2014 Preview: Cleveland Indians

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Cleveland Indians.

The Big Question: Did the Indians lose too much pitching?

After four consecutive losing seasons the Indians improved by an incredible 24 games in 2013, going from 68 to 92 wins in manager Terry Francona’s first year on the job. And the improvements came on both sides of the ball, as the offense added 78 runs to go from 13th to 4th among AL teams and the pitching staff subtracted 183 runs to go from 14th to 7th.

For the most part the lineup remains intact, with David Murphy essentially replacing Drew Stubbs in the outfield, Carlos Santana moving out from behind the plate, and Yan Gomes taking on a bigger role. It’s still an offense built around Santana, Jason Kipnis, and Nick Swisher, and still likely to be good but not great this season.

I’m not as sure the pitching staff can avoid a sizable dropoff, though. Chris Perez likely won’t be missed in the closer role, although his departure and the decline of setup man Vinnie Pestano leaves the bullpen in a state of John Axford-dependent flux. Gone from the rotation are Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, who combined for a 3.64 ERA and 356 strikeouts in 341 innings.

Danny Salazar is one of the highest-upside young starters around and looks capable of making a huge leap this season to replace one of the Jimenez/Kazmir combo, but other potential rotation options like Carlos Carrasco, Aaron Harang, and Shaun Marcum lack any sort of upside. Which is why Trevor Bauer could be so key this season. Not so long ago he was one of the best pitching prospects around, but the former No. 3 overall pick has struggled to consistently throw strikes and has seen his stock drop considerably since being acquired from the Diamondbacks.

Salazar living up to the hype and Bauer getting his stuff together would erase most of the question marks about the rotation, but even then the Indians are still counting on continued ace-caliber work by Justin Masterson when his track record in that regard is a bit sketchy and non-dropoffs from Corey Kluber and Zack McAllister. I absolutely think this will be a decent pitching staff, but barring Salazar/Bauer breakouts giving back some runs from last season shouldn’t shock anyone.

What else is going on?

  • Reviews of his defense at third base this spring have been mixed at best, but it sounds like the Indians will give catcher/designated hitter Carlos Santana some action there during the regular season, perhaps in a quasi-platoon with Lonnie Chisenhall. That would clear the way to slide another impact bat into the lineup, but Francona will have to find the right balance in terms of avoiding a huge defensive dropoff and giving Chisenhall a chance to develop. It’s an interesting situation, if only in terms of seeing whether an old dog can learn new tricks.
  • Clearly the Indians are convinced that Gomes is for real, naming him the starting catcher and moving Santana elsewhere in the middle of his prime. There’s no doubt he was impressive in an 88-game stint last season, but Gomes had an ugly 67/18 K/BB ratio and never really posted especially strong numbers in the minors before reaching Triple-A. He’ll hit for power, but the rest of his offensive game is less of a sure thing at age 26.
  • Axford had a 2.19 ERA in his first two seasons, but then posted a 4.35 ERA between 2012 and 2013, thanks largely to serving up 20 homers in 134 innings. However, his strikeout rate of 10.8 per nine innings and average fastball velocity of 95.5 miles per hour both suggest he has plenty of gas left in the tank. He can’t be much worse than Perez in the closer role and while Axford isn’t without risk he was a smart pickup for the Indians as they try to rebuild the bullpen on the fly.
  • Cleveland spent $48 million on center fielder Michael Bourn last offseason, but he hit just .263 with a .676 OPS while missing 30 games with injuries, posting his worst on-base percentage (.316) since 2008 and the fewest steals (23) of his career. And now he’s a question mark for Opening Day because of lingering hamstring problems, which is scary for a 31-year-old whose value is so dependent on speed.

Prediction: Second place, AL Central.

A second study confirms that home runs are up due to a change in the baseball

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Two weeks ago Ben Lindbergh and Mitchel Lichtman released their study at The Ringer which convincingly argues that changes in the composition and construction of the baseball is responsible for the dramatic spike in home runs we’ve seen since the middle of the 2015 season. Yesterday their work was corroborated.

Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight, who had last year conducted a study with Lindbergh which proved inconclusive on the matter, has revisited the baseballs as well. Specifically, he used baseball’s data with respect the speed of the ball when it is released from a pitcher’s hand and when it crosses the plate and, based on the loss in velocity in that short period, calculated the ball’s drag coefficient. From that he could compare the drag on the ball from before mid-2015 and the drag since mid-2015.

His conclusion: there has been a significant decrease in the drag on baseballs over the past two years and that decreased drag can account for about five feet of carry on a given fly ball. That, in turn, would account for a 10-15% spike in home runs on average, and a bigger spike in any given month depending on other factors. Arthur:

It’s highly unlikely that we’d see that kind of difference by chance without a real change to the ball: The monthly variation in estimated drag coefficients in the past five seasons varied from around 0.34 to 0.355, a far wider range than we’d expect from random variance alone. In total, the practical effect of shifting from a high-drag month to a low-drag month could be around a 30 percent difference in home run rates.

Arthur cautions us not to become conspiracy theorists here. The change in the ball need not be nefarious as even small alterations in the manufacturing process could lead to these changes. At the same time, he reminds us, that we should ignore MLB’s statements that the balls still fall under the league’s manufacturing requirements and performance parameters, because those parameters are quite broad and allow for these significant variations in ball flight. Even if no one is intentionally doing this and even if the balls are officially up to snuff, they can nonetheless have changed significantly and are the likely culprit for the dramatic home run spike.

Stepping back from the research, this makes a lot of sense. As we’ve noted in the past, there is a long and rich history of changes — even slight changes — to baseball composition leading to dramatic increases and decreases in offensive levels. The dead ball era ended, in large part, because different wool was used beginning in 1919. The National League changed balls in order to intentionally boost offense in 1930 and it worked almost too well. There was a change of baseball manufacturers in the late 1970s which led to a mini spike. 1987 was the year of the so-called “rabbit ball.” That was never fully explained, but there are strong suspicions that Major League Baseball messed with the ball that year.

Other factors matter — new parks with shorter porches, batters making a point to swing with an uppercut, diluted pitching, PEDs, etc. — but none are as significant as changes to the ball itself and none account for the almost immediate spike in homers in the middle of the 2015 season.

Anyway, enjoy the dingers. They’re here to stay. Or at least until the baseballs change again.

 

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Nationals 8, Cubs 4: Stephen Strasburg struck out 13 Cubs in seven innings on a day when they had to cut Miguel Montero to head off clubhouse strife and had to meet Donald Trump. Opinions may vary as to which of those — the Ks, the strife or the Trump — was the worst part. Washington built a 5-0 lead after two innings and a 6-0 lead after three. Anthony Rendon, Matt Wieters and Daniel Murphy all homered for Washington. Trea Turner stole a base. Willson Contreras managed not to slam his teammates for it afterward, so I guess that’s progress. The Cubs have lost four of six and are back down to .500. Oh, and they lost Kris Bryant to an ankle sprain. That may actually be the worst thing about the day.

Pirates 6, Rays 2: Josh Bell homered, Jose Osuna doubled twice and drove in two runs and Elias Diaz added two hits and drove in two of his own. Bell’s homer tied a rookie record for the Pirates: he’s only the second Buccos rookie, after Ralph Kiner, to have 15 homers before the All-Star break. After the game he said this:

“It’s cool to be mentioned in the same sentence as a great like that,” Bell said. “So hopefully more to come. Just going to keep trucking along.”

It’s cool that he knows who Ralph Kiner is. But does he know who Jerry Seinfeld is?

Phillies 5, Mariners 4: Down 4-3 in the ninth, the Phillies rallied for two, coming via a home run from Tommy Joseph and an RBI single from Tyler Knapp. The M’s lose both games of the short, two-game series and have now lost four in a row. Every time they look like they’re about to right the ship, they seem to get blown off course.

Giants 5, Rockies 3: Jae-Gyun Hwang got called up just before he would’ve been able to opt out of his deal with San Francisco and head back to Korea where he could make some serious bank. But he debuted yesterday and wouldn’t you know it he hit a tie-breaking homer in the sixth inning. Welcome to the majors. After the game his teammates gave him a beer shower. He said “I was actually more surprised about how cold the beer was.” Welcome to America.

