May 2011

“This time it’s for real”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

The Windians, as they are now known, have been a growing national curiosity pretty much since April 7, the day they completed a sweep of the Red Sox to improve to 4-2. From that point on, we’ve watched them climb up the “Power Rankings” on every baseball web site known to man, to the point where they are now tops on many such rankings, including our own here at MLB.com.

Now, if I had a dollar for every radio host who has asked me if this team is “for real,” I’d have… like… $12. And hey, that’s lunch, where I come from. Not too shabby.

Implicit in the question, of course, is the assumption that there might be some fluky elements assisting the Windians thus far. That’s fair, given that this team, all incremental improvements from the pitchers in the second half last season aside, really did come out of nowhere. I don’t think anybody’s expecting them to win 100 games.

But a seven-game lead is a seven-game lead is a seven-game lead. That’s what the Indians possess as the Red Sox return this week. And when it’s May 23 and you have a seven-game lead, well, that’s at least remotely real.

To me, Memorial Day is the perfect assessment point for a ballclub. For one, it’s a holiday, and what better way to spend a holiday than to relax with a Bud and a burger and reflect on either how good or how hapless you are? (I assess myself on Arbor Day every year, and it’s always worked for me.)

But Memorial Day is usually ideal because, by that point, a team has played somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 games, which is a nice base. The Wall Street Journal had an interesting story the other day that noted this: Since 1996, just nine percent of teams with a losing record on June 1 wound up with 90 wins. In that same period, the average correlation between a team’s win percentage on June 1 and season’s end is 0.76.

With that — and the Indians’ seven-game lead on the Tigers — in mind, I called up the records after 50 games of every AL Central winner since 1995 and found the following: All but one of those 16 teams were either in first place or within 2 ½ games of the division lead after 50 games. The only exception was the 2006 Twins, who were 23-27, 11 ½ back of the Tigers (who were 35-15 and would go on to finish second and in possession of the AL Wild Card).

So from a historical perspective in this division, the Indians are in pretty decent shape here.

Of course, their physical shape leaves a little to be desired at the moment. A significant setback for Grady Sizemore, whose “bruise” last year turned into microfracture surgery, would not be welcomed. But Sizemore is expected to run the bases this week and could be back by the weekend, so we shall see. The Travis Hafner oblique injury, even if it’s “only” a month, would bring him back just in time for the Indians to play nine straight games in NL parks, so it’s going to be a while before Pronk returns. The Alex White finger issue strikes me as the big one, because it attacks the one area where the Indians undoubtedly don’t possess a tremendous amount of depth, and that’s starting pitching. The Indians can only endure so much, and these hits can’t keep coming. But that’s true of any team.

The schedule will tell us a lot about the Tribe the next couple weeks. This past weekend’s sweep of the Reds was a nice start, and the next 13 games come against the Red Sox, at the Rays and Jays and against the Rangers.  But it’s not like the Indians beat up on a bunch of patsies to get to this point. Though I can’t exactly attest to this meaning a whole heck of a lot, ESPN.com has their “strength of schedule” as the best in baseball. And as significant as this current stretch might be from a national perspective, it’s the division play that ultimately matters most.

So… are the Windians for real? The standings say so, history says so and, yes, the power rankings say so. All this considered… yeah, I say so, too. And I’ll really be ready to say it if this holds up through Memorial Day (which, according to my calendar, is just a week away).

Now give me a dollar.

~AC

PS: Don’t miss the three-part series on this club that we ran on MLB.com today. Jordan Bastian hit on the influence of Manny Acta and Tim Belcher, while I wrote up the roster construction and the 10 turning points that led to this organization’s turnaround.

Support Diamonds and Dreams…

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

To hit the big time as a 10-year-old kid in Euclid, Ohio, was to play a Little League game at “The Palace,” the field the high schoolers called home. It’s dugouts had actual walls. There was a working scoreboard. And there were no dandelions in the outfield. It was heaven.

