The Starters

Justin Masterson was MasterFUL last night (HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!! I’m a card folks) going 7 innings with 4 hits and only 1 run allowed.  The Indians are now 9-4 and quickly becoming the darling sleeper pick of the AL thanks in no small part to the performance of their starters.  We’ve recently seen excellent outings from Carmona, Talbot and now Masterson – the kind of outings that make Tribe fans think the Indians might be buyers at the trading deadline.  It’s far too early to this excited about the Indians starters.  Looking at their peripheral stats tells you why…

  2011 Season   Career Totals
  K/9 BB/9 GB%   K/9 BB/9 GB%
Masterson 5.3 1.8 65%   7.3 3.9 57%
Talbot 8.0 3.6 59%   5.1 4.2 48%
Carrasco 5.9 3.2 39%   6.4 3.3 50%
Tomlin 4.6 3.9 49%   5.2 2.6 31%
Carmona 7.6 3.0 58%   5.6 3.6 59%

As of last evening, the Indians were 2nd in the AL in ground ball % (GB%) with a good 48% of balls in play being hit on the ground.  The problem with that number is the guys throwing all these grounders have nothing in their career history to suggest this trend will continue (reminder: We are exactly 13 games into the bloody season).  Even more, most of the starters are pitching well above their established career norms for their peripheral stats.  Masterson, Talbot and Tomlin are all well above their career GB rates and Carrasco is actually going the other way (the bad way) with a GB rate 11 points lower than his career average.

Josh Tomlin’s peripherals are probably the worst of this bunch with his K and BB rates going the wrong way from his career average.  He’s living off that GB rate and given his track record that rate will likely not continue.  Even more concerning is the 2MPH he appears to have lost off his fastball from last season (89.4 MPH in 2010 vs 87.0 in 2011).  It’s worth watching this speed figure to see just how much it upticks as the season goes on.  Mitch Talbot is pitching out of his mind good right now with all of his peripherals well above career norms.  If those figures are still at that level in June, we’re onto something.  For now, let’s put Talbot in the “it’s only 13 games” category and wait for the numbers to regress back to the mean.  Carrasco has his peripherals (or at least the K rate and GB%) moving the wrong direction but much like Talbot, let’s wait and see. 

With Carmona the closest to his career norms that leaves Masterson as the last over-achiever.  The expectation around Masterson is around waiting to see if he has a break-out year in him.  He’s always been a good groundball pitcher and had an above average K rate with the knocks coming around a high walk rate and a farily ugly righty/lefty split (example: career BA vs righties – .219, vs lefites – .284).  So the question is/has been: is he going to break out into a front of the rotation guy?  As with everything this early in the season, it’s too early to tell but if I had to make a bet as to which of these starters would take a big step forward based on their April performance I’m going with the MasterFUL, Masterson (HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!! Twice in one article – I rule).

And now, in honor of all the over-reacting that takes place EVERY April in the majors – Monty Python (really, do I need an excuse for this one?)….

 

 

Games #13-15 – Mirage vs. Mirage

Fresh off their *gasp* two game losing streak the Tribe comes home tomorrow for a 3 game series against the Orioles.  Series starters are:

Game 1 – Britton vs. Masterson

Game 2 – Guthrie vs. Tomlin

Game 3 – Bergesen vs. Talbot

As of Thursday morning, the Orioles were 6-4 and the Indians record stood at 8-4.  Neither team is expected to be a playoff contender this season and both teams are playing well over their heads right now.  So the obvious question(s) is/are – who falls off first and when?  This series could be the start of the answer to that question.

One of the things you get used to doing, if you’re a fan of a losing team, is going to the stadium to watch the other teams play.  For example, Indians attendance on a per game basis this year will probably be (and this is just a guess but probably a close one) around 10-15K per game.  Yet when the Red Sox or Yankees come to town, watch the number jump by 5 maybe even 10K.  It’s just what we, the losing cities of the league, do to keep interested in the game as a whole. At games like this it is not uncommon to find more fans cheering for the away team than the Indians. It’s just how we, the unshorn masses semi-faithful to the Indians, get through the season.

Needless to say, the Orioles are not usually a team that sparkes much interest from either side of that equation.  This weekend might be a bit different given the starts of both teams but play this series in late August/September and Progressive Field will be a ghost town. 

With all that in mind…let’s kick the start of this series to Mr. John Lennon:

 

One God*&%! Hit?

The Indians ran into Dan Haren last night and he was unstoppable surrendering only one hit in a nine inning complete game shut-out. The game did make it two good starts in a row for Fausto Carmona who has put up a nice line in his last two outings going:

14.2IP/ 6 hits/ 5 bb’s/ 10 k’s and allowing only 2 runs over both games.  Equally impressive is that this performance has come against Boston and Los Angeles (read: at least its not Kansas City twice).  What is does not mean (small sample size disclaimer as well) is that Carmona is returning to his 2007 form or even belongs in the front end of a major league rotation.  He’s there by default this year but he’s really more a 3/4 type starter as opposed to an ace.

