Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tribe Pitching Falls Flat in Opening Week

Cleveland's pitching staff hasn't done much to disprove the idea that they could be the team's Achilles heel this season. In fact, the blame for three of the team's last four losses sits squarely on the shoulders of the pitchers. Simply losing five in a row to start the season was unnerving enough, but to see the team's biggest potential weakness establish itself so early is not a good sign. Even the supposedly sturdy bullpen has had its share of blowups, with Rafael Perez, Jensen Lewis, and Kerry Wood all getting roughed up fresh out of Spring Training.

The shortcomings of the pitching staff puts the team's leadership in a difficult position. Obviously, it's far too early to be taking any drastic measures, but Wedge and Shapiro are no doubt thinking ahead as to what they'll do if this trend continues. Unfortunately, I don't think their contingency plan is meant to cover the entire pitching staff, so some of these guys have no choice but to suck it up and do their job next time out.

The real question is at what point should the team start to really worry if the pitching continues to be this inconsistent? I know it's only the first week of a long season and that everything is magnified since all eyes are on the small number of games that have actually been played. That doesn't make it any easier to watch. I can't fault the front office either, since I was cautiously optimistic about the rotation during Spring Training as well (perhaps more so than Shapiro himself).

The only player that I would be willing to pull the trigger on this early is Pavano, but even that isn't as simple as it seems. David Huff (5.0 IP, 4 ER, 5 H, 2 HR, 3 BB), Aaron Laffey (3.1 IP, 5 ER, 6 H, 1 HR, 2 BB), and Kirk Saarloos (6.0 IP, 5 ER, 7 H, 2 HR, 1 BB) all came up short in their Columbus debuts, which leaves me guessing as to who could get called up as a replacement. Regardless of how bad it looked, Cleveland isn't going to cut a starter after just one game. Pavano was supposed to be part of a multi-pitcher attack to provide some (hopefully) quality innings until Westbrook returned, but it looks like that plan will backfire unless the "second wave" of arms is brought up sooner than anticipated. And don't think I'm going easy on Cliff Lee just because I hadn't mentioned him yet, he's got a lot of work to do to silence concerns that his terrible Spring Training was anything more than a meaningless blip on the radar.

The bottom line is that until the team has a larger body of work to go on, all they can do is continue to be prudent in how much slack they cut their pitchers and hope that Carl Willis and his coaching staff can find a solution to the individual struggles holding the rest of the team back.

Cleveland can't afford to get off to such a slow start in what should be a tightly contested division (not to mention the AL East, which will probably be fighting tooth-and-nail for the Wild Card spot all year). The franchise hasn't gotten off to an 0-5 start since 1985 and now join Washington (0-5) as the only teams in the Majors who are still win-less.

Today I wanted to characterize the first five outings from the starting pitching. Despite the end result, there were actually a few positive signs.

Cliff Lee

4/6 @ TX: 5.0 IP, 10 H, 7 ER, 1 BB, 5 SO, 1 HR, 79-53 pitches-strikes, 3-7 GB-FB

I was willing to chalk this start up as an anomaly at first glance. Combine a sore forearm from a deflected linedrive, Opening Day pressure, a very strong Texas lineup, and a career 9.19 ERA over 6 career starts at Arlington and the odds seemed to be stacked against Lee that day. Lee retired the first four batters he faced until being struck in the left forearm by a liner. After being inspected by the training staff, Lee continued to pitch, but allowed five more base runners on four hits and a walk before getting out of the inning. My guess is that the soreness in Lee's arm temporarily broke his concentration or mechanics because he seemed fine in the third and fourth innings. Lee gave up just two hits while striking out four in the middle innings before surrendering a three-run homer in the fifth.

4/11 vs. TOR: 5.0 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 4 BB, 5 SO, 0 HR, 102-57 pitches-strikes, 3-7 GB-FB

The match-up between last year's Cy Young winner and runner-up was supposed to be where Lee redeemed himself after a poor showing on Opening Day. Instead, Lee struggled, but no longer had the benefit of the doubt since he was pitching at home against a tamer Toronto lineup. Lee failed to go beyond five innings for the second straight start after averaging 7.19 IP per start in 2008. In the post-game wrap, Wedge thought his ace was "a little erratic with his fastball. There were times when he was throwing where he wanted to, but he was also missing by quite a bit at times." Lee didn't throw a curveball until the 9th batter he faced (resulting in a K) and relied heavily on his fastball throughout the start.

