Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Memorial Lazy Sunday

Nearly two months into the 2015 major league baseball season, the Indians pretty much are who we thought they were. That “we” even encompasses those (myself included) who thought they were a playoff team in 2015. They’re a decent team with exceptional starting pitching, a solid (if unspectacular) lineup, a below-average bullpen and a dumpster fire defensively. Again, this is more or less what we saw coming into this season. If anything, the starting pitching has actually been better than expected, and a bounceback season from Jason Kipnis has helped propel the offense to the upper half of the AL. But the defense has been worse than anyone could’ve possibly imagined, dragging the club down in the AL Central standings like an anchor. To help illustrate that point, I’m going to have to throw some “advanced” stats at you, so bear with me here.

The Indians team ERA sits at a rather pedestrian 4.31 (all stats as of Friday). That is “good” for 24th in all of baseball. Pretty poor, really, and if you’d asked someone in 1994 if the Indians pitching staff was good, they’d say “absolutely not.” But you and I, we’re smarter than that. We watch the games. We see the Klubot, Cookie, Bauer and Salazar striking out hitter after hitter, only to see soft groundballs somehow leak through the infield with nary a glove nearby. We watch Mike Aviles (sorry to bring this one up) try to track down a ball in center, coming up empty and wondering what he was even doing in CF to begin with. We know that the Indians starting pitching has been outstanding, but with the team ERA being what it is, we don’t really have a way to quantify that in a single, all-encompassing stat.

Fear not, fellow frustrated fan. We DO have a stat that looks at every aspect of what a pitcher can and cannot control and assigns a value to what he and he alone does on the diamond. No, I’m not talking about WAR. WAR is nice, but it’s not really predictive and isn’t as useful in such small samples. I’m talking about cFIP, or contextual fielding independent pitching. An improvement over the traditional FIP, cFIP accounts for everything going on in a game; the pitcher, hitter, defense, umpire, catcher framing, ballpark, hot dog race participants…everything. Here’s a complete primer on cFIP from Jonathan Judge of Hardball Times if you’re interested in learning more, but I’ve snipped a couple of key excerpts here that help us understand why it’s such a useful stat:
cFIP has multiple advantages: (1) it is more predictive than other pitcher estimators, especially in smaller samples; (2) it is calculated on a batter-faced basis, rather than innings pitched; (3) it is park-, league-, and opposition-adjusted; and (4) in a particularly important development, cFIP is equally accurate as a descriptive and predictive statistic.
The last characteristic makes cFIP something we have not seen before: a true pitcher quality estimator that actually approximates the pitcher’s current ability. I recommend both its use and its further refinement.
~snip~
When is a pitcher quality estimator actually isolating true talent? My answer is this: when there is a substantial similarity between the estimator’s descriptive and predictive power. If an estimator is truly isolating a pitcher’s talent, there should not be much difference between the two. If an estimator is doing well in one aspect and poorly on another, then it is not estimating a pitcher’s true ability: rather, it is over-fitting past results to better explain what happened (primarily descriptive) or under-fitting past results to minimize future error (primarily predictive).
So now that we’ve established that cFIP is an excellent tool for both analyzing past performance and predicting future success, where do the Indians rank in terms of cFIP? Why, first in all of baseball, with a cFIP score of 82 (like OPS+, cFIP is scored so that 100 is exactly average. Lower cFIP is better than higher). That number is especially remarkable when you consider that the next-closest club is the Clayton Kershaw-led Dodgers at 92. That 10-point difference between the Indians and Dodgers is the same as the difference between the #2 Dodgers and #22 Atlanta Braves. The Indians have the best pitching in baseball, and it’s really not even close.

So why are the Indians scuffling along with fewer than 20 wins in the season’s first 40 games? Look no further than the defense, which yet again is THE WORST in all of baseball. They’re dead last in both Defensive Efficiency and Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. They’re last in BABIP against, with opposing offenses hitting a robust (and probably unsustainable) .331 against them when they make contact. The 2nd-worst are the Washington Nationals, all the way down at .322. The Indians are 28th (hey, progress!) in Defensive Runs Saved. This confirms all of our offseason fears about the defense. They can indeed be bad enough at fielding the ball to counteract just how great they are at pitching the ball.

There are, however, encouraging signs to be found within this sea of statistics. The Detroit Tigers, for instance, lead baseball with a .334 BABIP. Kansas City is 2nd at .322. Both of those numbers are likely to regress at some point. Kansas City has been just as lucky in the field as they have been at the plate; KC’s BABIP-against is a paltry .260, a full 71 points lower than the Indians, and a number that can’t help but rise as the season progresses. The Indians are likely to improve on their record, and the Royals (and to an extent the Tigers) will surely cool off after their sizzling start. Will the three clubs’ respective move towards the mean be enough to see the Indians pass one or both of their AL Central rivals for a playoff spot? Time will tell, but if not, we know where to place the blame; squarely on the defense.

But do we really have to wait until September to look back and curse the horrendous defense that ruined such outstanding pitching? Is there really no solution available in mid-season that could fix what ails this club? Well, it just so happens that there are reinforcements on the horizon. In the near-term, the Indians are getting Yan Gomes back today. Gomes is an above-average defensive catcher, and will slide average defensive catcher Roberto Perez back to a reserve role where he belongs. Perez has been serviceable as a fill-in for Gomes, but is far better suited to be a backup than an everyday catcher at the major league level. Gomes return to the lineup is akin to the tide coming in; the Gomes tide will lift the boats containing the defense, pitching and the lineup all in one fell swoop. That’s both the easiest and most imminent move to improve the D (and the team).

Move two is something I won’t belabor, because it’s a train I’ve been aboard for a while now. That, of course, is to promote Francisco Lindor to the major league roster and play him as the everyday shortstop. Lindor is a superlative defender who would be an immediate upgrade over Jose Ramirez, who is flat-out overmatched as an everyday shortstop. Ramirez has value, but that value is as a super-utility guy who can play 2B, SS or 3B several times a week, spotting Chiz/Kip against tough lefties and filling in at SS when the need arises. But he’s a poor defender at SS, and the 22-year old switch-hitter is hitting just .195/.265/.264 this season. Even if Lindor’s bat isn’t a finished product (which it isn’t), it’s hard to offer less value than a .526 OPS. Lindor makes this team better today by virtue of his defense alone, and that’s worth having him on the major league roster sooner rather than later.

My third idea is to move David Murphy to a club hungry for outfield help in exchange for a bullpen arm. Despite the mentality of Indians beat writer Paul Hoynes, Murphy is expendable, and with him off the roster the Indians would be able to bring up the more versatile James Ramsey. Ramsey will likely be a better defender than Murphy, and can play all 3 OF spots. He’s a better hitter than Tyler Holt, and will help prevent Mike Aviles from ever appearing in CF again. If Murphy can fetch a contributing bullpen arm, I’d do this deal in a heartbeat. Murphy is playing well right now, but he’s more or less redundant with all of the other left handed hitting OF on the roster. He’s doing a nice job this season, hitting .312/.341/.481 primarily against right handed pitching, but that .822 OPS would be the 2nd-highest of his career over a full season, and is unlikely to continue at that rate. Murphy is a good guy and a solid player, but he’s a subpar defender and I’d rather have another bullpen arm right now.

