Cleveland Sports Insiders

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Sunday Notes: A surge to relevancy

This column is merely a short and simple assembly of stats, observations and preponderances from the past week as well as what is just around the corner.

  1. The Indians as of noon Sunday sit at eighth in Major League Baseball in runs scored, and fifth in the American League, which may be relatively shocking to those who watch the Indians with regularity. As well the Indians offense is generally underrated because of both things it does well being under-appreciated and things it does poorly being overvalued.
  2. Which leads us to OBP and lineup depth. The Indians are 4th in MLB in OBP at .330 as a team, third in the American League behind Oakland and Toronto both regarded as elite offenses this season. OBP is essential to run scoring for the Indians as they lack a traditional “anchor” level middle of the order.
  3. Of course these anchor types are becoming increasingly scarce as offense has declined over the past five years, unfortunately the general baseball watching population has not picked up on the decline. The other general assumption is that in order to have a good offense it needs to be anchored by a 30-100 guy. This is simply not the case as the Tribe’s production shows.
  4. Indeed the Indians front office deserves immense credit for the cost effective offense which they have created. The Indians have focused on OBP ability in general when considering the construction of its lineup as well as the blessing of development for a few specific players. Swisher and Murphy were two low and mid-level free agents, each adding length and on base ability to the lineup.
  5. Though Bourn, and utility guy Mike Aviles underwhelm on occasion with OBP, their cost-value gap allowed the Indians to break the model.
  6. Of the Indians with 100 plate appearances Carlos Santana is fifth on the team with a .342 OBP, absurd. Santana’s Major League best 20.2% walk rate is has allowed him to remain a valuable offensive player despite a batting average hurt by BABIP issues.
  7. Worth adding is that Santana looked absolutely phenomenal on Saturday having his usual quota of high quality of at bats as well as squaring up strikes when they got too much of the plate.

On Justin Masterson and velocity.

A lot has been made of Masterson’s decreasing fastball velocity and its overarching effects on his ability to pitch efficiently and productively. So I grabbed a handy little velo chart to take a quick and relatively vague look at it as a     potential issue.

Masterson Velo Charts

Obviously pitch velocity is down but perhaps not as drastically as we have been led to believe over the past month, which has a occurred for a few reasons. First people have been comparing his early season velocity to last years full season velocity. What is most clear is that his velocity generally increases in the early months and the flatlines with negligible movement to either side of the mean for the remainder of the season.

Secondly, on his most used offering the sinker or two-seamer the velocity decrease is not nearly as drastic of a differential. In fact, in June of 2013 Masterson’s sinker was at 90.92, in his one June start in 2014 it was at 91.12. In May 2014, it was a little more than 1/2 a MPH slower than 2013, which is a relatively minimal difference.

Obviously velocity has been an issue for Masterson but it has become overplayed, hiding the other issues which face him. Th first issue being he is a ground ball pitcher in front of the worst infield defense in baseball; the second being control issues which spot up for him from time to time.

Unfortunately for Masterson and other Indians starters, rectifying this infield defense is not under their control


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Overreaction Theater: Asdrubal’s inescapable exodus

Perhaps the most discussed topic outside of the Indians early pitching issues has been the shortstop position in Cleveland. The discussion of what to do there is quite polarizing, and can be easily seen in but a few tweets.

The rationally positive, highlighting the league wide dearth at shortstop as well as part of Asdrubal Cabrera’s positive value or semblance of.

Then the unavoidable subjective conclusion which, while drawn from a limited sample of visual experience, when combined with last seasons struggle appears to have some validity.

Cabrera is a relatively complex being or perhaps we have made him so, with some sort of blind commitment to specific approaches to his talents.  While we frequently discuss the idea of five tool players, often overvaluing arm strength for outfielders as well as our ability to measure its impact, with Cabrera we must monitor three “tools”. The three tools or pieces are: the ability to hit for power, the ability to get on base, and the ability to play defense.

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Audacity: Gomes extension a coup

Yan Gomes belts a homer (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Yan Gomes belts a homer (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

I am writing right now without a traditional sense of objectivity, which is any time one reacts immediately to a deal, there is a tendency to display immense polarity. This is, in many ways, a disclaimer before I lavish much praise upon the Indians’ front office.

