May 2013

“Yesterday I went shopping, buddy, down to the mall”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

crockerparkThis great debate erupted in the media dining room at Progressive Field about the proper way to identify Westlake’s Crocker Park.

Well, I guess it wasn’t a debate so much as it was one sportswriter (and Crocker Park resident) willing to go to great lengths to argue with much more sensible, reasonable individuals about whether or not he lives at a mall.

The writer in question shall remain nameless here, but he would prefer Crocker Park be identified as a “High-End Shopping District,” rather than an “outdoor mall.”

His point, to the extent that he had one, is that if Browns and Indians players are inhabiting Crocker Park’s self-described luxury apartments and Michael Symon can open his burger joint there and Coach can sell its overpriced purses there, it is as high-end as a person could come to expect in suburban Cleveland.

Maybe that’s true, but a rebuttal — and a pretty darned good one, at that — is offered merely by reading aloud some of Crocker Park’s retail offerings and evaluating whether the term “high-end” indeed applies:

Gap (we’re off to a bad start)
Bath & Body Works (getting colder)
Nordstrom Rack (not Nordstrom, mind you, but the place where Nordstrom sells all the stuff that didn’t sell)
Best Cuts (do we really need to keep going?)
OfficeMax (seriously… what are we doing here?)
Giant Eagle (the high-end crowd doesn’t typically go crazy for Fuel Perks)

And here’s the kicker, which the Crocker Park web site is proud to announce as “Coming Soon!”…

Sears Appliances (not to be confused with the Sears Appliances on Rodeo Drive)

Understand, none of this is meant as a knock on Crocker Park, which is certainly more high-end than the wheat pasture that used to inhabit that land. It’s just that Crocker Park is one roof shy being the kind of place where you’d find a Spencer’s Gifts. It’s a mall. A mall where people can live and dine and socialize. But a mall just the same. It has a Buckle.

This is, however, one of the great traits of the human species, our ability to reframe reality to our liking, be it positive (Parmatown Mall, by the way, is now known as “The Shoppes of Parma”) or negative. And we see this in baseball — simply as a byproduct of it being played every freaking day — all the time.

We see it, especially, with these 2013 Indians, who have been streaky enough this season to offer plenty of opportunity for debate. You’re either convinced that Ubaldo’s turned a corner and the rotation is going to hang tough or you’re just waiting for the wheels to fall off and burn. You’re either undaunted by that stretch of six losses in seven games and the betrayal provided by the bullpen or you’re convinced Chris Perez is one setback away from shoulder surgery and Vinnie Pestano’s going to blow out his elbow and a funk is going to envelop the late-inning efforts. You’re either utterly enamored with the offense or concerned it is too home run-reliant and strikeout-prone. The Trevor Bauer-penned theme song is either music to your ears or 99 seconds of your life you wish you had back.

I’m on record, for better or worse, that I believe this is a fundamentally different ballclub than the ones in recent years past. I don’t believe the Indians are going to completely collapse. Do I think they can give the Tigers an honest, earnest run for their money (quite literally) in the AL Central? Well, that’s complicated, to say the least. But with two Wild Cards on the table, if you can simply hover north of .500 into the late summer, you’re in the conversation. And this is a town that could use a good conversation.

But the Indians will frustrate you, no doubt. They have a way, at times, of playing into the less-than-positive perceptions and negative noise. Certainly, when a cemented strength such as the bullpen becomes such a gaping, glaring hole in such a short span, it rattles the senses. But just as adamantly as the mall resident defended Crocker Park, Terry Francona defends his ‘pen. He seems genuine in his enthusiasm over the bullpen depth guys like Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw have afforded him. He is unfazed by the current absence of a proven closer, and with good reason. Look around the game: The “proven closer” label is almost worthless, anyway.

