Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Hole at DH

Cleveland has made great strides offensively in July, despite a 9-14 record. Over those 23 games the Tribe has posted an .816 OPS and averaged 5.47 runs per game, both season highs for a month. Veterans like Grady Sizemore (1.087 OPS, 7 HR) and Jhonny Peralta (.940 OPS, 22 RBI) are gaining momentum, Kelly Shoppach (1.065 OPS, 6 2B, 6 HR) continues to make a case to start next year, and Asdrubal Cabrera has caught fire after being promoted from Buffalo (.935 OPS in his last 7 games).

The offense finally seems to be coming together, but there has been a persistent hole in the lineup that has yet to be properly addressed.

Out of the 14 AL teams, Cleveland ranks near the bottom in production from the DH spot. A league average DH for 2008 would provide about 15 HR, .336 OBP, .425 SLG and a 101 OPS+. Cleveland’s combination of 10 players splitting time at DH have only managed a line of 8 HR (!), .297 OBP, .344 SLG, and a 71 OPS+ (well below the average major league hitter, let alone a designated hitter).

As of July 30, Sizemore, Francisco, Martinez, Peralta, Michael Aubrey, and Andy Gonzalez had appeared or started at DH in a combined 11 games with most of those appearances due to a player being injured or needing rest. For example, Grady Sizemore has received two starts at DH this month as a way of resting him without taking his bat out of the lineup. The number of at-bats represented by each of those six players is too small to consider statistically meaningful (I included Garko and Choo below only because there was such a big drop-off in PA’s after them, but they’re both very small samples too).

The large majority of starts at DH have gone to Hafner and Dellucci, with Garko and Choo contributing in a number of games as well. Here is how they’ve fared this season starting as DH:

Player Games PA HR OBP SLG OPS+
T. Hafner 43 187 4 .329 .387 80
D. Dellucci 28 113 4 .283 .423 86
R. Garko 9 35 1 .257 .333 57
S. Choo 7 26 0 .308 .364 79

Wow, that’s…pretty bad. Once Travis Hafner was finally shut down with a worn out shoulder after May 25 the team has clearly been struggling to fill his slot in the lineup. I’m not about to let Hafner off the hook here, but like I’ve said before, the situation surrounding how long he was playing with a bum shoulder are cloudy which makes it hard to point fingers about what drove down his performance this year. The bottom line is that even in a down year like 2007, Hafner’s 24 homers and 118 OPS+ would have trumped anything Cleveland has produced at DH without him healthy.

Obviously, compensating for the loss of Hafner and Martinez in the lineup is no easy task, but it’s almost like Manager Eric Wedge could care less who he uses for DH at this point. Since May 25 (55 games), Dellucci has made just five starts in left field with 12 more appearances as a pinch hitter. The rest of the time, Dellucci has been filling in as the team’s full-time DH. If the guy can’t hit and his defense isn’t good enough to even start him in the outfield anymore, why is he still taking up space on the roster?

We get it Wedge, you like to start Dellucci against right handed pitching. Normally this would be a defensible move since the left-handed Dellucci has a career .808 OPS against righties. This doesn’t negate the fact that Dellucci has been terrible for three months now. Dellucci’s season stats have been buoyed by his .871 April OPS, but he has posted OPS’ of .559, .671, and .612 for the past three months and has shown no sign of improvement (.469 OPS the past two weeks). You’d think Wedge would have ditched Dellucci as DH by now and given more at-bats to, well…anybody else.

I realize Dellucci is part of the team’s corps of “veteran players,” but so were Sabathia and Blake, so I don’t see how that exempts someone from a transaction. I think this team is past the point where they need to sign guys for their veteran presence (like Millwood and Nixon). The core guys should have matured enough to handle those duties by now. I’m also aware that Dellucci was injured for much of 2007, but I don’t see how that’s an excuse for his performance considering he’s been healthy for all of this season.

I know the team is out of contention, but if there is a better bat sitting on the bench each night, why not get it in the lineup? The least the team can do is continue to play hard and give the fans something to cheer about; that means putting the best available players in the lineup as much as possible. It’s OK to admit Dellucci is having a bad season by benching him Wedge; really, I won’t hold it against you.

Fortunately, some semblance of sanity has crept into the lineup with Sizemore (3), Francisco (3), Garko (1), and Choo (1) all receiving starts at DH in the past 16 games (July 11-31). That still leaves the other eight games to Dellucci, which is still too many in my opinion. I would like to see a semi-platoon featuring the day’s spare outfielder and Garko continue until Victor comes off the DL in a few weeks (I’ll break down that situation in detail in a later post).

Garko, Francisco, Choo, and Gutierrez figure to be in the team’s future plans and need more Major League experience to improve. If the team hasn’t seen enough of Dellucci in the past two seasons by now, I honestly don’t know what they’re looking for (he may have a year left on his contract, but I would rather see the team eat his salary than have to work around him in the lineup anymore). Plus, if Francisco or Choo is starting at DH it makes more sense to play Gutierrez for his superior defense over Dellucci.

Cleveland has one guarantee and three relative unknowns in the outfield right now and all three of them have a realistic shot at making a positive contribution next season (Francisco is my strongest pick to start next year). Garko and Gutierrez are essentially fighting for their jobs right now. It would benefit the team if they could continue to work with these two players while evaluating them for 2009. This approach is somewhat contradictive to what I said earlier (put the best product on the field), but getting a good grasp of each players’ value heading into the off-season is an extremely valuable commodity in itself.