As spring training began to wind down and the inability of the Indians to extend both staff ace Justin Masterson and all-star second baseman Jason Kipnis began to weigh on Indians’ fans, Tribe GM Chris Antonetti found a way to blindside the fan base with a move on the eve of opening day. Blindside seems to be fairly appropriate, as there was no hint or foreshadowing any interest of the Indians in extending Gomes this off-season.

This is not to say that Gomes is not deserving of such an extension, but even for myself, a vociferous supporter of buying out arbitration years and tacking on club options, I had not considered such an offer for Gomes prior to this season.

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Trend Spotting: Spring optimism abounds

Rogers Hornsby once said “People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

Alas it is upon us, green grass, the crack of the bat and the distinct opportunity to overreact to single inning samples. Conceding that the only grass I have seen since October was televised, never the less, as soon as I witnessed this week’s exhibition games a small piece of my mind escaped to that simple place, where all it can see is the bliss which baseball provides.

I may be misguided or merely prejudiced against other sports but spring training seems to be entirely different than any other preseason. It is a land laden with every generation. I will never forget the moment I met Bob Feller in Winter Haven. He asked a simple question, I offered no answer but some sort of squawk in awe of the man I met. Spring training integrates the past, the present and the future, blending the comfort of nostalgia with the euphoria of what may come.

These moments are small and fleeting but compelling none the less. Last season we witnessed a baseball resurrection in Scott Kazmir. An Odyssean like return to prominence with each outing creating optimism about his journey reaching a happy end. There were other moments, one of what the future may entail. Late in spring trainingFrancisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez got the opportunity to play together up the middle, and what we saw was special, dynamic. Indeed, it was hard not to be overcome with optimism, watching them play defense together.

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Trend Spotting: Ryan Raburn, regression candidate

Ryan Raburn was the centerpiece of the Goon Squad, perhaps a goon’s goon of sorts. This is accepting that Yan Gomes graduated the celebrated collection of castoffs to a starting role.

In reality, the Indians bench last year was constructed much differently than many we have experienced in the past. This occurred for multiple reasons. First, they felt that they could more efficiently allocate resources by having a collection of semi-regular/platoon types on the bench. Second, they were simply able to lure a higher level upside collection of guys into bench roles. Lastly, perhaps most importantly Francona is an outstanding manager in terms of matchup based lineups, which is not solely in reference to his ability to mix and match bullpen arms.

In many ways the Indians ultimate success in extracting a career season from Raburn, and an explosion from Gomes, results solely from Francona’s ability to place them in situations to be successful.

The impact ability of the Indians bench in 2013 was integral to its eventual wild card berth, yet it appears as if members of this group could be leaned on more than ever for contribution in 2014. The question is, will the Goon Squad continue to be an asset or will overexposure and possible regression make this group relatively irrelevant?

In order to effectively determine the answer to this question I believe that we must isolate two individuals as being the pivot points on which the impact of the bench will turn. This is with the assumption that the last man on the bench, the 25th guy, rarely impacts or affects 15-20 games a year. In Giambi’s, case 5-10.  Thus, we must consider both Raburn and Mike Aviles in order to project the potential impact of the Indians bench in 2014.

Let us begin with Raburn and his staggering 2013 numbers: .272/.357/.543 with impressive counting statistics as well including 16 home runs and 55 RBI in just 87 games.

There were times when Raburn was the best offensive player on the team and it felt as if, as was the case with many other players that he was at many times responsible for keeping them afloat. Raburn has traditionally been a peak valley hitter but what was incredible in 2013 was that his valleys were not valleys but just solid production.

Raburn’s lowest wRC+ for a month was 106 in September, which is still above league average offensively.  Perhaps Raburn’s most gaudy statistic occurs with two outs and runners in scoring position, where he posted an OPS of 1.275.  Of course his success with runners in scoring position is in an incredibly limited sample, likely to regress to his career numbers just a tick above his numbers with the bases empty.

There are a few pieces of Raburn’s 2013 production which make it seem as if portions of his production are sustainable or at least closely replicable.  The upcoming data will largely address his capabilities against right-handed pitching as his success against left-handed pitching will never be questioned and sits firmly above average, as a plus platoon type.

2013 136 9.8% 0.806 0.276 25.70% 125
Career Production 1052 5.8% 0.714 0.324 11.40% 90

(Note: all of this data is specific to Raburn facing right-handed pitching.)

