Saturday, August 30, 2008

Tribe Heats Up in August

On July 9, Cleveland was settling in for an extended stay in the AL Central basement. The Tribe was 16 games under .500, 15.5 games out of first, and two games behind the Royals. While C.C. Sabathia made his first start for Milwaukee, his former team was in the midst of a 10 game losing streak.

On July 10, Cleveland was left without its Opening Day ace, third and fourth starting pitchers, third and fourth hitters in the lineup, a legitimate closer, and any momentum whatsoever. Of course, in one of the sick twists of baseball, Cleveland began to play like a contender again.

The day after Sabathia left for the Brew Crew, Cleveland strung together one of its best stretches all season, going 10-7 to close out July. Even though their 10 game win streak was broken by Seattle on Friday, Tribe fans should be proud of the way their team has played lately en route to an 18-8 record for August.

The same team that failed to put together a winning month all season and hadn’t had a positive run differential since May (+8) suddenly came to life after trading their best starting pitcher. Yeah, that makes perfect sense.

Playoffs? Playoffs?

I can’t believe I’m writing this, but has Cleveland’s win streak given them a shot at the playoffs? I guess it’s mathematically possible…so there is that. The Tribe’s remaining schedule is rife with opportunity to move up, but it’s also very difficult.

Including the two remaining against Seattle this weekend, Cleveland has 13 games against teams with a losing record (Seattle, K.C., Baltimore), with six of those being at home. They also have six games against the division leading Chi Sox (road-home split), three against the Twinkies, and three against Detroit (who are pretty much irrelevant after the sweep). Just to make the wild card interesting, we also have a four game set at Fenway in the last week of the season.

Based on the 10.5 game deficit with 29 games remaining, I’m going to say Cleveland has no shot of surpassing Boston, Chicago, and Minnesota. At all. No offense, but it would be nuts to expect such a thing.

With any luck though, Cleveland could seriously screw up Chicago or Boston’s playoff hopes, which would be awesome in itself. Go Tribe.

The Pitching

The starting pitching has been at its best since May when Cleveland tossed 44 1/3 scoreless innings and posted a 2.76 ERA for the month. In August, Tribe starters have gone 12-6 with a 3.88 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 1.55 K/BB ratio, and 2 CG over 167 IP.

Obviously, Cliff Lee has been throwing like some kind of left handed messiah all season. August has been especially good for Mr. Lee with a 1.86 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 2.85 K/BB ratio over 38.2 IP.

The second best starter this month has been Anthony Reyes by a wide margin. Since joining the Tribe in early August Reyes has made four starts, throwing 24.1 innings with a sparkling 2.22 ERA. Reyes’ 1.36 WHIP and 1.10 K/BB ratio suggest he may be catching a few breaks in allowing so many baserunners, but not a lot of runs. I’d keep an eye on Reyes for the rest of the season though, as he’s making a strong case for one of the two rotation slots available at the start of the 2009 season.

Zach Jackson deserves honorable mention for continuing to improve in each of his three starts this season. Jackson was sort of thrown into the fire so the team could see what he can do, but his 6.1 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 6 K, 0 BB outing against Detroit this week was his best start yet (his biggest mistakes came on two solo homers, not bad against such a stacked offense).

Carmona’s 5.22 ERA over his last five starts gets a free pass from me right now. Carmona still hasn’t locked in his control since coming back from the DL and has had difficulty getting a good break on his pitches and keeping the ball down in the zone. His last start against Detroit was a good example when he struggled early (4 ER in first two IP), but was able to make the proper adjustments by correcting his arm slot mid-game. I wouldn’t worry about the overall numbers for Carmona this season, but seeing him take what the pitching coach tells him and be able to apply it right away is a good sign.

Sowers has made some progress in August, with a deceiving 6.03 ERA over his last six starts. If you remove the start at Texas where he got shelled for 7 ER over 3.2 IP (that happens to a lot of pitchers at Arlington), Sowers’ ERA over that span drops to 4.88. Still, Sowers has yet to separate himself from Jackson or Reyes in terms of his 2008 ML performance. Then again, we haven’t seen enough of Jackson or Reyes yet, so Sowers could certainly surpass them by season’s end.

The Offense

The offense has been the real driving force in August with the team posting a season best .281 AVG, .362 OBP, .471 SLG line to go with their 5.72 runs per game. Many of the younger players who had been struggling most of the season suddenly woke up in August. Below are some of the standout performers from this month (stats current as of 8/28/08). There are really only two surprises on this list because Choo, Peralta, Shoppach, and Francisco have been running at a good clip for a few months now.

F. Gutierrez 80 12 24 7 4 .329 .977
S. Choo 85 18 22 9 3 .293 .936
J. Peralta 111 20 33 6 4 .330 .897
K. Shoppach 94 19 20 4 6 .244 .846
B. Francisco 91 13 28 4 4 .308 .827
R. Garko 101 9 27 5 2 .307 .808

Even though Shop’s batting average and OPS have declined some since he posted a .917 and 1.065 OPS in June and July, he has still compiled more walks and runs than in any previous month. Shoppach is also on pace to exceed his monthly hits total and has already tied his HR total with six. Considering he has a 1.036 OPS in his last 10 games, it doesn’t look like Shoppach is going to lessen his grip on the starting catcher role anytime soon.

Choo has shown great progress in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, racking up extra base hits and playing solid defense. If Choo’s current numbers were adjusted to a full, 162 game season, he would finish with 142 hits, 53 doubles, and 16 homeruns. To put that kind of production in perspective, AL leader Brian Robert’s currently has 46 2B, Alex Rodriguez has 31, and Grady Sizemore has 29.