Allowing struggling players like Garko and Gutz to find a way out of their slumps may also increase their value on the trade market if they catch fire late in the season (just look at what a couple of hot months did for Casey Blake’s value). Cleveland has nothing to lose at present by allowing these four guys to accumulate at-bats and will have an easier time improving the team for the future. Again, I do not expect Dellucci to be a part of this team by the time 2009 rolls around.

This is extended Spring Training, right? I say let the young guys play because that DH spot has no where to go but up.

Shoppach Joins Rare Company

Catcher Kelly Shoppach had a career night against Detroit on Wednesday, going 5-6 with a BB, 3 2B, 2 HR, 4 R, and 3 RBI over 13 innings. Shoppach’s five extra-base hits tied the major league record for most in a game, a feat accomplished just nine times since 1885. The last American League player to do it was Tribe alum Lou Boudreau in 1946.

Carmona Back in Control

The difference between Carmona’s first two starts back from the DL looked like night and day. After getting shelled for 9 ER over 2.1 innings versus Minnesota last week, Carmona had a quality outing against Detroit Thursday. Fausto went 6.1 innings with 3 K, 1 BB, 5 H and 2 ER.

Carmona looked very comfortable on the mound, stayed down in the zone for the most part, and had good movement on his pitches. The most encouraging part of Carmona’s outing was his 11 to 5 ground ball to fly ball outs ratio. Fausto even ran over to first at full speed to assist on a groundball out, showing no discomfort in his hip.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Casey Dealt to Dodgers

Super-utility man Casey Blake has been dealt to the Dodgers for two minor leaguers. Cleveland also sent cash to round out the deal to pay for the remainder of Blake's salary (about $2 million). The Dodgers were one of several suitors for Blake including the Rays, Mets, and Phillies. All four teams were looking for a veteran infielder or corner outfielder.

Blake’s immediate value got a boost after New York snagged outfielder Xavier Nady from Pittsburgh on Friday. According to Jayson Stark of ESPN, Blake was the most sought after bat on the market, after Nady.

Blake’s rise in value can be attributed to the amount of competition among contenders for his services and an extended hot streak. The Dodgers had lost faith in their young third basemen, Andy LaRoche and Blake DeWitt, and were looking to upgrade their offense. L.A.’s offense ranks towards the bottom of the National League (13/16 teams) in runs scored.

The 24 year old LaRoche had posted a 68 OPS+ in just 59 AB, while 22 year old rookie DeWitt had a 79 OPS+ in 280 AB (strange that L.A. opted to trade two prospects for a veteran when they never even gave their own young players a chance to play, oh well). The loss of Rafael Furcal and the fragility of Nomar Garciaparra further whittled down their infield’s offensive production.

Blake has been on fire for nearly two months now and will take over at third full-time for the Dodgers. Blake posted a .366 BA, .420 OBP, .535 SLG line with 3 HR in 101 AB for June. As the trade deadline neared Blake stayed hot with a .328 BA, .413 OBP, .594 SLG line with 4 HR in 64 AB for July. Perhaps even more interesting to some teams was Casey’s prowess for bringing in runners this season. Blake has hit .393 with a 1.198 OPS with runners in scoring position and leads Cleveland with 58 RBI.

The downside of acquiring Casey is that he is obviously running hot right now. He will be at least a slight upgrade offensively for the Dodgers’ current options at third, but could cool down significantly by the time the playoffs arrive (.697 career OPS in September/October). Blake is just an average defender at third base, but his offense likely trumps any defensive concerns for the Dodgers.

Blake is wrapping up a one year, $6.1 million contract, but his role with the team next year was uncertain. Moving Blake leaves no competition in Cleveland for Andy Marte and will allow the team to properly evaluate the young third baseman for the remainder of the season.

Cleveland’s third base situation for 2009 could hang heavily on Marte’s performance with rising, 23 year old prospect Wes Hodges not yet in AAA. Jhonny Peralta’s future position may also be impacted by the Blake trade depending on how Marte and Asdrubal Cabrera pan out, but that’s another story.

The Prospects

Cleveland appears to have won this trade no matter which way you slice it. Both prospects seem to have a good ceiling based on their respective peripherals, ages, and positions. John Meloan is a 22-year old pitcher who was converted from a reliever to a starter in AAA this season. 2008 is Meloan’s first stint as a starter, but Rotoworld reports that Cleveland will convert him back to the bullpen. Meloan had a cup of coffee with L.A. in 2007, throwing 7.1 forgettable innings out of the pen.

John Meloan Stats

Year (Level) Age ERA WHIP IP K/BB K9 HR9
2007 (AA) 22 2.18 0.93 45.1 3.88 13.90 0.60
2007 (AAA) 22 1.69 0.98 21.1 2.33 8.86 0.84
2007(MLB) 22 11.05 2.18 7.1 .875 8.59 1.23
2008 (AAA) 23 4.97 1.70 105.0 1.65 8.49 0.60

The fact that the Dodgers wanted to try this guy as a starter speaks to his potential (even if the move doesn’t make a lot of sense), but Meloan’s peripherals would be scary good in a late-inning relief role. As a Class-AAA reliever, Meloan posted a 1.69 ERA, .98 WHIP, and 8.86 K9 rate over 21.1 innings. These numbers are comparable to his time in AA where he had an outstanding 13.90 strikeouts per nine innings to match a 2.18 ERA and .93 WHIP.