Moving on from the current team’s struggles for a moment, Joseph Werner from Beyond the Box Score has a nice write-up confirming what most of us had already concluded; the Indians “won” both the C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee trades. Or, at the very least, they’d pull the trigger on each of those trades again even with the benefit of hindsight. Judging a trade in the immediate aftermath is silly, especially when the deal involves acquiring prospects in return for an established major leaguer. The Indians front office was roundly roasted for not getting enough in return for their Cy Young Award-winning pitchers after Matt LaPorta flamed out and Jason Knapp reinjured his shoulder. But here we are in 2015, with an OF coming off of a 6-win season and a solid #2 starter, both under team control for the long term, and those trades are looking awfully good:
And for the first five seasons after dealing their pitching stalwarts, it looked as if all the front office had to show for their collective efforts was a league average regular left fielder, who hit like a center fielder and lacked the pop for a corner spot, and a frustratingly fringy back-of-the-rotation arm. They were, in every sense of the word, the last men standing from their respective deals as the other prospects petered out.
Something funny happened over the past season-plus – not funny in the traditional sense, mind you, but more in the way of nobody-saw-it-coming – both players took developmental leaps forward. The corner outfielder hit like a legitimate middle-of-the-order impact bat and the maddening, inconsistent right-hander suddenly became, well, consistently dominant.
The Sabathia and Lee trades, the Ubaldo deal, Casey Blake for Carlos Santana, YAN GOMES and Mike Aviles for Esmil Rodgers…the Indians front office has done a remarkable job acquiring talent via trade over the past decade.

Speaking of Carlos Carrasco, Mike Podhorzer of Fangraphs has a nice breakdown of Cookie’s 2014 vs his 2015. Carrasco lowered his ERA to 4.74 with a win against the Reds Friday night, so there may be those out there who see him as a disappointment after his electric 2nd half last year. 
Podhorzer goes deeper into Carrasco’s 2015 to show that he’s actually pitching much like he did last year, but he’s been let down by luck and the defense (surprise!) thus far. Carrasco’s K rate and walk rate are nearly identical, and he’s actually throwing more strikes this year than he did last year. His FIP is 2.62 (he finished with a 2.44 FIP last year), but his ERA is more than 2 runs higher (4.74 this year to 2.55 last year). The biggest difference is in BABIP. Cookie limited hitters to a .274 average on balls in play last year, but that’s jumped to a whopping .359 this season. There’s no way that lasts, even with the Indians horrific defense. Carrasco remains an excellent pitcher, so please don’t be “that guy” at the water cooler citing his high ERA as a reason why last year was a fluke. It wasn’t, and Carrasco’s numbers reflect that.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the incredible season that Jason Kipnis is having, as he’s in the midst of one of the best stretches that I’ve seen from an Indians hitter in years. As the Indians leadoff hitter, Kipnis is hitting a sizzling .387/.480/.632 with 4 HR and 15 RBI in 26 games. In 20 games during the month of May, Kip is hitting .463/.546/.732, good for a 1.278(!) OPS. In terms of wRC this month, his 259 trails only Bryce Harper’s 296 mark in all of baseball. He’s leading the American League with 57 hits, and his 2.5 WAR are more than he accumulated in all of last season. His defense has been better this year as well, as he’s been worth 0.4 dWAR (1.1 better than his -0.7 dWAR in 2014). He’s fueling an offense that ranks 5th in the AL with a combined .730 OPS, and the Indians have been a different team since he moved into the leadoff spot. The challenge for Kipnis will be to sustain this success throughout the season. He’s a career .325/.396/.554 hitter in the month of May, but has averaged a sub-.700 OPS in July-September. If Kip can maintain anything approaching this pace for the rest of the season, it’ll go a long ways towards supporting the Indians’ outstanding starting pitching down the stretch. 

It’s Memorial Day weekend here in the US, an occasion that some see as significant because of the day off work and the start of summer BBQ season. Fortunately, we have a couple of excellent articles that both tie into baseball and remind us of the significance of the holiday. Zack Meisel of the Plain Dealer wrote a fantastic piece about a local baseball star who gave up his major league dreams for pilot’s wings, becoming a Special Forces helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. He tragically perished while flying a team of US Navy SEALS into enemy territory attempting to rescue Marcus Lutrell and the other SEALS in Operation Red Wings. This op would eventually be detailed the book and movie “Lone Survivor.” As Meisel himself tweeted, if you only read one thing he’s written, make it that article.

In addition to Meisel’s fabulous effort, Graham Watson of Yahoo Sports penned an article about Chris Moon, Atlanta Braves draftee and University of Arizona baseball star who dropped out of Arizona to join the Army in 2007. Moon volunteered for the airborne, then for sniper school and wound up in Afghanistan as a sniper for the 82nd Airborne. Moon was killed by a coward with an IED near Kandahar. He was just 20 years old.

Brave men and women have been fighting and dying for America since before we were even a country. Memorial Day was established in the wake of the Civil War as a time to honor those soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice. So by all means, enjoy a couple of cold beers and a burger (or three) at a barbecue this weekend. But while you do, take a moment to appreciate the men and women who have fought and died over the past 250 or so years so that we can live in freedom to enjoy baseball, BBQ and apple pie.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Playing Defense on a Lazy Sunday

Nearly three weeks into the season, the Indians have scuffled their way to a 6-10 record and find themselves at the bottom of the very competitive AL Central division. Just when it looked like the Tribe had found some momentum after a 13-1 shellacking of the Tigers, Trevor Bauer came down with food poisoning before yesterday’s start and the Indians were unable to get anything going in yet another loss to their AL Central foes. TJ House made an emergency start and held the Tigers to three runs in three innings of work, a decent outing considering the circumstances. But the offensive outburst from Friday night didn’t carry over to Saturday, and Brandon Moss (who’s OPS spiked nearly 200 points after his 2 HR, 2B, 7 RBI game on Friday) failed twice go score a runner from 3B with less than 2 outs in a 4-1 loss. It’s still early, but the 2015 Indians seem to have the same problems that plagued the 2014 Indians; poor defense, lack of timely hitting and a complete and utter inability to beat Detroit on a regular basis.

Grantland’s Jonah Keri checked in with his weekly power rankings on Monday, slotting the then 4-7 Indians in at #15 overall. Since Keri’s weekly focus was on defense, it’s no surprise that he chose to expound on the Indians ranking. Keri notes that, following a season in which the Indians were the worst defensive team in baseball, they’ve opened the 2015 season as the second worst defensive team in baseball. So…they’re trending upwards? Keri goes on to note that while the Indians have and will continue to suffer with defensive limitations, it might not matter as much due to the propensity of the Indians rotation to strike out everyone in the world.

It only takes a quick look at the AL pitching leaderboards to confirm this theory. After Friday night’s games, the Indians led the AL in strikeouts with 158 (one ahead of the Yankees 157). The AL average was 125. The team ERA however, is a more robust 3.88 (league average 3.98). Since it’s 2015 and not 1985 though, let’s dig a little deeper on that one and note that the Indians have the 2nd best Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) in the AL at 3.25, and that 0.63 disparity is the 2nd highest in the AL, behind the fellow strikeout-heavy NYY. The Indians pitchers are (again) controlling what they can control, but the defense isn’t picking them up. If this sounds like a familiar story, it should, as the 2014 Indians led the AL with a 3.42 FIP but were tied for 6th with a 3.56 ERA.

So how do we fix this? How do we take advantage of what could be the best top to bottom (especially if TJ House can right the ship) pitching staff in the league? Well, it just so happens that I have a plan:
      
      1.   Call up James Ramsey to replace Little Jerry Sands. Ramsey, unlike Sands, can play all three outfield positions and will prevent any future situations where Mike Aviles plays CF. He’s a better defender than Murphy, and should be able to hold his own at the plate. 
      
