Monday, May 5, 2008

Stuck in Neutral

Hey, did I miss anything?

I’ve been missing from the blog-o-sphere lately, as I had to meet some major deadlines so I could graduate on time. I’ve been fairly perplexed by the Tribe’s 14-17 start, although it’s nice to see Detroit (14-18) has been keeping us company in the basement. The first sign that it’s too early to panic is that Minnesota is currently in first place. Yeah…good luck with that. Today, I’ll sort through the Tribe’s first month and try to figure out why the offense has fallen flat so far. First,

What’s Up With Detroit?

The Tiger’s were struggling early on, but the offense seems to have gathered itself of late. Detroit’s offense has gone on a tear in its last ten games, averaging 6 runs per game compared to 4.38 in their first 21 contests. Considering their offseason additions and the fact Detroit averaged 5.47 runs per game in 2007, it’s not unreasonable to think the Tigers could sustain their current offensive production, albeit unlikely. I’ve said before that several of Detroit’s players had career years in 2007 and are due for some regression (Ordonez and Polanco come to mind), which would dull the impact Cabrera and Renteria might make on the lineup. Not to discount the addition of these two players, but I just don’t buy into the hype that Detroit garnered in the offseason. Their offense will still be very good, but I’d be surprised if they finish the season with more runs scored than they had last year.

The real reason Detroit has failed to capitalize on Cleveland’s slow start is their pitching. The Tiger’s starters have posted a pedestrian 5.39 ERA in 31 games, while their relief corps has just a 4.32 ERA. For a team with such a powerful offense, having a run differential of -15 points to some serious pitching issues. Verlander has gotten off to an improbably rough start (6.28 ERA, 1.44 WHIP), but like Sabathia nobody sees this as a long term trend. Fatigue shouldn’t be an issue considering the 25 year old Verlander averaged 193.8 innings the last two seasons with no ill effects. It seems the Tiger’s ace is just in a rough stretch right now. As bad as Detroit’s pitching has been, there’s no way it will continue to be this bad. Six starts is still too soon to panic and Robertson and Rogers have been so bad they are bound to bounce back. Willis had only 5 innings logged before hyper-extending his knee and has had a more than adequate replacement in Armando Galarraga.

It’s unclear just how far Robertson and Rogers may fall before recovering and Willis has yet to prove himself in the AL. Detroit’s pitching will recover, but they won’t be particularly scary this season. A slew of health issues in the bullpen only compounds the struggles of the starters. Unfortunately for the Tribe, the Tiger’s pitching can get away with being mediocre as the team’s offense should pick up the slack more often than not.

I think it’s important to remember that Detroit has played just as poorly as Cleveland so far, but is still an extremely dangerous team. Detroit’s struggles can be good or bad, depending on your point of view. Cleveland certainly caught a break with Detroit’s pitching slump, as they could easily be down by five or eight games right now. Then again, so could Detroit. It’s almost as if Detroit and Cleveland are trying to recreate their stalemate from late last season where neither team could win a game, even with the division on the line. It’s far too early to make a prediction, but the team that shifts out of neutral first could create a buffer that ends up deciding the division later on.

On the Offense

The biggest factor behind Cleveland’s current rut is its inconsistent offense. Sound familiar? For whatever reason, this particular group of players goes through the occasional team-wide slump, leading to some streaky offensive production. As of Monday, Cleveland ranks 13th in BA (.242), 9th in OBP (.325), 12th in SLG (.362), and 10th in runs scored (132) in the American League. This is the same core of players that finished 6th (811) and 2nd (870) in runs scored the last two seasons. The Tribe is currently averaging 4.25 runs per game, nearly an entire run off their pace last season.

Is this trend any different from last April though? I expected to see much better offensive numbers for April of 2007, but this was not the case. Below is a comparison of Cleveland’s last two Aprils:

Month W L RS RA Run Diff. WP Team BA Team OPS Team ERA
April 2007 14 8 115 104 11 .636 .246 .752 4.21
March/April 2008 13 15 127 120 7 .464 .250 .708 4.06

The biggest difference between this April and last is the win percentage. Granted, the team OPS is down some this season, but the pitching staff is also giving up fewer runs. Otherwise, the overall offensive numbers are just as bad as they were this time last season. The deciding factor is how those runs were spread out. Last April, the Tribe scored three runs or less only five times in their first 22 games (22%). This April, they have scored three runs or less in 16 of their 31 games (51%) and are 3-13 in those games. In fact, 41% of Cleveland’s total runs scored have come from just five games.

So what’s causing the offense to be so erratic?

