Thursday, August 30, 2007
Get happy Tribe fans.
Cleveland swept the Twinkies in style Wednesday by becoming the only team in the history of the universe to hand Johan Santana three losses in a season, going 3-1 in four meetings against the lefty. C.C. Sabathia was finally awarded his 15th win of the season after suffering from poor run support in his last four tries. Asdrubal Cabrera started off the Tribe's 4-run first inning with a 2-run uppercut blast over the mini-monster in left field. Victor, Gutz, and Lofton homered, doubled, and singled off Santana to score the other two runs. The Tribe's offense collected 10 hits on the night (only Hafner and Blake failed to reach base), although Santana was able to prevent any further scoring.
Cleveland dominated the Twins during the three game series, scoring 18 runs with a team ERA of 3.67. Minnesota never held a lead over the 27 innings played. Minnesota marks the Tribe's fourth straight series win, plus a two game split with Detroit.
On July 31, the team had a 60-46 record and trailed Detroit by a game, but Cleveland has quietly built a winning record in August. By going 15-11 this month (with two games remaining), the Tribe has pushed their second half record back over .500 at 23-20.
The Tribe's offense has been running on all cylinders since their 11-8 win over Detroit, averaging 5.87 runs per game. Add that to an already white hot pitching staff (3.31 ERA in August) and you're looking at a serious momentum shift in Cleveland.
I think the combination of getting demolished by the Yanks and having to go into Detroit a half game down really woke this team up. It's almost like lighting struck, but that Detroit series in the middle of the month seems to be the where the Tribe started to play with the fire and focus that had the rest of the league sweating the first two months of the season.
It might just be a coincidence, but AstroCab did make his major league debut a week before the team really took off again. Hmmm... More on #13 in my next post.
Meanwhile, Detroit has continued to free-fall and now sits 4.5 games back with only three head-to-head games remaining with Cleveland. The Tigers pitching continued to get battered this week as they lost their latest series to the dangerous Kansas City Royals. K.C. actually has a better second half record (20-22) than Detroit (19-27) and has posted a winning record the past two months.
It's the end of an era in Cleveland. Once Kansas City finishes its overhaul of Kauffman Stadium in 2009, Cleveland will lose the title of Largest Freestanding Scoreboard in the United States. KC's trademark crest scoreboard will be remodeled as a video screen, beating out the Jake's 149 by 36 foot A/V monolith. Losing the Jake's claim to fame to a division rival just doesn't seem right. I think Dolan should take some of that free agent money Shapiro is selfishly hoarding away and blow it all on an even bigger scoreboard. That'll show KC who runs the Central. What else do Cleveland fans have to brag about? Wait, we're still in first place? Oh. Well, nevermind then.
Saturday, August 25, 2007
After watching 11 Cleveland runners cross the plate in Game 2 (I applied to have Gutierrez canonized after that game), they went right back to their old habits and gave Westbrook absolutely no run support in the finale. Westbrook's opposition, Nate Robertson, came into the game with a 5.13 ERA, but managed to go 8.2 innings with 0 BB, 3 K, and 0 ER. They couldn't even muster any runners to strand against Robertson, which has been their specialty of late. Of course they tee off on Zumaya in the 10th, one of the most dominant bullpen guys in the league...yeah, that makes sense. It was an ugly way to win the series, but Detroit was just bad enough to let Cleveland steal that last game and take 2 of 3.
I feel like I've talked the Slump to death at this point and I still haven't made much progress in figuring out why it's still happening. Then again, neither have the players, so I guess I shouldn't feel too bad.
The only people entitled to be more peeved at the offense than the fans is the pitching staff. I keep complaining about the lack of run support for our awesome starting pitching, but have yet to break down the stats. Let's see just how bad the starter's have gotten screwed lately:
Cleveland Starting Rotation: Last 8 Starts
|Pitcher||Team W-L||IP||ERA||ER Against||Runs For||Avg. Run Support per Game||Avg. Opponent ERA|
The table shows a curious trend as far as who is getting the run support. The better the pitcher, the less run support they receive in an average start. The list of pitchers from lowest ERA to highest (Carmona, Westbrook, Sabathia, Byrd) is a near match to the run support each pitcher receives.
One variable in this pattern is the quality of the pitching each starter must compete with. Looking at the opposing pitchers' ERA, Sabathia contends with the best starting pitchers and Byrd faces the worst; that sounds about right. The only stat that doesn't follow the expected pattern is Carmona facing the third worst pitching, but still receiving the worst run support of the four.