      2.   Swap out Jose Ramirez for Francisco Lindor. Ramirez has been OK at short this year, but his range factor and defensive runs saved are both down from 2014 (small sample size alert). Combining those stats with years of scouting evaluations that suggest Ramirez will be at best an average shortstop pushes this one over the top for me. Ramirez can go back to AAA and play SS, 2B and 3B, then come back in a couple of months and take over the Mike Aviles role. Meanwhile, Lindor takes over at SS and immediately becomes a plus defender at short, shoring up a shaky infield D even if he can’t do much with the bat at the outset. Ramirez is hitting .204/.245/.286 right now…can Lindor really do much worse than that?
      
      3.  At some point in mid-late May, if Lonnie Chisenhall still isn’t hitting, call up Gio Urshela to play 3B. Even after hitting his first HR of the season on Friday against the Tigers, Chiz was hitting a paltry .204/.245/.306. That includes a .167/.212/.300 line against southpaws. He’s been better in the field this year (in a small sample), but came in at -1.5 WAR in the field in 2014. Urshela could be an elite defender at 3B, and even if he manages a .550 OPS he’d at least be giving the offense the same “help” that Chisenhall has provided this year. As an added bonus, Urshela hits right handed, which would help settle some of the villagers with pitchforks lining up outside of Chris Antonetti’s house demanding a less lefty-heavy lineup.

Will any of these moves actually happen? Probably not in the near-term, especially with Urshela just coming off the DL for AAA Columbus this past week. But something needs to be done to improve the defense before it’s too late. The Indians cannot win the AL Central in April/May, but it’s possible that they could lose it if this skid lasts much longer. What’s funny to me is that they Indians very quickly recognized that they had a more talented pitcher in AAA (Salazar) who could take a rotation spot from a guy who was scuffling out of the gate (McAllister), and immediately made a move to fix it. That move has proven effective thus far, with Salazar making two superlative starts, going 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA and 21 K in 13 innings. Why the team’s brain trust can act so quickly to fill a hole in the rotation but can’t seem to do the same for the defense is baffling to me. Hopefully a fix comes sooner rather than later. It’s a long season and this is still a very talented baseball team, but the defense could again prove to be the Achilles heel that keeps them for making a run deep into October.

With all that being said, Mike Petriello of Fangraphs ran an interesting article earlier this week suggesting that the Indians defense might not be as bad as the numbers would indicate early this season. The Indians rank 28th in baseball with -12 defensive runs saved, but -7 of those come directly from the pitcher position. That’s ridiculously high, the worst in all of baseball. As Petriello explains:

24 of the 30 teams are within a relatively narrow -2 to 2 range, simply because it’s so early and no one’s had the time to be that bad. But Cleveland’s pitchers have dragged down the overall team score to such a degree that if we looked only at non-pitcher DRS, they’d be tied with the Pirates at 23rd. Not that ranking 23 out of 30 in anything is something to be proud of, but when you’re coming from as far back as this group was last year, you’ll take what you can get.
~snip~
What we know, certainly, is that the defensive numbers aren’t perfect, especially this early. What we know, even more certainly, is that defense has been an ongoing issue for this team for a few years. Right now, it’s just too simple to look at “close to last place in DRS” and make the judgement of a disaster. Pitchers and minor leaguers and out-of-position infielders are making that look worse than it needs to be. It’s not the same thing as having a playoff-caliber defense, though. Not the same thing at all.

So the defense, while not great, has been better than last season. It’s still not where it needs to be, but if the AAA cavalry can come up and improve the overall profile even more, that could be enough to vault the Indians back into contention in the AL Central. The starting pitching is going to give them a chance in virtually every game this season, and the lineup should come around eventually. The big question mark remains the D, and that’s something that can be improved with cheap, young, internal options.

While the majority of Clevelanders were busy letting their blood boil over an idiotic column from an idiot (Dan Shaughnessy, who I will not link to here under any circumstances and that rule was in place before last week’s travesty of a column), there was another Boston reporter who was writing a complementary column about Cleveland, and the Indians in particular. Baseball Prospectus’ Brian Joiner took a nice look at the Indians roster construction in the context of how Boston has torn down and rebuilt their roster over the past couple of years. Joiner is becoming quite the Clevleophile (I just made up a word, go with it), having written the Indians section of the Baseball Prospectus Annual and in general having lots of nice things to say about both the city and team here on the North Coast:

I did not write about the Indians because I love Cleveland, but because I was asked to write about Cleveland. That was lucky. I love Cleveland, starting with Major League, duh, and continuing to this day. I have gone to Cleveland for fun on several occasions, and I have had such delirious good times that I have nothing but good things to say about it.
~snip~
Anyway, this year’s Indians are a construction marvel. Nearly the entire starting roster spot is filled by a reasonably paid, above-average baseball player in his prime. What the front office, led by Chris Antonetti, lacks in maneuvering room with its roster, it makes up for in construction efficiency, save for Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, the albatrii in the outfield.
~snip~
It’s so simple that it’s brilliant, and in a way it renders a lot of analysis — well, not meaningless, but certainly less dense. The Sox’s rotation is one you could make from reading the stats on old baseball cards, and the Indians have shown that if you get guys who are just good enough, one of them might go from relatively anonymous starter to Cy Young Award winner, and a second to do it the next year, and, voila, you’re contenders, at least to your enthusiastic biographers. To them, to me, the Indians are exciting: a team primed to reach its peak.

The Indians have won 177 games in the two seasons since Terry Francona took the helm, with the Red Sox claiming 168 victories. Each team has claimed one playoff appearance. The Red Sox are off to a better start this season, but I’ll take the Indians pitching over the Red Sox by a landslide. It’ll be interesting to see how these two clubs stand at the end of the season. The Red Sox have a better lineup and will be able to trade for pitching reinforcements (possibly Cole Hamels). The Indians have better pitching and have prospect help on the way for the lineup and defense (Lindor, Ramsey, Urshela). Both clubs figure to be better in September than they are right now. With they each claim a playoff slot as they did in 2013?

It’s not directly Indians-related, but we’ll stick in the Central Division for a look at just how thoroughly the Royals embarrassed themselves in their series with the A’s last week. Much digital ink has been spilled on this topic, but for my money the best effort was from Giants SB Nation writer Grant Brisbee. Brisbee is normally both funny and insightful, so it’s not too much of a surprise that he was able to nail this particular topic. He provides two very helpful videos illustrating just how bad things were back in the “good old days,” one of Joe Morgan and one of Hal McRae. Each of these instances, were they to occur today, would likely melt the internet and cause Twitter to explode. Literally, not figuratively, explode. Please go watch them if you haven’t already. Brisbee correctly judges Lawrie’s slide as bad but not egregious, and Yordano Ventura’s ensuing HBP as silly, but predictable. Ventura’s fake tough-guy walk towards Lawrie after the HBP inexplicably escalated the situation, but Lawrie pretty much just took his base and the whole thing was over. Or so we thought.

The next day, Kelvin Herrera inexplicably threw at Lawrie again, in the 8th inning of a 2-1 game. He threw at him twice, and the second pitch was at or above the shoulders. Regardless of what Lawrie did or did not do, this foolishly re-ignited a situation that was over and done with. He also threw at Lawrie’s head, something that is both extremely stupid and extremely dangerous. Fellow fake tough-guy Salvador Perez then got up in Lawrie’s face when he (rightly) took exception to being targeted for assassination, but only after the umpire got between them and prevented any actual physical altercation from taking place. Lawrie again remained calm until Herrera pointed at his head, as if to say to Lawrie “I just tried to kill you by striking you in the head with a 100 MPH fastball,” to which Lawrie pretty naturally took exception to and started yelling at Herrera. I feel like this can’t be stated enough; Herrera’s pitch to Lawrie registered triple-digits on the radar gun. It could have literally killed him.