Yankees 12, White Sox 3: A good day for rookies making their big league debut, as Miguel Andujar — an infielder, playing DH last night — had three hits and drove in four. Aaron Judge, a grizzled old man by comparison, hit his 27th homer. Masahiro Tanaka allowed two runs over six as the Yankees romped.

Mets 8, Marlins 0: Steven Matz — an uninjured Mets starter — tossed seven shutout innings and Asdrubal Cabrera and Curtis Granderson each hit two-run homers. The Mets have 50 homers in June, the most in a calendar month by any team since 2006. They’re also 12-14 in June, so it takes more than homers I suppose.

Astros 11, Athletics 8: Josh Reddick and George Springer had three hits each and combined for five RBI. The A’s hit five homers with two from Khris Davis — who hits two homers all the dang time, it seems –and one each from Ryon Healy, Matt Olson and Jed Lowrie. The A’s also struck out 17 times so it takes more than homers I suppose.

Blue Jays 4, Orioles 0: Marcus Stroman pitched five-hit ball into the eighth inning and Jose Bautista and Justin Smoak homered. Bautista later knocked in a run on a fielder’s choice. Bautista has been hitting leadoff for a little over a week. He’s 11-for-29 with a couple of homers, six RBI and four walks. Not too shabby.

Twins 4, Red Sox 1: Rookie lefty Adalberto Mejia shut out the Sox for five and two-thirds innings and the Twins bullpen was steady. Max Kepler singled in a run and hit a two-run shot. That’s Mejia’s second scoreless start, having blanked the Indians for five innings a in his last outing. Those are two good offenses to be shutting out.

Indians 5, Rangers 3: Trevor Bauer outdueled Yu Darvish, allowing one run over six and a third to Darvish’s three runs — two earned — over six. All of the Indians runs came on RBI singles, two from Michael Brantley. Texas mounted a mini rally in the ninth off of Cody Allen via an Elvis Andrus homer and a Rougned Odor RBI single, but it was little, too late.

Royals 8, Tigers 2: Sal Perez and Alex Gordon each drove in three, Perez with a two-run homer and an RBI double, Gordon with a single, a double and a run scoring groundout. Mike Moustakas went deep as well, as part of a four-run fourth inning. Ian Kennedy allowed two runs over seven steady innings. Kansas City is only two and a half back in the Central.

Reds 4, Brewers 3: Down 2-1 in the third, Scooter Gennett hit a two-run homer to put the Reds ahead, but Travis Shaw tied it at three late in the game with a homer. Billy Hamilton helped manufacture the go-ahead run, however, leading off the bottom of the eighth with a walk, stealing second, stealing third and that scoring on Adam Duvall‘s infield single. That’s what speed do. Bad news for the Brewers, as they lost starter Chase Anderson to a strained oblique in the second inning.

Cardinals 4, Diamondbacks 3Adam Wainwright pitched into the seventh inning, allowing two runs, and Yadier Molina and Jedd Gyorko each drove in two. Trevor Rosenthal got the save, but it was rocky as he uncorked a couple of wild pitches and allowed a run. This a game after he allowed two runs and the Cards bullpen blew a late lead and the game. There’s always something to worry about in baseball, even if you win.

Angels 3, Dodgers 2: Down 2-0 in the eighth, Trayce Thompson homered and down 2-1 in the ninth Yasmani Grandal homered to tie things up for the Dodgers. Then, in the ninth, the dang wheels came off. Ben Revere reached on an error and then reached second base on a wild pitch by Pedro Baez. Baez bore down to strike out Cameron Maybin for the inning’s second out, but the ball got away from Grandal, Maybin sprinted for first and then Grandal threw the ball away, allowing Revere to score all the way from second. What a way to lose a game.

Padres 7, Braves 4: Luis Perdomo pitched five scoreless innings and Hunter Renfroe and Cory Spangenberg each knocked in two. Bartolo Colon came back off the DL and allowed six runs over four innings to lose it. Guys: his injury was not an oblique or whatever the Braves said it was. He was suffering from acute puncture wounds due to the giant fork stuck in his back and severe burns because the man is toast.