Obviously there are some flaws in the stats I chose here. Lumping all the pitchers into an average ERA disregards past success, defense, game location, etc., but I think it works for a crude comparison like the one above. Managers tend to set their rotations so that pitchers of comparable skill will match up with each other and that seems to stand up to the compiled stats, for the most part.
One could argue that pitching matchups share at least some of the blame for the lopsided run support, but I've seen Cleveland blow enough scoring opportunities against a variety of pitchers to know it's only a small part of a larger problem.
The fact that the starting rotation has marched out there night after night and maintained their focus in the face of those kinds of odds is amazing. You would think there'd be some tension in the clubhouse over pitchers not getting any support for their work; it's almost like a slap in the face. Judging by the feeling of dread I get whenever the other team goes up 2-0, the pitchers must really have to labor to keep their thoughts off of strangling Casey Blake after he strikes out looking.
On the other hand, Cleveland does run a pretty tight clubhouse and has never been a team to wear it's emotions on its sleeve. For the most part, the players seem to genuinely like each other, which comes in handy when there's so much frustration to be had on the field. Many fans tend to forget just how valuable (and difficult) maintaining a good clubhouse vibe over the grueling season can be to a team's long term success. There must be some pretty good communication and understanding between the players and coaches in the Tribe lockerroom to not crack under the pressure placed on the team this season. Wedge might only hint at it in his bland, cliché ridden interviews, but there is a method to his lack of madness. I've also seen enough displays of leadership from Martinez, Sabathia, and others to know these guys are too professional to start sniping at each other over individual performances.
Saturday, August 18, 2007
It's way too early to make any sweeping proclamations on the recently promoted Astrocab (see Francisco, Ben), but you can already see his potential as a major leaguer. Asdrubal appears to be more patient at the plate than Barfield, or at least more selective with his pitches. The microscopic sample size for Cabrera shows 3.1 pitches per plate appearance, compared to Barfield's 3.7 P/PA. Asdrubal's power also comes as-advertised, with 3 of his 5 hits going for extra bases. The aspect of Asdrubal's game that has me wowed is his defense. This kid's glove is every bit as slick as Barfield's, maybe better.
Cabrera has started at secondbase for three consecutive games now, which has to be troublesome to Barfield. I think as long as Cabrera keeps contributing on offense, he'll get the nod over Barfield at second. I'm certainly not calling for Barfield to be replaced, but I would like to see him fix the holes in his approach at the plate before he returns as the team's regular secondbaseman. Even though I'm a fan of Cabrera, I still don't see him starting 2008 with Cleveland.
If he is successful the remainder of this season, it will certainly put pressure on the Front Office to play him, but the fact that Andy Marte is out of options next year is going to be a key roster issue for 2008. Cabrera is still very young and has many option years left, so while his playing in AAA all year may seem unfair (depending on how he does this season), the Tribe can't just dump Marte without giving him a legitimate shot at success in the Majors. I'll go into more detail on the 2008 infield in a future post.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
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
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
Like I've said before, this team should not even think about winning the wild card. Unless
I’m hoping the familiarity with
After suffering though this slump for nearly a month and a half now, I'm having a hard time defending Wedgie or
Wedge could’ve been berating players left and right during that pitiful
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
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.
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
Monday, August 13, 2007
Friday, August 10, 2007
Facing the hottest offense in baseball, Fausto managed to play to his strengths and keep the ball on the ground most of the night. He kept opposing batters tied up and off balance for much of the night, inducing 17 groundball outs and 3 double plays. Carmona's ability to keep the ball on the ground prevented a big inning from breaking out and provided him with the quick outs he needed to get out of jams and pitch deep into the game (97 pitches over 7 innings). Fausto struck out just two batters, but walked only one (Rodriguez).
Most of Carmona's eight hits were groundballs straight up the middle, with only one going for extra bases (Rodriguez's solo HR). Carmona made his job very difficult by allowing the leadoff runner to reach base five innings in a row, accounting for two of the Yankee's runs.
Jhonny Peralta didn't do Carmona any favors tonight either, stranding 3 baserunners and making two ugly plays on defense. Peralta was directly responsible for one of Fausto's runs when he botched a catch on a Jonny Damon popup in the 3rd inning; Damon eventually came around to score. Peralta also missed secondbase on a potential double play that same inning.
Ok, remember all those crappy, inexperienced pitchers that have been giving the Tribe fits the last two months? Well, the kid they faced tonight happens to be a really good, inexperienced pitcher. Carmona versus Phil Hughes had the potential for an epic pitchers duel and Hughes brought his best to the Jake tonight.