Lawrie seems like a bit of a nutcase. That doesn’t excuse the fact that the Royals matched and then far-escalated his nuttiness in some misguided attempt to…well, I’m not sure what exactly they were attempting to prove. That they’re tougher than the A’s? Crazier? All of the above? Herrera should be suspended for 50 games, but he won’t because steroids are somehow worse than trying to kill someone with a 100 MPH fastball. He got a 5 game suspension, which clearly didn’t send the message to KC because Yordano Ventura felt the need to start a fight against the White Sox this past Thursday. Ventura fielded a comebacker to the mound off the bat of Adam Eaton, and inexplicably felt the need to hang on to the ball and scream at Eaton while he was running to first. When this (naturally) escalated into both benches clearing, Ventura ran away and looked downright confused as to what he did wrong. The Royals are becoming the least-likeable team in baseball, and they show no signs of relinquishing that title any time soon. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Looking at Lynchburg on a Lazy Sunday

Regrettably, I did not have time to work up a proper Lazy Sunday for you all this week. I was busy building my backyard shrine to Jerry Sands. We have a popular pre-season playoff pick struggling despite a strong showing by their highly-regarded rotation (with one exception). The defense has been scuffling, and the lineup just isn’t producing, and it’s tough to pinpoint exactly why. The bullpen has been touched up a little, and it’s unclear who can be the 8th inning bridge to the young, talented closer. But enough about the 1-4 Washington Nationals, you’re here to read about the 2-3 Cleveland Indians.

Judging solely by the twitterverse, it may surprise some of you to learn that the Indians are 2-3 and not 2-30. Frustrating losses to the Tigers seem to be a foregone conclusion at this point, and yesterday’s was particularly galling. Corey Kluber deserved better than a no-decision, and the Indians were leading against the Tigers ace before the bullpen gave it back and then some. The Tribe battled back to tie it on the heroics of Little Jerry Sands, and then Cody Allen of all people got touched up in the 9th to finally put the game out of reach. Worst of all, the 9th inning saw Yan Gomes hit the deck in pain, with a sprained knee at least and an MRI today to determine if there’s any serious structural damage. Knees are important for catchers (#analysis!), and if Gomes misses an extended amount of time, the Indians lose their best right-handed hitter and a crucial defender behind the dish. All is not lost at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, but it’s also tough to imagine the first homestand going much worse.

I was in Woodbridge, VA on Thursday for a cold and wet MiLB opening day. The Indians new high-A affiliate, the Lynchburg Hillcats, were in town to take on the Potomac Nationals. Dylan Baker started on the mound for the Hillcats, and was backed by a stacked lineup featuring Clint Frazier, Mike Papi, Bradley Zimmer, Nellie Rodriguez, Eric Haase and more. Some quick-hit thoughts on the game:

·       
  I’ve seen two of Dylan Baker’s starts as a professional, spanning 11 innings of work, and I’ve yet to see him allow a hit. He walked Jayson Werth in the first inning on Thursday, and didn’t allow another baserunner after that. Baker was sitting comfortably in the 94-96 MPH range with his fastball, touching 97. He was up in the zone in the 1st inning, but settled down and spotted the pith effectively in the zone after that. His slider was a little inconsistent but flashed plus, and he mixed in a few curveballs as well. He only threw a handful of changeups, but saved the best one for the rehabbing Werth’s 2nd AB. He had Werth way out front on a CH to run the count to 1-2, then came back with a 96 MPH fastball on the inside corner for a called strike 3. Baker struck out a career-high 9, and the 23-year old looks to be ready for AA Akron sooner rather than later.

·         Clint Frazier is back to his toe-tapping ways, similar to his plate approach in high school. He played around with a leg kick last year, going with a big leg kick, small leg kick and finally settling back on the toe-tap as a timing mechanism. The bat speed is electric no matter how he triggers his swing, and the power potential is evident even when you’re watching him take swings in the cage. Frazier collected a pair of hits last night, both on line-drives up the middle. The first was a liner just to the right of the second baseman, and the second was a hard line drive to the right of the shortstop. Frazier still has a very aggressive approach, attacking the first pitch in 2 of his 5 AB, and got caught out on his front foot a couple of times. His 5th AB was his best of the night, as he was able to stay back on a pitch on the outer half and line a hard single through the 5.5 hole to the right of the shortstop. I think that having a consistent mechanical approach to hitting will help Frazier in 2015, as constant swing tinkering can make things tough on a young hitter. I still expect him to collect his fair share of strikeouts, especially in the pitcher-friendly Carolina League, but he’s going to hit some home runs as well. He’s a talented, confident young kid, and he’s going to be a big part of the Indians future.

·         Eric Haase has long been a favorite of mine, and last night did nothing to change that. Haase was consistently popping sub-2.0 in his throws to 2B between innings, showing off a plus arm and excellent footwork. His receiving is still a little raw, as he was stabbing at breaking pitches a little more than I’d like, but that’s something that should improve with time. At the plate, Haase was 1-5, but the hit was a triple that he smoked into the gap and then flashed his above-average (especially for a catcher!) speed in legging out the three-bagger.

·         Yesterday was the first time I’ve seen Bradley Zimmer live and in person, and he did not disappoint. Zimmer went 1-3 with two walks and a K, and I came away impressed with his size and swing mechanics. Zimmer starts with a slightly open stance and triggers with a short stride to close himself up and brings his hands quickly down through the zone. He has a little more leverage in the swing than I expected, and I can definitely see 20 HR in his bat once he adds a little more weight to his 6’4” frame. There’s no wasted movement in his swing, and he should be able to make consistent contact throughout his career. He’s a plus runner and a very good athlete, and really looks smooth out in CF.

·         Mike Papi struck out once and drew three walks in 5 plate appearances last night. He wasn’t passive at the plate, he just didn’t get much worth swinging at. He has a compact swing that should generate plenty of contact, and I’m excited to see more of him in game action.

·         Robbie Aviles pitched better than his score line would indicate (1 2/3 IP, 5 R (4 ER), 4 H, 3 K, BB). Only one of the hits he allowed was a hard-hit ball, and he was a victim of the BABIP gods on the other three. He was working mostly in the 90-92 MPH range and showing nice arm-side run on his 2-seamer. It was the first time I’d seen Aviles pitch, and he gets some deception with his cross-body delivery. He had a 2.55 ERA in 84 2/3 IP for Lake County last year, and is an intriguing potential bullpen arm.

·         Nellie Rodriguez went 1-5 with a double down the LF line last night, and his swing looks a little shorter than the last time I saw him. The weather robbed us of an opportunity to see his raw power displayed in BP, but I should be able to see he and Frazier duel for BP supremacy next week in Frederick.


