Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Contenders

I’ve been on a brief hiatus from blogging this month, but will do my best to keep the site updated. My work load has been a little crazy with graduation on the horizon and the last few weeks I haven’t had much time to read up on baseball, let alone write about it. As a result, the next few topics have probably already been written about by a classier, more intelligent website, but since Ontario Street is neither of these things I’ll be happy to fill the void.

There hasn’t been a lot of drama for the Tribe this offseason, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s unusual for a team to appear in the ALCS one year and have every starter return for round two, yet that’s the enviable position Cleveland is in this season. Due to the lack of roster turnover, there aren’t any major newcomers to scrutinize (except Masa, who has no MLB experience), but there are question marks above third base and the fifth slot in the rotation. There is even room for speculation about the corner outfield spots and second base, although those positions are less likely to be set in stone during the spring.

According to the Plain Dealer, the race for the fifth rotation slot is still closely contested. Manager Eric Wedge said his staff is “going to have to take it as long as we can. We want to give them all a very good look and utilize as much of camp as we can." It’s likely that a final decision won’t be made before the Tribe breaks camp on March 27. I normally don’t give Spring Training performances much thought, but since spring stats may play a key role in who wins the fifth slot out of camp, let’s take a look at where each pitcher stands:

Pitcher IP ERA WHIP K/BB Last Appearance
C. Lee 8.2 8.31 2.56 1.25 4 IP, 11 H, 6 ER, 2 SO, 1 BB
A. Laffey 8.0 7.62 2.00 .72 5 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 1 SO, 1 BB
J. Sowers 8.0 9.00 2.00 1.33 3 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 2 SO, 0 BB

I didn’t realize just how few innings each starting pitcher logs in camp, so there’s not much to work with in terms of stats (that and these guys are essentially facing a AAAA team that hasn’t quite found its bat speed yet). Unfortunately, what makes these stats even more one-dimensional are the things like pitch movement, velocity, inherited runners, quality of opposition, etc. that are not included. Wedge and company will be paying much closer attention to how each candidate actually pitches rather than what they post in the box score. For example, is Cliff Lee using a smarter pitch selection than last year? If yes, that’ll earn him a feather in the cap.

It’s safe to assume none of the players are ready for opening day just yet, but that doesn’t mean pitchers can’t show improvement in their mechanics or strategy. Unfortunately I’ve only seen the one ESPN game against the Mets, so I can’t really give a fair assessment on how Sowers, Laffey, and Lee have looked this spring.

The Darkhorse: Jeremy Sowers

I’m really rooting for Sowers to make it in the majors, but he probably carries the most uncertainty of the three candidates. After coming out of nowhere with back-to-back complete game shutouts in July and a 2.78 ERA in five August starts, Sowers appeared to be a prospect on the rise. Despite lacking dominant stuff, Sowers tripped up batters with his precise location and high pitching IQ. The trouble started in 2007 when the incumbent Sowers seemed to hit a wall. Batters appeared to have figured out his smoke and mirrors routine and his ERA jumped from 3.57 in 2006 to 6.42 in 2007 with nearly the same number of starts.

J. Sowers 2006 14 88.3 3.57 127 1.18 4.65 1.75

2007 13 67.3 6.42 72 1.55 5.62 1.14

One explanation is that Sowers may have been riding luck in 2006. His .256 BABIP and 76.3% LOB% suggest that luck may have indeed been a factor in Sowers’ first 14 appearances. According to Baseball Prospectus, a typical BABIP is .290, so some regression by Sowers would be expected. The high amount of runners stranded only adds to the impression that Sowers may have been walking a tightrope early on. In 2007, Sowers’ BABIP jumped to .308, while his LOB% dropped to 63.2%. More balls finding the gaps meant Sowers’ other peripherals suffered as well, including a .106 jump in his SLG against (.392 to .498). For a more in-depth breakdown on Sowers’ 2006 season, check out this link (there are three parts to the article). It’s to a Tribe blog that I’ve never heard of before, but the writer has some great stuff, particularly in retrospect.