Choo may be running hot right now, but he still has a very respectable .841 OPS on the season pointing to a consistent approach at the plate. I think Choo’s outstanding production in what was supposed to be a bounce-back year from surgery has at least earned him consideration for the 2009 outfield. The fact that Choo’s 2008 OPS+ of 119 is on pace with the last time he was healthy (118 OPS+ in 167 PA for 2006, his first year with Cleveland) makes him an interesting player to watch going forward.

I’m not sure it’s fair to say Francisco’s been in a slump, since his .765 and .795 OPS’ for June and July are pretty decent. Even if his overall numbers have fluctuated some, Francisco has still done a good job of getting on base all season with a .341 OBP. It’s easy to forget this is Francisco’s rookie season, but his patience at the plate and reliable offensive production really doesn’t reflect his rookie status (granted, not many rookies are 26 years old with hefty college and minor league experience either).

The fact that Francisco has bounced back from a sub-par June and July after starting out hot in May is encouraging and suggests he is already able to make the proper adjustments over the course of a Major League season. Francisco’s career minor league numbers compare favorably to his performance at the ML level so far. Francisco posted a .291 AVG, .357 OBP, .459 SLG line over 2344 minor league at-bats and has a .284 AVG, .341 OBP, .466 SLG line over 373 at-bats in 2008 so far.

Francisco and Choo seem to have very similar skill sets at this point in their careers. Both have some pop in their bats, get on base at a decent rate, have strong throwing arms, can play either left or right field, and project to be above average outfielders in the near-term. Even their ages (Francisco is 26, Choo 25) and career minor league stats (Francisco an .814 OPS, Choo an .836 OPS) are eerily similar.

With Matt LaPorta on the way sooner than later, I have no idea how Cleveland will go about choosing between the two outfielders (assuming LaPorta stays in left field, of course).

Amazingly, Franklin Gutierrez is one of the hottest hitters on the team right now. After stinking up the first 57 games of the season with a .579 OPS, Gutz reversed course in the next 28 with an .855 OPS. The biggest difference now is that Gutz has managed to cut his K/BB rate in half from 4.90 to 2.62, adding .061 points to his batting average and .064 to his OBP in the process. For whatever reason, Franklin appears to be seeing the ball much better than before.

Despite the recent lift, Gutz’s season has been a disappointment. He still hasn’t proven that he can hit right handed pitching very well (.722 OPS in 2007, .637 OPS in 2008) and has seen a significant regression against the lefties he crushed to the tune of a .920 OPS in 103 PA in 2007 (.755 OPS in 111 PA in 2008). Despite getting a comparable number of at-bats to Francisco this season, Gutierrez has yet to establish himself as a viable starter for 2009. Gutz has also been seeing the majority of his at-bats against righties this year, but has just recently started to show any progress against them.

I’m hesitant to write off Gutz as nothing more than a platoon player with Cleveland, but unfortunately I can’t back up the hunch I have about him right now. As much as I want to see Gutz’s offense catch up to his wicked defensive tools, it has yet to happen over the past two seasons. His 2008 splits (.118 difference in OPS for RHP vs. LHP) are slightly better than 2007 (.198 difference), but his overall numbers have declined.

Gutierrez may have the best range and arm of any outfielder on the team, but his defensive prowess doesn’t even come close to negating his offensive shortcomings. For comparison, Francisco has 1.6 Fielding Win Shares and 7.0 Batting Win Shares for a total of 8.6 Win Shares in 2008. Gutierrez has 1.9 Fielding Win Shares (not as large a margin as I expected), but only 1.5 Batting Win Shares for a total of 3.4 Win Shares for 2008. The same argument can be applied to Choo, who has 7.8 and .8 respective Win Shares (8.6 total) on the season.

Unless he finishes the season strong or stays on as the fourth outfielder, the 25 year old Gutierrez may end up as an odd man out on the 2009 roster.

Rounding out the offensive surge is Jhonny Peralta, who continues to roll right along with a .330 AVG, .897 OPS, and 4 HR in August (yawn). Asdrubal Cabrera has cooled down considerably since his promotion, but has held his own at second base with a .250, .333, .395 line. As long as AstroCab brings that slick glove to work everyday, I can definitely live with that kind of offense out of the nine hole. Wedge and company have to be pleased with the progress Cabrera has made after working on his swing and conditioning in Buffalo.

On Maple Bats

This article is a little old, but it’s still the best summary I’ve found on the ash vs. maple bat debate. Amy Nelson (one of the few really good baseball writers on hand at ESPN) interviewed people from the bat making industry and current players to get their thoughts on the matter. It’s a very informative article, so check it out if you missed it earlier.

One of the more interesting quotes described the difference in feel between ash and maple:

Holman says there isn't a larger hitting area on maple bats. Schapp adds that the specs are exactly the same for both woods and that neither one has proven to hit balls any farther than the other. But Angels center fielder Torii Hunter said the only time he used a maple bat (for the month of April this season), he felt the difference in how hard the maple wood made contact with the ball. “It feels like a car crash at full speed," Hunter said. "It's like you killed the ball. [They're] a little more powerful.”

If both types of wood are cut in the same shape, but one type of wood has a tendency to break much more violently, why not just alter the shape of the bat so it’s less likely to shatter with such force? Bat makers try and shave off as much weight as possible in their design, but it appears (at least to me) that the use of maple in these super skinny, lightweight bats isn’t a very good idea from a safety standpoint.