If you look at his FB velocity (courtesy of Fangraphs), he’s lost about 1 to 1.5 MPH from his 2007 peak (93.5 MPH in 2007 vs 92.6 in 10 and 91.9 in 11).  His 2011 figure of 91.9 will likely rise as the season goes on – we typically see pitchers speeds increase as we get into the middle portion of the season.  But he’s not getting the mid 90’s gas (“gas”: hee, hee) back from 2007.  Through three starts this season he’s pitching extrodinarily well against righties – 2.34 xFIP vs. 4.66 vs lefties and that kind of split will not continue (he was, in xFIP terms, 4.09 vs. righties last season and 4.39 vs lefties) .  In 2007 Carmona benefitted from a 64.3% groundball rate – a number he hasn’t come close to since, and for 2011 he’s sitting at 58.2%.  Finally, his BABiP in 2011 sits at .255 and will increase toward his career norm of .295 as the season wears on. 

Those are not the numbers of an ace – an innings muncher, yes.  Regardless of his role, the Indians will need him as he’s about as close as it gets to a sure thing in this rotation.

The above comments are really just filler, a means to an end.  That end being none other than Harry Doyle – who’s comments are quite appropriate (sans the one run he mentions) for Indians performance yesterday….

 

Games #10-12 Cleveland @ Los Angeles Angels of Los Angeles and Anaheim but mainly Los Angeles (LAAOLAAABMLA)

The Tribe starts a three game set tonight against the Angels. Obligatory pre-game link.

Pitching matchups for the series are:

Tonight – Talbot vs. Chatwood

Tomorrow – Carmona vs. Haren

Wednesday – Carrasco vs. Santana

Heading into the series, the Indians are a nice mirage team at 7-2. They get the meat of the Angels rotation in Haren and Santana and it will be interesting to see if the winning continues. 

How about a little Enrico Pallazzo to kick off the series…

 

 

Games #8 and 9 – There might be some fire behind the smoke.

No, the title of this thread is not about the Indians 7-2 start.  It’s not about how they are currently 3rd in the AL in runs scored or what any of this means for the season.  It’s April.  These games do not matter.  The Indians will still struggle to win 70 games this season.  No, this post is about the potential of Josh Tomlin.
Tomlin.jpg

 Called up last year, Tomlin saw action from late July to the end of the season.  His ERA wasn’t much (4.56 in total and over 5.00 for August and September) but he did pitch at least 5 innings in every game and gave up more than three runs in only 4 of 12 total appearances.  Something that’s underrated by stat-heads like myself is good old fashioned innings pitched.  Regardless of peripheral stats or even advanced stats, if you have a guy on the roster that can go 5 to 6 innings every five days and not kill you – there’s a real value there.  It’s not the sexy kind you get from a frontline starter or a 5 star prospect but it’s value nonetheless. 

He’s not a strikout guy and his groundball rate from last year of 28.4% is down toward the bottom 5-10% of league.  On the plus side, however, he only walked 19 in 73 innings last season and his K/BB rate of 2.3 was just a pinch higher than the league average of 2.2 – the rate again buyoued by his low walk rate.

There are some big concerns here (last year he faced KC three times, and Baltimore and Seattle once each in his 12 outings) as noted but for the time being, perhaps the Indians have something in Tomlin.  I’m not saying he’s the next Kid Nichols or Pedro Martinez but an innings eater he just might be.  This type of role would be his ceiling and given any real infusion of pitching talent (ala Pomeranz, White, or dare I say …. a free agent pitcher??!!) he could be relegated to the pen.  For now, after two solid outings against Seattle and Boston, he’s on his way to staying in the rotation.  If the Indians have one less rotation slot to worry about, even if it’s only for a portion of the season – that’s a good thing. 

Lest we forget…

The Mariners resident rapist false imprisoner/relief pitcher saw an inning of work last night.  Can we pull ourselves away from the collective hand wringing and soap-boxing around steroids (see: Bonds, Barry Lamar.) and their destruction of the sanctity of this beloved American sport to talk about whether or not Mr. Lueke deserves a second chance?  After all, who doesn’t love a second chance story?  You know, the ones ESPN does with all the dramatic music in the background, the moving interviews, flashback photos (Ken Burns style) and capstone-like discussions with the second chance athlete describing his new outlook on life.  I digress…my point is, aren’t we a little too quick to hand out the second chance, write the comeback article, produce the television story?

Lueke plead guilty to false imprisonment with violence and did a little more than a month in jail.  From the above article:

“Pleading no contest carries the same legal weight as a guilty plea, but sentencing is often more immediate and less harsh.”