Another issue with Sowers was that he began to lose some velocity on his fastball, which originally hovered in the high 80s to low 90s. A mix of lost confidence and mechanical issues plagued Sowers and resulted in an early demotion in 2007. Since then, Sowers has reportedly regained his pitch velocity and showed signs of improvement during his stint in Buffalo last season. Sowers posted some of his best numbers in Buffalo since 2005 with a 5.68 K/9 and .56 HR/9. Two of Sowers biggest issues were with his low strikeout rate and tendency to give up the long ball. Obviously, the trick is translating these improvements to the majors (if he even gets the opportunity). Unfortunately, I don’t see Sowers beating out Laffey or Lee for the fifth rotation spot, but the departure of Paul Byrd after 2008 leaves a better opportunity for Sowers next season.

The Challenger: Aaron Laffey

Laffey stormed through the minors last season, ending up as the Tribe’s fifth starter during their march towards the postseason. Laffey began 2007 with 6 starts in Akron and 16 in Buffalo before replacing the demoted Cliff Lee in early August. While he didn’t blow the doors off in his debut, Aaron proved he could handle pitching in the majors and was more than adequate in the fifth slot.

Over 49.3 IP, Laffey posted a 101 ERA+, 1.33 WHIP, and a 2.08 K/BB ratio. He only averaged 5.3 innings per start, but was held to a tight pitch count to ease his adjustment to the longer season. Aaron’s previous career high in innings pitched was 153.2 in the minors; he logged a combined 180.2 IP in the 2008 regular season for Akron, Buffalo, and Cleveland. Cleveland didn’t have to rely on their rookie starter to carry a game with such a strong relief corps available. The Tribe’s pitching depth also removed the need for Laffey to start in the postseason, but he did pitch 4.2 innings of one-hit ball in relief in Game 6 of the ALCS.

If Laffey is able to pick up where he left off in 2007, signs indicate he could be an upgrade for Cleveland at the back end of the rotation. Laffey tends to rely on the groundball, but still has the stuff to strike guys out. In 145.2 IP (24 starts) between Buffalo and Cleveland, he had a 2.85 K/BB ratio with a 59% groundball percentage in the majors. For comparison, Westbrook had a 1.69 K/BB ratio and a 55% groundball percentage in 152 IP for 2007. Depending on how Laffey’s pitches develop and how he performs over a larger sample, he could end up as a souped-up version of Westbrook. Aaron’s solid response to being promoted in the middle of a playoff run and pitching in the postseason suggest he is, at the very least, mentally mature enough to handle the majors.

Like we learned with Sowers in 2006 though, it’s wise not to lean too heavily on young, inexperienced pitching if you can help it. Given Aaron’s grand total of 49.1 major league innings, I would not be surprised if he begins the season in Buffalo as the Tribe’s sixth starter. I think Laffey can succeed in the majors now, but such a move would not be without risk. Demoting Lee to Buffalo again could cause some serious resentment by a guy who may end up as the team’s best option if Laffey doesn’t work out for some reason. Even worse, if Lee is traded and both Laffey and Sowers fail to make the cut, Cleveland ends up worse off than they started. The odds of both Laffey and Sowers performing worse than Lee are very small in my opinion, but these are risks the Front Office must consider nonetheless. Shapiro and Wedge’s track records indicate the more experienced pitcher will win out here (even if the potential payoff is not as great), meaning the 22 year old Laffey may have to wait for his next shot at the majors.

The Frontrunner: Cliff Lee

Despite my best efforts (i.e. complaining on the internet), Cliff Lee is still employed by the Cleveland Indians. I had predicted an imminent departure for Mr. Lee after he mockingly doffed his cap to a booing Jacobs Field crowd following a 4 IP, 8 R performance against Boston last July. While the Boston game did earn Lee a trip to Buffalo, Shapiro was unable to rid the Tribe of the Sleepy Kitten altogether. It’s unclear how aggressively Lee was being shopped, but Anthony Reyes was a rumored return at one point. Cleveland would have been hard pressed to find a logical trade for dumping Lee. Trading one mediocre pitcher for another may have gotten rid of Lee’s bad attitude, but the same rotation logjam would probably still be present (options and salary being the main factors for any newcomer).

Lee is back with a vengeance for 2008, bringing the same boneheaded approach to pitching that caused him to fall off a cliff and get demoted last season. Lee struggled in 2007 for two reasons: an abdominal strain that caused him to miss spring training and a dangerous reliance on a weakened fastball. Pitching coach Carl Willis saw Lee “trying to make some adjustments he needed to make when it counted, as opposed to during spring training.”

