Sunday, May 22, 2011

Talking Tests on A Lazy Sunday

As the magic continues down at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, with the Indians pulling victory from the jaws of defeat taking the first two games of the series against the Reds (I refuse to call it anything else than that), there is a growing sense that something really is happening here. With Zeke Carrera drag-bunting the Indians to victory on Friday and Travis Buck blasting the team into the win column the next day, the Indians found their heroes in players that were wearing Clippers’ uniforms just last week…with all of this coming against the reigning NL Central Champs, fighting tooth and nail for the lead in their own division.

Despite being shut down for the better part of the starts of both games, the Indians scratched, clawed, bunted, and blasted their way to victory in two games that, quite frankly, they had no business winning. And it is games like these that provide this feeling that, for the first time in a long time, the Indians are the team for whom the bounces smile upon and for whom every managerial decision ends up looking brilliant.

The calendar says it’s not quite June, but there is the old baseball axiom that a team “is what it is” at the 40-game mark of a season and now – 3 games past that – the Indians are STILL winning at a clip over .650, holding a 7 game lead in their division. For some perspective on that, in 4 of the 6 divisions in MLB, EVERY team in the division is closer than 7 games off of the leader’s pace.

The last place Nationals are as close to the first place Phillies as the Tigers and Royals are to the Indians while the last place Orioles are a mere 4 games back from the division-leading Yankees…waiting a beat to let that sink in…
Seriously.

But it’s still early, with plenty of baseball left to be played, right?
This team is still flawed with players playing over their heads, who are destined to come back to Earth, breaking our hearts once again?

If that’s really where you’re still at in this, it’s time to live in the moment, enjoy this for what it is, to imagine “What If We All Believe?” (and this terrific team-produced video is unquestionably based on this from my friend Scott Bricker), and get off on a Lazy Sunday, of course…

From the top, let’s answer that question of whether it really is still early, something that was tackled a couple of days ago by the Wall Street Journal. With a hat tip to longtime reader Tyler, it presents an engrossing look at what a hot (or cold) start means to a team’s chances for the playoffs. While it feels wildly premature to talk playoffs, the findings of the WSJ research are more than compelling, even if they use June 1st and the 50-game mark as the lines of demarcation, because their research seems to offer a message that is contradictory to everything that was spouted from the manager’s office in the mid-to-late-90s, when the results of those seasons validate what the WSJ asserts – that starts do matter.

The piece is well-done because it doesn’t avoid the fact that it’s attempting to debunk a fallacy (that baseball men and beat writers lazily lean on) and goes right after the “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” philosophy that pervades MLB:
Since 1996, just 9% of teams with a losing record on June 1 wound up with 90 wins, the number teams usually shoot for to make the playoffs, according to data crunched by The Wall Street Journal and Ben Alamar, founder of the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports. During that early season period, the average correlation between a team’s win percentage on June 1 and its final winning percentage is 0.76.
--snip--
The best explanation for why 50-games is all it takes to sort out the winners from the losers has to do with a combination of mathematics, psychology and the secrets of winning baseball games. While any bad team can have a good week or month, excelling for a 50-game stretch without very good players is virtually impossible.


The point is that the way a team starts a season means a LOT more to their playoff chances than you may have thought and that 50-game mark indicates that old “you are what you are” idea. That last line was admittedly bolded by me, though it is an absolutely fascinating piece and worth your time, even if the overall slant of the piece is to explore the expansion of the playoffs and the reasons for doing so. What is interesting is to look at it in the context of the current standings and this belief that somehow…someway the White Sox (or fill in the blank because EVERY other team in the AL Central is now under .500) are going to barrel their way back into the divisional race.

Realizing that the caveat exists that anything is truly possible in baseball, what the WSJ article and the accompanying research should alleviate is this idea that this is all going to come crashing down around us somehow (as if Zeke’s drag bunt didn’t already make that feeling go away) and SI.com’s Joe Sheehan goes further in looking at the Indians in this week’s print edition of the magazine.

In his piece, he explores the good and the bad of the Indians (and don’t take this to suggest that there isn’t “bad”), but his conclusion – when coupled with the WSJ piece – offer support that this magic carpet ride isn’t going to stop any time soon:
These Indians are not going away. Having already called up 2009 first-round pick Alex White to bolster the rotation, they could also get internal reinforcements at their two weakest positions from top prospects Lonnie Chisenhall (third base) and Jason Kipnis (second base)…The preseason cofavorites, the White Sox and the Twins, are among the worst teams in the game. Only the Tigers, winners of seven straight through the weekend, seem poised to push the Tribe.