Meloan saw a drop off in his K rate between AA and AAA, but his K9 rate held steady from then on. He reportedly has some control issues, as indicated by a worsening K/BB rate at each level, but has managed to lower the number of homers surrendered over this span and is still developing as a pitcher.

According to Paul Cousineau, Meloan sports “a fastball that sits around 92-94 and has touched 97 with a curveball as his secondary pitch.” Meloan should greatly improve across the board once he is converted back to a reliever and has the potential to be a closer someday. He was also ranked as the fifth best prospect in the Dodgers’ organization by John Sickels of Minor League Ball.

Carlos Santana Stats

2007 (A) 21 292 7 5 .223 .318 .370 .688
2008 (A+) 22 343 14 7 .318 .424 .563 .987

Carlos Santana has not played past Class-A+ and was converted to a full-time catcher last season. Santana saw a drop in offense during his first year as a backstop, but has come on strong in his second year. At age 22, Santana is putting up some impressive numbers with 14 HR and a .318 AVG, .424 OBP, and .563 SLG over 343 AB. The fact that he is this young and has both patience at the plate and some power makes for a prospect with some serious potential down the road. Santana is also a switch hitter (sound familiar?).

Just out of curiosity, I pulled up Victor Martinez’s numbers at Class-A+ Kinston at age 22. Besides also being a converted infielder and switch hitter, Martinez shares similar numbers to Santana at the same age and minor league level with 10 HR and a .329 AVG, .394 OBP, and .488 SLG line in 2001. Santana is too raw to make any concrete conclusions, but I thought this was kinda cool.

Like I said earlier, I think Cleveland came out way ahead in this deal considering all they gave up was an aging utility player with an expiring contract. Mark Shapiro, we salute you.


The 34-year old Blake has been with Cleveland since the 2003 season and has long been a fixture in the dugout. Casey has always been a team-first player and was always willing to play where ever the team needed him that season, be it third, first, the outfield, or even shortstop. He never had the makings of a super star, but Blake endeared himself to the fans because of his gritty, selfless style of play and awesome beard.

I’ve had my fair share of criticism for Blake over the years, much of which stemmed from how the team utilized him rather than his actual performance. I’m actually a fan of Blake’s versatility, leadership, and how he approaches the game and am glad he was a part of the team, even if he seemed to be in over his head at times (again, not his fault). Blake will probably go down as one of the more colorful characters that emerged from the rebuilt Tribe and despite the occasional frustrating moment I was happy to root for him.

Good luck in L.A. Casey!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Is Betancourt Broken?

This is the first time I've used any Pitch f/x tools in depth, so this article is a bit of an experiment. If you happen to notice any flaws in my use of these stats or if something is not explained well enough, feel free to leave a comment. I'd like to use more of this type of analysis in the future, but for now there might be a few speed bumps.

Rafael Betancourt took the phrase “lights out” to a new level last season. The Tribe’s bullpen ace put together a career year setting up closer Joe Borowski through the regular season and into the playoffs. Cleveland rewarded Betancourt with a two year extension (plus a club option) worth $5.4 million guaranteed over the winter.

Betancourt has struggled for much of 2008 though, underperforming in almost every category compared to his career numbers. Betancourt may have greatly raised expectations for 2008 given his outstanding 2007 campaign, but to expect those types of numbers a second consecutive year is unrealistic. Betancourt’s 1.47 ERA, .76 WHIP, and ridiculous 8.89 K/BB ratio was the pitching equivalent of Hafner’s 179 OPS+ season and would be extremely difficult to match.

What Cleveland did expect from Betancourt was a productive, reliable reliever for the 8th inning, but unfortunately Raffy has been unable to deliver. Betancourt has yet to throw at least nine innings in a month with an ERA under 5.00. He has yet to go on an extended scoreless streak and has followed a rough pattern of no more than three or four scoreless innings with a couple flawed outings for most of the season.

Despite a 6.00 ERA and 1.48 WHIP that has shown little sign of improving, Manager Eric Wedge has consistently gone with Betancourt in the late innings of the game. Betancourt has made the majority of his appearances in the 8th and 9th innings and in high leverage situations. Opponents have posted a 1.071, .922, and .716 OPS against Betancourt in the 7th through 9th innings, respectively.

Has Betancourt fallen so far that he can no longer make a positive contribution to the bullpen? There’s not much to counter Raffy’s inconsistency this season, but what has caused such a steep decline? To find out, I wanted to look at Betancourt’s previous performance, pitch selection, velocity, location, and delivery.

Stat Comparison

Below are Betancourt’s stats for the last three seasons:

2006 56.2 3.81 1.11 4.36 7.62 1.75 1.11 25.1 71.4
2007 79.1 1.47 0.76 8.89 9.08 1.02 0.45 19.7 86.4
2008 42.0 6.00 1.48 3.00 9.00 3.00 1.71 20.8 65.0
Career 350.1 3.19 1.11 4.33 8.10 2.11 0.92 21.1 75.6

The first items that jump out to me are Betancourt’s BB/9 rate and his LOB%. These two items seem to be driving each other up, since the more batters he issues free passes to, the longer the inning and the more scoring opportunities the other team will get. Even in an average 2006 season, Betancourt stranded over 70% of all baserunners with that number spiking at 86.4% in 2007.

A lack of control seems to be driving up the walk rate, but Betancourt is still missing bats at the same rate as last season, which is kind of odd. I would have expected Betancourt to issue fewer strikeouts if his control was suffering. Betancourt’s combination of peripherals basically comes from a surplus of opportunities. An increased number of walks (3.00/9 IP) and hits (.288 AVG against compared to .188 last year) issued makes the average appearance longer, thus providing more opportunities to strike people out, albeit in a less efficient manner.

Betancourt’s strikeout rate is somewhat misleading, but the other peripherals are more accurate in terms of his actual performance.

Betancourt is also giving up about the same number of line drives (balls in play more likely to fall for a hit) as in 2007, but this could be deflated by a lack of opportunities, i.e. the batter is walked rather than hitting a ball into play. The balls that do get hit seem to be leaving the yard at a much higher rate than normal though (1.71 HR/9 compared to 0.92 career).

Pitch Selection and Velocity

Here is a table showing the percentage of time a pitch was used with the average velocity in parentheses. The pitch selection data was taken from Betancourt’s Fan Graphs page.

Year Fastball Slider Change Total Pitches
2006 85.9% (92.3) 4.0% (82.2) 4.4% (84.1) 903
2007 85.8% (91.4 mph) 10.1% (81.8) 4.1% (82.9) 1161
2008 76.1% (91.4) 13.1% (80.9) 10.8% (83.1) 747
Career 83.6% (91.8) 7.0% (81.6) 5.2% (83.4) 3845

I included data for the past three seasons, but Betancourt only used a curveball in 2006 5.7% of the time, so I excluded it from the table. The percentages will not add up to 100% because there was a small percentage from each year that could not be classified as any one pitch.

Betancourt’s average velocity has changed very little between 2007 and 2008. I was surprised to see no change in his fastball velocity, but he did lose about one MPH from his slider. Another surprise was the degree to which he lessened the use of his fastball. In terms of velocity, the fastball doesn’t seem to be any less effective, yet it has given way to a 6.7% increase in changeups thrown and a 3.0% increase in sliders.

According to a recent brief from,

Betancourt has battled some back issues and tweaked his mechanical delivery a bit. The change in command has included Betancourt not relying completely on his fastball, which has historically been both his predominant and dominant pitch.

This is the first I’ve heard of Raffy’s back problems and mechanical changes, so I’m not sure if they occurred mid-season or in Spring Training. It seems that this reduction in the use of his fastball and reliance on secondary pitches were prompted by these injuries and on advice from the coaching staff.

One thing that I’m not sure of is how much last season’s work load is affecting Betancourt this season. Betancourt threw a career high 89.1 innings, including the playoffs, in 2007 and may be suffering from some wear and tear. This may be related to the back issues he has experienced, thus the need to alter his delivery.

Delivery and Location

I used a set of Pitch f/x data from 2007 and 2008 to try and identify any changes in Betancourt’s pitch location and delivery. All the Pitch f/x data and graphs below were compiled by Josh Kalk and can be found online at The Hardball Times and his blog.

Plot of Release Points for 2007

Plot of Release Points for 2008

The two release point tables basically show what their name implies; the point at which the ball leaves Betancourt’s hand during his delivery. This shows Betancourt’s arm slot, or the range in which his arm passes during a pitch, and any inconsistencies or trends that appear between the two seasons. Since the data shown is only a sample of Betancourt’s total pitches thrown it’s best to think of the data as an average representation.

Using the graphs, I made a rough measurement of Betancourt’s arm slot range and broke it down by pitch type (some pitchers vary their arm angle depending on the pitch). I focused on the difference in the arm slot between the two seasons to see how much Betancourt may have altered his mechanics. Note that the scale used is in feet, so even a small change could have a noticeable impact on how a pitch crosses the plate.

Arm Slot Ranges for 2007

Pitch Avg. Horizontal Release Point Range Horizontal Range Difference Avg. Vertical Release Point Range Vertical Range Difference
Fastball -3 : -1.25 ft. 1.75 ft. 5.8 : 6.5 ft. 0.7 ft.
Slider -2.75 : -1.5 ft. 1.25 ft. 5.8 : 6.6 ft. 0.8 ft.

Arm Slot Ranges for 2008

Pitch Avg. Horizontal Release Point Range Horizontal Range Difference Avg. Vertical Release Point Range Vertical Range Difference
Fastball -2.7 : -1.5 ft. 1.2 ft. 5.8 : 6.8 ft. 1.0 ft.
Slider -2.6 : -1.6 ft. 1.0 ft. 6.0 : 6.8 ft. 0.8 ft.
Changeup -2.7 : -1.7 ft. 1.0 ft. 6.1 : 6.8 ft. 0.7 ft.

In 2007, the overall arm slot range for the horizontal axis was 1.75 ft (21 in) and a vertical axis of .7 ft (8.4 in) for his fastball. Similar numbers appear for the slider with a 1.25 ft (15 in) vertical axis and a 0.8 ft (9.6 in) horizontal axis. I keep referring back to 2007 because whatever Betancourt was doing back then was extremely effective.

In 2008, Betancourt is using a wider horizontal range to deliver his slider, but has not altered the vertical range. The biggest change is in his fastball delivery, showing a .55 ft (6.6 in) difference in the horizontal range and a .3 ft (3.6 in) difference in the vertical range between 2007 and 2008. This is actually a very small difference in deliver considering the precision of the data and the amount of times the pitcher has to repeat the motion.

Given how large Betancourt’s normal arm slot is (21 in by 8.4 in for the 2007 fastball), a small change like this may have pushed him just over the edge and affected his pitch location. This is just a theory though, since a difference of 6.6 in and 3.6 in just seems so small when compared to how big the overall range is. Another theory is that the small change in his release point is simply result of intentional mechanical changes and is not a detrimental effect from a tired arm or other ailment. As far as I can tell, it does not appear that Betancourt is suffering from any major inconsistencies due to a change in his release point.

Vertical versus Horizontal Pitch Movement for 2007

Vertical versus Horizontal Pitch Movement for 2008

The two graphs above show the final location of Betancourt’s pitches as they cross home plate. Home plate is represented by point zero on the horizontal axis. A pitch located on the negative horizontal axis would be inside to a right-handed batter and off the plate to a left-handed batter.

Difference in Average Movement for 2007

Pitch Difference in Avg. Horizontal Movement Difference in Avg. Vertical Movement
Fastball 10 in. 14.5 in.
Slider 12.5 in. 12.5 in.

Difference in Average Movement for 2008

Pitch Difference in Avg. Horizontal Movement Difference in Avg. Vertical Movement
Fastball 11 in. 10 in.
Slider 8.5 in. 8.8 in.

First, Betancourt’s fastball has lost a full 4.5 in of vertical movement between 2007 and 2008. Considering how small the difference between a homerun and a groundout can be for a batter, I think this is a significant factor. While the fastball still runs in to rightys, it tends to run flatter on the vertical axis than it used to. This lack of vertical movement could make it easier to make contact with the ball and send it farther.

Second, Betancourt’s slider has seen a drastic drop-off in overall movement. The slider has a difference of 4 in on the horizontal and 3.7 in on the vertical axes between 2007 and 2008.

Just looking at the graphs shows a lot less movement on the slider. This could result in more hanging sliders that don't drop off or sliders that are less effective in fooling the batter and setting up the fastball properly. Considering Betancourt has actually increased the use of his slider by 3% and reduced the use of his fastball by 9.7%, this seems like a really bad combination. Unfortunately, there isn’t a comparison for the changeup because it wasn’t recorded by Pitch f/x in 2007 for some reason.

I think Betancourt is struggling to integrate the new mechanics and secondary pitches into his routine. The significant reduction in using his fastball combined with a seemingly steep learning curve in mastering the slider appear to be the biggest culprits in Raffy’s poor season. There is a good chance that Betancourt will eventually become more comfortable with these changes and revert back to form in the near future.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Grady Represents in HR Derby (plus some guy named Hamilton)

I’ve never been a fan of the All Star Game, it just seemed so artificial in recent years. The players rarely seem that into it, the voting process and subsequent starting lineups are usually a joke, and it just isn’t that fun to watch. I’ve always enjoyed the Homerun Derby though, even after the whole steroid mess. While past contests lost much of their charm after the steroid bubble burst (McGuire vs. Sosa anyone?), watching such an awesome exhibition of raw power by some of the best sluggers in the league hasn’t lost its appeal, at least for me. Even the players get excited about the Derby, the awed faces and practical jokes between teammates are proof of that. If you can get David Ortiz to just stare and mouth “wow” to your handiwork, then that’s quite an accomplishment with the bat.

I’m familiar with how recent contestants suffered from a power outage after the break and that certain players are wary of participating now. I was still stoked when I heard Cleveland’s own Grady Sizemore would be on the marquee for this year’s event. Sure, there’s the possibility that he’ll wear himself out a little, but at least it gives Cleveland fans something to cheer about during the break. Besides, if contenders like Utley and Braun are willing to put forth the effort, it’d be disappointing to not see the A.L. homerun leader step into the batter’s box. Despite sending a small army’s worth of All Stars to the game in past years, Cleveland hasn’t had a Derby participant since Jim Thome was runner-up in 1998 (Ken Griffey won with 19 total).

Sizemore got off to a solid start in his first Derby appearance. An endorsement from Peter Gammons on ESPN and a short right field porch suited to Grady’s swing seemed to hold some promise. Anyone who’s seen Grady turn on a pitch inside and send it to the upper deck at the Jake knows he would fit right in at this year’s Derby venue. Actually, five of the eight participants were left-handers hoping to bank on Yankee Stadium’s friendly dimensions of 318’ (LF), 399’, 408’, 385’, and 314’ (RF).

Sizemore batted second behind Florida’s Dan Uggla in the first round. Sizemore matched Uggla in total homers with six, but Grady racked up a greater distance, as in Pronk moon shots to right field. I figured Grady would show some pop, maybe hit a couple into the upper deck, but he certainly didn’t embarrass himself tonight. Five of his taters landed deep into the upper deck, with the longest landing 459 feet away.

Sizemore seemed more relaxed than Uggla, Utley, and Braun and showed a more fluid, natural swing. It’s too bad Grady got eliminated so early because he didn’t appear to be straining himself considering how far he hit the ball and probably had a lot more fuel in the tank for the second round. On the other hand, it’s better that he not wear himself out in an exhibition that ended up being a blow out.

Watching Josh Hamilton tear apart the field this year was like watching Tiger Woods play in an amateur tournament at Firestone. The other players were too busy watching Hamilton launch insane shots off the center field advertisements to care about winning some silly contest.

Hamilton went last (probably some strategic planning by ESPN programmers), but ended up eliminating Uggla and Sizemore by the time he was done. There’s really no way to describe the onslaught that the 6’4”, 205 lb. Hamilton unleashed on the fans in Yankee Stadium, so I’d suggest catching the replay on ESPN later this week. It was epic.

The longest shot was 518’ feet and just failed to clear the white picket fence atop the center field wall, one of three 500’ blasts from Hamilton. It was interesting how the announcers were discussing Josh Gibson and his legendary homer out of Yankee Stadium. While it hasn’t been proven, it wouldn’t surprise me if a hitter as prolific as Gibson were to actually clear an unmodified Yankee Stadium in 1934 (the outfield wall had a much lower profile back then).

Hamilton easily surpassed Bobby Abreu’s record of 24 taters in a round with 28. Hamilton’s 35 total homers are also the second most in a Derby, falling short of the 41 mark set by Abreu in 2005. Hamilton ignored the fact that he could have quit well before he reached 28 homers, but chose to put on a memorable show for the fans in attendance. The fans returned the favor by chanting “HAM-IL-TON” on several occasions, willing the slugger on. Every player sitting on the sidelines circled around Hamilton after his turn was over, congratulating him on the ridiculous feat of strength he had just put on.

In a rather anti-climatic ending, Hamilton fell just short in the closing round when the homerun totals were reset for each finalist. Justin Morneau took home the trophy by hitting five homeruns to just three by an exhausted Hamilton. Morneau seemed almost guilty in accepting the trophy, as Hamilton had really provided the spark for this year’s event.

Granted, the Homerun Derby has its flaws, but I find it hard to believe that any fan would fail to be impressed or at least entertained by this year’s contest. Oh, and good try Grady, better luck next year.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Adíos to the Ace

I always seem to fall behind when it comes to covering major transactions. Obviously every one on the internet has commented on the Sabathia trade by now, but rather than strictly defer to some of the bigger Tribe blogs out there (who did a great job, by the way) I’ll see if I can come up with any new thoughts on the trade. Someone out there on the internets must think I know what I’m talking about, so I’ll provide a write up for you, the esteemed reader.

If you haven’t found out by now that C.C. (CC?) Sabathia has been traded to Milwaukee then you probably aren’t reading this article due to a lack of internet access. Cleveland received a total of four players in the deal, including an outfielder/first baseman, two pitchers, and a player to be named later (more on those guys later). After reading just about every scrap of analysis and opinion on the trade, I’m still convinced Shapiro made a good move here. Of course, you can’t please everyone, especially when you have the legendary Bartolo Colon trade on your resume like Shap does.

One criticism I’ve heard about the trade is that Cleveland should have waited until closer to the trade deadline in an attempt to drive up the price and woo more suitors. If Sabathia were more than just a four month rental, this might not have been a bad idea. However, Doug Melvin and Mark Shapiro moved quickly to make the exchange final, as it was mutually beneficial to do so.

First, the Brewers gain three or four extra starts from Sabathia, which would have been quite a broadside against division leader Chicago before they acquired Rich “ace bandage” Harden.

The Tribe’s benefits are not entirely obvious, but two possible nightmare scenarios were Sabathia getting injured or Milwaukee going on a massive slide before July 31. Falling from 3.5 games back to 8.5 in such a competitive division would make many GMs think twice before going all-in on a trade. Trade rumors indicate every contending team at least inquired about CC, with the Dodgers, Tampa Bay, and Boston among the supposed leaders (not confirmed, but it's irrelevant now).

Despite the plethora of trade packages available, Milwaukee’s fit Cleveland’s needs the best from the start and they seemed to express the strongest desire to deal. According to Shapiro, his staff had started shopping around three weeks before the deal went down, so I think it’s safe to say they knew exactly what was available before making a final decision. The fact that so many teams wanted Sabathia’s services probably helped drive up the price quite a bit. Even though Cleveland did not receive any current Major Leaguers, the centerpiece of the trade is about as good as it gets in terms of immediate value and potential.

The other criticism circulating is that Cleveland did not receive enough in return. I was surprised at how many people insisted on using the Colon trade as the benchmark for this deal. The circumstances for the two trades are very different and frankly, comparing any trade to the Colon trade is just unfair (you rarely see a return of value as successful as it was for Colon).

The biggest similarity is that Colon and Sabathia were both at the top of their game when dealt. Colon was 10-4 with a 2.55 ERA and 75 K, leading the AL in both innings and complete games heading into the All Star break. Like Milwaukee, the 2002 Expos were desperate for a playoff berth and were willing to empty the farm to win now. It’s important to remember that Colon was under team control through the end of the 2003 season because of a team option.

Here’s the prospect package Cleveland received back in 2002:

Brandon Phillips, SS – 20 years old

Ranked the 20th best prospect by Baseball America in 2002, recently promoted to AAA; regarded as Montreal’s best overall prospect.

Cliff Lee, P – 23 years old

Was a decent prospect in Montreal’s system, but was in the midst of a breakout season at Class-AA.

Grady Sizemore, OF – 19 years old

Noted for his athleticism, the relatively unknown Sizemore was struggling in the low level Florida State League with a .258 BA and no HR.

So, one elite position player, a raw, high-ceiling pitcher, and a Class-A prospect with good athletic skills from a very desperate Expos GM (they were facing contraction in ’02) in exchange for a 29 year old ace with a year and a half guaranteed contract in a pre-Zito free agent market.

Why would anyone expect a similar return for Sabathia? I fail to see the logic in exercising such high expectations for the Sabathia trade when your baseline is a six year old trade in a vastly different market that is arguably one of the five greatest trades in franchise history. Moving on….

The Return

Below is a brief description of the three known prospects obtained from Milwaukee:

Matt LaPorta, OF/1B – 23 years old

A 22 88 10 .318 .392 .750 1.142
AA 23 302 20 .288 .402 .576 .978

LaPorta was ranked as the 23rd best prospect by Baseball America to open the 2008 season. He primarily played 1B in college and was named the 2007 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year with Florida and was a 1st Team All-American at DH. The Brewers drafted him with the seventh overall pick in 2007.

Despite struggling in the outfield and being a natural first baseman, Milwaukee shifted LaPorta to the outfield in the minor leagues. The move made sense for Milwaukee, since they had Prince Fielder entrenched at 1B. LaPorta became a tradable commodity for Milwaukee after the emergence of corner outfielders Ryan Braun and Corey Hart.

This does not discount LaPorta’s value though, as he is far and away the best offensive prospect in a deep Brewer’s farm system. According to Jay at LGT, “LaPorta immediately becomes the best prospect in the Indians organization, or at worst a very close second to Triple-A LHP David Huff, another first-rounder having an outstanding season.”

There’s an excellent chance LaPorta will be contributing in the Majors by 2009. Cleveland will probably evaluate him in Buffalo before promoting him, but don’t let his Class-AA tag fool you. LaPorta is the real deal and should fill in a major hole in the Tribe’s offense for years to come.

It will be interesting to see how LaPorta’s presence affects Ryan Garko’s future with Cleveland. Garko is having a terrible season where he was supposed to be a major cog in the offense. I would not be surprised if Garko is traded before the start of the 2009 season, but Cleveland would definitely be selling low at this point.

Rob Bryson, RHP - 20 years old

Level Age IP ERA WHIP K / BB HR / IP
Rk 19 54.0 2.67 1.13 5.83 .037
A 20 55.0 4.25 1.15 3.65 .054

Bryson is only 20 years old and has not progressed past Class-A yet. As such, it’s difficult to draw much from his one and a half seasons of low minor league ball. Fortunately, Tony Lastoria obtained a scouting report from Brian Kapellusch and was kind enough to post it. Here’s what Kapellusch had to say on the young righty:

Draft & Follow guy, with a really great strikeout rate. He's got a very plus slider, and a decent fastball. I think he projects as a reliever, possibly a closer, but I suppose he could start if he developed a third pitch. Obviously he's only in A-ball, so he's got a way to go, but the Brewers wouldn't have signed him as a DFE player if they didn't think he was worth it.

Zach Jackson, LHP - 25 years old

Level Age IP ERA WHIP K / BB HR / IP
MLB 23 38.1 5.40 1.62 1.57 .157
AAA 24 169.2 4.46 1.46 1.92 .076
AAA 25 57.1 7.85 1.73 1.88 .174
MLB (MIL) 25 3.2 4.91 1.91 0.5 0.00

seems like a typical throw in player and I think his stats speak for themselves. He may be used as a long reliever for the remainder of 2008, but I doubt we’ll be seeing him in Cleveland next season unless he makes some major improvements in AAA.

Player to be Named Later

The PTBNL is actually a crucial part to this deal, but major media outlets have been glossing over it for some reason. According to a report by Castrovince, "it is believed the player to be named will either be Class A third baseman Taylor Green or Double-A outfielder Michael Brantley, both of whom are considered prime prospects."

Part of the reason I waited to write about the trade was because I was waiting to find out who the second major piece of the deal was. Apparently, Cleveland has until the end of the regular season to make their decision, but I doubt they’ll linger past the July 31 trade deadline. The Front Office has been knee deep in scouting reports the past few weeks, so they probably have a good idea of who they want and are just wrapping up some loose ends.

See Ya CC

On a personal note, I’m very sad to see Sabathia leave. He was by far the most electric and accomplished pitcher to ever take the mound for Cleveland during the Jacobs Field era and will be missed. I had been bracing for his departure since Spring Training, so I guess any frustration I might have felt in this case has already eroded away.

In a way, Sabathia’s departure isn’t much different than Thome or Ramirez or any of the other Free Agency Villains Cleveland fans usually bring up. Sabathia would have certainly left for more money and to be closer to his California home (the latter I can’t blame him for), yet most fans still seem fairly warm towards CC (myself included). I guess the fact he was traded first and we actually got some value back for one our departing stars makes a big difference in how the situation is perceived. Baseball is weird like that.

I am glad Sabathia was able to experience one more playoff run in a Cleveland uniform and finally win his Cy Young award (I knew he’d win one eventually). So adíos CC and good luck in Milwaukee. Just don’t sign with New York or Boston, ok?

Friday, July 4, 2008

Raising the White Flag

It's pretty obvious. If you're looking for an announcement that we're going to start trading guys, you won't get that until we make our first trade. But I think it's fairly obvious at this point.
-Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro, 7/2/08

The white flag was officially raised by Cleveland this week with 77 games remaining in the season. The decline of this year’s squad has been one long, painful slump after another. If it wasn’t the offense, it was the bullpen. If it wasn’t the bullpen (though it usually was), it was the starting pitching. As the injuries stacked up, it became more and more apparent that this team would not have the talent needed to contend.

There was certainly some risks and elevated expectations going into the 2008 season. Even if the team was completely healthy, they would have had a tough time improving on their ALCS appearance last year. Half the analysts from Bristol to Minneapolis were picking the Indians to make the playoffs again, maybe even go all the way. How much that pressure weighed on the players and the coaching staff, nobody knows except the people in the dugout. After all the seasoning this team has gone through since 2005, I doubt few players gave the pressure of making the playoffs again a second thought. Besides, hanging a season with this many speed bumps on mental hiccups just doesn’t make any sense.

The risk I was referring to is going into a season with out making any major upgrades or additions to the team. This is about the biggest hindsight criticism one can make, but it’s true; there was a degree of risk involved. Shapiro placed a lot of faith in young players like Garko, Gutierrez, and Cabrera to take the next step and they stumbled. Veterans who were charged with carrying left field, third base, and the closer role failed miserably. Even the vaunted core of Sizemore, Martinez, Peralta, and Hafner couldn’t save the season, as the catcher and DH succumbed to injuries for a crucial stretch of the season. The starting pitching was the one bright spot this season, until two of the most consistent starters found themselves on the DL as well.

Despite the hindsight argument that Shapiro failed to bolster the offense as teams like Boston and Detroit got stronger, we’ll never know the true potential of this group of players because two of the three main offensive cogs were never healthy to begin with. There is no way anyone could have predicted such a handicap, thus there was no way to prepare for it in the offseason (how much he knew about Hafner’s shoulder is arguable, but that would be pure speculation here). An offense does not fluctuate like a bullpen; these players had a history of success offensively and Shapiro made a perfectly defensible decision to stick with them.

Obviously this season was disappointing, but when you get down to it anything short of a Word Series win would have been a disappointment in the end. 2007 was one of the greatest seasons I’ve ever experienced as an Indians fan, yet it was all a mere stepping stone toward a long awaited goal. It’s not uncommon for a strong contender to take a step back the season after. Whether players leave, get injured, regress, age, or have the wear of a playoff run catch up to them, it’s extremely difficult to sustain.

Granted, some teams are the exception to this rule (Oakland, New York, Boston, Atlanta are the most recent….the list gets much shorter after that).

I believe Cleveland may have fallen victim to its own success in a way. Were Shapiro and Wedge overconfident because of the team’s past accomplishments?


Did pitchers like Carmona, Westbrook, and Betancourt over-work their arms by throwing so many strenuous innings?


Fluctuations like these are part of the game; you just have to hope your team can stay ahead of the curve.

In a way, it’s beneficial that Cleveland tanked this year. The team’s struggles were a quick (albeit painful) way of weeding out holes in the lineup and who should be shipped out. With any luck and a little less stubbornness from Wedge, the team will finally have a no-risk opportunity to evaluate Andy Marte in the Majors. Cleveland can also convert the value Sabathia may have offered in the playoffs into a young, cornerstone player for 2009 or 2010.

Falling out of contention may be a blessing in disguise if the return for Sabathia fills in one of those offensive holes that have plagued the team lately. There’s no way this team would trade Sabathia if it were still gunning for a playoff spot.

Below is my list of things I’d like to see happen now that Cleveland has raised the white flag and started taking entries for the C.C. Sweepstakes. I’ll go into more detail on a few of these later this week:

1.) Trade Sabathia

The trade winds blowing through Cleveland are practically a hurricane now. The two most convincing reports I’ve heard so far come out of Milwaukee and Los Angeles. Milwaukee appears to be the front runner out of the many teams supposedly scouting Sabathia this month. It sounds like the Tribe may get a stud prospect or two after all. I’m going to wait and see how the rumors play out, but look for a possible announcement from the team next week.

2.) Play Andy Marte for the rest of the season

I don’t care if it’s at DH or third base, Wedge needs to play Marte NOW. If Shapiro has to twist Wedge’s arm to make this happen, that’s just fine with me. Marte has no minor league options left and has accumulated a grand total of 164, 57, and 55 at-bats with Cleveland over the 2006-2008 seasons.

This is not a fair means of evaluation for any player, let alone a 24 year old that was considered one of the best prospects in the game not too long ago. Blake is not the future, but there’s a strong possibility Marte is. If the poor kid doesn’t get called off the bench soon, he may just go all Shawn Chacon on Wedgie.

3.) Get rid of Borowski

Borowski was designated for assignment today, since the team doesn’t have to pretend it needs him closing out games anymore. I appreciate the solid 45 save season he gave us last year, but his time with Cleveland should have ended well before now.

4.) Dump Dellucci


5.) Trade Casey Blake

Again, I appreciate the past contributions, but we’re not talking about Todd Helton or Ken Griffey here, this is the type of player that you trade when you’re out of contention. Consider Casey’s $6.1 mil expiring contract, age, and the fact that we have Andy Marte rotting on the bench and that’s reason enough to trade him in my opinion.

There are plenty of contending teams that could use a super-utility man like Blake and his value has likely peaked for this season. Blake posted an OPS of .670 and .691 for April and May, respectively. Unless you think he can sustain a .954 OPS on a .420 BAbip beyond the month of June (he can’t) I say trade him while might be of value.

6.) Hold tryouts for the 2009 closer position

I’ve said before that I think Jensen Lewis and Masahide Kobayashi are the strongest contenders for closer next year. This may be a bit tricky though, as both pitchers are having trouble adapting to their recent increase in innings and will need to be handled carefully.

Lewis pitched 81 innings between AA, AAA, and the Majors in 2007. The last time he threw that many innings in a season was 2006 when he was still a starter at Kinston. Kobayashi averaged just 48 IP over the last three years in the shortened, 144 game Pro Yakyu season. Kobayashi has already logged 41 innings for Cleveland so far.

7.) Give Hafner and Martinez as much time as they need to heal

It's pretty much a lock that we won't see these two suit up again until they're 100% healthy. As I've said before, I think having Hafner sit out this season to fix his weakened shoulder and any holes in his swing will greatly benefit the team in the long run. Ditto for Martinez, whose choice to play through intense pain was admirable, but it's time to get that elbow permanently healthy.