So here we have a convicted felon who, by the way, throws 95-96 MPH.  Just so long as he appears (in all actuality, he can still act like a savage just not get caught) to be a model citizen, all will be forgiven in time.  After all, the single most important truism in all professional sports is winning.  To hell with who or how we win – just win.  It’s all that matters and remember “flags fly forever”.  Thus professional sports teams have the carte blanche they need to justify anything and anyone being on their roster (as an aside, try reading the police blotters that are NFL rosters for further evidence).  This sad fact of our current society will never change either.  As much as we like to think/write/talk/soapbox about it – teams will always do whatever they have to to win.  It’s been like that since forever and will never change despite the miles of words written to the opposite.

Here’s my point (one that I acknowledge is an idealistic, almost Pollyanna-ish view of the world) – Mr. Lueke deserves a second chance at life, just not a second chance in baseball.  Let him serve his time, and return to society with every chance to make a living for himself – just keep him off the diamond.  Make him find another profession (god forbid, he have to attend a college, get a degree and find a job) and let his crime and the league’s intolerance of it keep him away from a game that is just that – a game.  This is, after all, just a game where grown men hit balls with sticks of wood.  It is a very fun game (a lot of work for the players but ask any of them [I do mean ANY of them] if they would like to trade all of the work for a desk job). Make Mr. Lueke’s penalty be the deprivation of this fun as a forever reminder that this kind of behavior is simply unacceptable and not something to be filed away in the cabinet of “second chances” in the pursuit of a championship. Put something other than winning first. 

Like I said – that’s a Pollyanna-ish view of the world and will never, ever happen.  It’s nice to think about though.  And just because it won’t ever happen doesn’t mean that simple little bloggers like myself shouldn’t stop pointing it out for the larger public (Aside: I have ZERO readers so pointing this out “for the larger public” is, in my case, a wasted effort but not going to stop me from pontificating like the blowhard I am.)  It would be nice to get a little more honesty from teams though.  You know something like this: (Picture a GM’s press conference)

Reporter: How do you guys respond to the message that signing or trading for a guy like Lueke sends to the Seattle community?

GM: Well, short of him chucking defenseless elderly people into wood-chippers, we’re willing to overlook ANYTHING the kids does so long as that fastball stays in the mid-90’s.  The second, and I mean second, it drops sub-90, we’re cutting him. 

There I go again with the whole Pollyanna thing.   

Game #7 – Cleveland @ Seattle

And the lineups for tonight’s game, courtesy of ESPN…

    Cleveland Seattle
1   Brantley, CF Suzuki, RF
2   A.Cabrera, SS Figgins, 3b
3   Choo, RF Bradley, LF
4   Santana, C Cust, DH
5   Hafner, DH Smoak, 1b
6   O.Cabrera, 2b Olivo, C
7   Kearns, LF Kennedy, 2b
8   LaPorta, 1b Ryan, SS
9   Hannahan, 3b Langerhans, CF

And, your token preview with all of the obligatory cliche’s and go-get-em attitudisms. Pitchers are Carrasco (CLE) vs Vargas (SEA) 

This early in the season the two players that have my eye are Matt LaPorta and Carlos Carrasco.  LaPorta is hitting .294/.400/.471 (I know, I know…it’s early) and if he finishes the year with a line like that the CC trade could still pan out (Tangent:  I’m reaching on this hope for LaPorta because there are plenty of times where he looks absolutely LOST at the plate.  I cannot overstate this enough.  It makes you wonder what, exactly, they saw in him while he was in the minors.  Of course, baseball history is full of your AAA stars who simply could not hack the next level. The jury remains out.). 

Carrasco is coming off a shelling at the hands of the Chi-Sox.  No big deal but it will be interesting to see if/how he bounces back.  He was a key piece of the Cliff Lee trade and projects to be the Tribe’s #3/4 starter for the forseeable future. 

Forget “Are we there yet?”. Where are we going?

In 1955 the Cleveland Indians began a stretch of 40 consecutive years without a playoff appearance.  As we start the 2011 I can’t help but wonder if those fans had any idea what they were in for.  I mean, did they have any idea, any inclination whatsoever, that a 40 year baseball wasteland was about to be visited upon them?  Why start this blog on such a downer?  It’s certainly an extreme position but it’s one that I cannot seem to shake: are the Indians on the precipice of another 40 year playoff exodus?  What would cause one to think this way?  And really, 40 years – isn’t that a bit much?  Guilty as charged on the last part.  It is a huge leap to assume, even given the direst of baseball circumstances that any team would miss the playoffs for 40 consecutive years.  The point here is a pretty simple one, albeit dramatically emphasized: Where is this team going?

 

I must confess the question is not exclusively my own.  If you listen to episode 6 of the “The Baseball Show with Rany and Joel” podcast found on itunes, you’ll hear Sheehan espouse a similar philosophy.  A simple survey of the entire organization will give you a good insight into this characterization.   

