Sunday, June 29, 2008

Projecting an Injured Offense

Cleveland baseball is once again in the news as trade rumors swirl around C.C. Sabathia. The pace has picked up since Cleveland is struggling to hold its head above water. The Tribe has fallen to last place in the AL Central, 8.5 games behind Chicago. I’ll be the first to admit that I sold Chicago well short earlier in the season, but it looks like they’ll be hanging around until the end.

’s pitching staff has been carrying the team with a 3.41 team ERA, second best in the AL. The biggest difference between the Sox and the Tribe is that Chicago boasts a power laden lineup of relatively healthy veterans. Manager Ozzie Guillen snapped his offense out of an early funk and it’s paid off in the win column. Chicago ranks first in homeruns (103) and run differential (1.26), and fourth in runs scored (385) in the AL.

To make matters worse, Detroit has finally started to show signs of life offensively. Detroit’s been averaging 4.95 runs per game in June amassing a 15-8 record. Minnesota has proven to be a wild card in the Central, winning 10 in a row and trailing Chicago by just a half game. The Twins have quietly scored the third most runs in the AL (388), despite a reputation for anemic offense in recent years.

Minnesota is a complete surprise to me, but they are only playing three games over their Pythagorean record right now, so they could end up being a major spoiler. Cleveland is four games under their Pythag, which translates to a 40-39 record. The only other team playing under their Pythag is Chicago and they’re in first place.

With the Indians now chasing three contenders for the Division Crown, the rumor mill has only sped up. At what point can you stick a fork in Cleveland? It’s been well publicized that the Central is more balanced this year and even an 8 game lead is vulnerable with 82 games remaining (just ask the Twins). On the other hand, Cleveland has been severely depleted by injuries.

By trading Sabathia, the front office would be conceding the season and preparing for 2009. There have already been some excellent discussions of Sabathia’s value in a possible trade at LGT and The Diatribe, so I won’t be revisiting that topic. Instead, I’d like to get a better idea of what this lineup is capable of without Martinez and Hafner for an extended period.

Can this team realistically contend with the players they have now or is this as good as it gets offensively?

Player Procedure Rehab Time Possible Return Dates
V. Martinez Removal of bone chips in right (throwing) elbow 6 - 8 weeks July 26 - August 9
T. Hafner Muscle strengthening program for rotator cuff and right shoulder 4 - 6 weeks (rough estimate) July 17 - July 31 (rough estimate)
J. Barfield Surgery on left, middle finger ligament 6 - 8 weeks July 29 - August 12

Victor Martinez is by far the biggest loss to the lineup and will probably be the last to return. The wait should be worth it though as Martinez will be playing pain free for the first time all season. Martinez described his limitations in a recent interview with Castrovince:

When I really wanted to put something on a swing, I wasn't able. Every time I tried to get extension, I felt a sharp pain in my elbow. Man, it was tough. It's tough to play like that.

The amazing part is that despite being hampered by severe pain and limited mobility in his throwing elbow, Martinez still threw out 39% of all base stealers and hit .278. Martinez was also nagged by a sore hamstring, which will have ample time to heal. In other words, all those concerns about Victor losing his power (0 HR this year) and suffering from wear behind the plate can be thrown out the window. I think Martinez will explode out of the gate when he finally gets back.

The tricky part is making up the difference while the teams most consistent hitter recovers from surgery. According to the Cleveland Clinic’s database:

Recovery varies from one week to several months, depending on the extent of the surgery. Most patients can return to heavy work and sports within three to six weeks of surgery if the procedure is minor. However, three to six months is often required for complete recovery.
A best case scenario has Victor starting as DH or at first base if Hafner isn’t back yet. It’s unlikely that Wedge would use Victor behind the plate until his elbow is close to 100%. Otherwise, base runners will be constantly testing his throwing arm.

I’d like to provide a similar take on Hafner, but it’s difficult to say at what point he was truly healthy this season, if at all. How far back has his shoulder bothered him to the point of being a handicap on his swing? The outlook did not sound optimistic and Hafner is currently behind in his strength training program. The latest report says Hafner “has improved the strength in his injured right shoulder 15 percent since his last assessment two weeks ago, but it still remains just 45-50 percent as strong as his left shoulder."

Heading into 2008, Cleveland’s offense was really built around Sizemore, Martinez, and Hafner. I’m guessing the Front Office is betting (for or against, I don’t know) on Hafner making a full recovery and becoming a force on offense again. A reasonable expectation could be Hafner circa-2007 (.837 OPS, 24 HR) with a gradual return to form somewhere between his 2006 (1.097 OPS, 42 HR) and 2007 numbers. Again, it will be tough to gauge just how much Hafner’s weakened shoulder contributed to his steep decline, so it’s really anybody’s guess how he will respond in-game until he’s healthy again.

With a four year contract extension about to kick in and a healthy shoulder, Hafner will be out of excuses upon his return. It’s about time Pronk showed his face again and he may have to if the offense in its current state will ever truly get back on track.

Barfield’s turn of bad luck took him out of the lineup before he could even make an impression, so there’s not much to say on him. Barfield posted a .297 OBP and .382 SLG over 259 AB in AAA Buffalo this year, so it’s a safe bet he wouldn’t have outperformed Jamey Carroll. Cleveland never planned on having much offense come out of second base anyway, so the choice between Barfield and Carroll may have ended up as a semi-platoon. It would have been nice to test Barfield’s progress, but it would have been a bit of a luxury considering how desperate the team is for offense.

Sources and Assumptions

I made a few key assumptions in compiling and analyzing the stats below. First, I created a baseline using the 2008 CHONE projections for each player (courtesy of Sean Smith’s blog). I debated whether the more useful data here would be career stats or projected stats for 2008. I decided that career numbers for veteran players (Hafner, Dellucci) would be skewed by far removed seasons (like a career year or rookie season) as much as a projection system might make some poor assumptions for a rookie (like Francisco).

In this case, I’ll be comparing the 2008 projections with the 2008 actual stats. Then, I’ll try a few combinations of under-performing or missing players to see how it effects the overall offensive production. It’s worth noting that I was limited to traditional stats for the comparison due to the inclusion of the projections. I only included players who have seen a substantial amount of action and are still available, so that eliminates Jason Michaels (58 AB) and Barfield (injured, 6 AB). Also, I chose CHONE because I’m notoriously cheap and don’t have access to this year’s PECOTA projections, in case you were wondering.

It was difficult to compile a true team OPS, since I don’t have a big database of the entire team (complete with hits, walks, and all the stuff that goes into calculating OBP and SLG) that I can add or subtract players from (like pitchers). Since the main thing I wanted was the concrete difference between an actual and optimized lineup, I took the averages of each players OPS and measured the differences between each lineup. This provides a rougher analysis, but gets the job done.

All stats were taken from FanGraphs and are current as of June 28.

The Stats

2008 CHONE Projections

T. Hafner 499 29 0.06 .279 .402 .515 .917
G. Sizemore 602 23 0.04 .287 .387 .488 .876
V. Martinez 539 20 0.04 .286 .370 .462 .832
R. Garko 505 19 0.04 .267 .347 .440 .787
J. Peralta 544 19 0.03 .270 .347 .438 .785
C. Blake 514 19 0.04 .255 .330 .428 .758
D. Dellucci 274 10 0.04 .237 .332 .409 .741
B. Francisco 467 13 0.03 .261 .318 .413 .731
A. Marte 464 16 0.03 .246 .311 .414 .725
F. Gutierrez 441 12 0.03 .259 .317 .404 .721
S. Choo 474 9 0.02 .259 .335 .382 .717
A. Cabrera 527 7 0.01 .258 .322 .370 .692
K. Shoppach 253 10 0.04 .225 .295 .395 .690
J. Carroll 373 3 0.01 .241 .326 .314 .640

0.03 .259 .337 .419 .756

Actual 2008 Season Stats as of June 28

G. Sizemore 301 17 0.06 .262 .368 .505 .873
S. Choo 59 2 0.03 .271 .392 .475 .867
B. Francisco 179 5 0.03 .291 .347 .458 .805
C. Blake 246 7 0.03 .268 .339 .431 .770
K. Shoppach 122 5 0.04 .246 .319 .443 .762
J. Carroll 157 0 0.00 .293 .378 .369 .747
J. Peralta 279 11 0.04 .244 .293 .427 .720
D. Dellucci 183 7 0.04 .219 .304 .388 .692
R. Garko 249 6 0.02 .249 .333 .357 .690
T. Hafner 157 4 0.03 .217 .326 .350 .676
V. Martinez 198 0 0.00 .278 .332 .333 .665
F. Gutierrez 189 3 0.02 .233 .282 .344 .626
A. Cabrera 158 1 0.01 .184 .282 .247 .529
A. Marte 51 0 0.00 .137 .185 .157 .342

0.02 .242 .319 .377 .696

It's no surprise that Sizemore is leading the way on offense, but to see Choo and Francisco sporting the second and third best OPS on the team (by a sizable margin) was unexpected. Choo has responded well to the Majors since coming back from Tommy John surgery. Choo had a .846 OPS in 146 AB in 2006, so his current production is certainly within his means. Choo is a much needed addition to right field, as Gutierrez has been a disappointment so far (.430 OPS in June).