·         The #MiLBProblems hashtag was in full effect last night. It was a chilly day that turned into a cold (~40 degrees) night, and there was a steady drizzle that fell throughout the game. That was miserable enough, but to make things worse, the power in the LF lights went out with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th inning. I’m told there was a 40 min delay, but I wasn’t going to stick around to see it. Even with the subpar weather, it was great to get back out to the fields and check out some of the Indians up-and-coming talent on opening day. I’ll be out in Frederick next week to see Lynchburg take on the Frederick Keys, and here’s hoping the sun will be out this time around

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Off and Running on a Lazy Sunday

Photo Credit: Dale Omori
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the last Lazy Sunday before baseball. Real, actual, regular season baseball. Michael Bourn will dig in the box and The Klubot will toe the rubber Monday night in Texas, and the most anticipated Indians season since…well, since last season…will begin in earnest. Expectations for this year’s Indians club are sky-high, with a series of national outlets and writers picking the Indians to dethrone the Tigers atop the AL Central, and some picking them to go even further than that. Putting the jokes about curses and jinxes aside (they are jokes, right?), it’s great to see the team that the Indians have built getting recognition as a potential AL powerhouse. Especially when you consider they sport the lowest payroll in the division, and that by a healthy margin. The Indians have less money committed to their 2015 roster ($86 million) than the Tigers have committed to their 2018 roster ($92 million). That’s just crazy, especially when you consider that $92 million will pay for just three players to actually play for the Tigers in 2018. Justin Verlander (who will be 35 in 2018), Miguel Cabrera (34) and Victor Martinez (39) all combine to make $82 million, and the Tigers are on the hook for at least a $5 million buyout for Ian Kinsler (35) and Anibal Sanchez (34). Those are talented players, but their best days are likely behind them right now, and they’ll continue to decline over the next 3+ years. Meanwhile, the Indians have an impressive collection of young talent under control through the 2017 season (and beyond, in most cases), including Corey Kluber, Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Carlos Santana, Trevor Bauer, Cookie Carrasco, Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor and more. The Indians are well-positioned to contend this year, and are built to last. Unlike our neighbors to the northwest.

Jumping in our Delorean and flying back to 2015 for a moment; the Tigers are still going to be a really good baseball team this year. As I discussed in this space a couple of weeks ago with Mark Shapiro, the Tigers have actually underperformed relative to their talent level on the way to winning 183 games over the past two seasons. This team still has Miggy Cabrera, Victor Martinez (sigh), David Price, Ian Kinsler and other really, really good baseball players. They also have Joe Nathan, who is a baseball player. Will this collection of experienced talent be able to hold off the young, upstart Indians (and the White Sox, and the Royals) for another year? Grantland’s Michael Baumann takes an in-depth look at an aging Detroit roster, and as a fan of a Phillies team that fell apart under similar circumstances, he seems uniquely qualified to predict when Rome might be collapsing:

Given that the season hasn’t started yet, I feel comfortable saying three things: (1) I agree with the projections insofar as they think the AL Central race is going to be close; (2) if everything goes right for every team, the Tigers are still the best squad in the division; (3) I don’t think everything’s going to go right for the Tigers this year…
…Like individual human beings, baseball teams can temporarily stave off the ravages of time if they try hard enough. So, maybe the Tigers have another run in them. They certainly deserve another shot, considering that unlike those Phillies, Braves, and Yankees teams, they haven’t won a World Series in this stretch of success. But any respite would be temporary, because only time is undefeated.
Things are already starting to go wrong for the Tigers, as Justin Verlander is set to open the season on the DL. This is the first time in his career he’s made a trip to the disabled list, and it’s for a triceps, not an elbow, so it’s entirely possible that Verlander will be back and starting when the Tigers come to Cleveland for the first home stand of the season. But even if healthy, which Verlander are the Tigers going to get moving forward? The 120 ERA+ guy who threw 218 innings in 2013? Or the 88 ERA+ guy who threw 206 innings last year. Verlander churned out an AL-high 1172 regular-season innings from 2009-2013, and was one of the best pitchers in baseball during that time. Will we look back on his subpar 2014 as a blip on the radar similar to his 2008 (92 ERA+)? Or will we see it as the beginning of the end for a now-32 year old warhorse (who is still owed $140 million over the next 5 years)? Time will tell, but the fact that we’re even asking the question shows you that the Tigers aren’t their usual, invincible selves heading into 2015.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Staying in the AL Central for now, Anthony Castrovice took a look around the division in an attempt to identify the keys for each club headed into 2015. There are few (if any) reporters in the baseball universe that know the division better than Castro, so if you haven’t read the entire piece, that’s something you should remedy as soon as possible. Unsurprisingly, Castro singles out defensive improvement as the Indians key to success in 2015, particularly from infielders Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis. Kipnis’ health is a huge story going into 2015, as the Indians are a completely different team with 2013 Kip in the #2 slot in the lineup and in the field than they are with 2014 Kip. 

Don’t believe me? Well, 2013 Kipnis was an all-star, 11th in MVP voting and was worth 5.9 WAR per Baseball Reference. Meanwhile, 2014 Kipnis missed 33 games, played injured in many of the rest of those games, and was worth 0.9 WAR. It’s entirely reasonable to look at that and say if Kipnis were healthy and effective last year, the Indians would’ve made the playoffs (they finished just 3 games out of the 2nd Wild Card). He’s as important as any player on the roster right now, and is hopefully healthy out of spring training this year.

As you no doubt know by now, I missed out on a trip to spring training this year for the first time since 2009. The absence of that trip really made the offseason drag on, and more importantly it prevented me from getting looks at any of the youngsters the way I usually do. Missing out on my first look at the 2014 draftees is bad enough, but not getting a chance to see the improvements and mechanical tweaks made by some of the more established players might be even more disappointing. Fortunately, we have access to the next best thing, as the Baseball Prospectus prospect team made a group trip to AZ and wrote up their thoughts on several Indians prospects. Tucker Blair spent a day in Goodyear, and came away particularly impressed with RHP Dylan Baker (video in the link):

He has a sturdy frame with a power bottom, which he uses for heavy drive towards home. In this outing, Baker was pumping his fastball 95-98 mph, steamrolling through the Reds’ lineup. The fastball was a tick higher than in the past, displaying explosion and coming off a good plane. The curveball was also improved since my last viewing, displaying hard bite and depth at 81-84 mph.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Blair also wrote up his thoughts on 2014 1st round pick Bradley Zimmer (good!) and power 1B prospect Nellie Rodriguez (not as good!) in that article, so it’s more than worth your time. In addition to Tucker’s fine work, BP fantasy/prospect experts Ben Carsley and Craig Goldstein had a back-and-forth regarding Indians catching prospect Francisco Mejia. Goldstein has long loved Mejia, and this was Carsley’s first look at the diminutive young backstop. Carsley came away underwhelmed (SSS alert!) and that caused a bit of a visceral reaction from Craig (who does visceral reactions better than most). Carsley listed Mejia as the player that he came away from spring training liking less than he did before, resulting in Goldstein listing Carsley in that same “disappointment” category. Carsley did caveat his write-up by saying that Mejia is a better real-life prospect than he is a fantasy prospect (mainly because of the defense), so no need to attack him in the twitterverse for being a hack of a talent evaluator and an unabashed Red Sox homer. However, if you did want to do that, here’s his twitter page.

More bad rotation news for the Indians this week, as it was revealed that Josh Tomlin will be on the shelf for at least 3-4 months after surgery on the AC joint in his shoulder. Tomlin’s shoulder was apparently bothering him early in camp, but he was able to get back on the mound after a cortisone shot in March. The injury kept bothering him though, and it eventually became too much to overcome. The Indians vaunted SP depth takes another hit, as the number of contenders for the rotation dips down to 8, and that includes Shawn Marcum and Bruce Chen. Danny Salazar is the clear #6 guy now, and will be the first called to Cleveland if injury or ineffectiveness strikes a member of the Indians rotation. I still feel like Zach McAllister will eventually end up in the bullpen with Salazar taking his slot in the rotation, as Salazar just has too much upside not to work his way up to the North Coast at some point in 2015.