The Tribe's offense never threatened Hughes tonight, but I really can't blame them for trying this time. The Tribe wasn't really swinging at bad pitches or making a lot of stupid decisions at the plate tonight; Hughes' stuff was just that good.
Hughes utilized a deadly combination of high-90's fastballs and sharp curves to freeze the Tribe in their tracks. A big part of the rookie's success tonight was the ability to consistently throw his sharp curveball for a strike. Mix in some other assorted filth and you have a very flat-footed Tribe offense. Still, Fausto hung with Hughes for most of the game by working around some tough-luck singles and working efficiently. Hughes was certainly the better pitcher tonight, but not by much.
Carmona has looked like an ace in his last eight starts, but has received little run support in his last five. In three starts from July 2 to July 15, Fausto saw 24 runs in 18.1 IP. In five starts from July 20 to August 10, Fausto received just 6 runs in 37 IP. Carmona has lost his last three starts (including tonight) despite posting a 3.00 ERA over that span. He is currently sitting on a 13-7 record for the season with another tough start coming up against Detroit.
On El Jefe
Despite going 1-4 tonight against New York's emerging ace, Victor Martinez has been doing everything he can the last three games to give his teammates a much needed jolt. After struggling along with his teammates at the plate entering last week's Chicago series, Victor exploded against Mark Buehrle, going 3-4 with a BB and 2 R. In anticipation of a close play at first, Martinez dove head first into the bag to get his first hit of the night.
Think about how nuts that is for a minute. Vic wasn't thinking of anything except giving the offense an opportunity to score. Some people might say Vic sliding (more like flopping) headfirst into the bag like that was selfish and stupid; both valid arguments. However, if I'm a player on the Tribe's bench and I see the team's starting catcher and best offensive player sacrifice his body like that for a single base, it would certainly get my attention (the team lit up Buehrle that night).
I've said before that I don't like citing intangibles, but Martinez's slide is just one of many examples of his leadership this year. Martinez has shouldered the load this season with Pronk struggling. On top of being the best offensive player and dugout leader, Vic has played a significant role in guiding Carmona, Perez, and the rest of the pitching staff to success this season. When he acts, players take notice, and he's doing everything he can right now to get the offense running again.
Laffey Takes a Vacation
After two solid starts for Cleveland, Aaron Laffey was sent back to AAA Buffalo on Friday to make room for utility infielder Chris Gomez. While I was initially surprised to hear the news, it makes a lot of sense for the Tribe right now. The way their rest days are scheduled this month they won't need a fifth starter until August 25. As far as I can tell, they're going to use the extra roster spots to evaluate Gomez and Cabrera to see which one sticks as the new utility guy. Since they practically got Gomez for Monopoly money and have some temporary flexibility with the roster, it's worth a shot.
Gomez is a veteran who has put up some decent numbers as a player off the bench. Gomez should provide an offensive upgrade over Mike Rouse (also sent to Buffalo), but his biggest strength may be the ability to play every infield position. With Gomez and Cabrera coming off the bench, incumbent second baseman Josh Barfield may be second-guessing his job security right about now. Barfield's offense has been terrible this year, but he has exceeded every expectation on defense. Look for Cabrera to start a couple times a week in place of Barfield at second, with Gomez getting a few spot starts at 3rd and SS on rest days.
The only thing more pathetic than the Tribe's play on the field tonight was the overwhelming roar coming from the Evil Empire's fans. Funny thing is, a large majority of those "die hard" New York fans are actually native to Ohio. The state has two baseball teams with great histories and extended eras of success, but people up there (excluding those who inherited the Yanks at birth, they're fine) are still converting to the Church of Jeter in droves? What gives? The only thing worse than an actual Yankee fan is having to deal with some chump posing as a Yankee fan. Bandwagon fans like that are just so vile; you're fortunate enough to miss them all year and suddenly they appear over the weekend like a Mongol horde. Their parents should be ashamed of themselves.
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
I've been waiting on Westbrook to get back in business all season and I think he's finally recovered from his trip to the DL. Some may argue that he's been healthy since late June, but that is not necessarily true. When Westbrook came off the DL, he had to work his way back into his usual routine and re-adjust to facing major league hitters. Everybody needs consistent practice to stay on top of their game, even professional athletes (especially MLB pitchers). One of Westbrook's main issues was finding the touch needed to use his sinkerball effectively; his renewed confidence in the sinker is a big part of his current success.
