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).

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