembered Atchison is also from Texas, so…
Carlos Carrasco: “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. Shouldn’t this have been retired alongside Mariano Rivera? Doesn’t feel right for somebody else to use it.
Cody Allen: “The Outsiders” by Eric Church, “Take It Outside” by Brantley Gilbert, “Sound of Madness” by Shinedown, “Pickin’ Wildflowers” by Keith Anderson, “The Only Way I Know” by Jason Aldean. So basically, they asked Allen for his entrance music, and he listed every song on his iPhone.
Bryan Shaw: “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light Em Up)” by Fall Out Boy. Uhoh. The 2013 postseason music is back. Watch out, mups!
Josh Outman: “Quutamo” by Apocalyptica, “Chorus of Angels” by Haste the Day and “Let It Go” from “Frozen.” We officially have a new winner for most eclectic Indians music selection since I’ve been doing this. Well done, Outman.
Mark Rzepczynski: “Down With The Sickness” by Disturbed.
John Axford: “Working Man” by Rush. If there’s one thing Canadians love, it’s other Canadians.
I’ve been delving into some end-of-April statistical oddities for an annual column on MLB.com, and a regular reader passed along this nugget via the Twitter:
All right, so that particular note is not what you’d call “statistically correct.” It is, however, “emotionally correct,” and as we know too well in life, in love, in politics, in religion and, above all else, in sports fandom, emotional correctness rules the day.
But right here, right now, right as the Indians are close to wrapping up what has been a not-too-encouraging April, let’s splash some statistical correctness on the canvas and speculate about what, if anything, it illustrates.
Here are some interesting numbers from the first four weeks of the season (all stats through April 28).
Upholding that point about the “emotional correctness” of the above defensive data, this is the Indians’ defensive runs saved tally, per Baseball Info Solutions. Not pretty (the Tigers are the only team with a worse mark, at minus-24). And while the various advanced defensive metrics often disagree with each other, they are in agreement on the Indians. Baseball Prospectus’ defensive efficiency tabulation shows they’ve converted just 67.9 percent of balls in play into outs, ahead of only Boston (67.4). And if good, old-fashioned errors are your point of emphasis, well, the Indians, with 24, offer plenty of those. Only the Dodgers, Nats and D-backs have more.
So by any measure, the Indians’ glovework has been grotesque. And as Terry Francona has stated time and again, this is not a team that can afford to give outs away on either side of the equation. This might, in fact, be the fundamental reason the Indians are where they are (last place in the Central), as they’ve already given up 15 unearned runs.
You knew they were sacrificing some D with Carlos Santana at third, but he’s actually been fairly low on their list of glaring defensive issues (and high on their list of glaring offensive issues). The early throwing and receiving woes of Yan Gomes are the most puzzling concern, because it had seemed a good guess that his defense would remain steady and his offense would slide in his sophomore year. Baseball, man. Funny game.
That’s the number of qualifiers with a higher batting average than Carlos Santana (.140). Only Curtis Granderson (.129) is lower. Santana has already hit into seven double plays (equaling last year’s total), his isolated power has dropped 82 points, and he’s just 3-for-25 from the seventh inning on. He has, however, drawn 21 walks, so his plate discipline remains intact, and that’s an encouraging sign as Francona sticks with him in the cleanup spot. The dude’s simply been in a deep slump, and Monday’s performance might be his first step out of it.
Lonnie Chisenhall’s (obviously unsustainable) batting average on balls in play. Hey, get it any way you can, and Chisenhall has gone from 25th man to a clear (and welcomed) lineup complication. He’s not necessarily enough of a defensive asset to necessitate moving Santana to DH, but he has become a must-start against right-handers, and Francona has to be tempted to give him more opportunity against lefties, too, even with Mike Aviles aboard. Could it be that Chisenhall, unlike Santana, benefits from the increased attention placed on every at-bat in the DH role? I have no earthly idea. I just know that something has clearly clicked for Chisenhall early on, and I’m as curious as anybody to see how Francona continues to adjust and adapt to this pleasant surprise.