But even our worst fields in those days were well-groomed. Our equipment was also up to par. Why, I can still see the seams of the ball that hit me in the head at the 1990 Hot Dog Day (which I believe was some sort of All-Star Game in which you got free hot dogs for being selected… talk about a performance bonus). It was a nice ball. Even when knocked in the noggin, we were lucky kids.

Alas, there are plenty others who don’t have it so good. They don’t have the privilege of watching and playing baseball on well-equipped fields. That’s why I’ve teamed up with Diamonds & Dreams, sponsored by Chevrolet and MLB.

Diamonds & Dreams provides prizes, which include field makeovers, clinics and equipment packages for youth baseball communities across America. Anyone can enter for a chance to win the prizes as well as a trip for four to the MLB All-Star Game or a new Chevrolet. You can find out more and even play a mini baseball game here: http://on.fb.me/g2H59j

Diamonds & Dreams Baseball Field Makeovers (Photo Montage :30)

For those of you on Twitter today, please retweet my initial #playcatch tweet or start a game on your own that either includes the #playcatch hashtag or the link to the D&D Facebook tab: http://on.fb.me/g2H59j

Each unique “thrower” or retweet will earn one baseball to be donated to Cleveland Indians Charities, which will, in turn, find a good home for them in a needy local area.

~AC

“This is our kingdom of days”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

When I updated the CastroTurf archives last week, leading to a bit of an RSS snafu in which hundreds of old posts were published as “new,” one reader was bored inspired enough to create a Twitter account, @Pastrovince, to pull out past bits of excruciating minutiae and present them in the present. Those of us following along have had a good laugh at the days when Eric Wedge was touting Chris Gimenez as a potential everyday player and Ryan Garko was logging time in left field.

But Pastrovince got me thinking about how this unexpectedly excellent Indians team came together.

We are, after all, closing in on that Sparky Anderson-prescribed 40-game mark that will supposedly dictate whether this team is for real, and here the Indians are, still comfortably atop the standings in a weak AL Central. It has been pointed out elsewhere, but it bears repeating that the Tribe can go .500 the rest of the way and still finish with a respectable (and perhaps division winnable) 87 victories.

None of us saw this strong of a start coming (though, of course, some will try to claim they did). But I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at some points in the not-too-distant past that were particularly impactful in paving the way to what has already been an entertaining 2011 season.

The goal here is not to dwell on the obvious, such as the day Manny Acta was hired, the trades of CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez and Casey Blake that netted Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco, Justin Masterson and Carlos Santana, the microfracture surgery that repaired Grady Sizemore’s knee, the shoulder surgery that addressed Travis Hafner’s shoulder or even the (unappreciated at the time) trades that sent the “Benuardo” first base platoon to Seattle and brought in Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera.

All of those developments deserve their due, of course, but all of them are oft-discussed.

Rather, let’s look at 10 dates, in reverse order of importance, that seem much more significant in hindsight than they did at the time. And because I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting, feel free to suggest your own additions to this list in the comments section below.

10. June 3, 2010 – Raffy Perez shuts down the Tigers

I’ll leave it to Perez to explain what clicked here when he one day releases his autobiography, “Breaking the Silence: The Untold Story of Rafael Perez.” All I know is that this guy was so dominant down the stretch in ’07, somewhat ho-hum in ’08 and a disaster in ’09. Last year, he was well on his way to another disappointing year, posting a 7.20 ERA in the season’s first two months. But he pitched two scoreless innings against the Tigers on this night and really hasn’t looked back, once again becoming a major key to the Indians’ success, as you can’t overstate the importance of reliable left-handed relief in the late innings.

Beginning with this outing, Perez has appeared in 66 games and posted a 1.66 ERA. And, famously, he hasn’t done a single interview along the way. (In a strange way, I’d kind of hate to see that streak end.)

9. and 8. June 8, 2004 and June 7, 2006 – Tony Sipp snagged and Vinnie Pestano plucked

The MLB Draft is now a three-day event. Back when it was still a two-day setup, suffice to say the second day was no day to be adding impact talent to your future big-league bullpen. Sipp was the 1,333rd player taken in 2004, and Pestano was the 611th taken in 2006. Now, they are major cogs in what has been an efficient relief setup.

