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.

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