Because the Indians are so power-prone and because their rotation doesn’t have a great deal of track record on which to rely and because all bullpens – not just the Tribe’s – can be a disaster waiting to happen, the streaks and stretches, both good and bad, are going to keep coming. This is not what you’d call an elite team — not a “high-end” team, if you will — and so at times it can be an utterly maddening team.

But it is a team that’s already shown it is capable of some serious, sustained runs of positive play and one that could make things awfully interesting around here in the months that matter.

Maybe even the months when the weather cools and you need a coat to stroll the grounds of that outdoor mall in Westlake.

~AC

PS: Do people still do “shout-outs”? Is that still a thing? Because I want to send a shout-out to Ramon Diaz.

Ramon has worked for the Indians — first as a batboy, then as a clubhouse attendant — for the last eight seasons, and it’s been a real pleasure to get to know him all this time. Born with nothing, Ramon’s worked for everything he’s got. And he’s got a lot. Degrees from St. Ignatius and Columbia University, an extensive shoe collection and, now, a job opportunity with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation in New York City (where I assume he will be pushing hard for Trevor Bauer’s lucrative rap deal).

Because he’s headed to bigger and better things, this is Ramon’s final homestand with the Indians, and I just wanted to use this space to wish him well. Ramon used to ask me for my “Writing Tip of the Day.” I ran dry after about three days because, well… you’ve read this blog, so you know my availability of advice in this area is probably pretty limited. But as a writer, I do know a good story when I see one, and Ramon’s is both a great life story and a great baseball story. The connections and experiences he’s made in his time with the Tribe will stay with him wherever he goes, and I’m sure glad I got to cross paths with him along the way.

PPS: You want to know something not-so-fun? When the Indians rattled off wins in 18 of 22 games, my boss and I wondered, “What’s the worst that could happen?” I asked Elias to look up the worst final records among teams that won 18 of 22 at any point, thinking that would probably be a pretty high floor.

Well, uh, it’s not.

Behold:

1978 A’s: 69-93
2004 Rays: 70-91
1978 White Sox: 71-90
1914 White Sox: 70-84
1994 A’s: 51-63
2008 Tigers: 74-88
1966 Reds: 76-84

And there were several more in that range, but you get the idea. The lesson, as always: Never underestimate how long a 162-game schedule really is.

“People find some reason to believe”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

ImageAll right, fine, I’ll bite:

I believe in the Indians.

I believe that what’s happening these last few weeks — the wins in 18 of their last 22, the plus-54 run differential in that span, the relentless pursuit of runs even against Cy-caliber arms and the opportunistic approach to the late innings — is more omen than mirage.

I believe that this is a deeper, more balanced, more complex club than the ones that faded — and faded thoroughly — in 2011 and ’12.

I believe that while a manager’s in-game effect is often overstated, the best ones know how to instill a culture of camaraderie and confidence, and that’s what Terry Francona has done here.

I believe Francona when he praises the job first-year pitching coach Mickey Calloway has done with the pitching staff, which is exceeding all expectations.

I don’t believe that the rotation will sustain a 3.24 ERA (which is what it has posted in this 22-game stretch) over the long haul, but I do believe that it doesn’t necessarily have to.

I believe a versatile lineup with a deep bench, an array of switch-hitters and a ton of speed and power is dangerous enough that you need only an average assemblage of starting arms to survive.

I believe that, one way or another, the Indians can patch together at least an average rotation, particularly with the way Justin Masterson and Zach McAllister have looked from Day 1 and the way Ubaldo Jimenez has been pitching lately.

I believe bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. when he says this team has that “’95 style. You just come to the ballpark expecting to win and never say die.”

I also believe Alomar when he compares this club to ones of recent past and says, “We have more depth. When you give guys a rest, you’re not losing anything. That’s the big difference between the past and now. You’ve got guys with track records — like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn and Jason Giambi — who have been in winning situations before and can help the young guys stay on the path and keep from collapsing.”

I believe that feeling rubs off on guys like Ryan Raburn and Yan Gomes and helps them make the most of their limited playing time.