Normally, I would give a pitcher some leeway (I swear, this guy’s whole name is a pun) when he’s injured, like Westbrook was last season. The difference between Westbrook and Lee is that Westbrook gradually returned to form, while Lee never showed consistent signs of improvement after the injury. Lee posted monthly ERAs of 5.86, 4.76, and 8.68 from May to July, with at least five starts per month. Lee was supposedly healthy for most of this period. Unless the abdominal injury influenced Lee’s delivery far beyond his return from the DL, a less obvious factor may have been at work.

I believe the problem with Lee was mental, which may be even harder to fix than a pitcher’s mechanics. This brings us to issue number two: Lee’s pitch selection. Lee’s stubbornness in mixing up his pitches has been well documented. Despite guidance from his pitching coach and catcher, Lee can’t seem to get comfortable with anything other than his fastball. He is perfectly capable of throwing a solid curveball (arguably his best pitch), but still seems to think he can blow it by guys when he’s behind in the count. Ah…no. No he can’t. In interviews, Lee has acknowledged the need to mix up his pitches more so he’s less predictable, but a consistent approach has stayed out of reach for Clifford.

Last season, a combination of crappy pitching and an increasingly bad attitude resulted in a few awkward exchanges between Cliff and catcher Victor Martinez on the mound, followed by some harsh looking discussions in the dugout. If you get Victor mad at you, you must have really screwed up, since he’s probably one of the friendliest guys in the clubhouse. Part of the friction between Cliff and his catcher is that Victor takes pride in how he calls a game and views a pitcher’s failures as his own. Victor has a reputation of going the extra mile to help struggling pitchers. Rumors suggest Lee had frequently gone against advice given to him by teammates. If I were manager, I wouldn’t want a guy like that on the team if I had a better option (like Laffey).

Attitude aside, if a player can back up his behavior with his skills on the field, they usually earn a free pass (see Belle, Albert). Lee has gotten progressively worse ever since his career year in 2005:

C. Lee 2005 32 202.0 3.79 111 1.21 3.80 2.75

2006 33 200.7 4.40 103 1.40 4.80 2.22

2007 16 97.3 6.29 73 1.52 5.59 1.83

Cliff’s performance has significantly declined in every category except innings pitched. To be blunt, he’s just giving up more of everything in dramatic fashion. His K/BB ratio is Exhibit A in showing how Lee’s lack of quality stuff and poor pitch selection has affected his stats. As a flyball pitcher, Lee is less susceptible to poor infield defense, but his FIP makes it safe to rule that out as a major factor.

I’m hesitant to beat up on Cliff Lee over his ERA in this case. Assuming 2005 is as good as it gets for Lee and 2007 was hampered by injury, his 2006 ERA of 4.40 is actually well above average for a fifth starter in the AL. Whaaaa? Yep, according to Jeff Sackmann at The Hardball Times, the top half of AL starting rotations averaged a 5.74 ERA for their fifth starter. AL playoff teams weren’t much better, sporting a 5.65 ERA in the fifth slot. I love this article because most fans (myself included) tend to forget just how mediocre a team’s bottom half of the rotation can be, even for a playoff contender. By that logic, if the front office can safely project an ERA in the neighborhood of 5.00 for Lee, that’s a comparable option to what the competition will be fielding.

My issue with Lee is that I’m not sure he can even achieve a league average ERA for a fifth starter anymore. Secondly, I take issue with his approach to pitching and how he’s treated his teammates and the fans. Guys like Laffey and Sowers have a greater upside in my opinion, albeit, the ceiling on those two is still unclear.

So why did I name him the front-runner to win the job out of spring training? Early reports out of camp indicated that the rotation spot was Lee’s to lose and given Wedge’s tendencies, I could realistically see him go with Lee. Cliff has more innings logged in the majors than Laffey and Sowers combined and as ridiculous as it may sound, does have some semblance of success at this level. Experience will be a huge factor in who Wedge selects and Lee has a significant edge in this department. Finally, Cleveland would be foolish to pay Lee $3.75 million to toil away in the minors another year; the only options are to play him or trade him. As much as I’d like Laffey to start in Cleveland this season, all signs indicate Lee will be there instead.

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