Another unexpected savior of the offense has been Ben Francisco. CHONE projected him with a modest rookie season with 13 HR, a .318 OBP, and a .413 SLG, but Ben is having a breakout season. While he's not blowing the doors off, Ben has made a smooth transition from his MVP season in Buffalo with 5 HR and a .291, .347, .458 line.

The production from Choo, Francisco, and Carroll (.856 OPS) this month is largely negated by ongoing slumps from guys like Peralta (.637 OPS) and Garko (.660 OPS), who were supposed to be primary contributors this season.

Difference Between Actual and CHONE Averages

T. Hafner -0.03 -0.062 -0.241
G. Sizemore 0.02 -0.025 -0.003
V. Martinez -0.04 -0.008 -0.167
R. Garko -0.01 -0.018 -0.097
J. Peralta 0.00 -0.026 -0.065
C. Blake -0.01 0.013 0.012
D. Dellucci 0.00 -0.018 -0.049
B. Francisco 0.00 0.03 0.074
A. Marte -0.03 -0.109 -0.383
F. Gutierrez -0.01 -0.026 -0.095
S. Choo 0.01 0.012 0.150
A. Cabrera -0.01 -0.074 -0.163
K. Shoppach 0.00 0.021 0.072
J. Carroll -0.01 0.052 0.107
Total Difference: -0.11 -0.238 -0.848

This table just highlights the number of players who are currently underachieving, according to their anticipated production for 2008.

The main question is, what can we realistically expect from this group of players for the long haul? There's a very real possibility that Hafner and/or Martinez will not return in time to make an impact on the season. Even if they do, they may not be fully effective at the plate for some time.

Below are a few scenarios based on the actual and projected stats:

Optimized Lineup Using Available Players

G. Sizemore 602 23 0.04 .287 .387 .488 .876
S. Choo* 59 2 0.03 .271 .392 .475 .867
B. Francisco* 179 5 0.03 .291 .347 .458 .805
R. Garko 505 19 0.04 .267 .347 .440 .787
J. Peralta 544 19 0.03 .270 .347 .438 .785
C. Blake* 246 7 0.03 .268 .339 .431 .770
K. Shoppach* 122 5 0.04 .246 .319 .443 .762
J. Carroll* 157 0 0.00 .293 .378 .369 .747
D. Dellucci 274 10 0.04 .237 .332 .409 .741
A. Marte 464 16 0.03 .246 .311 .414 .725
F. Gutierrez 441 12 0.03 .259 .317 .404 .721

0.03 .266 .346 .433 .779

This table lists the current stats of players who are significantly outperforming their CHONE projections, as indicated by an asterisk. If you combine these overachievers with the expected (CHONE) numbers for the rest of the current roster (minus Martinez and Hafner) you end up with a pretty potent offense. This "optimized" lineup has a difference of .083 OPS points compared to the actual lineup listed at the top. Again, this is a fairly unrealistic lineup as long-slumping players would have to break out in the second half in addition to some hot hitting from Francisco and company.

Actual Stats Plus Hafner and Martinez CHONE Projections

T. Hafner* 499 29 0.06 .279 .402 .515 .917
G. Sizemore 301 17 0.06 .262 .368 .505 .873
S. Choo 59 2 0.03 .271 .392 .475 .867
V. Martinez* 539 20 0.04 .286 .370 .462 .832
B. Francisco 179 5 0.03 .291 .347 .458 .805
C. Blake 246 7 0.03 .268 .339 .431 .770
K. Shoppach 122 5 0.04 .246 .319 .443 .762
J. Carroll 157 0 0.00 .293 .378 .369 .747
J. Peralta 279 11 0.04 .244 .293 .427 .720
D. Dellucci 183 7 0.04 .219 .304 .388 .692
R. Garko 249 6 0.02 .249 .333 .357 .690
T. Hafner 157 4 0.03 .217 .326 .350 .676
V. Martinez 198 0 0.00 .278 .332 .333 .665
F. Gutierrez 189 3 0.02 .233 .282 .344 .626
A. Marte 51 0 0.00 .137 .185 .157 .342