This is the Tribe starting staff’s strikeouts-per-nine-innings mark. A profound area of difference between the 2012 (6.12) and 2013 (8.56) squads, it has remained at an elite level (second in baseball), despite the losses of Ubaldo Jimenez 9.6 K/9 last year) and Scott Kazmir (9.2). But we’ve certainly seen with Danny Salazar (11.0) and Carlos Carrasco (9.4) that there’s a lot more to quality starts than a quality K rate.
Speaking of Carrasco, this is (or should I say was) his opponents’ OPS the second time through the order. I wrote a bit about this recently, but Carrasco’s struggles to maintain over the course of an outing signaled what appears to be the end of his term as a starter on this staff. This was merely a 32 at-bat sample here in 2014, but it’s a .939 OPS the second time through the order in his career. And while 44 starts isn’t the greatest base upon which to build judgments, the Indians, given their issues elsewhere and the magnitude of this season, simply couldn’t afford to keep running Carrasco out there every fifth day and hoping he figures it out. Bring on Trevor Bauer or Josh Tomlin.
I mentioned the “magnitude of this season,” and much of that, of course, comes down to the pending free agency of the Tribe’s top starter. Masterson, though, has not been doing his part to maximize the remaining time and has, in fact, only affirmed our previously stated suspicion regarding his contractual requirements. For all the inconsistency in Masterson’s career, to date, this number is the chief concern at the moment. It’s his average fastball velocity, and it’s down almost three full ticks from his 2013 average of 91.6. Because Masterson throws 80-percent fastballs (everything else is a slider), this has been worthy of worry. However, against the Angels on Monday night, Masterson’s release speed on his four-seamer averaged out at 92.5, per BrooksBaseball.net, and the results, obviously, were much better. Keep an eye on this.
Aaron Harang’s ERA. Look, Harang is one of my favorite people in baseball, but even I couldn’t see much reason to keep him at the end of spring. Carrasco was out of Minor League options, and the Indians had to exhaust his opportunity as a starter. And while the slow-playing of Salazar was a sure sign the Indians would again be careful with his innings, he had nothing more to prove at Triple-A, where he’d just blow by people with his fastball. Harang deserved the chance to seek out a starting opportunity on an Atlanta squad decimated by injury, and Lord knows he’s made the most of it. It’s one of the great stories in baseball in the early going. But Harang is certainly benefiting from the NL and from one of the best defenses in baseball (the Braves rank first in defensive runs saved so far). The Indians, obviously, offered neither.
This is David Murphy’s batting average with runners in scoring position. He’s 8-for-16 with 16 RBI in those situations. That’s not sustainable, of course, and, for all we know, maybe Murphy goes the way of one Mark Andrew Reynolds in terms of offensive impact this calendar year. But remember that the Indians really felt this guy was a victim of poor luck in 2013, when he batted just .220 on balls in play. Their scouts and video guys saw a lot of hard outs. And thus far, in 2014, Murphy has been a hard out in those so-called clutch situations.
This is the average distance (in feet, of course) of Michael Brantley’s home runs and fly balls (per FanGraphs), a marked improvement over his 276 average last season. And remember, he’s done this primarily in cold weather. I like Brantley a lot, but I didn’t love the extension the Indians gave him only because it seemed to represent a fair arbitration market price – and not a bargain – for a player with so little pop. So if Brantley got hurt or regressed, where was the value? But as is quite often the case, I might have been totally wrong in assuming Brantley, who turns 27 next month, didn’t have much more power in the tank. He’s hitting the ball with more authority (his isolated power has jumped from .112 to .168, or from poor to slightly above average) and is on pace for 25 homers and 25 steals.
Those are Jason Kipnis’ batting average with nobody on base and with runners on. I’m not saying this is instructive of absolutely anything whatsoever. Just pointing it out.
Percentage of games Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw have appeared in. The bullpen, relatively speaking, has done its job, and John Axford, despite some walk woes and one stinker in Chicago, has held his own in the ninth. You just naturally worry about overuse of the key setup men when some of the starting spots have struggled to go deep.
The run differential. The Indians are the only AL Central club with a negative one. I guess that pretty much sums it up for now.
The good news is that the Indians have better reason to feel comfortable about the state of their starting pitching depth now than they did going into the year.
The bad news is they already have pretty ample reason to consider dipping into it.