Stepping outside our Indians-centric focus for a moment, Craig Goldstein of Vice Sports and 
Baseball Prospectus took an insightful look at the Kris Bryant-Cubs disagreement this week. Goldstein looks at Bryant, the Cubs, and the system in general, and comes to the conclusion that the Cubs are keeping Bryant in the minors to open the 2015 season to exercise an additional year of control over him and thus save ownership some money. He also says (rightly) that this is the correct decision and one that pretty much every team in baseball should/would make. From Goldstein’s article:

It's important to note that when people talk about control, what they're really talking about is money. The Cubs have the opportunity to retain Bryant for a seventh year without keeping him in the minors—it's simply a more expensive option. So keep in mind that when your favorite team doesn't promote a top prospect, it's because somewhere along the line, someone decided that saving money was the priority. Also keep in mind that the way the system is set up, the team is almost certainly making the smart decision. And that's the whole damn problem.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
This applies to the Indians as well, in the context of top prospect Francisco Lindor. Like the Cubs, the Indians have a player in place with MLB experience (Mike Olt for the Cubs, Jose  Ramirez for the Indians) and no real reason to start the clock on their player on opening day. If (when) Olt or Ramirez falter, the club can bring up their uber-prospect to take the place of the MLB guy, and not lose a year of team control. Superagent Scott Boras argues that this is the wrong thing to do from a moral perspective (conveniently, Bryant is a client of his), but that’s not what we’re here to argue. It’s the best business decision for the Cubs, a team that has money coming out of their ears. For a small market club like the Indians, it’s an absolute no-brainer. Lindor is pretty much ready to contribute at the major league level, especially with the glove. That’ll almost certainly happen at some point in 2015. But it’d be silly for that to happen on April 6, or really anytime before May 1 unless someone gets hurt.

The Indians put out the opening day rosters for all of their full-season affiliates on Friday, which is always one of the most anticipated events of the spring (for me at least). There weren’t too many surprises, and all four of the clubs will have some intriguing talent. Lindor, Urshela, Danny Salazar and James Ramsey are all in AAA Columbus, an injury away from Cleveland. Erik Gonzalez replaces Lindor at SS for Akron, and will be joined by two of my personal favorites in Tony Wolters and Justin Toole. High-A Lynchburg is probably the most loaded affiliate, as their outfield of Clint Frazier, Bradley Zimmer and Mike Papi will bring scouts from miles around, and their starting rotation of Dylan Baker, Mitch Brown, Luis Lugo and Adam Plutko will be fun to watch as well. Low-A Lake County has Francisco Mejia, which is more than enough for me. Joining Mejia will be Justus Sheffield, Bobby Bradley, Sean Brady, Dace Kime and Yu-Cheng Chang. No matter which minor league affiliate you go out and watch, you’re going to get to look at players who are going to be a big part of the Indians future. I get to see Lynchburg next week on minor league opening day when they come to Potomac, and watching Zimmer and Frazier dig into the batter’s box against Lucas Giolito is going to be a LOT of fun.

As I alluded to in the introduction, lots of people outside the friendly confines of NE Ohio are picking the Indians to do well this year. Some are predicting a wild card, some have them winning the division, and a few are even going out on a limb and calling for a World Series championship, which would of course be the first since 1948. Predictions, plus $3, can usually get you a medium cup of black coffee at Starbucks, but they’re fun to look at nonetheless. To save time and space, we’re going to go lighting round with many of these predictions in an effort to knock out as many as possible.

Grantland’s Jonah Keri picks the Indians to dethrone the Tigers, predicting them to win more than 84 games on the strength of their young pitching and a bounce back season from Jason Kipnis.

Fangraphs’ prediction model has the Indians beating out the Tigers for the Central by one game.  I’m not sure my heart can handle a do-or-die game 162, so hopefully they clinch before the last day of the season. They give the Indians a 43% change at the division, 14% chance for the wild card, and a 7% chance to win the World Series. By my (usually bad) math, that means they have a better than even (57%) shot at the playoffs. They do caveat their prediction with a warning though; “But despite the old proverb, the road to hell is actually paved with teams who built their rosters around young pitching; this could also go really, really wrong.”

In addition to Fangraphs computer projections picking the Indians, their writers seem to be big fans as well. Of their 38 writers, 24 pick the Indians to claim the AL Central crown. Another 11 peg them as a Wild Card, making that 35 out of 38 possible votes for the Indians in the playoffs in one form or another. That puts them at the top of the American League, one ahead of Boston’s 34.

Mike Ferrin from Sirius/XM’s MLB Network Radio is calling an Indians-Nationals World Series. Living as I do in the Washington DC metro area, this would be a dream come true for mean and a nightmare for my bank account, as I’d have to find a way to attend not only the games in Cleveland but the matchups in DC as well. If it does come to fruition though, you’re all welcome to crash at my place during the series.

All 45 members of the Baseball Prospectus staff made their predictions on Friday, with 22 of those 45 picking the Indians to win the Central Division. Two of them, sandwich guru Craig Goldstein and pitching guru Doug Thorburn, are picking the Tribe to win it all. That doesn’t sound like many, but consider that the Indians are one of only 3 teams to get more than one vote to take home the hardware at the end of the season. A whopping 24 of 45 writers picked the Nationals, and 14 are taking the Dodgers. The cumulative voting from BP has Corey Kluber 4th in the AL Cy Young race (3 1st place votes) and Michael Brantley tied for 9th in MVP voting (1 1st place vote). Shadev Sharma, a man after my own heart, gives Yan Gomes his 3rd place AL MVP vote.

ESPN’s David Schoenfield is calling the Indians the top team in the AL, and the #4 overall team in baseball. This despite predicting some regression from 2014 AL MVP candidate Michael Brantley. Schoenfield sees a bounce back year for Kipnis and better defense in 2015, and thinks you should go down to the stadium and see for yourself.

Fourteen staff members at Beyond the Box Score made their predictions, with 100% of responded picking the Indians to make the playoffs in some fashion. Six writers have the Tribe taking the division, and the other eight are slotting them in as Wild Cards. That’s pretty good.

The crew over at Yahoo.com’s “Big League Stew” make their predictions, and noted White Sox fan Chris Cwik has the Indians at the top of the division. So does Mark Townsend. Mike Oz tries to temper our expectations by picking them third, but I’m way beyond tempering at this point. They also look at the Lindor question and examine whether Cookie Carrasco’s newfound slider will translate to success in 2015.

Jason Lukehart did an extremely in-depth preview of this year’s club over at Let’s Go Tribe, and it is predictably outstanding. Lukehart admits that he’s more of a glass half-empty type of guy when it comes to pre-season predictions, jaded as only a longtime Cleveland fan can be. But even he sees this team in contention throughout 2015, and sees them fighting the Tigers down to the wire for the division.