 

At its simplest formulation, and at the risk of being needlessly simplistic, a baseball team is three components:

·         The current roster

·         The farm system

·         The front office/ownership

It is my belief that when you look through each of these components you will struggle to find many reason to believe a return to the playoffs is in the cards anytime soon.

 

The current roster

 

There are a great many season previews published every year in various forms of media.  And it is in no way beneficial to rehash all of this work here.  In summary the 2011 Cleveland Indians are going to be a bad baseball team.  We’re talking a 70 win team, not much more.  There are a few bright spots – Choo, Santana, Masterson and possibly Sizemore (injury risks admitted).  But on the whole, this is a team in the midst of its second major rebuild of the decade.  It’s not designed to win now and it will not. 

 

The farm system

 

Here’s where the hope should be coming from.  At least, in past rebuilds the Tribe has used its farm system (or its ability to create a farm system via trade [see: Bartolo Colon deal]) as the genesis for its playoff teams.  The farm systems products were also supplemented with the acquisition of major league talent, a topic I will return to later.  As Cleveland is a small market team, the farm system will be the critical component to the ultimate return of the Indians to the playoffs.  I start this argument with a quote from the 2011 Baseball America Prospect Handbook:

              

  “The Tribe may not have one signature player like Chapman gives the Reds, but they have plenty of options at several positions, such as second base and on the mound.”

 

A seemingly innocuous statement like this doesn’t seem to carry much of an indictment against an entire farm system.  When you look a little further into the various player profiles in the book, you will read more quotes in a similar vein; “projects as an above-average regular in the majors (Chisenhall), the hope is that he can become at least a #3 starter (White)” and so on.  The picture that emerges from this analysis is also confirmed by the general consensus of various MiLB followers (Goldsten, Law, Parks, etc…) is a picture of a farm system chalk full of average to above average major league players.  This system, as it is currently built, has no all, super or garden variety stars.  Bereft of any star caliber players, the Indians feature a system with depth.  Admittedly this isn’t the worst of positions for a team.  With the proper infusion of major league talent to the roster and the continued development of stars currently on the major league team, a depth heavy farm system could be a huge asset.  The assumption here, of course, is that the ownership is prepared to spend the necessary money to acquire said major league talent.  Without that premise as a given, you need to look at the farm system as both a source of depth and star talent – with the Tribe you will only find the former.  How does a team put itself into playoff contention with a farm system of average players and a major league roster with a meager handful of stars/regular contributors?

 

The front office/ownership

 

Let me focus on the ownership first.  The common theme in Cleveland is one attesting the frugality of Larry Dolan.  Put another way – he’s cheap.  Specifically, from 2004 to 2010 the Indians spent, on average about 20% less on their payroll than the average central division team and about 30% less than the average major league team( data from bizofbasball.com salary database for opening day payrolls).  This does not rule out the possibility of Dolan authorizing a large spending increase for the major league team but it certainly calls into question its likelihood. I’ll stop tap dancing around the issue – Dolan has been cheap with major league payroll dollars and has given no indication he will change that philosophy any time soon.  Based on past performance, why should we ever expect to see this owner spend anything close to “average” on his team’s roster?

 

The jury is still out on the front office.  By all accounts GM Chris Antonetti is a high potential general manager who has a good support staff including team President Mark Shapiro and a balanced stable of scouts and sabermetricians behind him.  Given the task in front of him, he is going to need a good front office team.  Antonetti must restock this system via the draft with the star talent it lacks while still trying to put something marginally competitive on the major league diamond.  Not an easy task.  In addition, he has the job of assessing the development process of some key acquisitions for the Tribe in Matt LaPorta, Carlos Carrasco and Jason Knapp – all three being the lynch pins of the CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee trades respectively.  The early returns on the three are a mixed bag of failure (LaPorta), more average-ness (Carrasco) and a TBD on Knapp.  These problems are not simple or easy fixes for a seasoned GM much less a rookie.

 

Conclusions/Pontifications

 

Why start an Indians blog on such a sour note?  I could go off on a rant about being realistic about a team’s chances or some hidden hatred I bear for this team.  The truth is I simply want this team to win a championship.  There’s no need to go into the various near misses this team and city has had to experience over the past decade plus – it’s all well documented.  And it’s also well known we are not a market like New York or Boston.  That does not, however, mean that Indians fans as a collective whole lack the same passion and desire to see their team as do the larger market teams.   I count myself as one of those passionate fans.  It is tough, however, to see exactly where this team is going over the long term.  It won’t be competitive this year and the jury is definitely out on 2012.  The Indians feature a losing major league roster, a depth heavy farm system with no star power and a cheap owner.  How a recipe like that is supposed to spell hope is beyond me.   

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