I’ve seen enough bat shards fly past a pitcher’s head to know the potential damage a shattered bat could do. I think MLB should move to ban certain bat shapes depending on the type of wood used. That way, hitters can still have that lack of “give” that comes from maple, but they would have to sacrifice some weight for safety reasons. Whatever the decision, MLB needs to sit down with representatives from the bat industry and the players union to come to a reasonable compromise soon (assuming they haven’t already).

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Heavyweight Bout for the AL CY

Raise your hand if you predicted Cliff Lee would be a front runner for the Cy Young Award this season (put your hand down Steve Phillips, I said this season). That’s ok, nobody else did either. As incredible as it may seem, Cleveland’s remaining ace spent half of 2007 in Buffalo and had to fight for his spot on the roster out of spring training. Now, Mr. Lee is locked in a tight race with Doc Halladay for the AL Cy Young Award. Quite a turn-around, all things considered.

Lee and Halladay each have six starts remaining as of August 22, so there’s plenty of time for one of them to pull away. There’s also the chance that they will fall back to the pack, which features a few flashy albeit distant contenders who may catch the voters’ eyes.

I’m putting my money on either Lee or Halladay to win, but who will the BBWA voters favor in a close race? To try and answer that, I decided to look at the last ten CYA winners. I also compared the frontrunners to the rest of the field to see if there are any sleepers for the award. Finally, I compared Lee and Halladay directly in an attempt to find any chinks in their armor, as viewed by the voters (you may be thinking, this is an awful lot of work for something that will be fact in a couple months, which is true. Seriously though, where’s the fun in waiting?).

What’s the benchmark for the CYA?

The Baseball Writers of America are a notoriously picky bunch when it comes to voting for awards. The MVP award seems to have more controversy surrounding it each year than the Cy Young does, but there are some questionable trends that come into play for the CY as well. I’ll include less traditional stats later, but I wanted to focus on the voters’ tendencies to get a feel for what matters the most on the final ballot.

The strangest trend is how much weight the voters seem to put towards a pitcher’s win-loss record and his team’s overall record. Chances are, if you still think these two stats carry an equivalent value to ERA and strikeout rates then I doubt I’ll be able to convince you otherwise. Trying to determine the impact a starting pitcher has had over the course of the season and the context of those contributions can be helpful in determining how valuable the pitcher is, but only if put in the proper context. The win-loss argument is about as tired as it gets though, so I’ll be brief.

A pitcher’s record tends to be a direct reflection of how good the rest of the team is, specifically the bullpen, offense, and defense. The pitcher has little to no control over any of these factors (I suppose you could argue a groundball pitcher affects the defense and an innings-eater keeps a faulty pen off the mound, but in general, the pitcher has no say in the matter), yet they all directly impact the pitcher’s win-loss record. On the other hand, a pitcher can be made to look a lot better than he is if he has a superior defense or above average run support helping him suppress his ERA or rack up wins.

Looking at the past 10 AL Cy Young winners, you can compile a benchmark that voters will likely compare this year’s contenders to. The last ten winners posted an average line of 231 IP, 2.80 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and 234 K. No pitcher had fewer than 18 wins or less than a .525 team win percentage. Even more exclusive was the fact that only three winners were on teams that did not make the playoffs.

Cy Young Award Winners 2007-1998

Player Year Team (WP) W-L IP ERA WHIP K 1st Place Votes^
C.C. Sabathia 2007 CLE (.593) 19-7 241 3.21 1.14 209 19
J. Santana 2006 MIN (.593) 19-6 234 2.77 1.00 245 28
B. Colon 2005 LAA (.586) 21-8 223 3.48 1.16 157 17
J. Santana 2004 MIN (.568) 20-6 228 2.61 0.92 265 28
R. Halladay 2003 TOR (.531)* 22-7 266 3.25 1.07 204 26
B. Zito 2002 OAK (.636) 23-5 229 2.75 1.13 182 17
R. Clemens 2001 NYY (.594) 20-3 220 3.51 1.26 213 21
P. Martinez 2000 BOS (.525)* 18-6 217 1.74 0.74 284 28
P. Martinez 1999 BOS (.580) 23-4 213 2.07 0.92 313 28
R. Clemens 1998 TOR (.543)* 20-6 235 2.65 1.10 271 28

Average: .575 20-6 231 2.80 1.04 234

*Team did not reach playoffs

^Out of 28 possible votes

Actually, the only pitcher in the past 10 years to have just 18 wins and a team WP below .530 on a non-playoff team was Pedro Martinez in 2000. The rest of Pedro’s stats were just so ridiculous (217 IP, 1.74 ERA, .92 WHIP, 284 K), that it’s probably more realistic to expect no fewer than 19 wins and for the pitcher to be on a strong playoff contender (I didn’t say it made sense, that’s just what past stats say).

The Field

So besides Mr. Lee and Doc Halladay (more on them later), is anyone else close to meeting the criteria of a CY winner? Ehhh, not so much.