The most significant indicator that Jake has found his groove is his consistency. Before the three starts listed above, Jake had trouble posting two quality starts in a row and visibly struggled with his command. It took a while, but the old Westbrook is back.
It's still too early to make the call on Laffey, but in my opinion, the Indians have a playoff caliber starting rotation right now. The starters have posted a 2.51 ERA over the last 14 games and have shown no signs of slowing down (that even includes Sleepy Kitten's 7 run implosion against Boston). When the offense wakes up (you know it will, don't kid yourself) Cleveland is going to be a pretty scary playoff contender. I've always endorsed the old saying "good pitching beats good hitting" and Cleveland is in a position to have both going into August and September.
I'd also like to give a shout-out to the Cobra for his continued awesomeness (9 IP, 0 R, 4 H, 1 BB, 1 K at Minnesota), way to go Paul.
On the Offense
If I was qualified and had the time, I'd love to analyze video from the Tribe's prolonged offensive slump to see where they've gone wrong. Since I am neither qualified, nor unemployed, I'll just have to wing it (ie. this a pretty subjective analysis based on what I've seen). I'm probably seeing the same thing as most fans in that the Tribe hitters have been pressing. This problem is only magnified when the opposing pitcher has just average pitches and a track record to match.
Patience and focus seem to go out the window during a bad slump like this, giving way to the feeling that each player needs to make a big play, when in fact, no one can because they're too stressed out to think straight. Bad pitches tend to look a lot better when you're desperate for a hit, allowing even mediocre pitchers to "elevate" their game. If you don't buckle down and challenge a pitcher (make him throw strikes, throw more pitches per AB, make that perfect pitch for a K, etc.) then even some AAAA kid can look like an ace.
Tonight's game against Chicago and John Danks was a good example of the two approaches. Danks has been pretty crappy this season, but managed to hold the Tribe hitless through 4 innings. This scenario has been played out several times during the slump. So the 5th inning roles around, no score, no hits. Danks has been making guys like Hafner and Garko look stupid with a pretty tame slider, he's cruising. Then the Tribe manages to get three quality at-bats from Peralta, Michaels, and Sizemore. Hallelujah, 2 runs score! Why?
Well, to start with, the hitters looked relaxed. They'd seen Danks twice before and knew what to expect. They waited for their pitch and made the pitcher try to beat them. They didn't flail at ugly pitches that no one could hit anyway, but adjusted to what was thrown their way. Michaels and Sizemore shortened up their swings considerably and were rewarded with a double and RBI single, respectively. Not a huge inning numerically, but a big inning for the players' confidence. In three ABs, they broke up the no-hitter, forced the pitcher to throw the most pitches he'd thrown all game in an inning (was at 80 by then), and gave Jake the lead. Up until that inning, a lot of players were trying to club the ball over the fence each time, but all they got were some long fly balls.
If the Tribe would just try and settle for a single more often, they'd extend their ABs per inning, resulting in more runs scored than just hitting for flat-out power all the time. A more scientific comparison of the two approaches has probably been done, but the bottom line is that Cleveland consistently tries to do too much with each AB. If there's a guy on second, do you really have to jack one into the bleachers or even off the wall? Uh, no. Singles are your friend with RISP (Note: yeah, I know it takes a double to get Pronk or Vic home from second, but you get the point).
I'm always hesitant to blame anyone specifically when it comes to a hitters failure to break out of an extended slump, since I have no actual experience playing or coaching. These guys know how to hit consistently, otherwise they wouldn't be in the majors (obviously), but it makes you wonder what the problem is, be it lack of confidence, team chemistry, or poor coaching. It's good to keep in mind that the same hitting coach who is at the center of the slump, was also there before the slump (5th in MLB in runs scored). I'd probably blame the hitting coach or the manager before anyone else though. Like I said, the hitters have the ability, but need help getting past the mental roadblocks that accompany such a brutal season.
AstroCab Called Up
Asdrubal Cabrera was called up from AAA Buffalo on Tuesday after Mike Rouse was designated for assignment. Rouse was the definition of disposable this season, but Cabrera getting called up in his place provides some interesting possibilities. Odds are, if you're not a hardcore fan or minor league aficionado, you haven't heard of Asdrubal since the Eduardo Perez trade. AstroCab had made great strides offensively in AAA and AA before getting the call and is a wizard defensively. He is a natural shortstop, but saw a few starts at secondbase this season. I'll break down how the new arrival fits into the roster once I see how Wedge uses him, but I have a hunch Barfield is the one who will be affected the most by the promotion.
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
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:
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
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.
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
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
The Tribe's best hope is to try and win the season finale against