Saving the best(?) for last; none other than Sports Illustrated picked the Indians to win not only the division, but the World Series this year. They were nice enough to put CyKluber and Michael Brantley on the cover of their fine publication, which naturally caused the population of NE Ohio to have a collective minor meltdown. SI themselves found this amusing enough to post an article, complete with some of the more colorful tweets on the subject (including one from yours truly). Let me briefly clarify my stance on the subject; there’s no such thing as curses. There’s no Cleveland Curse. There’s no Curse of Rocky Colavito. There is no SI Cover Jinx. I think it’s funny that SI picked the Indians as the best team in baseball the same year they lost 101 games, and I still love Corey Snyder. That pretty much sums it up. The Indians have a young, talented, exciting roster that’s built to contend in 2015 and beyond. If they don’t win it all, it’ll be because another team was better, not because of some jinx (or even jixes). Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to tweak those last-min fantasy lineups, double-check to make sure my MLBTV account is up and running, and sit and stare at the clock, willing it to speed up and get to 7pm on Monday already…

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lazy Sunday with the President, v.2015

It’s everyone’s favorite time of year again (well, my favorite time of year at least), as I was fortunate enough to have my annual March talk with Indians team President Mark Shapiro earlier this week. Mark and I usually talk at the team’s spring training facility in Goodyear, but owing to some extenuating circumstances, I was unable to make my traditional pilgrimage to Arizona this winter. Still, he was gracious enough to take an hour out of his very busy spring schedule to talk with me over the phone, and that’s the next best thing. If you missed the previous installments of this tradition, here’s a link to the 2013 and a link the 2014 editions. The following is a (lightly edited) transcript of our conversation this week.

Al Ciammaichella: Looking at the offseason progression of the stadium, how excited are you for the new Progressive Field experience in 2015?

Mark Shapiro: I’m extremely excited. That week I came home from spring training, about a week ago, and walked the space, it struck me just how dramatic the changes are, and I think just how unaware most fans are, that have been coming to the ballpark for over 20 years, how different that area in centerfield and rightfield is going to seem to them. How much more improved it’s going to be, and how excited they’re going to be about the opportunity to have new experiences in the ballpark.

AC: The tickets are certainly a great deal. $13 and you get your first beer paid for.

MS: Yeah, that special ticket that’s meant to really activate the bar in the corner, and people that have more of an interest in standing up and not necessarily having a fixed seat. We have a ton of standing room, with drink rails that allow people to watch the game and move all around in that rightfield bar.

AC: I know it was a rough winter in Cleveland, is everything on schedule to be completed by opening day?

MS: Remarkably, even with the winter we’ve had, at the moment we’re on schedule. I haven’t looked at the weather, but if it stays decent the rest of the way and we don’t get another big snowfall…but it’s Cleveland, and it’s weather. Anytime you’re dealing in that realm, there’s some unpredictability. I would say the one thing we’re certain of at this point is that we will have substantial completion, and the majority of the project will be done by opening day. The one thing I cannot tell you with certainty, because there is no certainty when it comes to weather in Cleveland, is that it’ll be totally complete. Just like when we moved into the ballpark 21 years ago there were still things that had to be done during the first road trip. Small things that were not complete.

AC: Were there any ideas left on the drawing board when it came to that space? Anything that you looked at doing but didn’t make it into the final plans?

MS: Absolutely. Any time that you do a project like that it’s the financial realities of having to stay within a budget. You start with the concepts. Start by researching the market, and testing it. Then you take the concepts to paper and start looking at a bunch of alternatives. And some of those alternatives that you love eliminate themselves because they’re just too expensive and they would limit the scope of the project. So there were plenty of things that I won’t dwell on that we considered doing that we did not do. But overall, I’m extremely excited, extremely happy about how the project looks when I look at it.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
AC: Shifting to the on-field product, Jose Ramirez came up last year, a guy who was more of a utility guy in the minors. Played a lot of 2B, was on the same team with Francisco Lindor a lot in the minors. Obviously Lindor is a special SS, so Ramirez played a lot of 2B and some 3B. He came up last year and really solidified the SS position at the major league level. Did you see him as a guy who could come up and be that good of a defensive SS right away at such a young age?

MS: Jose is an interesting guy. He’s a guy who’s not conventional in much that he does. You can’t teach the game the way he plays it. He’s got a great motor, incredible hands, good instincts, he picks great hops. He’s fearless in the way he plays the game. He’s obviously got well-above average speed. So he’s a guy that adds a dimension to our lineup and to our team that we really haven’t had, and I think a jolt of youth and energy to our team last year when he came up and did a great job.

AC: Does having him at SS give you a little luxury as far as leaving Lindor down in AAA to finish his development? You don’t have quite the same rush to promote him as if there were a free agent hole at short.

MS: At this point, we’re looking at those guys exclusive of each other. There may be a time when that doesn’t happen, but at this point Francisco Lindor’s development path says he should be in AAA completing his development and his foundation. Jose Ramirez, with his major league debut last year, justifies his opportunity to be our everyday shortstop. So although things can change; that’s the nature of professional sports and major league baseball, at the moment their trajectory doesn’t impact each other.

AC: So, speaking of Lindor, I think all fans want to know, with this top-5 prospect in all of baseball, what’s going to finish off his developmental curve? What will you see that makes him ready to come up to Cleveland and compete?

MS: I think consistency. Continuing to build the foundation of his routine and his preparation. I think the quality and consistency of both his at bats and his preparation are probably the keys. He’s got very limited time left in the minor leagues, and what he has, he has to use to prepare himself to have a foundation to handle both the mental and physical side up here. As a 21-year old there’s still some maturation both physically and mentally that he’s going through.

AC: So there’s no at bat threshold, certain amount of time you want for him in AAA or anything; when he’s ready, he’s ready?

MS: Yeah, I mean, I think I’ve said it before, but having seen it over decades, with players who are very good players, they set the timeframe for you. You don’t have to make decisions on them. It becomes very clear, very quickly that they’re not being challenged at the level they’re at, and that they’re ready to contribute up here or at least transition up here.

AC: Another thing in the 2nd half of last season was the incredible run that really the entire pitching staff put together. You tried to shore that up this offseason by picking up Gavin Floyd; obviously that didn’t work out when he re-injured his arm. Are you concerned at all about the starting pitching depth, even with 7 or 8 guys competing for 5 slots in the rotation? Is that something you wish you’d done more to address this offseason?

MS: Yeah, that’s why we signed Gavin Floyd. But the financial reality of the parameters that we have and the reality of starting pitching being such an inefficient market; I would point to this, Al…Brett Anderson, who hasn’t pitched more than 75 innings in the last four years got $10 million (from the Dodgers). Just stop and ponder that for a moment. Brett Anderson hasn’t pitched more than 75 innings in the last four years and got $10 million. So we took a guy who we thought was a little better risk than Brett, and gave him $4 million in the hope that he could pitch some or all of the season for us in the rotation and alleviate some depth concern and provide some veteran presence, all the while knowing it was very high risk, but that’s the nature of starting pitching, free agent starting pitching in particular. But we still have good options, particularly the way TJ has been throwing the ball.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
AC: TJ is another guy I wanted to talk about. Did you see him coming up and pitching that well? He probably pitched better in the major leagues last year than he did at any stop in the minors on his way up. Is there anything in particular that keyed that success at the major league level?

MS: You know, that’s a good question. He’s an interesting guy to look at, because he’s not the prospect that came up and didn’t struggle, he’s a guy that struggled, and I think it’s his struggles that helped him to define both the pitcher he is and the mental approach he takes to the game. So when I look at him, having a tough and unconventional path to the major leagues, he’s a guy that was forced to confront some significant challenges along the way. And I think those things helped him to define how he’d be successful in both approach and his repertoire.

AC: Speaking of struggles, you have three guys at the major league level that had really tough years last year due to injury, three guys who you thought coming into last season were really going to be key guys in Kipnis, Swisher and Bourn. What are you looking for from those three guys this season? Do you see them as being able to get back to the level they were at pre-2014?

MS: I’d probably separate Swish out from those other two guys. But the one thing I can say about all three guys together, Al, is that the upside with our club lies in those three players.