0.03 .242 .331 .400 .731

The second scenario takes the actual stats, but inserts the 2008 CHONE projections for Martinez and Hafner. There are two obvious issues here. First, I seriously doubt Hafner posts a .917 OPS in the second half. Martinez's numbers are more realistic and I'm confident he will hit the ground running when healthy. The second issue is just how bad the rest of the lineup is in comparison. Even with some overly optimistic numbers from the two DL players, the average OPS only increases by .035 points.

Keeping in mind that this .731 OPS is very rough due to the limitations discussed earlier, let's compare it to the other AL teams:

Team R / G OPS BA / RISP
Texas 5.51 .803 .274
Boston 5.01 .803 .264
Detroit 4.83 .768 .270
Minnesota 4.83 .722 .314
Chicago 4.78 .771 .286
New York 4.69 .773 .252
Tampa 4.66 .753 .267
Oakland 4.51 .706 .281
Cleveland 4.44 .708 .268
Baltimore 4.42 .744 .270
Anaheim 4.29 .708 .279
Toronto 4.14 .725 .243

While a .731 OPS would be a significant upgrade over the current .708 OPS for Cleveland, it really doesn't guarantee much in terms of overall run production. Cleveland would move up in the offensive rankings, but would still fail to crack the top six and would likely struggle to win games without some insane pitching (like Anaheim).

Since we're dealing with an average, removing the biggest outlier (Marte's .342 OPS) should tighten up the team OPS a bit. Without Marte's stats, the average OPS shoots up to .760. Even a .760 OPS is middle of the pack for the teams listed above, but would be a massive improvement on the current .708. For comparison, the team OPS in 2007 was .771.

One trend I wasn't expecting was the loose correlation between team OPS and runs scored. I added BA/RISP to try and account for this. Cleveland has one of the worst team OPS', but have been fairly efficient in driving in the few baserunners they have.

My conclusion is that even with a healthy and productive Martinez and Hafner, the Tribe's offense would still be in trouble. A lot of things will have to fall into place for this team to even hang with the top contenders. An ineffective bullpen (4.78 season ERA) and the loss of Carmona and Westbrook make relying on the pitching staff to win games a risky proposition.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Vizquel Visits Tribe

Cleveland fans had a chance to see an old friend in action Tuesday night at the Jake. Omar Vizquel visited Cleveland for the first time since 2004, his last season with the Tribe. There always seems to be a certain nostalgia attached to the 1990’s teams that draws a crowd. The same thing happened last season when Kenny Lofton came back during an already frenzied playoff atmosphere.

I can certainly appreciate the fondness and loyalty Clevelanders have towards Vizquel and Lofton, but I wonder how much of this is because they were on a winning team in addition to being great players. Cleveland has several players of that caliber in Sizemore, Martinez, Carmona, and Sabathia, but attendance has been down even after the team started to contend again. It’s too bad Jacobs Field doesn’t draw the crowds it used to because there are some excellent ball players that so many fans seem to be missing out on. Tonight was all about Omar though and deservedly so.

Vizquel received a warm reception from the fans and the Indians organization. A highlight reel of Omar’s time in Cleveland aired before the game, followed by a standing ovation from the 29,024 fans in attendance. A gracious Vizquel soaked it all in and gave it right back: waving, smiling, and gesturing towards all parts of the stadium. In an article, Omar provided his thoughts:

It was the first situation where I felt like I was the center of attention. It was really emotional. I never expected it to be like that. It was really cool and really beautiful.

The crowd didn't quite replicate the 10 minute ovations that Lofton got for each at-bat, but all the Vizquel shirts and jerseys in the crowd made their presence known throughout the game. It was actually kind of awkward because you want to cheer Omar, but you also don’t want to see him drive in a run (like in the 8th) or make a spectacular, rally killing play (he did).

The Tribe went on to lose the game, but seeing Omar playing in Cleveland one last time is still pretty cool. The Giants are in town for two more games still, so check ‘em out.

The Cooperstown Debate or Beating a Dead Horse

As a Cleveland fan and an especially big Vizquel fan, I’ve always felt that Omar was destined for the Hall of Fame someday. Obviously I’m a bit biased, but there seems to be some serious doubt as to Omar’s chances of making it to Cooperstown. I’ve heard arguments from both the baseball community and Cleveland fans.