CY Contenders as of 8/22/08

Player Team (WP) W-L IP ERA WHIP K K/BB
D. Matsuzaka BOS (.579) 15-2 126.2 2.77 1.37 109 1.42
F. Hernandez SEA (.368) 7-8 151.0 3.04 1.34 140 2.30
J. Danks CHW (.576) 10-5 150.3 3.05 1.20 130 2.89
J. Saunders ANA (.613) 14-5 157.7 3.14 1.19 78 1.70
J. Guthrie BAL (.480) 10-9 177.0 3.15 1.16 110 2.20
J. Lester BOS (.579) 12-4 167.7 3.17 1.28 114 2.24
M. Mussina NYY (.528) 16-7 153.3 3.35 1.20 109 5.19

I initially ranked pitchers by their season ERA, K/9, and VORP on Baseball Prospectus’ stat sorting list, just to figure out a rough list of candidates. Guys like Felix Hernandez, John Danks, Jeremy Guthrie, and Jon Lester looked like stiff competition before their lack of wins and innings pitched were factored in.

I was surprised to see what an excellent season Felix Hernandez is having with a 3.04 ERA and 140 K. If it weren’t for his fragility and the fact that he’s on a terrible, West Coast team, Hernandez’s performance would have garnered him more attention. Lester and Guthrie were two more guys who are having solid seasons, but their lack of strikeouts (112 and 110 respectively) and wins (12 and 10) leaves them out of the CY conversation.

Once you move past the mid-tier pitchers, there are only three starters comparable to Lee and Doc in wins and ERA. Saunders is tempting at first glance, but considering his lack of Ks (78) and name recognition (the average voter would probably be more inclined to vote for John Lackey over Saunders, even though Lackey missed a large chunk of the season) his chances are nil. It’s easy to be overshadowed on a contender like Anaheim when the rest of the rotation is so good (also see Carmona, Fausto; 2007).

I’ve heard various media outlets toss Matsuzaka and Mussina into the CY conversation, which is odd considering neither of them can hang with the frontrunners. Mussina may reach 20 wins thanks to a hefty 5.31 runs of support per start, but even that’s the only category where Moose has a shot. Mussina would have to finish extremely strong in September (not unprecedented, he has a career 2.84 ERA in Sept.), but I don’t think he has the stamina to catch up in any other categories.

As for Matsuzaka, I think his 1.42 K/BB ratio and below-average .264 BAbip speak pretty loudly. Like Mussina, he’s got the wins, the contending team, and the hype, but I bet his ERA ends up closer to 3.77 than 2.77 by the time the season’s over.

The Frontrunners

Barring an epic collapse in their final six starts, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay seem to be alone in the AL CY race. Both pitchers have impressive resumes this season, but each goes about it in a different way.

Halladay is typically more of a groundball pitcher (57.2 GB%), allowing him to get fast outs, conserve pitches, and go deeper into games. Halladay’s strikeout rates have always been healthy, but he has reached 160 Ks only twice in his career. This makes his current combination of a 7.64 K/9 rate (168 K total) and 53.6% groundball rate particularly impressive.

The last time Halladay combined these two strengths in a healthy season was 2003, the last time he won the Cy Young (204 K, 58.4 GB%).

Lee has traditionally relied on flyball outs with decent strikeout rates, but like Halladay, has greatly improved upon his previous trends. By improving the quality of his pitches and approach, Lee has done a better job of keeping hitters off-balance than in the past. The fact that he can precisely locate his fastball and nasty curveball for a strike has also made hitters more inclined to swing at Lee’s pitch in an attempt to put the ball in play. This refined approach has led to a career high in groundball to flyball outs (1.34 2008, .83 career), thus leading to a career low in homeruns surrendered (.41 HR/9).

Obviously, more strikeouts and groundballs will lead to shorter innings (fewer baserunners, more double plays) and is a big reason why Lee has already matched his career total for complete games this season with three.

Lee vs. Halladay as of 8/22/08

Player Team (WP) W-L IP ERA WHIP K K/BB
C. Lee CLE (.460) 18-2 177.7 2.43 1.08 141 5.42
R. Halladay TOR (.520) 15-9 198.0 2.68 1.04 168 4.94

The two frontrunners seem very close at first glance with Lee holding more wins and Halladay more innings and strikeouts. Lee currently leads the AL in ERA, K/BB ratio (5.42), wins, and win percentage (.900). Halladay is first in the AL in IP and complete games, second in WHIP and strikeouts, and third in K/BB ratio (4.94).

I wouldn’t be surprised if Lee and Halladay stay as close as they are now statistically, which means the two major points of contention will be wins and quality/quantity of innings.

If I had to choose between two similar pitchers, I would tend to go for the guy who will give me more quality innings (in this case, Halladay). First, I’d like to peel back a few more layers before definitively choosing anyone here.

Alternative Stats for Lee vs. Halladay as of 8/22/08

Player CG SHO ERA+ FIP Lead or Tie Blown RS per Start OPP QUAL OPS
C. Lee 3 1 180 2.63 5 5.24 .725
R. Halladay 8 2 158 3.09 2 4.25 .762

If you remove team defense from the equation, Lee has actually pitched much better than Halladay in terms of FIP. Lee posted a 2.63 FIP, despite having the fifth worst team defense in the AL in terms of defensive efficiency (.694). Halladay’s FIP of 3.09 indicates the groundball-heavy pitcher’s stats would be a bit worse if it weren’t for the All Star defense playing behind him. Toronto owns the third best defensive efficiency in the AL at .709.

Lee has also had to dodge bullets from his own bullpen, watching five potential wins go to waste after he left the game. Cleveland’s relief pitching has been the ultimate oxymoron this season with a 5.29 ERA. The fact that Toronto has a sparkling 2.98 bullpen ERA would be more of a factor if it weren’t for the eight games that Halladay finished himself this season. Granted, Lee may have incurred more losses by pitching deeper into games, but if Lee had even two of those decisions back he would already be at 20 wins with six starts to go.

