May 2011

Striking first

If you’ve been following the Indians closely this year, you’ve undoubtedly heard manager Manny Acta go on and on (and on) about the importance of first-pitch strikes.

When asked the difference between this year and last year (as a whole; we all know about that second-half success), Acta is always quick to go back to that favorite topic. First-pitch strikes are up and so is the performance of Cleveland’s pitching staff.

But just how many first-pitch strikes are the Indians shooting for from their arms?

“You always want to be over 60 percent as a staff,” Acta said recently. “If it happens as a staff, you’re in business. It’s tough even to get it as a staff at 60 percent.”

Entering Monday, here’s how the op of the American League looked in that regard:

First-pitch strike percentage
1. Seattle 61
2. Baltimore 60
3. Los Angeles 60
4. Boston 59
5. Chicago 59
6. Cleveland 59
League average: 58

So the Indians are a touch under Acta’s goal of 60 percent. For what it’s worth, last year’s AL postseason teams were each at 58 or higher: Twins (62), Tampa Bay (59), Texas (59) and New York (58). A year ago, Cleveland’s staff was at 56 percent overall for the entire season.

Another area to look at is overall strike percentage. This season, the Indians are doing well in that department as well.

Strike percentage
1. Seattle 64
2. Los Angeles 63
3. Chicago 63
4. Cleveland 63
5. New York 63

Also…

Pitches per plate appearance
1. Tampa Bay 3.72
2. Seattle 3.74
3. Chicago 3.75
4. Cleveland 3.76

Interestingly enough, the Indians are tied for first in the AL with a 73-percent swung-at-strike percentage (percentage of swings at all strikes — simple enough) and with 46-percent rate of swings at all pitches. Plus, Cleveland’s 112 walks were tied for fewest in the AL.

So what does it all mean?

Well, the Indians are peppering the strike zone early and often, drawing swings, inducing contact and minimizing the self-created damage. With one of the league’s top-rated defenses playing behind them, the pitchers are enticing hitters to swing and trusting the plays will be made.

That’s a big reason for the Indians’ strong start.

Good strike percentages don’t always portend low ERA, however. Consider the Oakland A’s (playing in that spacious ballpark), who are below or at league average in strike percentage, first-pitch strike percentage and pitches per PA. In fact, Oakland is tied for the lowest first-pitch K% (56) in the AL at the moment.

And yet, here is the AL ERA and WHIP leaderboards:

AL staff ERA
1. Oakland 2.72
2. Los Angeles 3.33
3. Tampa Bay 3.38
4. Cleveland 3.49
5. New York 3.81

AL staff WHIP
1. Tampa Bay 1.221
2. Los Angeles 1.225
3. Oakland 1.238
4. Cleveland 1.246
5. Seattle 1.298

If you’re curious about Cleveland’s individual strikethrowers, Josh Tomlin is the team’s top performer. He leads the Tribe with a 64-percent first-pitch strike rate (8th in the AL) and a 68-percent strike rate (2nd in the AL). Others: Justin Masterson (56 FPK/64K%), Fausto Carmona (60/63), Carlos Carrasco (61/61), Alex White (60/61) and Mitch Talbot (48/62).

Acta is quick to praise his coaches for the improvement this season.

“Baseball is repetition,” Acta said. “[pitching coach] Tim Belcher and [Bullpen coach] Scott Radinsky deserve as much credit as anybody here. This thing started last year from Spring Training, but it takes time, especially for young guys to buy into it and get it done. They never stopped preaching it. They never got impatient. They just kept at it. The second half of the season we saw some results. Then, the guys, once they see the results, they by into it more and want to do it.

“It was just a very small percentage of first-pitch strikes that  made that huge difference in the second half of the season. They both have been tremendous. They know how to deal with these kids. They’re patient wwhen they have to be patient. They’re straight forward when they have to be straight forward. They do a tremendous job.”

I’m not going to be in KC. I’ll catch up with the team in Chicago on Thursday.

Until then…

–JB

Sizemore has MRI on right knee

CLEVELAND — Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore was not in the lineup and away from the ballpark on Wednesday afternoon.

Sizemore left Progressive Field a few hours prior to Wednesday’s game against the Rays to undergo an MRI exam on his right knee. It is not the same knee that required microfracture surgery last June.

Indians manager Manny Acta indicated that Sizemore jammed his knee while sliding into second base on a play in the sixth inning of Tuesday’s 5-4 win over Tampa Bay. Sizemore remained in the game, but still felt sore on Wednesday morning.

Acta said the MRI was precautionary to give Sizemore “peace of mind” after what he has gone through injury-wise over the past year.

Sizemore, 28, is hitting .282 with six home runs, 10 doubles, 11 RBIs and 15 runs scored through 18 games played with Cleveland this season. He was activated from the 15-day disabled list on April 17.

Last season, Sizemore was limited to 33 games due to a left knee injury that eventually required season-ending surgery on June.