One of Lee's keys to success last season was how his fastball and curveball complimented each other. 2008 saw Lee utilize the curveball about 9.6% of the time (a career high) and his heater 70.1%. It's also worth noting that in going to his fastball so often, Lee possessed excellent command of it (something he lacked in his last start). In two starts, Lee has stuck mostly with his fastball (57.0%), cutter (11.4%), and changeup (24.1%), using the curve only 7.6% of the time. It will be interesting to see how Lee's pitch selection evolves after a few more starts and if he finds success by going back to last year's strategy of mixing in the curveball more often.

Fausto Carmona

4/8 @ TX: 5.0 IP, 7 H, 6 ER, 2 BB, 4 SO, 1 HR, 95-59 pitches-strikes, 6-5 GB-FB

I thought Carmona looked better than what the boxscore indicates in this case. He displayed a good range of velocity (84-94 MPH) and had decent action on his sinking fastball. Carmona's undoing against Texas was that he just made too many mistakes. Many of the balls Carmona left up in the zone were punished by the Rangers. Others, like the ball Kinsler golfed from his ankles for a double, seemed a bit unlucky. I think Carmona is the most likely to bounce-back immediately because many of his runs seemed to come from a lack of concentration or a few bad pitches. Overall, Carmona seemed to have decent stuff and was able to find the strike zone 62% of the time, but Texas seemed especially patient at times, making it difficult for Fausto to set-up his go-to pitches.

Look for Carmona to get his confidence and focus back and enjoy much better results in his next outing.

Carl Pavano

4/9 @ TX: 1.0 IP, 6 H, 9 ER, 3 BB, 1 SO, 2 HR, 39-21 pitches-strikes, 1-1 GB-FB

The only way Pavano's debut as an Indian could have been any worse was if Wedge had left him in for more than one inning. If Pavano fails to significantly improve on this first start, there's no justification for keeping him on the team. If Shapiro needs more time to evaluate his options in Columbus he might as well stretch out Zach Jackson to make a couple of starts in lieu of Pavano (the downside of this is that they could realistically need Jackson to fill in the gaps for another struggling starter). The stark contrast between Pavano and Jackson's 4 innings of 4 hit, 2 run ball was laughable. Jackson came out of the bullpen and basically schooled Pavano in how to deal with the Texas lineup, striking out six and walking none. The only good to come out of Pavano's start was that it gave Jackson a chance to confirm he can be an effective long-man or emergency starter in a pinch. I was impressed with the way Jackson attacked hitters (70% of his pitches were strikes) and mixed up his location and velocity to keep hitters off-balance, especially after being called in on short-notice like that.

I wasn't expecting Pavano to have great velocity; at this point in his career that's not his game. But where was the pitch location that's supposed to be his bread and butter? Pavano either couldn't locate his pitches or he had so little confidence in his stuff that he was afraid to throw strikes. Most of his pitches were either elevated or too far outside the zone to even be borderline calls. It felt like Pavano had a very weak presence on the mound and had absolutely no answer for the loaded Texas lineup. At one point, it looked like Pavano was just avoiding the hitters zone as much as possible, going through the motions, waiting to be pulled. I can't blame Wedge for leaving him in even after the seven runs, since calling on the bullpen to pitch almost an entire game would have its own adverse consequences.

Short of a miraculous turn-around, I wouldn't be surprised if Pavano was cut after two more starts.

Scott Lewis

4/10 vs. TOR: 4.1 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 1 B, 3 SO, 2 HR, 94-61 pitches-strikes, 3-6 GB-FB

Lewis looked extremely sharp out of the gate, nailing Martinez's glove and locating the ball well. The 25-year old southpaw showcased his ability to paint both corners of the plate and use his fastball and changeup in tandem effectively. He also didn't seem to get rattled when faced with a lead-off double in the third inning. Toronto's hitters seemed to make the necessary adjustments to Lewis' strategy the second time through the lineup, resulting in a three-run fourth inning. Lewis gave up four consecutive hits in the fourth: two singles, a double, and a two-run homer. He was pulled in the fifth after coughing up a home run to Marco Scutaro on an obvious mistake pitch right down the middle of the plate at the letters (the rain had picked up to a steady downpour at that point, so that didn't help matters). The key to Lewis improving will be if he can counter his opponent's adjustments the second and third time through the lineup. While it's great that he can locate his fastball inside, Jays' hitters were starting to catch up to balls trailing in on them and making contact for hits.

Lewis no longer has the benefit of being an unknown rookie to Major League hitters, so he'll have to adapt to remain effective at this level.

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