Three peripheral indicators jump out at us as being particularly large outliers: 1). The HR/FB is an absolutely enormous shift.  2). The BABIP would by an eye popping difference if not for the HR/FB. 3). The walk rate shift was very important and may in fact be a positive indicator.

We will address the most glaring change first, which is a HR/FB more than double his career data. Indeed, 2009 is the only which Raburn’s HR/FB would have been more than half of this season.

Let us first address if there are any homerun tendencies of Raburn which may provide any coherent reason.

(Courtesy of Fangraphs)

Unfortunately, ball tracking data is fairly limited so the most easily accessible, affordable data only covers the past two seasons. There are two discernable pieces of interest. The first is his pull field success, Raburn’s tightest double and HR clusters, exist on or adjacent to the left field line. The other was his ability to drive the ball out in right-center. This was limited enough that I did not deem it significant.

The most shocking aspect is the success to the pull field. Shocking because right-handed hitters are often tortured by Progressive Field; for righties the HR park factor in Cleveland last year was 89. In Detroit it is 100, with a 100 being neutral everything below being pitcher friendly and above hitter friendly. In fact, outside of Pittsburgh, Progressive was the hardest park on right handed home run hitting in MLB.

Which makes Raburn’s HR/FB seem absolutely absurd, more absurd was that his overall HR/FB was actually higher at home than on the road. Perhaps the batter’s better suited Raburn but in reality we have to expect some very serious power regression especially when facing right handed pitching.

Because of the sample on the size of his career we can confidently postulate that Raburn’s BABIP will return to the mean or close to it, which will cover a portion of the value from his HR/FB regression.

The walk rate facing right-handed pitching as well as in general is the one seeming irreconcilable factor. Rarely do we see this sort of plate discipline spike without some legitimate improvement being the heart of it.

Indeed, plate discipline improvement is less likely to regress purely based on sample than things like BABIP and HR/FB. Raburn seemed to actually augment as a hitter, he decreased his chase percentage to 23.1%, a major improvement from his career number of 27.5%. As well as a swinging at a few less pitches inside the strike zone.

In a small way this can affect HR/FB as selectivity can allow for an improved quality of contact; still not impactful enough to not expect major power regression.  Yet, there is a distinct possibility that Raburn has improved his ability to control the strike zone which increases his offensive value.

Raburn’s overall production will unavoidably regress because of an unsustainable HR/FB. However, he still will provide plus production against left-handed pitching while not being too poor against right-handers. Murphy and Raburn are a perfect marriage, who will protect each other from their inadequacies, like any great platoon.

Lastly, in order to maximize Raburn’s production, he should not see more than 350 plate appearances, any more and his warts will start to show.

A few things that may only interest me:

  • Last season with two outs and runners in scoring position, Carlos Santana posted an OBP of .419. When the game was within a run in either direction, an OBP of .393. That is pretty impressive clutch production.
  • For in depth look at Mike Aviles the other central Goon Squad asset one should read this piece by Jim Piascik. 
  • As well as a wonderful argument made for Justin Masterson as a front end guy was made by Tony Blengino of Fangraphs.
  • Lastly, for a non-Indians piece by IBI’s Jeff Ellis, this look at the Browns draft outlook is phenomenal.

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500 words or less…on draft day optimism

I suppose it is getting to that time of year again, the time of year when the Browns’ regular season woes are a distant enough memory that they do not suppress a glass half full approach. Indeed, with Pettine in hand, the drama of a drawn out coaching search behind us, the Browns are freed from the criticism of the Cleveland area. I suppose this is mostly due to an unforgettably poor Cavs season, where despite their intentions to “contend” they will probably sit comfortably in the middle of the lottery.

It is quite possible that had the Cavaliers been within a stones throw of competence, the Browns would be receiving a more comprehensive media thrashing which is undoubtedly deserved. Dysfunction seems to be the modus operandi of Cleveland sports, yet for the Browns; an ownership group being targeted for fraud, firing a head coach after just one season and a continued failure to find a quarterback close to league average, made for an especially irritating season.

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Trend Spotting: On Larry Doby, Jim Thome and a statue travesty

I shall preface this column with the understanding that I don’t wish to be excessively critical of Jim Thome or his career in Cleveland. Indeed, like many, he was my favorite Indian from the earliest years which I can recollect. Unfortunately, my tone or at least prose is unavoidably loaded with criticism and irritation towards the honoring of Jim Thome. If this note makes you immediately click off the page, I understand completely.