Maybe this ends in the waning days of September. Maybe it stretches into October, with the Indians pushing to extinguish one of the great losing streaks in sports history—the city of Cleveland’s. What seems certain is that this isn’t a quarter-pole fluke. The Indians are relevant again.


It should be noted that the Tigers who were at the time of Sheehan’s piece were “winners of seven straight through the weekend” have now lost five in a row…the last two to the Pirates. Regardless, while not many needed that validation for something that became apparent to some a few weeks ago, the evidence is stacking up in the Indians’ favor (along with the W’s in the ledger) that this season has a special feeling to it.

Of course, that special feeling is tempered quite suddenly by the team being depleted in some pretty important areas as Travis Hafner will be out of the lineup for at least a month (and it is here that I note that almost exactly a month from now is when the Tribe goes to play the NL…in NL parks, meaning that Hafner may not be back until July 4th or so), meaning that the Indians are currently playing without two linchpins in their lineup as Hafner and Sizemore occupy two of the slots in a suddenly crowded DL. Though the Tribe has weathered injuries well thus far, particularly in the starting rotation, the removal of Hafner from the lineup presents a potentially crippling blow as (you may not have noticed this) here are the AL OPS leaders with more than 100 PA:
1) Jose Bautista – 1.350
2) Matt Joyce – 1.044
3) Miggy Cabrera - .990
4) Travis Hafner - .958
5) Kevin Youkilis - .958

Yeah, he’s been that good and when you consider that Grady is not supposed to join the team until the end of the week (with the red-hot Red Sox coming to town Monday), the Indians had better hope that Sizemore’s return remains on schedule and that the Grady that emerged from the DL last time is the same one that returns from the shelf at the end of the week. Reason being is that if you lower the minimum plate appearance requirement to 75 for the AL OPS chart, it looks like this:
1) Jose Bautista – 1.350
2) Matt Joyce – 1.044
3) Miggy Cabrera - .990
4) Grady Sizemore - .974
5) Travis Hafner - .958

Have the Indians won without Grady and without Pronk in the lineup, particularly recently?
Yes, but don’t forget that the two players that were thought (back in 2006 or 2007) to shoulder the load for the Indians’ offense for a long time has been their best performers to date this season. Hafner and Sizemore – when healthy (and there’s that big caveat) – are still elite offensive players, and now with a lingering knee injury for Grady and the dreaded oblique strain (anyone remember what sabotaged Cliff Lee’s 2007?) popping up for Hafner, the offensive onus has to be transferred elsewhere in the lineup. How long others need to pick up that slack remains to be seen as Hafner’s injury is one that has the potential to affect him throughout the season and there is the terrifying fact that Sizemore told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian that, “There’s definitely something lingering. I’m not at 100 percent. We’re still working through it. I’m still not even doing full activity yet.”

While I’m not going to let my imagination wander on that (because that’s what Sizemore kept saying last year with his other knee injury), there’s no doubt that the Indians are in full “shuffle the deck” mode with Zeke Carrera arriving from Columbus (and playing ahead of Kearns) and with Travis Buck finding himself with an expanded role – assuming his toe issue isn’t one that affects him too greatly. It’s true that Sizemore is scheduled to be back this Friday or so (when the balance of the outfield will be restored), meaning that the Indians may be able to pull their thumb out of that hole in the dam sometime soon. However, with Hafner likely out for a month (actually probably 6 weeks), the Indians are presented with a much more difficult assortment of pieces to juggle.

By that I mean, how they fill Hafner’s spot in the lineup is going to be intriguing as Shelley Duncan can certainly face LHP but should NEVER face RHP as Duncan has .494 OPS in 30 AB (his OPS against LHP this year is .778…which is lower than I thought it would be, but still higher than Hafner) and that’s where the loss of Hafner is going to hurt the Tribe the most – against RHP. On the season, the Indians have thrived against RHP on the whole, but their bench offers only options that have been destroyed by RHP, small sample size considered.

