May 2014

“Yeah, we went down swingin'”

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

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.

Bad.

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.

chicagoThat 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).

baltimoreOur 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.

~AC

“Maybe everything that dies someday comes back”

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

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:

LeBron James.

victorIn Cleveland.

“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.

~AC

“Hey baby, they’re playing our song”

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

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.

musicYes, the tunes have been limited this year to a scant 15 seconds, barely enough time to determine what, exactly, Mann is Buzzin’ about each time Nick Swisher steps to the plate.

(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…

kluberDanny 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.

~AC

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