Halladay earns some points by getting a full run less from his offense than Lee per start. Halladay also had to face a slightly tougher collection of hitters this season with a .762 opposition OPS to Lee’s .725. Still, Cleveland’s leaky bullpen closes the gap on the run support argument, in my opinion.

Finally, if you compare each pitcher’s ERA+ (adjusted for ballpark factors and measured against the league average; 100 indicates an average pitcher), Lee is 22 points ahead of Halladay (a sizeable margin). The first thing I thought of to explain this was that Halladay plays in the cavernous Rogers Centre with a superior defense. Odds are, a lot of potential hits are stolen in that ballpark, thus aiding Halladay’s numbers.

Taking into account adjusted stats like FIP and ERA+, it would appear that the quality of Lee’s innings partially negates or surpasses Halladay’s quantity. Combine that with Lee’s lead in the all-important (to the voters anyway) wins and traditional ERA and I think Lee has enough of a buffer from Halladay to take home the CY this year.

Where does K-Rod fit in?

Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about all the buzz surrounding Anaheim’s ace reliever. Personally, I’m not a fan of giving the CY to a closer. The disparity between innings compared to starters and the fact that the save tends to be the main benchmark for evaluating closers (basically a win in reverse, it mostly depends on who’s played before you to set up the opportunity) are my two main points of contention on the matter. The CY has been awarded to a closer 10 times between both leagues though, so it still deserves a look.

K-Rod’s claim to fame in 2008 has been his chase of Bobby Thigpen’s record of 57 saves in a season for the 1990 Chi Sox. Thigpen received just two first-place votes for the CY that year with Dave Stewart, Roger Clemens, and Bob Welch all receiving more votes than him. Since there’s only one record, how do K-Rod’s other stats compare to past CY winners out of the pen?

Past CY Winning Closers vs. Rodriguez Through 8/22/08

Player Team Year W-L SV IP ERA K WHIP 1st Place Votes^
F. Rodriguez LAA 2008 2-2 48 53.3 2.70 58 1.37 N/A
E. Gagne LAD 2003 2-3 55 82.3 1.20 137 .692 28
D. Eckersley OAK 1992 7-1 51 80.0 1.91 93 .913 19
M. Davis SDP 1989 4-3 44 92.7 1.85 92 1.04 19
S. Bedrosian PHI 1987 5-3 40 89.0 2.83 74 1.20 9
W. Hernandez DET 1984 9-3 32 140.3 1.92 112 .941 12

While Rodriguez is having a very good season, he’s not even close to the dominance shown by previous CY closers. K-Rod has just allowed more baserunners and runs period, as shown by his ERA and WHIP. Only one of the five previous winners had an ERA above 2.00 and no one had a WHIP above 1.20, while K-Rod currently has both.

If the race between Lee and Halladay comes down to the wire I don’t see many first place votes trickling down to Rodriguez.

All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, Baseball Prospectus, and FanGraphs.


I owe Cliff Lee an apology.

Lee posted a 6.29 ERA in 16 starts before being sent to Buffalo to finish out the remainder of the 2007 season. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Lee didn’t do himself any favors in mocking a booing throng of Jacobs Field fans before exiting from his final start in Cleveland that season. The air of apathy and apparent lack of respect for the fans and his teammates (there was a definite tension between Victor and Cliff back then) caused me to balk at the thought of Lee ever pitching in Cleveland again.

Where was the work ethic and focus that had accompanied Lee in his breakout 2005 season?

Lee ended up digging himself a hole he could not escape in 2007, but looking back on that season, I can’t say I blame him. It’s hard enough to maintain the intense focus and physical abilities needed to pitch at an elite level, but Lee also had to cope with his young son’s illness over the course of the season. I honestly can’t imagine the level of frustration he must have felt as the season wore on. Combine that with a nagging abdominal injury suffered in spring training and the pressure to hold down his spot in the rotation and it’s easy to see why the season snowballed on Cliff.

Sometimes fans get so caught up in the game that they forget the guys on the field have lives to deal with off the field as well; I’m certainly guilty of this at times.

Lee proved all the doubters wrong in 2008, coming into spring training relaxed, healthy, and motivated to win. To come back from such a terrible season, half of which was spent in the minor leagues, and evolve into one of the best pitchers in baseball in less than a year is an amazing achievement. While no one expected Lee to contend for the Cy Young in 2008, I have been especially hard on him. So, proving once again, I really have no idea what I’m talking about half the time.

Congratulations on the turn-around Cliff, you earned it.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Jackson Makes Latest Coffee Run for Tribe

Zach Jackson became the first player from the C.C. Sabathia trade to appear in Cleveland. Jackson was called up from Buffalo to fill in for Paul Byrd’s scheduled start on Thursday against Baltimore. Jackson matched opposing pitcher Daniel Cabrera in his Cleveland debut, scattering 8 hits, 1 BB, and 3 ER over five innings for a no-decision.

Considering the context of his first start for the Tribe, I thought Jackson threw the ball well enough. Jackson had been having a tough year in the minors with Milwaukee (7.85 ERA, 1.73 WHIP, 1.88 K/BB ratio in 57.1 IP), but to be traded and have to pitch in the majors again so soon probably didn’t help the young southpaws’ nerves any.

This post is just meant to get a feel for how Jackson tends to operate, but I don’t think we even saw an accurate picture of how Jackson normally takes the mound. If you missed the game, trust me, he seemed really nervous the first few innings.

As a result, his pitches were all over the place. Jackson did manage to throw over 60% of his 97 pitches for strikes, but he was constantly working from behind and had a hard time fooling many batters. Jackson threw a first-pitch strike to 16 of the 25 batters he faced (64%) and had to deal with at least one runner in scoring position in four of his five innings.

Jackson has a typical fastball-changeup combination with the occasional curveball thrown in. According to FanGraphs, Jackson uses a standard fastball 59.6% of the time, averaging 88.6 MPH. His 85.9 MPH cutter and 80.9 MPH change appear 27.2% and 8.2% of the time, respectively. A slider (4.3%, 80.3 MPH) and curve (0.7%, 73.8) round out the lefties arsenal (the sample is small, but Jackson seems to be using his curveball more and cutter much less in 2008).

Since Jackson has spent the majority of his time in the minors and I’ve only seen him pitch once with questionable control, it’s difficult to get a read on what his pitch movement is right now.

Despite laying the groundwork for a potentially ugly start, Jackson did a good job of hanging in there and getting some timely outs in the air and on the ground. Jackson also had to work around a rare error by Cabrera and what should have been an error when Sizemore and Choo lost a flyball in the hazy, evening sky (resulting in the tying run). Considering Jackson would have handed the bullpen the lead after 5 IP, he earned himself another start next week.

Like I said earlier, Cleveland is merely looking at where Jackson and company will fit into the organizational depth chart for 2009. Jackson has a lot of competition for that last starting slot behind Laffey and I don’t think he’ll be in consideration for it anytime soon. Despite signs of improvement in Buffalo (4.05 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 4.00 K/BB ratio in 26.2 IP), Jackson’s career minor league line of 4.60 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 2.10 K/BB over 536.1 IP at age 25 shows he still has some kinks to work out.

Speaking of Laffey, he seemed to be the favorite to replace Byrd in the rotation, but Laffey is still working through some minor mechanical problems he developed recently. The only reason Laffey was passed over this time is because the team wants him to get his delivery straightened out in a low-pressure environment; he’s definitely not being punished because of a few poor outings (8.53 ERA in his last five starts).

[EDIT: Since this was a quick post, I had completely forgotten about MLB service time being a deciding factor for Laffey here, even though that appears to be the primary reason Laffey is still in Buffalo. Oops. A hat tip to reader davemannddd for pointing this out with an explanation in the comments section. For a detailed and current explanation of managing the service time clock and how it relates to current Tribe players, check out this article by Jay at LGT.]

There’s a strong chance Laffey will finish the year in Buffalo since the team already knows what he’s capable of in the Majors. Guys like Reyes, Jackson, and other starters in AAA should receive the bulk of the innings at the back of the rotation as the team’s extended Spring Training continues.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Byrd Ships Up to Boston

General Manager Mark Shapiro held a press conference shortly after the Paul Byrd trade was finalized. There really wasn’t much to report on the waiver-wire deal, but Shapiro’s briefing helped fill in some of the remaining gaps. Shapiro explained that Byrd was moved mainly for “payroll relief” and to have an "opportunity the rest of the way to make some additional decisions, see some additional guys, [and] get more information going into next year."

also did Byrd a bit of a favor in shipping him to a major contender in Boston. Byrd does the Tribe a favor by allowing them to shave about $2 million dollars off their payroll that can be put towards 2009 (Boston will pick up the tab on that one). Shapiro particularly emphasized the player to be named aspect of the trade, as in, there isn’t going to be one. This was purely a payroll dump for a veteran player that no longer fits into the team’s future plans.

It was pretty obvious that Byrd was going to be moved this month, but his 1.24 ERA and 1.10 WHIP over his last four starts made him much more appealing after the trade deadline. Combine that with Boston’s banged up rotation (Wakefield is on the 15-day DL with a bum shoulder, Colon has been hurt for a while, and prospects Buchholz and Zink have been struggling mightily) and you have a trade partner who may not have taken the bait earlier.

Other than that, there’s not much else to say about the transaction. Unfortunately, I can’t wish Byrd any further success in Boston (no hard feelings Paul, I'm sure you understand), but I thought he did a fair job at the back of the rotation during his tenure in Cleveland. At the very least, Byrd was reliable, making 31 starts in each of his two full seasons with the Tribe. He also inexplicably came through in the 2007 playoffs when good pitching seemed hard to come by (*cough*Sabathia*cough*), giving up just two runs against two monster offenses in each of his five inning starts.

Byrd’s other trademarks included his efficient pitch counts (even if he couldn’t always make it six innings before getting roughed up), low walk rate (he averaged one BB every 6.86 innings in 2007), magical ability to get out of nasty jams (or to make them suddenly appear…but I digress), and strong work ethic. Of course, you can’t forget the legendary double-pump delivery. Byrd’s old-fashioned delivery is definitely an oddity these days, but at least it gave the visiting announcers something to talk about when Hafner wasn’t batting (did you know he’s from North Dakota?).

Recent acquisition, Zach Jackson will be starting in place of Byrd on Thursday against Baltimore. I’ll have a post up on Jackson’s debut later on.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Former Redbird Makes Cleveland Debut

Former Cardinal Anthony Reyes made his Cleveland debut on Friday and made a positive contribution to his new team right away. Reyes worked 6.1 innings against Toronto, scattering 7 hits, 1 BB, and an earned run. The 26 year old right-hander also struck out four on an efficient 88 pitches. Reyes looked very comfortable on the mound despite pitching in a foreign uniform against a different league. He attacked the strike zone in his first start and threw over 70% of his pitches for strikes.

I was impressed with the quick pace and calm demeanor that Reyes brought to the mound. I also liked the fact that he consistently pounded the strike zone and tended to stay ahead in the count despite not having any overpowering pitches. Reyes relies on changing speeds, horizontal movement, and precise location to get batters out.

This may not be a fair comparison, but the first pitcher that came to mind (at least in terms of style) while watching Reyes was Paul Byrd. Many of the pitches Reyes tossed up looked like they were going to get hammered, but Toronto never seemed to get a hold of anything on a regular basis. Byrd has a tendency to bob and weave his way through starts in a similar fashion, despite not having a blazing fastball or filthy changeup either (upon further investigation, Byrd uses a wider array of breaking pitches, covers a larger part of the plate, and has a lower overall velocity than Reyes). There may be more movement behind Reyes’ stuff than I can see that is causing players to hit foul or ground balls rather than hits. As tenuous as Reyes’ style may seem, it was very effective on Friday.

One possible issue I noticed is that Reyes pitched almost exclusively on the outer half of the plate (the one time I remember him going inside ended up as a hit; probably why I remember it). Instead, Reyes tends to alternate between his fastball and changeup from the middle of the plate to just outside the batters box in an attempt to bait the batter into swinging at his pitch.

Reyes’ changeup (and to a lesser degree, his heater) features a cutting motion that moves away from righties that helps him with this strategy. His curveball has the most extreme lateral movement, but I’m not sure he had the best control over his curve this time. Actually, I really wasn’t sure if he was throwing as many changeups as Gameday said he was (going just by Gameday, he threw a ton). His fastball may have been so slow much of the time that the pitch f/x sensors listed it as a changeup.

According to Fangraphs, Reyes tends to throw his fastball 66% of the time, followed by a changeup 16%, and a curve about 14.5%. The fastball has an average speed right around 90 MPH, while the change and curve tend to be similar in terms of speed at 76 MPH (basically what he threw Friday). The fact that his two secondary pitches are so similar in speed and have a nice 15 MPH difference from his fastball could make it difficult to pick up his pitches when he mixes them properly.

Another thing I was a little concerned about was that Reyes seemed to be hanging some of his pitches. Even after batters saw him a second or third time though, they didn’t seem to take advantage of what appeared to be hanging pitches, so I guess he was mixing his location and speed up enough to negate this.

Overall, I was very pleased with Reyes’ first outing and look forward to when he toes the rubber against Baltimore next week. What I’m still curious about is how a more patient and powerful offense responds to his pitching style (sorry Baltimore, not going to cut it there).

The biggest mark against Reyes that I’ve heard is that he had a falling out with the coaching staff in St. Louis. Apparently, pitching coach Dave Duncan insisted on changing Reyes’ pitching style into more of a groundball pitcher (maybe not a bad idea, but if a young, thus-far successful pitcher is truly against it, it’s probably not a good idea to force him). Fortunately, Carl Willis has a pretty good track record of helping pitchers get their confidence back through the proper adjustments, so I don’t see that being a problem in Cleveland.

Throw in Reyes' career 3.22 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 4.39 K/BB ratio in 422 minor league innings and you have a guy with a lot of potential, but not a lot of opportunity to show it lately. Then again, Cleveland already has a young pitching prospect who dominated the minors to the tune of a 2.25 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 3.10 K/BB ratio who has yet to find consistent success in the majors. Hopefully both of these guys find their footing again in Cleveland.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Man on Fire

Cleveland shortstop Jhonny Peralta has been swinging a pretty hot bat lately. As if to punctuate this post, Peralta went 5-5 (second time this season) on Thursday with 2 2B, 1 HR, 2 RBI, and 2 R against Tampa Bay with much of the damage coming at the expense of Scott Kazmir. So yeah, Peralta’s hot right now.

Amazingly, Peralta is in one of the more consistent offensive stretches of his career. He has not had an OPS of at least .800 over consecutive months since 2005. In 2005, Peralta posted consecutive OPS’ of .971 (July), .926 (August), and .852 (Sept/Oct) over 82 games (357 PA) to close out the season. While he has not accomplished such a feat in 2008 just yet, he is on pace to do so over July and August.

Peralta’s surge neatly coincides with the time he started batting fourth in the order on June 22. Over those 37 games, Jhonny has tacked on 134 points to his season OPS and launched 8 of his 19 taters. He has also stepped up as a leading run producer in the middle of the order with 64 RBI, second only to Sizemore for the team lead. It seems like every time Cleveland comes up with a rally, Peralta has played a part in it.

Is there really a correlation between Peralta’s performance and where he bats in the lineup though? I decided to take a look at Peralta’s stats in various situations and see if there were any unusual trends present. I didn’t want to focus so much on whether or not Peralta is “clutch,” but was curious if the increase in responsibility (i.e. moving up in the order) may have had any influence on Peralta.

Below are Peralta’s career numbers batting in different parts of the order. I only included the top three spots in terms of plate appearances, plus his career line regardless of the batting order.

Year Batting Order PA BA PA/HR OBP SLG OPS BAbip
Career All 2595 .269 32.03 .334 .441 .774 .323

3rd 650 .255 29.54 .340 .435 .775 .308

5th 435 .251 33.46 .313 .401 .714 .304

6th 518 .292 37.00 .356 .438 .794 .360

It’s worth noting that the majority of Peralta’s starts 3rd in the order came during his breakout rookie season, with the 2006-2007 seasons accounting for most of his time in the 5th and 6th spots. There doesn’t seem to be much of a preference for batting in any particular spot. Jhonny has performed about the same over his career at both the 3rd and 6th spots in the order, while his worst line with at least 300 PAs (5th) is still comparable to the others. There are a number of factors that could contribute to the drop in production from the 5th spot such as a lack of protection lower in the order, coincidental slumps, or bad luck, but I doubt there’s a substantial trend there.