Justin Masterson stopped his string of less-than-encouraging outings Friday night, but the rotation’s two weakest links – Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar – remain a work in progress and a source of interest.
Indeed, the hot hand of Trevor Bauer has to be a source of organizational temptation right about now, and clubs with large hopes and tiny room for error (especially in light of some current holes in the lineup and some sloppy defensive play) have to take the hot hands as they come.
That the Indians had so much riding on the young Danny Boy, who has just a little more than 500 innings of professional experience dating back to his 2007 rookie ball debut, was always a risk. The Indians don’t need him to carry their rotation — not yet, anyway. Still, the maximization of the window of the current core, particularly if Masterson walks (though I still think an All-Star break continuance of the contractual conversation is in the offing), is a much more embraceable idea if Salazar’s impressive stuff is in the strike zone.
Salazar, after all, has the greatest amount of upside of any member of this current crop of starters, Masterson included, and that’s what’s makes his 7.71 ERA and 1.929 WHIP through three outings so tough to stomach.
Those early numbers, though, do not necessitate a ticket to Triple-A. At that level, it’s quite possible he’d simply use his high-90s heat to overpower the opposition and gain nothing from the experience. Salazar’s struggles seem purely mental, and he’s better off working with the Tribe’s chief mental mechanic — pitching coach Mickey Callaway, who once turned a jalopy named Ubaldo Jimenez into a $50 million collector’s item — right now, even if it means taking his lumps.
“I think he came into the season trying to live up to what he did last year instead of going out and pitching and having fun,” Callaway said. “I talked to him [Friday] about that. I think he’s going to go out and have fun and not put too much pressure on himself.”
Let Salazar stay in the rotation. Give the kid some time.
Carrasco, though? Let’s just say the leash should be as short as his stamina in his last start in Chicago.
The Indians were rightly frustrated to hear Carrasco tell reporters he was “tired” two innings into that April 11 outing, when his velocity dipped from the 94-97 mph range to 90-92. If Carrasco did not already have a track record of mechanical mishaps and stamina issues, that would be one thing. But his career stats speak for themselves:
First time through the order: .252/.322/.384 opponent slash line (376 plate appearances).
Second time through: .337/.385/.543 (373).
Third time through: .328/.375/.560 (280).
Smells like a reliever to me.
Carrasco will get at least one more opportunity to assert himself in the starting role Sunday against the Blue Jays, and that’s one day before Jason Giambi’s planned activation from the disabled list will cause a little roster shuffling.
“He’s going to get the ball,” Callaway said of Carrasco. “We’ll see what he can do. We asked him to make a lot of mechanical adjustments in a short period of time, because he was out of [Minor League] options and we thought these mechanical adjustments were necessary for him to go out and succeed in the Major Leagues. That’s a tough thing to do. He’s still really battling the inconsistency with those mechanics. The one thing I do know is when he maintains those mechanics over the course of a game, that’s when he has some pretty good outings for us.”
The guess here — and it’s purely a guess — is that Carrasco will either extend his leash or get strangled by it Sunday, because the Tribe really can’t afford too many more clunkers.
Nor can they afford to let the suddenly stalwart Bauer waste away in Triple-A. Through three starts in the season proper — two in Columbus and one spot start against the Padres last week — he’s piled up quality innings and, undoubtedly, a healthy dose of confidence in his resuscitated delivery. His velocity is back, as is the feeling that the Indians took a worthwhile risk in targeting him in trade talks, despite Arizona’s obvious frustration with his approach.
The Indians’ had their own frustrations with Bauer last year. His decision to experiment with pitching out of the stretch in his own Chicago meltdown last summer was a veritable tragi-comedy. But he’s earned his way back into the Major League staff’s good graces with an eager-to-please attitude and a reclamation of mechanics and mindset that once made him successful.
“His last probably six outings — the last few in Spring Training and the three this season — have been great,” Callaway said. “He’s commanding the ball down with his fastball, throwing about 67 percent fastballs. He’s mixing pitches and throwing strikes.”
Right now, that sounds like a satisfying recipe for a rotation that entered the weekend with the third-highest ERA in the Majors. If Carrasco stumbles again Sunday, Bauer looks to be worth another look.
It’s not about overreacting to small samples. It’s about taking the hot hands when you can get them.