I can’t remember the last time I actually looked at what type of shortstops have been inducted, so I thought it would be useful to pull up Vizquel’s comparable players list from Baseball Reference. Out of Vizquel’s top ten comparables on offense, six are in the Hall. I listed those six players below, in addition to two shortstops who were listed on the 2008 ballot in Alan Trammell and Dave Concepcion.

Player Position Career FP Career OPS+ Era
Luis Aparicio SS .972 82 1956-1973
Ozzie Smith SS .978 87 1978-1996
Rabbit Maranville SS .952 82 1912-1933
Nellie Fox 2B .984 93 1949-1964
Red Schoendienst 2B .983 93 1945-1962
Pee Wee Reese SS .962 99 1940-1958

O. Vizquel SS .984 83 1989-present
Dave Concepcion SS .971 88 1970-1988
Alan Trammell SS .977 110 1977-1996

One method of measuring Omar’s chances is to look at who’s made it in the past. Former inductees may be taken into heavy consideration for modern candidates and voters often look to past ballots when casting their own. Vizquel stacks up favorably with his top three comparables: Aparicio, Smith, and Maranville. Throw in Vizquel’s top fielding percentage among shortstops, 11 Gold Gloves, most games played at short, and other distinctions and intangibles that voters tend to consider and Vizquel pulls closer still.

After looking at who Omar will be judged against when he appears on the ballot, I still think he’s a lock to get in…eventually.

First ballot inductions are fairly rare and it seems Vizquel will have to wait a few years before he gets inducted. Dave Concepcion and Alan Trammell received 16.2% and 18.2% of votes respectively in 2008. Both players seem fairly similar to Vizquel overall, although Trammell edges both players on offense.

This trio of players may be some of the last defensive-minded shortstops to be inducted. It will be interesting to see how voter behavior changes when more players in the mold of Cal Ripken and Derek Jeter start to emerge on the ballot.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Examining the Rotation

Cleveland has built a good reputation for keeping its players healthy in recent years, but the injury bug has nailed key members of the offense and pitching staff in 2008. Given how successful and relatively healthy the pitching staff was last season, it seemed inevitable that all those innings would catch up to the rotation in some form. Throw in two grueling playoff series and some extra wear and tear has a chance of carrying over to next season.

Carmona had never exceeded 150 innings pitched at any point in his baseball career (148 IP at Class A) and had just 74.1 Major League innings before his breakout season. Despite being characterized as the team workhorse, Sabathia exceeded 200 innings for only the second time in his career in 2007 (210 IP in 2002). Not including the playoffs, C.C. logged 31 more innings than he’s ever had in his career last season.

Oddly enough, the less experienced Carmona looked more like the ace than Sabathia early on. Carmona has exhibited some control issues this season, with a .60 K/BB ratio over 10 starts. Fausto’s primary weapon of getting groundball outs has allowed him to overcome these issues though and he still boasts a 3.10 ERA.

Sabathia got off to a rocky start (7.88 ERA in 6 April starts), but his overall numbers do not reflect the vast improvements he’s made as the season has progressed. C.C. has shown little sign of slowing down and has a 2.43 ERA, 4.90 K/BB ratio, and 3 complete games in 8 post-April starts.

The team’s main innings eater, Westbrook, came off a strong Spring Training only to land on the disabled list with an intercostal strain in his left side. The injury caused him to miss time from April 20 to May 28, but he only made one start before aggravating his throwing elbow. Westbrook has made just five starts this season, but was very effective when healthy with a 3.12 ERA and 1.15 WHIP.

The Tribe’s starting rotation has been the life preserver for an otherwise disappointing season. Fortunately, Carmona will be making his first rehab start in the minors next week, but Westbrook is lost for the season due to a torn elbow ligament. Cleveland’s farm system had been particularly robust the last few years, but many of Buffalo’s top players are already settled in Cleveland. It may be depleted somewhat, but the pitching depth is as important as ever for 2008. Below is a breakdown of how the injuries to Carmona and Westbrook have played out so far.

Player: Fausto Carmona

Injury: Left hip strain, placed on the 15-day DL on May 24.

Projected Recovery Time: Early July at the latest, with a rehab start scheduled for this week.