More on Indians.com soon.

UPDATE: MRI results on Sizemore’s knee came back negative (that’s a positive) for structural damage. Acta said Sizemore is considered day to day with a right knee contusion. No word on whether he’ll play on Thursday, but seems doubtful, in my opinion. Check MLB.com for more details.

–JB

“He stole my marble rye!”

Any excuse to quote Seinfeld and I’ll take it. I’ll admit, this one is a bit of a stretch, though.

My train of thought: researching baserunning stats, stolen bases were one area I looked at, made me think of stealing, made me picture that little old lady standing on the New York sidewalk as Jerry ran off with her rye.

Works for me.

But I digress…

I wrote a little bit on this topic last week in an item on Indians.com, but wanted to look a bit further into it for a post on here.

Note from the author: As this season wears on, you’ll probably find me using this space more for analysis every so often rather than daily blog posts. You can follow me on Twitter and read Indians.com for the daily stuff.

Here is a link to the item in question: CLICK HERE.

For those who’d rather stay here and not read the other story, in short, the Indians are being more aggressive on the basepaths this season. This does not mean they are stealing more bases. Rather, the Tribe is taking extra bases at a pretty good clip and that’s played a role in the team’s overall run-scoring ability.

The photo in the post is of my scorebook. That double includes two dots (RBIs). Two batters earlier, there’s a walk and that runner scored from first base on the double (that’s what those two little arcs over second and third base mean). This is an example of the type of aggressiveness Indians manager Manny Acta has emphasized since taking over.

Plenty of people think stolen bases and baserunning aggressiveness go hand and hand.

Not Acta.

“Stolen bases don’t guarantee that you win ballgames,” Acta said. “You can look at every year. The team who leads the league in stolen bases isn’t guaranteed to go to the playoffs or to win.”

Acta does, however, want his basestealer to be successful at a specific rate.

“Over 70 percent,” Acta said. “If you’re not over 70 percent, you’re giving away too many outs and not too many teams have enough guys to do that. If you give me five Jose Reyes’, I’ll run you out of the league. The fact is there’s only one and he’s in New York. You have to have the right guys to do that kind of thing.

“History has shown that because you lead the league in stolen bases, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to go to the World Series and win. I appreciate more guys that take extra bases on a base hit.”

Got it.

Well, for what it’s worth, and it certainly seems to be worth something to Acta, the Indians have a stolen-base success rate of 72 percent, entering Tuesday. Cleveland had swiped 18 (league average is 24) and had been caught seven  times. Acta’s point is made: stolen bases are not top priority.

There is this, however. Baserunners have eventually gone on to score 33 percent of the time for the Indians this year. Only the Royals — at 35 percent — have a better rate of success with its runners among the Tribe’s American League counterparts. The Indians have also run into just 10 outs on the bases — two off the fewest in the league.

So the Indians are being aggressive, but they’re also being smart.

Said Acta: “We worked very hard in Spring Training on going first to third, taking extra bases, and basically telling these guys we have nothing to lose, but a lot to gain. The game has changed a lot. There’s a lot of people that you can challenge, and put pressure on the defense.

“So far, that’s been our motto, just, ‘Go three. Go three. Go three.’ And go from there. Put yourself in scoring position. Everybody here is buying into it.”

More numbers (all entering Tuesday) to back Acta up:

  • Indians have taken 36 bases on either fly balls, passed balls, wild pitches, balks or defensive indifference. The American League average is 31.
  • The Indians have an extra-base percentage of 43. That’s the fifth-best rate in the AL and the league average is 40 percent. What this means is the Tribe  runners have gone more than one base on a base hit or more than two on a double 43 percent of the time.
  • The Indians have gone from first to third or from first to home on a base hit 22 times this year. That is tied for the third-best mark in the AL and the league average is 17.
  • The Indians have scored from first base on a double 14 times this season. That mark is second in the AL and the league average is nine.
  • The Indians have scored from second base on a single on 28 different occasions. That is the best mark in the AL. The league average is 20.
  • Cleveland is averaging 5.00 runs per game, which is the third-best rate in the American League.

Another pearl from Acta: “You can always stop a guy from stealing a base by holding a ball long or calling a pitch out. You can’t stop a guy from going first to third unless you’re taking a chance by playing very shallow in right field and you have a name like Shin-Soo Choo.”

Speaking of which, why do runners keep testing Choo’s arm?

That’s a post for another day.

P.S. Thanks to baseball-reference.com for all the lovely numbers.

–JB

“We have nothing to fear…”

…but Miguel Cabrera.

Well, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Indians manager Manny Acta fears the bat of Miggy Cab anyway. I mean, just ask him…

“They’re not afraid of him,” Acta said, referring to his pitchers. “I am.”

During the recent three-game series with the Tigers, Acta had his pitchers intentionally walk Cabrera three times — twice in first innings. Cabrera also drew another four-pitch walk and was hit by a pitch in the series. It was obvious that Cleveland — well, Acta — preferred to put Cabrera on base than to let him swing the bat.