7. July 27, 2010 – Josh Tomlin spanks the Yanks

I mean, seriously… Josh Tomlin gives up just a run on three hits in seven innings? Against the Yankees? In his Major League debut? Nobody… and I mean nobody… saw that coming, and very few expected this to be much more than a one-hit wonder who caught the Yanks off-guard. To this day, there are still plenty who are waiting for Tomlin to implode, and, yes, it could happen, given his lack of raw “stuff.” But Tomlin proved in this outing — the ultimate confidence-builder — that when you consistently throw strikes and get good movement on your pitches, you can eat up even the most advanced competition, as well as innings. His next start in which he doesn’t last at least five innings will be his first. And it all began with this magnificent debut against a vaunted opponent. I’d like to think (and I don’t think it’s overly dramatic to suggest) that this game taught a lesson not only to Tomlin but to the rest of the pitching staff.

6. Feb. 10, 2011 – Orlando Cabrera signed

I wrote at the time that Cabrera would arrive here as a temporary “fixer” in the middle infield, and he’s more than lived up to the expectations of that role. But it was much more difficult to predict the kind of impact he’d have in this clubhouse and this dugout. This kind of stuff has a tendency to get overrated, but to see Cabrera work the dugout during close games, an inexhaustible ball of energy and personality who is not afraid to get in people’s faces to point out mistakes or otherwise just pump them up, is to understand why success has followed him everywhere he goes.

5. March 5, 2011 – Jason Donald hit by a pitch

Donald has been a magnet for injuries thus far in his professional career, and this one, which initially looked to be just a bruise but later turned out to be a small fracture in a bone in his left hand, cost him the opportunity to be the Indians’ Opening Day third baseman. At the time, it seemed this setback would drastically affect the Indians, one way or another, as Donald was still green at the hot corner and might have only been a placeholder for Lonnie Chisenhall anyway. Still, having Jack Hannahan as the only viable option to fill in at third didn’t look particularly promising.

But here we are two months later, and we can safely say Hannahan’s play at third base – the best this team has seen in nearly a decade – has made a profound impact on a contending club. And now there’s no need to rush The Chiz Kid.

4. June 27, 2009 – Mark DeRosa traded to the Cardinals

Maybe I’m misguided, but I don’t feel this trade gets a heck of a lot of attention, locally or nationally.

The Indians’ acquisition of DeRosa in the first place was a bit of a head-scratcher at the time, as it prolonged the Jhonny Peralta-at-short era, blocked Asdrubal Cabrera and rid the Tribe of three young pitchers in the upper levels of the farm system. And by June, when DeRosa was seeing time at first base and the corner outfield and it was clear Wedge really had no idea what to do with him, it was looking like a total dud of a deal.

But the Indians quickly redeemed themselves a month before the Trade Deadline, essentially announcing that they were punting on the ’09 season and dealing DeRosa for Chris Perez and a player to be named. That player to be named would, of course, turn out to be the drastically underwhelming Jess Todd, who is now Yankee property, but the acquisition of Perez alone was enough to make this a steal of a deal — one that has given the Indians that valuable commodity that is a reliable ninth-inning arm. (They also earned points with the writers for giving us that increasingly rare commodity that is a ballplayer with an actual, quotable opinion.)

3. Aug. 26, 2010 – Justin Masterson beats the A’s

I could be wrong, but looking back over the game logs and game stories, this seems to be the night that things began to click consistently for Masterson. He gave up a run in the second and had two on with two out – the sort of situation in which he would routinely implode last year – but he got out of that jam and then basically cruised for the remainder of his six innings of work to improve to 5-12. He threw 19 of 26 first pitches for strikes, earning acclaim from Acta.