The irritation regarding this statue has more to do with those who haven’t been honored by the Indians organization than Thome himself. The most egregious being the Indians near avoidance of honoring Larry Doby.  There are a few others which I believe have legitimate stakes to being more deserving of a statue than Thome but in the majority of the space I am afforded, I will be attempting to make a comprehensive case for the recognition of Doby.

Recognition itself seems too meager a term to adequately remember Doby, as his character, talent are the model on which one would build a player.  Before waxing about Doby’s social and human impacts, I deem it necessary to take a look at his statistical production for a few specific reasons.

Whatever opposition one may have to Clarence Thomas and his jurisprudence, he has long opposed affirmative action legislation because he believes it has led to the degradation of what he rightfully earned as an individual.  Unfortunately, this stigma exists at college acceptance time, when Caucasians deride the disadvantage of checking that box.

In many ways, this fallacious and bigoted approach has attached itself to Larry Doby’s playing career and legitimacy as a hall of famer. While I believe a statue honoring the second or most influential of all time should be built because of his role in the desegregation of baseball and his role in the civil rights movements, his excellence on the field should not be tossed aside.

Thus, before touching Doby the human being, let us first appreciate Doby the Hall of Fame talent.

1948 14 0.70 .189 134 4.5
1949 24 1.01 .188 130 4.3
1950 25 1.38 .219 155 6.8
1951 20 1.25 .217 159 6.3
1952 32 0.81 .266 157 6.9
1953 29 0.79 .224 138 5.0
1954 32 0.90 .211 133 5.9
1955 26 0.61 .214 131 4.2
1956 24 0.97 .198 127 4.7
1957 14 0.71 .175 131 2.4

Indeed, it is somewhat obvious that I cherry picked a bit, as I decided to use Doby’s 10 year peak in order to demonstrate his elite skill. Of course, Doby makes it fairly easy, as during those 10 years he averaged a tick over a 5 WAR per year.

In terms of defensive capacity, we have fairly limited information mostly based on first person accounts, the eye test. Many deemed him to be an average to a tick above average defender. Of course the power production in center field was his defining characteristic.

Secondarily, one of Doby’s key skills, on-base percentage, is one which was almost completely unconsidered and undervalued until at least the early nineties. Though in many ways, walk rate is still scorned for inefficient and sexy measurements like RBI.

Indeed, Doby is what advanced front offices dream about at night; an up the middle athlete with plus power and elite on base ability. Unfortunately, I can do little to speak of what he was in terms of subjective enjoyment, many who witnessed Doby are fading into the annuls of time much the way he has.

In order to create some contextual comparison, I inserted the following graphic comparing Doby to contemporary, fellow member of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, Duke Snider.

(Courtesy of Fangraphs)

Obviously, Snider was able to maintain his peak over a longer period of time, three years on the front end as well as two on the back end. These are not to be underrated with the proviso that Doby probably could have been productive at 21 or 22 if he had been allowed to play MLB.  His 23 year old season should be tossed away because of a small sample as well as obvious challenges.  When looking at wRC+  as well as wOBA, we see a player often producing 40-60% above league average. Secondly, his yearly WAR averages are between all-star and super star.

As for his role in the success of good teams Doby was one of the best position players on the Indians 1948 World Series winner, contributing a key home run in a 2-1 win in Game Four.  In 1954, on arguably the greatest team to lose a World Series, he was the best or second best position player. This team had an impeccable if not ungodly collection of pitching talent which must be noted.

Indeed, we have a Hall of Famer on his merits purely as a baseball player, while he does exist on the lower bounds of WAR production; some is based on his constrained tenure, which was outside of his control.

A quick, tangent which I will permit myself; when discussing the Thome statue, many Indians staff and upper level management stressed that this was not based only on his skills as a baseball player but his qualities as a human being.

This sickens me, not because Thome is not of good character because of what we know he is. Indeed, if there was a list of Indians I would love to get a beer with, he would place near the top. Yet, how can we talk about honoring a man of great character, without building a statue of Doby? Is Doby not a paragon of the sort of person we would want to represent the organization?

Doby the Human Being

Once again a disclaimer, I am going to attempt to and fail miserably at properly stating the type of human being Larry Doby was as well as the challenges he faced. Simply because, experientially I will never face or understand such circumstances.