Supermanahan and The OC have struggled against RHP and Duncan, Kearns, and Marson all have an OPS under .500 (again, small sample size considered) with Travis Buck probably offering the most compelling option as a RH DH in the short term. That said, I’d prefer to see Buck in the lineup everyday in Hafner’s absence, whether it be at DH, in the OF, or at 1B, giving days off as they’re needed to other players and getting the everyday plate appearances that many felt that his Spring (and his pedigree) justified. That way, Acta can continue to use Duncan as he’s best suited – as a power RH bat off of the bench to start in a spot against LHP or in a PH role.

Is it going to be a step down from Hafner?
Of course, as just by looking at what Hafner has done this year, nearly every option is going to be a “step down”. If Buck struggles in Hafner’s place, don’t forget that the Indians signed Nick Johnson to an off-season deal, with a contract provision that he had to be on the roster by July 1st of this year (when was it again that Hafner is scheduled to return) so Johnson could become an option at some point for the DH spot. That assumes health for Johnson (a long leap of faith given his injury history), but the Indians could have a Plan B and Plan C built in to at least fill the HUGE hole created by Hafner’s oblique.

Past Buck and maybe Johnson, if they want to look internally, they can always look at a guy like Cord Phelps, who has posted a 1.022 OPS vs. RHP this year as a Clipper and, while Acta has gone on the record that the Indians aren’t interested in developing platoon players, if you’re looking for a way to integrate Phelps into the mix, this is the perfect opportunity to do so, playing him at 2B and 3B with days at DH when he’s not in the field.

Already, I can hear from here “if the Indians are thinking that they’re going to stick atop the AL Central with Buck, Nick Johnson, and Phelps as potential DH, this team is going to fall fast”, and while that may be the prevailing notion, it ignores the transition in MLB as a whole and the fact that most teams have started using DH as a kind of “catch-all” position in the lineup, without a lot of production coming from the DH position for plenty of teams. If you think I’m making that up, realize that ½ of the AL teams have gotten an OPS of .720 or lower from their DH position this year. For some context on that, 6 of the 9 main position players for the Indians this year have an OPS over .720 with only Choo, Hannahan, and Cabrera coming in under that mark.

Actually, now that Choo’s name has been mentioned, remember how it was mentioned about a month ago that Choo was starting to show signs of life back at the end of April, when he posted this line from the beginning of the Baltimore series to the end of the Detroit series?
.288 BA / .358 OBP / .492 SLG / .850 OPS with 6 extra-base hits in 67 PA

Anyone remember what happened in Sheffield Lake the night that the Tigers’ series ended…right before that West Coast trip?

Certainly, it’s an evening that Choo will never forget and it sent him into a tailspin on the West Coast (.374 OPS in those 6 games) just when he was finally catching some life in his bat. However, since he’s returned from that West Coast trip, Choo has put forth this line over 9 games through Friday:
.303 BA / .410 OBP / .515 SLG / .925 OPS with 4 extra-base hits in 39 PA

So…Santana has started to produce, and now perhaps Choo is on the cusp of re-capturing the form that put him among the AL elite in terms of hitters?

Perhaps the “struggling” Santana and Choo are about to emerge to carry the Indians’ offense at a time when they’re most needed here. While the season-long numbers for Choo remain wildly disappointing, since I realize we’re talking about small sample sizes here in looking at numbers from 6-game stretches and 9-game stretches, perhaps it is instructive to look at some larger amounts of plate appearances and deal in rate statistics (instead of BA, HR, etc.) to see how Choo v.2011 stacks up against what he’s done in years past. There’s no question that Choo’s production is down in 2011, but compare his numbers so far to what he’s done since playing full seasons in 2009 and 2010 and note that his rate stats are about the same, except for his Batting Average on Balls in Play, or BABIP.

Seriously, go look at those comparative numbers and notice that Choo’s striking out at the same pace he has every year since his 2008 breakout, while hitting about the same percentage of line drives, with about the same ratio of groundballs to flyballs as he has over the past 3 years while he was establishing himself as an elite MLB player.

The only major difference for The BLC from year’s past is how many of the balls he’s putting in play that result in hits. By that I mean, his percentage of plate appearances in which he puts the ball in play has remained pretty much the same since 2008 up to and including this year (between 61% and 65%), but the percentage of those balls put in play that result in hits has seen a DRASTIC reduction.

For year, Choo’s BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) has been unusually high as his BABIP from 2008 to 2010 averaged out to 36% of those balls turning into hits. For some context on that, it’s generally a rule of thumb that the average BABIP is around an even 30%. What we’re seeing this year is Choo’s BABIP drop to closer to 28% and, while that may not look like that big of a difference from what the MLB average is, in comparison to what Choo had compiled in the previous three years, it’s a BIG difference.

