April 2014

“Einstein is scratching numbers on his napkin”

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

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).

Minus-23

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.

188

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.

.500

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.

9.02

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.

1.022

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.

88.7

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.

0.85

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.

.500

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.

284

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.

.326, .163

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.

50

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.

Minus-18

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.

~AC

“I feel a change comin’ on”

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

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.

ImageThat 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.

~AC

“We swore we’d live forever”

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

Jason Kipnis didn’t get the bunt down in the ninth inning Wednesday night. But that’s not the part of the story that intrigues Terry Francona.

It was what Kipnis did afterward.

kipnisFor one, Kipnis made the most of what had quickly become a two-strike count by advancing the runner from second to third on a fielder’s choice. He then swiped second to set up the two-run single from Michael Brantley that would give the Tribe the go-ahead in what turned out to be a 6-4 win.

Equally important, though, Kipnis offered no complaint about getting the bunt signal in the first place, even though it was a rare request for a No. 3-hole hitter.

“You see a lot of guys not get the bunt down,” said Francona, “strike out, come back, and they’re mad at you because you asked them to bunt. And we lose.”

The Indians won last year in large part of the system of selflessness Francona helped instill. With the wins came the so-called culture, the camaraderie and the looseness with which this club gets the most out of its talent and has fun doing so.

And with all of the above has come, in recent weeks, the contractual stability that will keep this club largely intact for the long haul.

Kipnis’ six-year, $52.5 million deal was announced Friday as an appetizer to a highly anticipated home opener. It was the latest in a string of affordable extensions that also roped in Brantley (four years, $25 million) and Yan Gomes (six years, $23 million).

Staff ace Justin Masterson is, to this point, left out of the loop, given that the going average annual rate for established starters – even on short-term deals – can be a punitive one for a small-market club. For his part, Masterson still holds out hope he’ll join his buddies in the extension assembly line at some point this season, and Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said Friday that the Kipnis/Masterson equation was not an either/or. The club still has the financial flexibility to make something happen, should talks re-engage at, say, the All-Star break.

“I imagined a lot of these [deals] would be happening here in some way, shape or form,” Masterson said. “There’s still some hope there. It’s just about what’s reasonable. We’re all working through it.”

On that front, the future forecast for the rotation is still largely uncertain. But what the Indians have accomplished in this signing spree is a sense of stability in the lineup that simply didn’t exist a relatively short time ago. And if you ask their AL Central peers, they’ll tell you it was a lineup worth locking into.

“Their parts all work together,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “They can run, they can steal, they hit-and-run, they’ve got great bunters in situations, they’ve got a little bit of pop in there, too. They’re a tough baseball team. There’s really no breaks in their lineup.”

Compare the Tribe’s situation now, with the core largely intact and 16 members of the 25-man roster under contractual control through at least 2016, to the winter before 2012, when a certain segment of the fan base was misguidedly freaking out about the lack of veterans under control beyond that pending season, and it’s night and day.

The industry perception of the Indians has evolved, as well. The arrival of Francona and Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn before the 2013 season was a welcomed departure from the days in which the Indians were akin to second-class citizens in the free-agent circuit. The Wild Card playoff entry that followed legitimized the rhetoric and created an aura of expectation for 2014.

“Having stability is good,” Francona said, “but having it with the right guys is better.”

Brantley’s contract is a reasonable estimation of his arbitration value, with a bargain-basement bid on what would have been his first free-agent year. It will be an equal exchange of dollars for production if Brantley stays the course. If he improves in the power or speed department, it could be a steal.

The Gomes contract is, in some ways, a more courageous one on the part of the Indians, simply because the sample-size upon which it was conceived is so tiny. Of course, that’s why the total investment is so relatively tiny, too, and Gomes seems capable of living up to his end of the bargain with his defensive input alone.

As for Kipnis, the Indians already controlled him through 2017, which is his age-30 season. So you could argue there wasn’t a great deal of incentive to rush to the bargaining table, knowing what we know about how rapidly second basemen can start to show their age. That said, a $52.5 million guarantee seems like a great value, especially when compared to the six-year, $72.5 million extension Brandon Phillips signed with the small-market Reds just two years ago — <i>entering</i> his age-30 season.

The 27-year-old Kipnis is already considered an elite second baseman, with even more upside if he can put together two halves as strong as his first half from ‘13. The Indians have reason to feel it’s coming, in part because Kipnis has already demonstrated the diligent work ethic it took to convert to second base from the outfield in the first place. In the wake of a year in which Kipnis finished third among MLB second basemen in OPS (.818), second in stolen bases (30) and third in RBI (85), he and the Indians finally found common contractual ground, more than two years after they first engaged in extension talks.

Naturally, this deluge of deals lends itself to comparisons to the early 1990s, when John Hart and the Indians practically invented the extension scheme. But in today’s game, it’s the only way to do business. The key, of course, is having guys worth investing in. The Indians are fortunate not only to have core pieces that fit the formula but also genuinely work well together and demonstrate the selflessness it takes to succeed without superstars.

“When you have teams that are beating you and laughing in the dugout, too, guys [on the other side] are like, ‘We don’t know what to do with this team,’” Kipnis said. “That’s the best atmosphere to be in.”

It’s an atmosphere the Indians are going to great lengths to maintain.

~AC

PS: In case you missed it, a feature on the first 20 years and the next 20 years of Progressive/Jacobs Field, as well as Tom Hamilton’s Top 10 memories (so far) at the ballpark.

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