I believe the Indians are not one injury away from a complete collapse at any given moment, as they were in ’11 and ’12.

I believe that if the Indians are still in the hunt come July, general manager Chris Antonetti will try to be as creative and aggressive in the summer trade market as he was in the winter one.

I believe his aggressiveness and creativity won’t have to be quite as desperate as it was in ’11, when he sold the farm for Ubaldo.

I believe that there won’t be many days like Monday, when Vinnie Pestano, Chris Perez and Joe Smith each served up a late-inning home run.

I believe that the Indians were awfully lucky to win a game in which Pestano, Perez and Smith each served up a late-inning home run.

I believe it’s better to be lucky than good.

I believe the Indians are both.

I believe the AL Central is more interesting than expected.

I believe the Tigers’ bullpen is making it more interesting than expected.

I believe the next two days, when the Indians face the Tigers’ Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander in succession, will tell us quite a bit about the current state of both clubs.

I believe we’ll probably read too much into the results.

I believe it’s also kind of fun to read too much into the results.

I believe that it’s the eighth week of a six-month baseball season, so my beliefs are very much subject to change.

I believe that, in Cleveland especially, some part of you is always waiting for the catch, the drawback, the booby trap.

But I believe that it’s hard to watch a team win 18 of 22, sometimes in the wildest of ways, and not believe.

~AC

“All you want to do is believe”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

ImageThe Indians have been a contending team at this late (and by late, I of course mean … not at all late) juncture of the season schedule for three consecutive years. They have established a tradition of early season excellence. Or at least competence, which, even when followed by second-half heartbreak, at least beats the alternative option of an all-uphill effort in which you truly feel each and every step of the 162-game schedule.

Now, contention means different things at different times. A year ago at this time, the Indians were in first place in the AL Central, but you still had to talk yourself into believing it. Their standing was a product more of their surroundings than their own success. Their top two starters (Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez) had ERAs north of 5.00, their best hitter (Shin-Soo Choo) wasn’t hitting, their stopper (Derek Lowe) was striking out nobody and Jose Lopez, Aaron Cunningham, Shelley Duncan and Johnny Damon — none of whom are even in the Majors now — were getting plenty of playing time.

That Tribe team was still in “contention” — by the loosest definition of the word — in late July, but not enough to compel Chris Antonetti to add anything more than Brent Lillibridge (no, he’s not in the Majors now, either). When they won just five games in August, it felt more cognitively correct than when they won 16 in May.

I’d say 2011’s “contention” was more believable than ‘12, if only because of the mathematics involved. The Indians went 30-15 out the gate. I still can’t wrap my head around that. While the Tigers certainly had star power, they had not yet gone overboard in their pursuit of a monster middle-of-the-order and they had not yet assembled a resplendent rotation beyond Justin Verlander. It didn’t really seem a foregone conclusion, as it did in ’12, that the Tigers would wake up one day and begin dominating the division.

Besides, did I mention? 30-15! All suspicions that the Indians were “out over their skis,” as one scout told me at the time, were countered a little bit by the simple fact that the Indians had bought themselves some mathematical breathing room. It is, after all, hard to screw up being 15 games over .500 (and seven games up in the division) more than a quarter of the way through the schedule.

Naturally, they finished under .500.

All right, so here we are again. We’re basically at the quarter-pole of the season, and the Indians are contending. Through 39 games, they are 22-17, a half-game back of Detroit. More to the point, they’ve won 14 of their last 18 and are “undefeated” in their last nine series (five wins, four splits). They are, as Yankees manager Joe Girardi put it the other day, “a much different club” than they were even a month ago.

“They’re swinging the bats really, really well,” Girardi said. “There’s balance in their lineup, and there’s speed.”