Replacement: Jeremy Sowers

Cleveland really dodged a bullet with Carmona’s injury, as it could have been much worse. According to Head Trainer Lonnie Soloff, the injury did not seriously affect the interior part of the hip muscle, which would have taken much longer to heal. Another encouraging aspect of the injury is the way it occurred. Carmona tweaked the muscle while running off the mound to cover first base. This suggests that if given proper rest the injury probably won’t hinder Carmona’s pitching motion in the future.

Carmona has struggled with his control this season, giving up at least four walks in seven of his last ten starts, but since the hip was not a pre-existing condition there is no connection between the two.

F. Carmona 2007 32 215.0 3.06 1.21 2.24 2.97 32

2008 10 58.0 3.10 1.59 0.61 3.71 15

Upon his return, Carmona’s main task will be to straighten out some of his lopsided peripherals. Fausto’s K/BB ratio has a difference of 1.63 between 2007 and 2008. The strikeout has always been more of a supplemental weapon for Carmona, but keeping those free passes down to a minimum is crucial for any pitcher looking for long-term success. Sooner or later all those walks are going to start crossing home plate.

At first glance, Fausto’s walk rates seem somewhat foreboding. Another set of data shows that his 3.10 ERA in the face of an elevated number of baserunners is no fluke and has a strong chance of improvement.

First, Fausto has managed to increase his groundball to flyball ratio from 2.97 to 3.71; that’s a pretty significant jump and helps explain why he’s been so good at damage control this year. Even if he scatters a few walks in a start, those runners are more likely to be stranded on a seeing-eye single, rather than a double off the wall. Carmona has been keeping the ball down, which is a good sign. Also, his double play rate has doubled this season. In 2007, Carmona converted a double play every 6.71 innings; that rate has increased to a DP every 3.86 innings.

Second, the flyballs that do make it into the air (as an out or a hit) are not leaving the park. In 2007, Carmona saw 11.1% of his flyballs go for homeruns compared to just 2.9% this season. Again, Carmona is allowing more base runners, but continues to do the right thing in keeping the ball on the ground and in the park.

Unless there’s an underlying health issue that has not been disclosed, there’s little reason to think Carmona won’t move past his current control issues and revert to his dominant self, much like Sabathia has done in his last few starts.

With Aaron Laffey already locked into the rotation, Jeremy Sowers got the call to replace Carmona. Sowers has been underwhelming in his first three starts, averaging just 4.7 innings a game with a 6.91 ERA. In his fourth start (occurring as I type this), Sowers needed 94 pitches to go 4.1 innings with 4 ER against lowly San Diego, so expect those numbers to balloon a bit. It’s hard to determine exactly what happened to Sowers between 2006 and now, but he has yet to make a smooth transition back to the majors since then.

Player Year Level GS IP ERA WHIP K/BB HR/9
J. Sowers 2007 MLB 13 67.1 6.42 1.56 1.14 1.13

2008 AAA 10 60.2 2.08 1.20 2.53 0.59

MLB 3 14.1 6.91 1.67 1.40 1.88

Sowers has a career 2.50 ERA in the minors, including a 2.08 ERA in 10 starts for Buffalo this year. He had supposedly corrected a few flaws in his delivery and improved his overall pitch velocity last year, leading to an increase in strikeouts at Buffalo. Jeremy got off to a hot start in 2008 and his stats as a starter were among the best in the International League. In two separate stints in the Majors though, Sowers has failed to capitalize on his past success.

I’ve always rooted for Sowers, but I can’t shake the feeling that he might not be cut out for the Majors. He’s been given several opportunities in the past few years and has not been a reliable arm since his promotion in late 2006. Sometimes when a pitcher who has dominated the minors and had some success in the majors goes into a long slump, it can be attributed to a mental block; I think this is the case with Sowers.

Sowers has never been handed a starting job in Cleveland outright. He has always had to look over his shoulder at either Laffey, Carmona, or a rehabbing pitcher who may take his position. A recent example of this was Jeremy Guthrie. Guthrie toiled in the Tribe’s minor league system on-and-off during the rebuilding years, but never seemed to breakout. Suddenly, at age 28, Guthrie becomes an above average starter with a young, pitching-starved Baltimore after being cut by Cleveland. My point is a change of surroundings or a little job security can go a long way for a pitcher.