Thus began a stretch in which Masterson would go 2-0 with a 1.63 ERA in four “starts” (one of which was a seven-inning relief appearance in which he replaced an injured Mitch Talbot in the first) before moving to the bullpen to preserve his innings. With the help of Tim Belcher, Masterson created checkpoints in his delivery that helped him down the stretch and propelled him to his thus far undefeated 2011 showing. If what we’re seeing is real (and there’s increasing reason to believe it is), then this guy that so many (myself included) were ready to send back to the bullpen last summer is, in fact, an ace.

Oh, by the way, this was also “Puppypalooza” night at Progressive Field. So… that’s pretty significant, too.

2. Nov. 30, 2007 – Brad Grant promoted to director of amateur scouting

When this move was made, the Indians were a little more than a month removed from ousting the Yankees from the Division Series and taking the Red Sox to the brink in the ALCS. Dopes like me were still talking about how the team was still built to contend in the years to come. So at the time, while this move certainly generated some headlines, it didn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserved, in retrospect.

John Mirabelli, who had been the architect of the Tribe’s previous six Drafts, was given an “expanded role in the procurement of amateur and professional talent,” and Grant took over the Draft itself. With Mirabelli still a major part of the Draft strategizing, it’s not fair to say these specific reassignments in roles were significant on their own. Rather, I’m picking this out as a symbolic date in which the Indians essentially announced that they were rethinking their approach to the scouting and acquisition of amateur talent. In the time since, we’ve seen them use their first-round picks on Lonnie Chisenhall, Alex White and Drew Pomeranz, with their 2010 Draft haul resulting in a $9.3 million total investment.

Thus far, White is the only member of those ’08, ’09 or ’10 Draft classes to reach the big leagues, but his arrival is significant. For the Indians to have a pitcher with his stuff and potential ready and waiting at the Triple-A ranks when an injury arose in the rotation has this organization light years ahead of where it was one, two or three years ago.

1. Nov. 6, 2009 – Tim Belcher hired as pitching coach

Throughout the managerial hiring process, I insisted in this space that the pitching coach would likely be an even more meaningful hire, given the state of the Tribe. I think all of us were more than a little curious to see where the Tribe would go with this one, and it was generally assumed they’d look outside the organization, as they did with Acta.

So it was certainly a surprise when the Indians promoted from within and went with Belcher, who had been an adviser to the organization. Belcher, after all, had no previous coaching experience at any level.

But the Indians, who had strongly suggested this hire to Acta (and Acta quickly concurred), knew the impact Belcher had made on some young arms in the system, behind the scenes. In the time since, we’ve seen how well the competitiveness he once displayed on the mound translates to this role, and we’ve seen how much the arms in place can improve when they heed Belcher’s advice about getting ahead in the count. That, more than anything, is why the Indians are, suddenly and unexpectedly, in contention.

~AC

“Pictures of her heroes on the wall”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

Last week, I wrote a column about some of MLB’s best outfield arms that included mention of the Cory Snyder “Gunsmoke” poster from the late ’80s.

This led to the stunning realization that nowhere in the vast recesses of the Internet did a picture of this poster exist. So I turned to you, the Castronauts, to help me out.

Unsurprisingly, somebody came through. Two somebodies, in fact. My heartfelt thanks go out to readers Lisa and Kylie for delivering this .jpg so that the world may once again appreciate this monumental piece of memorabilia. I think the wrinkles add to the mystique.

And even if you’re not a Cory Snyder fan, you can at least appreciate the fact that we’re all caught up now. Everything that has ever existed in the history of time is now available online. This was the last item unavailable.

~AC

PS: While we’re on the Snyder subject, a reader sent me this link.

“People find some reason to believe”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

On Twitter: @Castrovince

NOTE: This is an expanded version of the feature running on Indians.com and MLB.com today.

Almost certainly, there were some optimistic souls east of Clyde and west of Conneaut who saw this coming. Perhaps there was a clueless kid in Caledonia who thought CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee were still around.

But if we may speak in generalities here, then we can say that nobody without an affiliation or agenda was reasonably forecasting what we’ve seen to this point from the Cleveland Indians.

And if we may speak in specifics, nobody was predicting a 19-8 start that had the Tribe resting Monday with the best record in baseball, fresh off setting a club record for April victories (18) and safely at the forefront of the standings of a surprisingly winnable American League Central.