So the question becomes whether Choo has just been a victim of bad luck or if his good luck has run out. In the past, the idea was that Choo’s high BABIP was made possible by how hard he was hitting the ball (sorry, there’s no measure for me to prove that) and if his rate stats are comparable, it would seem that he’s making similar contact with the ball. If you want to delve deeper into his swings and contact rates, Fangraphs shows again that Choo’s 2011 is about on par with what he’s done for the past three years.

That being said, his numbers are what they are and his season-long numbers still are disappointing with ¼ of the games having been played. Maybe it’s just a matter of him “breaking out” and maybe it’s something that we’ve already seen. If it has already “happened”, it would be precisely what the Indians need as they need him to start producing at a level that was expected of him for the Indians to weather this rash of injuries that has the potential of taking some of the teeth out of the Tribe offense.

The offense needs some stability and perhaps Sizemore provides more of it when he comes back, presumably on Friday, but the young players that had to take steps forward this year (and here’s a great piece from Adam Van Arsdale, examining those steps taken) is what was needed for the Indians to get out to a hot start and that needs to be sustained for the Indians to stay atop the AL Central. Now the onus is on those young players to either continue to produce (Mike Brantley, Justin Credible, The Axe Man) or to perhaps even improve upon what they’ve already done (LaPorta and Carrasco) while the Indians need production from some familiar places (Choo and Sizemore) to continue to improve.

Additionally, the Indians are going to need to continue to benefit from pleasant surprises (like the ones that Josh Tomlin and Vinnie Pestano have provided) because they are about to be tested in a big way in terms of their upcoming schedule as, after the Reds leave town, their schedule breaks down like this for the next month:
Boston – 3 games at home
Tampa Bay – 3 games on the road
Toronto – 3 games on the road
Texas – 3 games at home
Minnesota – 3 games at home
New York – 3 games on the road
Detroit – 3 games on the road

If you’re keeping score at home (and you really shouldn’t be), that’s the other two AL divisional leaders in the Yankees and the Rangers, the 2nd place teams in the AL East and the AL Central (Rays and Tigers), a Red Sox team that has gone 22-11 since their slow start, and a Toronto team that remains over .500.

That’s a rough stretch of games on the horizon, so how the Indians react to some adversity is going to be telling in terms of whether this hot start will be remembered as just that or if the hot start represented a harbinger of things to come.

Watching games like those on Friday night and Saturday afternoon give the sense that the first two months of the season represent that harbinger (with the WSJ providing the evidence that the first two months means more than you might have thought), but the Indians are going to have to weather the coming storm for the next month.

To do so, they’ll have to continue to overcome obstacles that loom large in the windshield. Then again, those ones in the rearview mirror looked pretty big at one point too…

5 comments:

Titus Pullo said...

Good points about Choo and Santana carrying the offensive load while Hafner and Sizemore heal.

It's certainly not going to be easy with them out of the lineup, but the pitching should be able to overcome a drop in scoring. With the way the starters and bullpen have been bringing it the Tribe doesn't need to score a lot of runs to have a chance to win.

The seven-game cushion is huge for the as it gives them some room in case they hit a rough stretch over the next few weeks.

jim said...

yes, we are about to be tested in a big way. our upcoming schedule does look tough and we have injury issues to deal with, but you know what i say, bring it on.
every team out there has guys hurt, underachieving, or has flat out holes in their lineups.
i seriously doubt that any of our upcoming opponents are looking at their respective schedules and say, "oh good, we get to play cleveland".
we've got the best record in baseball. maybe it's time we start acting like it. let the other teams worry about playing us.
manny acta has the team not hoping to win, but expecting to win every time we take the field. you can see it in the way they carry themselves on the diamond, in the dugout, and in thier words.
confidence is contagious and manny acta has everyone believing. i sure do.

GO TRIBE!

R.M. Jennings said...

Off-topic, but...

Did anyone catch Bill Livingston on Saturday? I mean, I'm never expecting much, but this one was truly awful. It was a weak article about Cleveland and Cincinnati being alike-but-different, and it was terrible. But the worst part:

"Only Ohio, Illinois (White Sox and Cubs) and Pennsylvania (Phillies and Pirates) can stage an interleague series featuring teams that date back to the gaslight and horseless carriage era."

???

Halifax said...
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Halifax said...
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