Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Clash of the Mediocre Titans

We've got to get it going and we've got to get it going now.
-Jake Westbrook

The New York series wasn’t exactly the massacre that some fans (Cleveland or otherwise) may lead you to believe. Cause for concern? Yes. Painful? Absolutely. Yet, despite getting absolutely thrashed by the Evil Empire and humiliated at the hands of the local bandwagon fans (forgive them Jobu, they know not what they do) the Tribe is still, still tied for first place in the central division as I write this.

What the hell happened to the AL Central? It went from the toughest division in baseball (on paper) to the NL West circa 2005. Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t be more grateful that Detroit has sucked as bad as us, but come on. Is anyone going to try and win this division? Should we just give the playoff berth to Philly out of pity and call it a season? Enough already.

The Baseball Gods have lined these two former juggernauts up for 5 meetings over a stretch of 10 days to decide the division. Yes, the division. The Tribe has hit rock bottom after getting kicked around by New York the upcoming Detroit series may make or break the team’s confidence. The Tribe has to snap out of this funk and break free from the back and forth garbage that constitutes a pennant race in this division.

Like I've said before, this team should not even think about winning the wild card. Unless New York goes into a highly unlikely tailspin, Cleveland has a very slim chance at taking the wild card berth. Taking the division crown at this point certainly seems like an easier proposition than battling Seattle, New York, Anaheim, and Boston for the wild card (yes, I was wrong about Seattle and New York earlier in the season, but I see them taking their respective division races down to the wire now).

New York was not a defining series for Cleveland’s regular season; important, but not definitive. Cleveland's season will live or die based on how they play against Detroit. Hopefully the team is able to endure the enormous pressure of these games and finally break through in the standings.

I’m hoping the familiarity with Detroit will make it easier on the players to get locked in and not look so listless. There’s definitely been a rivalry brewing between Cleveland and Detroit the last two years and I hope the leaders in the clubhouse exploit it for all it’s worth.

Pointing Fingers

After suffering though this slump for nearly a month and a half now, I'm having a hard time defending Wedgie or Shelton with much enthusiasm. Just how much of the blame do the manager and hitting coach deserve though? Well, unless you’re a player or an especially privileged member of the press, chances are you have no idea who’s to blame.

Wedge could’ve been berating players left and right during that pitiful New York series. Shelton might be living out of the film room and offering 24 hour, private batting cage sessions for his struggling players. You would hope something along those lines is going on in the Indian’s clubhouse, but I certainly wouldn’t expect (nor want) anybody who knows better to speak out about it. You really want to sink the ship? Have a player spout a vote of no confidence in his manager during a post-game interview.

It's been said many times before, but there really is a limited amount that a hitting coach can help his hitters. Players at this level know what they're doing and it's not like the hitting coach is going to be messing with anyone's mechanics right now. The hitting coach is basically there to remind players of what got them to the bigs and make sure they keep their approach consistent, maybe helping them tweak their approach for a particular situation or pitcher.

Now the secondary role of the hitting coach is to keep his hitters motivated and focused. I'm convinced the Tribe's offensive slump is a mental problem, but I have no evidence that the hitting coach has not been doing his job in that department.

The onus is on the players at this point, there's only so much Shelton can do for these guys. He can lecture the players all he wants, but if they don't execute in the end, none of that matters.

If Shelton is doing his job and doing everything he can in his power to try and get his players focused (there's no direct evidence whether he is or not) then he does not deserve to be fired. He can't baby sit these guys 24/7, at some point, the players have to take some accountability and do their job.

On the other end of the bench, one of Wedge’s primary duties is to keep the players focused, motivated, and ready to go each game. Like I said, nobody knows how fired up Wedge gets behind closed doors, but as far as I can tell, he has the respect of his players. Respect for a manager can be every bit as effective as aggression or intimidation as a source of motivation and focus. Wedge has maintained a similar managerial style for almost five years now, I think the guy knows how to run the team.

Wedge is far from perfect, but it’s amazing how much his ability to lead the team comes into question at times. If he really had that poor of a relationship with his players and staff, would Shapiro have extended him in the middle of this season? I doubt it.

Wedge and Shelton’s body of work suggests that they know what they’re doing. I don't think it's fair to hold them to a double standard where their body of work and history of working with these players is ignored once a bad slump hits. As a fan, there's really no definitive way of knowing how much blame should be placed on the players and how much should be placed on the coaches. For what it's worth, I'm currently leaning towards the players as the worst offenders right now.

Baseball is a cyclic game and this lineup is too talented to count it out just yet. I’m willing to give Wedge and his staff the benefit of the doubt here. Judging by Shapiro’s maneuvers this season (shipping out Lee and Rouse, bringing in Lofton), any dead weight won’t be tolerated this year. If Shelton is really the locus of this prolonged slump, I think he would have been replaced by now. Until then, I think the team should stick to its guns and go with the coaching staff that got the team this far in the first place.

Bottomline: the players need to wake up and start looking ahead at what they need to do, rather than focusing on the past. Cleveland and Detroit have reached a stalemate in the standings thus far and these five games may be the jolt the Tribe needs to start running on all cylinders again.

No comments: