“Einstein is scratching numbers on his napkin”
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.