The pitching has come a long way in a short time, too. If you watched Masterson shut down Girardi’s Yanks for nine innings Monday afternoon, what you saw was a bona fide ace effort on a day when the Indians had to preserve their bullpen. If you were the most pessimistic of people when it comes to Jimenez (and my hand is raised), even you had to be intrigued by the way he tamed the Tigers in a ballpark where he has traditionally had nothing but trouble. I remain skeptical about a guy who had to, in his own words, “erase everything,” shortly after a seven-week Spring Training camp, but not defiantly so. Furthermore, Zach McAllister continues to defy expectations based off his Minor League career, Scott Kazmir continues a strong comeback effort and Trevor Bauer seems to get a little bit better with each spot start. Where once I compared the Tribe’s rotation outlook to turnpike dining, they are now starting to resemble that dive off the side of the road that has surprisingly good burgers. Hey, that’s improvement.

Anyway, it’s the lineup, when it’s rolling, that makes this team inherently fun to watch. And while that lineup has provided enough power to push the Tribe to nine blowout wins, the most compelling stat is that the Indians have won 10 of their 13 one-run games. For that, you can thank the timely hitting, a defense that has been steady if not always showy and, of course, the continuing reliability of the relief corps, even though Vinnie Pestano has been missed.

How does all this compare to 2011? I have no freaking clue. I know the division is deeper now than it was then, thanks to the Tigers’ elite standing and the Royals’ revamped rotation. But I also know there’s a little bit more conviction in that Tribe clubhouse, given that it’s a more veteran club that can actually account for these early season accomplishments, to say nothing of the two-time World Series-winner at the top dugout step.

“Then [in ‘11], we were raking, and it was, at times, maybe playing a hair out of our shoes, if we were being honest and evaluating it correctly,” Masterson said. “This year, we have guys who are still not where they’d like to be and everybody’s not perfect every night. But the pitching is picking up the offense, the offense is picking up the pitching at times, the defense is helping everybody, and the bullpen’s as great as it’s always been. There’s a little bit more consistency, guys are more comfortable, and I like where we’re at and what we can do for the rest of the season.”

ImageIt’s a good sign that the offense has been as productive as it has (sixth in MLB in runs per game, fifth in on-base percentage, first in slugging percentage) despite Michael Bourn missing more than 60 percent of the games so far, Lonnie Chisenhall earning a demotion to Triple-A and Jason Kipnis starting rather slowly. The performance of the bench has been encouraging, and, among the regulars, the only guys who might be accused of playing out of their minds are Mark Reynolds and Carlos Santana. Reynolds won’t keep hitting a home run every 11 at-bats or so, and Santana won’t slug at a .600 clip. But Reynolds’ pure power is certainly not a novel development, and Santana strikes me as a breakout-player-in-waiting finally learning how to separate the offensive and defensive sides of his game.

Overall, the offense, it seems, still has more upside than downturn in its near future. And an offense this explosive can do quite a bit to overcome a merely average starting staff.

Again, though, I don’t know what this means. I don’t necessarily know that this team is any more equipped to handle 162 than the ’11 and ’12 teams were. I can certainly speculate that it is, based on that aforementioned managerial influence and the track records on the roster. But as this 2013 club began to come together over the winter, it became clear that it was going to be an especially difficult club to forecast.

The good news is that it’s a team that’s interesting and, in keeping with the Tribe’s newfound tradition of early season strength, in contention at the quarter-pole. The better news is that there is a decent degree of believability that this is not necessarily the peak.

~AC

“You see where I’m coming from?”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

Naturally, nothing I write in this space can compare to the captivating nature of the Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight story. Or frankly, to the entertaining nature of the now-viral interview with Charles Ramsey.

ImageBut if you’re up for a distraction from the biggest story in Cleveland — or anywhere — right now, let’s talk a little bit about the Indians, winners of seven of eight. It’s been a stretch worthy of a Ramsey-like thumbs up, and, in it, we’ve seen the “dead giveaway” as to what makes the Tribe offense click:  

Mark Reynolds’ 460-foot home run Monday night landed just shy of the scoreboard that sits atop the left-field bleachers at Progressive Field — a prodigious poke lacking only the satisfying smack of advertising signage that accompanied a blast off Mark McGwire’s bat in these parts back in ’97.