Even now, you’re much more likely to come across scouts, execs and analysts forecasting a fallback for Manny Acta’s club than you are of finding bona fide Tribe fever believers.

The Indians know this. They know there are skeptics who will label their showing, to date, as an April aberration that will prove to be a mirage by midseason.

“Did you ever notice that people don’t want to be wrong?” outfielder Shelley Duncan said. “I think sometimes there might be something that’s in their head that they want to believe. But since the general consensus doesn’t want to believe it, they don’t want to put their neck on the line.”

There might be some truth to that remark. But another truth is that only 16.7 percent of the season has elapsed, and the Indians, who field the second-youngest roster (average age: 27.8) in the Majors, still have a long, long way to go to prove they are fact and not fluke.

Here’s one sabermetric analysis to sum up the situation. Before the season began, Baseball Prospectus’ oft-cited PECOTA system had the Indians winning just 74 games this year. Now, the organization’s Playoff Odds Report gives the Tribe a 39.3 percent chance of making the playoffs, projecting the Tribe to go 63-72 the rest of the way for a final record of 82-80.

So the computers, much like many humans, still aren’t convinced the Tribe can keep up this pace, or anything near it.

Fan support has increased, most tellingly in the Tribe’s improved TV ratings. But it wasn’t until this past weekend, when the Northeast Ohio weather finally began to cooperate, that the Indians, who ranked last in the Majors in attendance last season, began to see more support at the turnstiles.

Still, the local enthusiasm has been somewhat tempered by the perils of the past. The Indians’ 2007 team, of course, came within a win of the World Series was beaten up by injuries and unmet expectations, then torn up by one blockbuster trade after another. Fans have been slow to embrace the rebuilding effort.

“People don’t want to get heartbroken again,” Duncan said. “You don’t want to put all your belief into something and not have it come true. So we’re just trying to create excitement.”

The Indians have certainly done that in these early weeks of 2011. In absence of much firm outside belief in their abilities, they keep showing up and keep executing to the best of their abilities.

And yes, they keep winning.

They’ve won in almost every way imaginable, from the small ball of a late-inning suicide squeeze to the big ball of a walkoff grand slam. Through it all, they’ve piled up quality starts, demonstrated dependable defense and, for the most part, avoided bullpen blemishes.

It’s been a fry cry from the 2010 team that went 69-93. In fact, one month in, this Indians team has already swept more series than that one. The Tribe has the best run differential in baseball, at +47, after finishing last season at -106.

What in the name of Andy Marte is going on here? Is the late Bob Feller pulling the switches from above? Did Charlie Sheen’s “winning” attitude displayed in “Major League” and announced in his bizarre media blitz have some sort of cosmic influence on this club?

Who knows? What we do know is that the Tribe’s strong start has, thus far, been sustained, even as some valuable pieces have fallen by the wayside.

“We lost two of our starters to the DL,” said closer Chris Perez, referring to Carlos Carrasco and Mitch Talbot, “and it’s just swept under the rug. It’s like, ‘OK, who we calling up?’ We just keep going. I think it shows how far this organization has come. I think there are other teams that could lose two-fifths of their rotation, like the Yankees, and start signing scrap-heap guys. We’re not doing that. We’re promoting guys from within that are talented.”

Jeanmar Gomez has been uneven in relief of Talbot in the rotation thus far, but top 2009 Draft pick Alex White had a solid debut Saturday, filling in for Carrasco. All along, Justin Masterson has evolved into a premier starting arm, and Josh Tomlin has been surprisingly unbeatable, too.

“Fausto [Carmona] has probably been the worst one, and coming out of Spring Training he was filthy and dominating,” Perez said. “He’s struggled the most and still been really good. The biggest question mark was getting quality starts, one through five, and we’ve done that.”

Indeed, the Indians’ rotation entered the off day tied with the Angels and the vaunted Phillies for the MLB lead in quality starts, with 20 in 27 games. Their starters have posted a 13-5 record with a 3.71 ERA and a .249 batting average against.