“He was a great American, he served the country in World War II and was a great ballplayer. He was kind of like Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, because he was the second African-American player in the Majors.” – Bob Feller on Larry Doby.

When delving deeper into his experience, Doby spent a portion of his time exhibitioning his skills, yet that does not undermine his service which included stationing in the Pacific Theater.

Feller frustratingly noted the great sadness in Doby’s which stems from his entrance to the stage a few months later than Robinson. What Doby experienced off the field equaled Robinson as indeed the Indians were an equally unwelcoming team, not to mention crowds and opponents.

Yet, on the field while Robinson had an escape in his first season, Doby struggled mightily.  He struck out in 33% of his plate appearances and played sparingly in 29 games.  Doby was not only facing paralyzing, heartbreaking bigotry and hatred, he also was facing failure on the baseball field for the first time in his life.

To overcome and to push through his initial struggles which most of us cannot begin to understand is where Doby’s legacy lies.  Somehow, it feels as if the Indians are constantly running away from Larry Doby’s legacy, when perhaps it is the greatest contribution the franchise has made to baseball.

Bob Feller’s number was retired in 1957 the year after he retired from Major League Baseball. Larry Doby’s was retired in 1994, 35 years after he played his last game.  What is most deplorable is that the Indians are complicit with the fading legacy of Larry Doby as they make few efforts to build his image as the truly heroic man that he was.

I like many am beguiled by Jim Thome’s wide infectious smile, though it cannot make me forget his exodus, or the fact that he was rarely the best player on those nineties teams.  I must ask, how can we honor Thome’s character and ignore the most virtuous of men?

While building Thome this statue when none exists for Doby is flawed, it is not a separate incident but merely highlights their lack of organizational respect for a champion who helped change baseball and the world in which he lived for the better.

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Trend Spotting: The definitive Joe Wendle

Joe Wendle has become an increasingly polarizing prospect in the Indians system as his value is all over the map according to national pundits. Early in the off-season, Jim Bowden, whose opinion I rarely value, actually showed positive interest in Wendle, deeming Joe to be a second-level piece in order to approach a deal for Tampa Bay ace David Price.

This was surprising in that Bowden is not the type of writer who often researches with any depth, but would likely derive his information from an old friend and industry source. Of course the outside analysts have had varying approaches to his value as well.

According to Baseball America, he is outside the top ten prospects, yet Baseball Prospectus had him sitting at number nine. Which, while positive, is not exactly a ringing endorsement.

On the other hand, the prospect community rarely admits its inaccuracies, thus performance and skill, which has gone underrated, often continues to be so because of past conceptions.

Indeed, it is fairly obvious when reading my tone that I have come to the conclusion that Wendle is indeed an underrated commodity both inside the Indians prospect community and nationally.

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500 Words or less…on great enigmas

Carlos Carrasco has increasingly become one of the great divides among Indians fans, however, this type of debate is not a particularly new one. Indeed, what we have are two distinct sides, with two reasonable arguments as to what his fate will be as a big league pitcher.

On the one side we have the people who are obsessed with Carrasco as a talent, they see the fastball that sits at 95 MPH and above as well as a good slider and other solid secondary offerings. Enamored with upside which is wholly understandable. This sort of confidence and positivity is derived not only from his “stuff” but also from his prospect pedigree.

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Overreaction Theater: Jesus Aguilar goes of in the Venezuelan Winter League

During the life of a top ten prospect, there is always overreaction, unnecessary comparisons and gratuitous “his ceiling is a lot like this former Tribe star” drops. Indeed, in the Indians system every third baseman is comped to a young Jim Thome, every plus hitter to Manny Ramirez, every plus defender to Kenny Lofton. And with Lindor being a plus defender, not comparing him to Vizquel is treated as a sin.

As well, it seems to be a human condition to have great hope in what is “next”. In Cleveland, despite the “waiting for next year” attitude, prospects are gold because we have yet to see their imperfections. Thus, when a hot streak occurs, interest in specific players’ spikes, especially when that missing element finally seems to have aligned.

Thus is the case of Jesus Aguilar, a prospect, who following his 2011 was a hot topic in the Indians system. The hyping of Aguilar was based on two specific things: 1). The Indians inability to acquire a right handed bat with power. 2) Aguilar providing plus power over multiple levels at the age of 21. Continue reading