Wednesday, August 1, 2007

It Could Have Been, Not Really

This has been one ugly month for the Tribe, but what went wrong exactly? Having watched most of the July games, the problems that jump to mind are the offense (or lack thereof), Cliff Lee and Jake Westbrook, and the Boston series. Since these issues are just off the top of my head, they are pretty useless in figuring out what went wrong (albeit fairly typical of what the majority of fans have on their minds right now). The best way I have of giving the Tribe's recent performance some perspective is through statistics, so lets step away from the ledge for a moment and take a look back at July.

On Pitching

Several quality pitching performances were wasted in July, but the trio of Lee, Westbrook, and Sabathia (yes, Sabathia) did little to help their record this month. Below are the July splits for the aforementioned pitchers:

Sabathia 5 1 4 31.2 29 5.12 1.42 .308
Lee 5 1 4 28 20 8.68 1.71 .305
Westbrook 5 0 3 31 12 5.52 1.68 .305

The biggest blemish on the pitching this month was Sabathia having his worst string of starts in the last 6 months, going back to last season. It's pretty obvious Sabathia will pitch better in August and already posted a gem against the Twins (7.2 IP, 1 ER, 11 K) to finish out July. Westbrook also looked sharp against Minnesota last week (7 IP, 2 ER, 3 K); his best start since June 29.

Cliff Lee is no longer an issue after losing his job to AAA stud Aaron Laffey, who is almost guaranteed to be better than Lee given his groundball-pitcher mentality and dominance in the minors so far. Watching Lee pack his bags should be a sign to fans that the team is committed to winning no matter what. Signing a starting pitcher to a multi-million dollar contract extension only to demote him (and his 8.68 July ERA) the next season for poor performance is a bold, but necessary move for a team in a tight race like Cleveland.

Fausto Carmona has managed to carry the pitching staff on his back all month and is a key reason Cleveland hasn't been overtaken in the wild card standings yet. Carmona has been absolutely brilliant, going 5-1 with a 1.74 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 34 K and .216 BAA for the month of July. That's just sick.

Even though the team didn't acquire an extra arm to take some of the work load off of the Raffys, Aaron Fultz is scheduled to come off the disabled list very soon. Remember him? Fultz should be able to fill in as the player Shapiro tried to get before the deadline.

Fultz was very effective before a rib injury (right intercostal strain) put him on the DL June 24.
Fultz had a 1.71 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and an immaculate .153 BAA in 21 IP before his injury. He also had a BB rate of .43 per 9 IP. The scope of his contributions will obviously be contingent on Wedge using him as more than just the designated lefty out of the bullpen, but I think Fultz at least deserves a shot at an increased 7th or 8th inning role (if only to rest Betancourt and Perez on occasion).

For comparison, Octavio Dotel (one of Shap's primary trade targets) currently has a 3.91 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, and .264 BAA in 23 IP in 2007. Dotel has only converted 72% of his save opportunities this year, not that he would have been closing for Cleveland anyway.

On the Offense

The Tribe's been going strong all season, although June saw a dropoff in games won compared to May and April. The most obvious reason for the dropoff was the production from the offense, scoring just 136 runs in June (.536 WP) compared to 180 in May (.633 WP). July was the team's first month with a losing record for the 2007 season and again, the offense appears to be the major culprit. While the pitching staff posted its best team ERA since April at 4.44, the team batted a season low .255 with a .745 OPS.

Is it really fair to put that much blame on the offense though? Here are some rough stats I pulled from the 26 games in July:

*The offense scored 5 runs or more in 12 games, going 9-3 in those games.

*They scored
3 runs or less in 10 games, going 3-7 in those games.

*On the flip side, the pitching staff surrendered 5 runs or more in 11 games, going 2-9 in those games.

In a nutshell, the offense just never got in sync with the pitching staff, resulting in many low scoring games and blowouts (which didn't necessarily result in a win) This skews the total runs scored somewhat, since the team seems to have failed to score enough nearly as many times as they failed to keep their opponent off the board.

The core of the offense, Sizemore, Martinez, and Hafner, all had their worst months simultaneously.

Sizemore .245 .333 .453 .786
Martinez .253 .358 .448 .806
Hafner .250 .321 .400 .721

Does anyone else seriously expect Sizemore and Martinez to continue to struggle like this much longer? Yeah, me either. Granted Hafner has had his struggles most of the season, but a 25 point drop in OBP is unusual for a player with the second most walks in the American League. This team always seems to go hot and cold at the same time, so hopefully the next hot streak starts soon.

On the Standings

The Tribe was
red-hot after coming out of a mediocre interleague showing, winning two four game series against Oakland and Tampa, followed by the dropoff discussed above. Sixteen of their 26 games were against sub-.500 teams where they finished 9-7. Cleveland did poorly against teams with a winning record though, going just 3-7.

Oddly enough, Detroit has not been able to separate itself from Cleveland this month, despite going 15-12 to the Tribe's 12-14. It may seem like Cleveland has been chasing Detroit in the standings for an eternity, but they have never trailed the Tigers by more than 2 games. The last time Cleveland was ever behind 2 games was July 23; right in the middle of their worst stretch of baseball. Detroit has been fairly consistent all season with a .575 win percentage on the season; July was their "worst" month as well with a .556 win percentage.

Therefore, it's not entirely reasonable to say Cleveland missed out on a prime opportunity to move up in the standings, since Detroit has not significantly faltered this month in the first place (it just seems like it given how close Cleveland has stayed in the standings). Detroit is at fault just as much as Cleveland for not capitalizing on the shortcomings of their competition.

If Cleveland can play up to any semblance of their true potential (see May and April) they have an excellent shot at regaining the division lead permanently.

The real issue is the wildcard standings. Unlike Detroit, New York has been tearing it up, going 19-9 in June. To put how scary that is into perspective, New York was 9 games out of the wild card on July 7th. They are currently 3 games back and show no signs of receding again. The AL wild card is shaping up as a three team race between Cleveland, Detroit, and New York, as I don't see Seattle hanging on long enough to be a factor. New York plays in a weaker division than Cleveland and with the intra-division behemoth that is August, that isn't going to do the Tribe any favors. I still think the wild card will come out of the Central, but the odds are getting longer as Detroit and Cleveland continue to flounder.

The Tribe's best hope is to try and win the season finale against New York and beat the living hell out of Detroit when they play each other. If I were Cleveland, I would act as if the wild card berth doesn't even exist, because it might as well based on the way they've been playing lately. Whether the team has become complacent atop the wild card standings or they are pressing to hang on, Wedge needs to right this ship immediately and get the Tribe going on all cylinders again. It's a long season, but not anymore.

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