Peralta’s career numbers provide a good baseline for comparing his performance in the 5th and 6th spots in 2008, but there is no precedent for his batting 4th. This season is the first time Peralta has spent any time in the cleanup role.

Year Batting Order PA BA PA/HR OBP SLG OPS BAbip
2008 4th 163 .346 20.37 .380 .654 1.034 .375

5th 166 .221 41.50 .267 .344 .611 .256

6th 69 .317 17.25 .368 .603 .971 .356

The first thing that stands out to me when looking at Peralta’s production batting fourth is his batting average on balls in play (BAbip). All BAbip shows is what percentage of the balls that land in play end up as a hit. Jhonny is currently outperforming his career BAbip (.323) by .052 points, so he is playing a little over his head right now (in case this wasn’t obvious already). However, Jhonny’s season BAbip is currently .311, which is below his career average.

I’m a fan of regression to the mean, as strange as it may seem that a player can play below his potential for half a season and then suddenly turn it on in the second half. It’s not that the player just “flips a switch” though. If you look at Peralta’s splits his performance tends to fluctuate from month to month anyway (usually one hot, one cold). As 2005 showed though, Peralta is capable of catching fire for a sustained period, historically in the second half. It all comes out the same in the wash though, since his first half wasn’t quite up to his career standards.

So Peralta isn’t doing anything revolutionary or new on offense the past month and a half, at least not for him.

Peralta’s time batting fourth is still an outstanding variable in his career though. Has Peralta become more motivated now that he’s batting cleanup at the heart of the order? Does he become more focused when there are men on base?

Here are Jhonny’s splits with the bases empty and men on for 2008 and his career:


Empty: 1400 PA; .765 OPS; 97 tOPS+

Men On: 1195 PA; .785 OPS; 103 tOPS+


Empty: 242 PA; .842 OPS; 106 tOPS+

Men On: 206 PA; .824 OPS; 98 tOPS+

The overall values are irrelevant here, but you can see that there is not much of a difference in how often Peralta reaches base between the two scenarios. Historically, Peralta has done only slightly better with men on base, but has never been a lights out, “clutch” hitter for the Tribe when compared to his teammates (the higher his tOPS+ is over 100, the more he outperforms his teammates on average in that situation). The same can be said for 2008, except in reverse. Peralta has performed slightly better with the bases empty, but again, is fairly average in these situations compared to the rest of the team.

There was a significant difference between Peralta’s numbers with the bases empty (8 HR, .758 OPS) and men on (16 HR, .998 OPS) in 2005 though. So if anything, you could argue that Jhonny has become more comfortable with hitting in higher leverage situations (with runners on) than he was during his rookie season (makes sense). I wouldn’t start calling Jhonny “clutch” if you happen to be a fan of that moniker though.

Shifting back to Peralta’s long term outlook, has anything in his approach changed that suggests he may be evolving as a hitter this season?

Year BB/K LD% ISO^ HR/FB Contact Rate*
2005 0.45 19.7 .228 18.0% 0.75
2006 0.37 19.0 .128 9.2% 0.73
2007 0.42 18.7 .160 14.0% 0.75
2008 0.31 18.8 .230 15.3% 0.80
Career 0.39 19.5 .172 13.5% 0.75


*(AB - K) / AB

At first glance, Peralta’s declining BB/K ratio suggests he may not be seeing the ball as well as he used to. The ratio has actually been thrown out of whack by the number of hits he is racking up instead. Jhonny has managed to decrease his strikeout rate (19.9% for 2008, 24.9% career) at the same time his overall walk rate decreased (5.9% for 2008, 8.8% career).

It’s unclear exactly what this means, since batters who tend to rely mostly on hits to reach base tend to be more streaky, yet Peralta has managed to increase his hit rate without an increase in strikeouts. I have a feeling his BB/K rate will even out eventually, since these two outcomes are still occurring at roughly the same combined difference (-14.0%) as his career numbers (-16.1%).

The fact that Peralta’s line drive percentage has held steady at around 19% the past three seasons is a good indicator that his periods of elevated BAbip do not have an overbearing influence on his overall numbers. Jhonny is consistently striking the ball well, even if the number of hits he collects tends to fluctuate. A consistent contact rate over his career reinforces this idea.

One definite improvement Peralta has made this season is his isolated power. Peralta has brought his power numbers back up to their 2005 levels after seeing a significant decline from 2006 to 2007. This trend makes sense given where Peralta is in his development as a hitter. Peralta may be getting better at making counter adjustments to pitchers who may have developed a game plan against him. Also, the 26 year old shortstop has likely become stronger overall as he enters his prime as a hitter.

In conclusion, Peralta seems to be coming out of a two-year developmental plateau and has a strong chance of putting up numbers comparable to his breakout season for the first time in a while. Peralta is on pace to break his career highs in doubles (35) and HR (24) this year. Seeing Jhonny start to rack up extra base hits again in this manner is a very good sign and will likely be sustained beyond 2008. Look for Peralta to finish the season strong on his way to setting a few more career highs.

All splits and stats were taken from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs and are current as of August 7, 2008.