And when the starters have handed the ball over, they’ve handed it to a dependable relief corps that has posted a 3.08 ERA and .216 average against. Perez is 7-for-8 in save situations.

The pitching prowess has allowed the Indians to win in decidedly non-fluky fashion. This is not a club that’s simply bashed the opposition into submission (though the Indians do have the Majors’ fourth-most homers, with 34, and fourth-highest slugging percentage, at .445).

“You don’t see really crazy numbers,” Duncan said. “You don’t see guys with unreal statistics that you know they can’t keep up. You’ve got Masterson and Tomlin who haven’t lost a game yet, but don’t look at their win-loss record, look at the numbers of how they’ve pitched. That’s something I’ve been noticing, which makes me more encouraged. We’re not putting godly statistics up there. And we still have a couple guys who haven’t really started hitting, and we still have some young guys who are going to get better and better.”

With youth comes unpredictability, which the Indians feel they’ve helped counter with the additions of veterans Orlando Cabrera and Adam Everett in the infield. Jack Hannahan was a surprise addition to the roster when Jason Donald suffered a hand injury in Spring Training, and Hannahan’s contributions on the hot corner — a former defensive black hole for this club — have been a big boost, as well. Anything they get at the plate from Hannahan, who has delayed any need to rush top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall, is a bonus, and they’ve already gotten more than they expected.

“I don’t think we’re making overly exceptional plays,” Masterson said. “But we’re making the plays. And as pitchers, we’ve done a decent job of making pitches when we need to.”

But while strong pitching and solid defense carries a team a long way, Cabrera also points to the psychology that has been instilled here from day one of Spring Training. This was a young team that shrugged off losses as par for the course in 2010.

Now, the Indians come to the ballpark expecting to win.

“That’s one of the things Manny and I came to tell the guys,” Cabrera said. “Losing is just… a loss. We lost that night, we move on, and we come out on top the next game. It’s not like we’re losing, meaning we’re going to lose all the time.”

It is often said that no team is truly defined until it endures an extended stretch of losses. The Tribe was tested a bit last week, when Perez blew a save in Kansas City and the team was swept in a two-game, rain-shortened series in Minnesota. But the Indians quickly bounced back with a 6-0 homestand that included three victories over the Tigers in which they scored the winning run in their last at-bat each time.

A popular opinion is that a more meaningful measure of misfortune — the kind of losing stretch all clubs go through at one time or another in a 162-game schedule — might be a more accurate indicator of this club’s ultimate staying power.

But Acta, for one, dismisses that notion.

“I saw these guys tested last year, and they were younger with less experience and minus the solid veterans that we added to this ballclub,” Acta said. “I don’t worry about it. The main thing is, when that happens, you have to have the right people in your clubhouse, and I think we have them right now.”

They’re also in the right division. For while the Indians have stormed out the gates, the White Sox and Twins, the supposed darlings of the division, have been bleeding losses, entering Monday a full 10 games back of the Tribe. The Tigers, 7 ½ games back, haven’t been much better, while the Royals, 4 ½ games back at 15-13, have been another big surprise dismissed by some as a fluke.

“Everything’s really falling into place for us, if you look at it,” Perez said. “It’s there for the taking, but it’s not going to be easy. The top teams behind us, they’re going to make a run. They have too much talent. It might be one of those five-team races where nobody is really leading the pack. That’s why it’s nice coming out to this great start, because, if we do stub our toe, we could still be there.

“That’s all we can ask for is to have a chance.”

Amazingly, that’s what the Indians bought themselves in this season’s first month. Nobody predicted they’d have it, and few seem to think they can sustain it. But with each win comes a little more belief.

~AC

Apologies to the RSS crowd

Most of the CastroTurf archives were lost when we converted to a new blogging software. They were restored this morning, thus causing chaos for those of you who subscribe to this blog on your RSS feed.

My apologies to those folks, but we’re all caught up now. If nothing else, hope you enjoyed the brief trip back in time.

~AC

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