Even in batting practice, you simply don’t see many baseballs hit in that area. But what you do see, thus far in this 2013 season, are plenty of balls leaving the yard when the Indians are at the plate.

They hit four of them in Monday’s series-opening victory over the A’s, and they’ve averaged 1.52 per game this season, more than any other team in the Majors.

“That’s a good category to lead,” Terry Francona said.

Indeed, hitting a home run every 23.05 at-bats, as the Indians are, stands out at a time when the Major League average is one per 32.64 at-bats.

But what also stands out about the Indians is the way that profound production has come not necessarily in a steady flow but in a series of flamboyant bursts.

“If you look at our games,” Reynolds said, “we’ve either been getting blown out or blowing people out.”

If we define a “blowout” as a game decided by five or more runs, as Baseball Reference does, then the Indians have been involved in 12 of them — seven wins and five losses — in 29 games played. It’s made for somewhat erratic work for the back-end relievers, and it’s also ensured that the Indians are either as entertaining and enticing an offense as exists in the game today or, well, a bit on the dull side, depending on when you happen to tune in. They’ve scored 7.8 runs per game in their wins and 2.29 runs per game in their losses.

It is difficult, then, to get a real sense of what kind of team the Indians are, especially when their prized leadoff pickup, Michael Bourn, has been limited to just 10 games played because of injury.

But if these outburst of offense are any indication of the Tribe’s capability as the weather warms, then this could be a club that outhits the deficiencies in a starting staff that, while showing improvement, has a 4.85 ERA on the season. That’s not a great equation, of course, but the Indians will take whatever works.

For now, the offense seems to work on a “boom or bust” cycle, though Francona doesn’t see it that way. What he sees, he said, is a team that is not totally reliant on the long ball.

“I think we have a team that has a lot of speed,” he said. “We swing and miss sometimes. I think we knew that [going into the season]. I think the last week or 10 days, we’ve done a really good job of extending innings, then taking advantage of it. We’ve been a little better situationally.”

You saw that, notably, last Friday, when Jason Kipnis caught the Twins off-guard with a perfect bunt single to the left side of the infield, scoring Yan Gomes from third. But when 41 percent of your games are decided by five runs or more (and more than half are decided by four or more), such situational skills don’t always shine through. The Indians’ offseason acquisitions brought them two things that were obvious in their absence last season — power and speed — but thus far only one of those elements has made many headlines.

Image“There hasn’t been a lot of opportunity for bags,” Reynolds said. “Once the sample sizes get bigger and we play in closer games, especially with Bourn back [possibly later this week], I think you’ll see the speed and the little things play out.”

In the meantime, the Indians survive largely on the big things, with Reynolds’ 460-footer (one of 10 homers he’s hit in what has been a sensational start) chief among them. And they survive with what has been a productive bench. With Bourn out, Ryan Raburn slid into starting duties and turned in the hottest stretch of anybody in baseball last week (13-for-22 with four homers, one double and nine RBI, earning Player of the Week honors), and Mike Aviles (.744 OPS in 56 plate appearances) and Jason Giambi (.821 OPS in 36 plate appearances) have also made positive contributions in limited time.

“That’s how your team starts to get personality and form its identity,” Francona said. “We’ve used everybody on our ballclub.”

The Indians have largely hovered around .500, and that might wind up being the identity of a team with so much unproven on the pitching staff. Twelve of their 15 wins have come against teams that currently have a losing record. But we’ve said all along that if that starting staff can just be league average (and Ubaldo Jimenez’s last two starts have been a particularly encouraging step toward that direction), the Indians’ bats could make this an interesting season.

Thus far, the bats have done their damage in bunches, equal parts fascinating and frustrating, depending on the day. When they connect, they take this team a long way.

Up to 460 feet, in fact.

~AC

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