AC: Right. There’s almost some course correction, some improvement, that you can hope for out of those three if they are healthy:

MS: Right. And then shifting to Kip, talking to every single player that I know about what they’ve gone through when they’ve strained an oblique, particularly during spring training, that is an extremely, extremely tough injury to battle back from. And in some ways it never truly heals, particularly when you do it right at the beginning of spring training. I think that impacted his swing, his mechanics. I would say among the things we’ve seen in camp this spring, his play and his physical level of preparedness is probably the most exciting thing I’ve seen this spring. I mean, he’s rifling balls to left and right field, he’s ran extremely well.

AC: Yeah, he’s going the other way better, and when he’s going the other way that’s a sign he’s really going good.

MS: Yeah, I’d say that, and just hard contact. He’s impacting the baseball, and running extremely well.

AC: The competition in the AL Central this year…Chicago went out and got a lot better this year, Detroit is probably slipping a little with losing Scherzer and getting a little older, but what’s the challenge in the Central this year? That’s a tough division to be in right now.

MS: It can pretty much be summed up as the best division in baseball. I think there’s a lot of parity throughout the game but it’s hard to argue that the Central isn’t the best division. There are four teams that you can make a compelling case to win the division. The interesting thing is that you can probably also say here are the flaws in those teams and the reasons why they won’t win the division. But as you noted, Chicago may be the most improved team in all of major league baseball, and they were probably a lot better than most people realize last year as well. The Tigers, while they could be termed as “declining” simply because of age, they’re declining from an elite level where they were probably capable of winning 115 games. That’s probably something people don’t realize there, different things have led to them underperforming relative to their talent level over the last few years, so they could easily go out and win 100 games this year. That’s how good they still are. Kansas City, obviously, has some challenges that we fight. They’re a very young, very talented core group of players, but they’ve also lost some guys.

Photo Credit: Lianna Holub
AC: One good thing to look at is the 2014 draft. It’s being roundly accepted as one of the best drafts in all of baseball, getting a guy like Bradley Zimmer that a lot of people saw going in the top 10-15. Did you have a plan to get guys like that, or did they just fall to you? How did that all work out?

MS: I think what we really try to challenge ourselves to do is to have our org slotted as well as we can possibly slot it. Over the years, probably over the past 5 or 6 drafts, we’ve gotten better each year at understanding about how to position our board most effectively, and I think that allows us to react to what happens in front of you without having to target specific players. Our goal and our intent is to get the best player available at the time we pick, each time we pick. There may be other variables like signability that factor into it, particularly in later rounds, but initially we just want to be in position to get the best player available. We have a set of criteria that’s constantly evolving that allows us to slot the board that factors in scouting information and every other piece of analytical data that we can possibly get our hands on.

AC: It has to be good to see guys like Zimmer and even Bobby Bradley, a kid who came right out of high school, already fitting in spring training games at the major league level, holding their own, showing that they belong there.

MS: Those are exciting guys. Both Zimmer and Bobby Bradley…Bradley may be one of the most exciting high school position players that I can remember. We’re excited about the draft. I’m hesitant to pay attention to what people talk about, judging draft classes too early. Judging draft classes should be 5 or 6 years later.

AC: You see a big explosion, seems like every year around this time, of pitchers going down with Tommy John, pitchers getting hurt, needing season-ending surgery. Is there anything the organization is doing to try to protect themselves against that? Obviously there’s no way to completely eliminate it, but is there anything you’re doing to try and reduce arm injuries? Are you avoiding young pitching prospects?

MS: No (not avoiding pitching prospects). We have certain things we look at that are somewhat predictive in terms of ability to stay healthy, ranging from arm action to delivery to usage…other physical parameters. But they’re not perfect. Human beings are far from perfect. We’re constantly seeking to learn and understand, there are adjustments kids have to make to keep guys healthy once we get them. Matt Harvey is a good example. He’s a guy we thought profiled to stay healthy and he still got hurt. Pitching is a tough, tough area. It’s an area where you never feel completely confident and secure. You do the best you can to control what you can control.

AC: Right, there’s clearly no magic bullet that says “this guy will have TJ, and this guy will never get hurt.”

MS: The likelihood with pitching is that at some point guys are probably going to have some type of arm injury. There may be some freaks of nature that don’t, but it’s an unnatural movement and motion, one that gets repeated a lot over a career.

AC: Seeing the opening of Cuba as a market, more so that before with defectors, as both the Indians President and a guy on the competition committee, what do you think of some of the big deals that are getting thrown to the Cuban guys that are coming over? Do you ever see an international draft because of some of the factors in the market down there?

MS: Well, it’s a little bit, probably, Indians-centric of me as a judgement, but I’d like to see some adjustment that allows access to that talent. As it’s currently being distributed, we are going to be marginal to non-players in that area just because of the level of risk, and that risk comes from lack of information. We just don’t know much about these guys. Unless there’s information being illegally obtained, they’re being signed largely from a tryout environment. I understand, and I’d probably take that risk if I ran a large-market team, but we don’t have that luxury. It’s not an area we can play in. We can’t risk tens of millions of dollars on players that we have far less information on than players in the draft that cost a lot less. So it’s just a very tough market for us to play in. I would like to see something that allows access to that talent on a more proportional basis, that’s not so market-based.

AC: Does it at least offer you an opportunity, with the big-market guys paying the Cuban players? The Red Sox can’t spend international money (bonus over $300k per the CBA) next year. Does that give you a little more of a market share with the Dominican, Venezuelan and Colombian kids?

MS: Slight. They’re going to do what they did this year. It might free us up a little for that one year, but they’ve already spend the money. For the next year maybe, maybe, for one team it takes them out of it. But that’s just one team, so it’s not going to dramatically change it.

AC: Looking at some of the excitement around the team this year, you have a lot of national guys, ESPN, Baseball Prospectus, picking the Indians as a dark horse for the AL pennant. Some guys picking you to win the Central despite that tough competition we talked about earlier. Do you like being more of a dark horse or in the favorite role?

MS: If I had my preference, I’d probably prefer to fly under the radar. But I also like the credit, like seeing the credibility generated by the way we’re going about our business. People are starting to recognize the talent we have in our clubhouse, how we have some of the best players in major league baseball on our team. I like to see that recognized. But internally, very few people pay attention to that stuff. Our players probably have no idea, other than that there’s been a little more attention this spring.

AC: Ok, I can’t possibly go an entire interview with the Indians team President without talking about Yan Gomes. How happy are you with the contract that you were able to sign him to, and how good does that look moving forward?

MS: You and I have talked about that a lot (laughs). I love Yan. I love Yan the player, I love what he represents. He’s a winning player, the kind of guy, the kind of player that I’d prefer to have represent the Indians. The fact that we can control him, and the fact that he’s so happy to be a part of the long-term plan here. I think it’s empowered a guy like him, and Michael Brantley, to take even more of a leadership role here. Leadership gets asserted in different ways by different guys, but those are both guys who, the way they go about their business, is a form of leadership and is inspirational in some ways. I’m excited to watch Yan continue to mature, and there’s not much doubt at this point, already, that he’s one of the best catchers in the American League.

AC: Speaking of Brantley, his 2014 was one of the best seasons by an Indians position player in recent years. Do we think that 2014 Brantley is the new normal? Or is that going to be a little bit of an outlier for him, with him coming back to earth a little bit?

MS: Obviously, there’s an analytical case to be made that he will regress some. But I think what offsets some of the analytical concern is knowing the guy. He’s a determined guy, extremely committed to his level of preparation. So while I wouldn’t be surprised to see him regress some…but look, guys like Kluber and Brantley, the years they had, some regression is not unexpected, but that would not mean they had a bad year.


AC: Thanks again so much, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me again, and good luck this year.