Friday, May 16, 2008

Iron Men: Tribe Starters Make History

There are two ways to approach a rampant offensive slump like the Tribe has been experiencing lately. The first option is to continue to be patient, rethink your approach as a hitter, and wait for the hits to come. The second option is to have your pitching staff mow down opposing batters like a game of RBI Baseball. Seriously, does anyone want to throw in a no-hitter while they’re at it?

Cleveland’s starting pitchers had tallied 44 1/3 scoreless innings before Aaron Laffey’s throwing error in the second inning against Oakland allowed a run to cross the plate (no discredit to Aaron, since the streak could have ended any moment and he's been outstanding in his last two starts). The streak began in the top of the sixth inning of Friday’s game against Toronto where Sabathia gave up a run in seven innings pitched. From there, all five starting pitchers threw a shut-out in regulation. These weren’t cheap wins either. These were dominant, K happy, complete game monstrosities against two contending teams. The fact that Paul Byrd struck out seven in a game to keep the streak alive should deserve some sort of trophy all by itself. The Tribe’s only loss came against Shawn Marcum, who matched Cliff Lee and forced extra innings. Here are the Tribe’s pitching performances over the last seven games:

Pitcher Team Result IP H ER K BB Bullpen
C. Sabathia W, 6-1 7.0 6 1 9 2 2 IP, 1 H, 1 BB, 1 K
A. Laffey W, 12-0 7.0 6 0 2 1 2 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, 3 K
F. Carmona W, 3-0 9.0 5 0 3 4 DNP
C. Lee L, 0-3 (10) 9.0 7 0 5 2 1 IP, 3 H, 3 ER, 1 BB
P. Byrd W, 4-0 7.1 5 0 7 0 1.2 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 1 SV
C. Sabathia W, 2-0 9.0 5 0 11 2 DNP
A. Laffey W, 4-2 7.0 5 0 6 1 3 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 1 SV

That’s 50 1/3 innings with a 0.16 ERA for the starters and a 0.00 ERA for the bullpen excluding Betancourt over that span. This type of streak has occurred only a handful of times in the modern era, with the most recent example and all-time record credited to the 1974 Baltimore Orioles. The O’s starters threw 54 shutout innings from September 1-7, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Baltimore’s staff featured Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Ross Grimsley, and Dave McNally.

The last Cleveland staff to do it belonged to the 1948 World Championship team, which finished the season with just 568 runs against. From August 15-20, Bob Lemon, Gene Bearden, Sam Zoldak, and Satchel Paige tossed 47 scoreless innings over four complete game shut-outs.

Someone needs to buy Carl Willis and Luis Issac a couple beers. Congratulations to the Indian’s pitching staff, as they have joined some truly rare company over the last seven games.

The defense also deserves some recognition, particularly AstroCab, Sizemore, and Gutz for making some ridiculous plays in support of their pitchers. As of May 15, Cleveland’s .833 RZR, 99 OOZ, and .988 FPCT rank 3rd, 11th, and 2nd in the American League, respectively (ok, so the defense doesn’t have the best range, but at least they don’t make many mistakes once they get there).

Just a couple weeks ago, Cleveland was struggling to reach .500 and the White Sox were in first place. Cleveland now holds sole possession of first place, while Detroit sits six games back. Baseball’s funny that way.

Well, There's Your Problem...

My main concern before the pitching decided to go all Field of Dreams on everyone was the offense. How much did they contribute during the recent winning streak? Here’s a profile of the team’s last three series (10 games) and the quality of pitching they faced:

Opposition Combined Starters' ERA RPGA Starters Team Bullpen ERA RPGA Bullpen CLE Total RPG
NYY (Pettitte, Wang, Mussina) 3.76 2.67 3.30 1 3.67
TOR (Halladay, McGowan, Burnett Marcum) 3.78 4 3.35 1.25 5.25
OAK (Duchscherer, Blanton, Smith) 2.96 2 2.96 1.33 3.33

While the Tribe didn’t exactly rough up the other teams pitchers, look at who they had to deal with on the mound. Toronto and Oakland have two of the strongest pitching staffs in the league right now and all they got from New York were an ace and two tough veterans. Not the likeliest time for an offensive surge, is it? I feel like a broken record whining about the offense this season, but it'll be interesting to see if the offense got a boost in confidence from the winning streak. I did read an article here that pointed to a possible downward trend throughout the AL. Below is an excerpt from the Baseball Prospectus article:

The AL's figure is highly unusual -- the AL hasn't seen run levels like this in 16 seasons. What's down in the AL?

Rates through May 10, 2008, AL only


2008 .257 .328 .392

2007 .258 .330 .407

2006 .269 .337 .432

2005 .261 .334 .415

You should immediately notice the drop in slugging. From 2007 to '08 batting average has dropped by one point, but slugging has dropped by 15. This is in an environment with no new ballparks, and no radical changes to the existing ones. Over two years slugging is off by 40 points, isolated power by 28 points. At least OBP is moving in line with changes to batting average, which indicates that walk rates aren't the culprit for this cold spell at the plate. They've actually risen slightly, from 8.1 percent of PA in 2005 to 8.9 percent this year.

A few percentage points between 2007 and 2008 might not seem like much, but the impact can be significant when applied to the entire league. The article goes into more detail on possible explanations for the trend and is a worthy read.

Is Cleveland’s offense really that bad compared to rival AL teams? No, since every other AL team has seen a significant drop in runs per game this season.

Rank 2007 Team 2007 RPG* 2008 Team 2008 RPG^
1 NYY 5.98 BOS 5.02
2 DET 5.48 TEX 4.76
3 BOS 5.35 LAA 4.56
4 LAA 5.07 OAK 4.55
5 TEX 5.04 DET 4.55
6 CLE 5.01 TB 4.53
7 SEA 4.90 CWS 4.53
8 TB 4.83 MINN 4.44
9 BAL 4.67 CLE 4.25
10 TOR 4.65 NYY 4.17
*For entire 2007 season

^As of May 15, 2008

The decline has been so sharp, that the only 2008 teams that would crack the top ten in RPG for 2007 are Boston and Texas. Perennial offensive juggernaut, New York, has lost a full 1.81 runs off its average. Boston has lost .33 runs, while Detroit and Anaheim have lost .93 and .51 runs, respectively. Compared to those teams, Cleveland’s loss of .76 runs per game during an uncharacteristic slump doesn’t seem as bad.

If this trend continues and the AL is turning into a more pitching oriented league, that’s great news for the Tribe and their top-flight pitching staff. As long as the rest of the league struggles to score right along with them, Cleveland shouldn’t experience too many adverse effects in the standings from their current slump.

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