As I said earlier, Cleveland is fortunate that they don’t have to rely on Sowers as anything more than an emergency starter for now. I just haven’t seen any signs that point to Jeremy breaking out of whatever developmental purgatory he’s stuck in. There’s really nothing more he can accomplish in the minors though, since his numbers suggest his mechanics have been corrected. At 25 years old, Sowers still has some time left to develop and he may well get that permanent starting job he’s been chasing by 2009.

The 2009 rotation starts to look pretty scary with Sabathia leaving, Adam Miller unable to stay healthy, and Byrd’s vitality questionable. Sowers should get one or two more starts before Carmona returns, but that may be the last we see of him for a while. Next year is going to be very significant for Sowers and will be his final minor league option year with Cleveland.

Player: Jake Westbrook

Injury: Tear in right ulnar collateral ligament, officially diagnosed on June 5. Will be corrected by Tommy John surgery and a lengthy rehab period.

Projected Recovery Time: 10-14 months

Replacement: Aaron Laffey

Out of all the pitchers on Cleveland’s staff, Jake Westbrook was the one I thought least likely to land on the disabled list again. Westbrook’s low-power, sinkerball style and reportedly top conditioning gave the impression that he would reach 200 innings as he had from 2004 to 2006.

Westbrook’s left abdominal strain caused him to miss time in May of 2007, but was a blip on a predominately healthy run. Now, Westbrook will miss the rest of the 2008 season and possibly two months of 2009 with a ligament tear in his throwing arm. Since signing a three year, $33 million contract extension last April, Jake has been on the DL twice.

The first stint again featured muscles in his left side (diagnosed as an intercostal strain), which is worrisome due to its repetitive nature. The elbow injury may have resulted from one of Westbrook’s strengths: his ability to rack up innings every season. While there seems to be a consensus that young pitchers who rely heavily on the breaking ball are much more likely to be injured later on, it’s unclear how much this would impact an older (24+) pitcher like Jake.

After doing an internet search, I failed to find any conclusive studies that point to breaking ball pitchers having more time lost to injury than other pitchers, but it is certainly possible that averaging 197.4 innings per season for the last four years took its toll on Jake’s arm. Again, not too familiar with sports medicine, but that’s the best conclusion I could reach as far as the cause of the injury.

I try and avoid putting blind faith in the front office, but you’d have to think that a pre-contract extension physical would have identified any damage to the ligament if it really did erode over a long period of time. At any rate, the Tribe is out $11 mil this season; hopefully this isn’t the start of a permanent trend with Jake.

The good news is that Tommy John surgery has become very common and has an 85 to 90 percent success rate, improving with older patients (Carroll, 2004). The large majority of pitchers who undergo the procedure regain their former abilities within a 14 month period. The majority of the time is spent rehabbing the elbow, which leaves the chances of a successful recovery largely in the hands of the pitcher and training staff.

There’s also Aaron Laffey, who is on track to be this year’s Fausto Carmona (the good version, not the 2006 Fenway version). Laffey has been one of Cleveland’s most consistent starters, filling in for both Westbrook and Carmona at times. Simultaneous injuries to both pitchers kept Laffey around, but Westbrook’s permanent departure cemented the starting gig for Aaron.

The fact that Laffey is only being paid the league minimum also takes away some of the financial sting from Westbrook’s lost contract year.

A. Laffey 2007 9 49.3 4.56 1.33 2.08 3.32

2008 9 57.3 2.83 1.15 2.15 1.56

Laffey has gone at least six innings and given up two runs or fewer in eight of his last ten starts. With only 106 career innings logged in the Majors, it will be a while before Laffey’s true potential can be measured. In the meantime, Laffey seems poised to have a breakout season with Cleveland.

A comparison of Laffey’s nine starts from 2007 to those in 2008 shows at least slight improvement across the board, with notable decreases in ERA and WHIP (these are almost guaranteed to change, as Laffey is currently putting up top-ten numbers here). It will be interesting to see if Laffey ends up outperforming Westbrook’s ZiPS projection of a 4.45 ERA over 180 IP.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


On a night where the Tribe's pitching couldn't get it done, the offense finally plated some runners against Texas on Monday. Cleveland dusted off the RBI machine to the tune of 13 runs, 16 hits, 9 walks, and 4 two-run taters for the win. Oh, and the player of the game was this guy:

3-5, 2 R, 7 RBI, 2 HR (Go figure)

Every member of the lineup except Sizemore scored and everyone reached base at least twice via a hit or walk. If that doesn't get the offense revved up, I don't know what will.

Go Tribe