Outside of some serious slumps by Peralta, Blake, and Cabrera the first thing that caught my attention was the second spot in the lineup. At first glance the two-hole appears to be a crucial one, providing a bat to drive the leadoff man home and providing RBI opportunities for the cleanup hitters in the third and fourth spots. Tribe fans are familiar with the merry-go-round that Wedge likes to deploy for the second spot. So far this season, Wedge has used six different starters here with mixed results.

My theory is that if Wedge could find a reliable bat to plug into this spot it would go a long way to solidifying the offense and making it more consistent. This is easier said than done, as the team seems to be missing that extra bat right now to balance out the offense. Below is the collection of players Wedge has used behind Sizemore so far:

A. Cabrera 10 46 0 5 4 3 7 .541
J. Carroll 7 34 0 3 6 4 2 .574
D. Dellucci* 8 31 3 8 3 1 4 1.044
J. Michaels^ 3 17 0 0 1 1 5 .059
F. Gutierrez 2 8 0 0 0 0 0 .000
C. Blake 1 5 0 0 0 0 4 .600

*Platoons against RHP
^Platoons against LHP

I realize Michaels, Gutz, and Blake have not had a true opportunity in the two-hole, but I wanted to reinforce just how much it has varied between games. Carroll should not be batting that high in the lineup period, although I realize he was subbing for Cabrera on many occasions. AstroCab has played himself out of the top half of the lineup for the foreseeable future. It’s unfortunate that the Tribe’s second baseman has had a sophomore slump for two years in a row, but there really aren’t any alternatives this time. The bottom of the order is fine for Cabrera to take some of the immediate pressure off, although it’s far too early to even think about a demotion (Barfield’s .256 BA in Buffalo isn’t really promotion material anyway).

The most productive player in this position has been Dellucci, but he will definitely cool off at some point (he only has a .793 OPS in 83 PA overall) and is not an option to play every day. Francisco’s production will probably fall close to Dellucci’s, maybe a little better. It may be more beneficial to start the platoon squad behind Sizemore, rather than Gutz. Gutz’s struggles with righties would reduce his value at the top of the lineup and would lack the flexibility available with Francisco-Dellucci in bullpen match-ups.

The point is, there is no silver bullet for the Tribe’s lack of production in the two-hole. Each player or set of players has their share of weaknesses. I can understand, to an extent, why Wedge prefers these types of players between Sizemore and Victor. My guess is he is trying to infuse some extra speed at the top of the order before the clunkers in Victor, Hafner, and Garko come up to the plate. Top-to-bottom, this team is not built for speed. Still, wouldn’t having a guy who can get on base more often out weigh the benefit of having a speedier guy on less often? Not to confuse speedy with a base stealing threat; I was referring more to their pace around the bases.

Here’s the lineup I would propose:

Player Bats EQA OBP
G. Sizemore L .316 .393
R. Garko R .277 .361
V. Martinez S .293 .380
D. Dellucci / L .294 .349
B. Francisco R .295 .333
T. Hafner L .243 .305
J. Peralta R .249 .279
F. Gutierrez R .249 .295
C. Blake R .237 .286
A. Cabrera S .204 .284

I agree with Wedge dropping Hafner down to sixth recently, so that isn’t much of a stretch. The main difference in my version of the lineup is moving Peralta down, Garko up, and dropping the platoon in the middle. With the exception of four at-bats in third, Garko has not had the opportunity to bat this high in the lineup before. One plus to moving Garko up is his OBP; his .351 OBP the last two years is consistently better than the rest of the lineup (excluding Grady, Vic, and Hafner). What Garko lacks in speed, he makes up for in plate discipline and some decent power. At the very least, Garko will reduce the number of outs generated by the two-hole and move Sizemore into scoring position more often. This opens the door for Martinez to rack up those RBI again.

It may sound like I’m putting a lot of faith in Sizemore to set the table, but he really is the crux of the offense. If Sizemore doesn’t score, Cleveland is going to struggle. Sizemore has had only four games this season where he has failed to reach base at least once. In 11 of those games where he reached base, he never crossed the plate (the team went 2-9 in those games). Therefore, Wedge needs to start bypassing what his gut tells him and start plugging his best hitters in at the top of the order. At the moment, Dellucci is one of the better hitters on the team, but I am very comfortable in saying Garko will significantly outperform him once he breaks out of his mini-slump.

To finish off the discussion on offense, I’ll examine Hafner’s slow start and the departure of Jason Michaels in my next post.

Series number two against New York opens up tomorrow, here’s hoping the bats wake up before then.

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