And, hey, Acta has his reasons.

As a manager for the Nationals and Indians, Acta has encountered Cabrera in three seasons — 2007, 2010 & 2011. In those campaigns, Cabrera has drawn a combined 62 intentional walks. Of those, 13 have come with Acta in the opposing dugout. Granted, Acta saw more of Miggy as a division rival, but that still accounts for 21 percent of his IBBs in those three seasons.

When Cabrera has not been given first base without charge, the slugger has made Acta’s teams pay without mercy. Over 122 at-bats against Acta’s clubs, all Cabrera has done his hit at a .361 clip with 10 home runs and 31 RBIs. This past weekend, he went 5-for-11 in the ABs he was allowed to have for Detroit.

“Miggy has earned that from me,” Acta said of the intentional walks. “He did it to me for years in the National League East when I was there. To me, hands down, he’s our most scary hitter in the American League.”

On Friday, when the Indians pulled off a 9-5 victory over the Tigers, Cabrera went 2-for-5 with a home run and two RBIs. On Saturday, Indians rookie Alex White intentionally walked Cabrera in the first and fifth innings. Both times, there were two outs with a runner on second and first base wide open.

Both times, White retired the next batter, Brennan Boesch, to escape unscathed.

“We’ve taken the approach that we’re not going to let him beat us, even in the first inning,” White explained. “We feel comfortable pitching around him and going after the guys behind him. He’s such a great hitter, there’s no reason to chance anything with a man on second and a base open.

“From the get-go, I understood that we weren’t going to allow him to be the guy that drives in four or five runs against us. That’s what we did. We had to put him on twice. The one time I did pitch to him, I made a mistake and he hit it a long way.”

That mistake wound up as a leadoff homer for Cabrera in the fourth inning.

On Sunday, Cabrera was intentionally walked in the first inning with a man on second base and one out in the books. Justin Masterson then retired the next two batters to make the strategy pay off once again. In the top of the ninth, Indians closer Chris Perez was allowed to face Cabrera with two outs and two runners aboard.

“I’m glad Manny didn’t put his four fingers up,” Perez said. “I probably would’ve shook him off. That’s why I want to play. That’s why I’m out there — to get their best hitter out with the game on the line and two outs.”

Cabrera yanked a pitch into left field for an RBI single. Oh well. The Indians still pulled out a 5-4 victory.

Some off-day notes…

  • Indians DH Travis Hafner is expected to have his right foot re-evaluated on Monday’s off-day in Cleveland. With the Tribe heading out to the West coast Monday night, the team needs to decide whether Hafner should be placed on the DL. If he is, I’d be willing to wager that you’d see that other Travis, Buck, return from Triple-A to help hold down the fort until Pronk returned to 100 percent.
  • Indians RHP Carlos Carrasco (on the DL with an elbow issue) was slated to throw a bullpen session on Monday. Mitch Talbot (ditto) is down to travel with the team out west. His next bullpen is scheduled for Tuesday. If all goes well, he could be at extended spring for a rehab outing on Friday.
  • The Indians have quite the logjam at Triple-A when it comes to infielders. There’s Jason Kipnis at second base, Jason Donald at shortstop and Lonnie Chisenhall at third. But what about Cord Phelps, Luis Valbuena and recently-returned Rule-5er Josh Rodriguez. It says here that Valbuena and J-Rod will see some time in LF and at DH to help spread the playing time. Kipnis and Chisenhall will stay at their positions for the bulk of the time. Phelps and Donald will split up the duties at short. Buck and Chad Huffman are helping out at first base. Wed Hodges and Jordan Brown? Their PT is limited right now and they look like the odd men out.
  • Some Minor League injury updates: SS Tony Wolters (right hand surgery in March) is back on the field and could be game ready by March 10. He’d start at extended to build innings before catching a ride to Class A Lake County.; RHP Jason Knapp is still building up at extended. Expect him to have a cap of around 100 innings this year. That being the case, the Tribe is managing the innings load on the front end of the season. He’ll likely be at Class A Kinston within a few weeks.; Jared Goedert (60-day DL with oblique strain) is playing in extended spring and will likely be headed to Double-A Akron when the time comes to begin his official rehab stint.; LHP Drew Pomeranz is fine after a bout with a tight hamstring.; RHP Bryce Stowell hasn’t pitched yet this year due to some personal matters. Expect him to work his way out of extended spring in the near future.

UPDATE — 5:32 pm ET: The Indians completed a Minor League trade today, sending Brown to the Brewers in exchange for cash considerations. Brown will be assigned to Milwaukee’s Triple-A affiliate in Nashville. His departure clears room on the Columbus roster for Rodriguez’s return. The Pirates returned the Rule 5 pick to the Indians for a cost of $25,000. Pittsburgh initially paid $50,000 to select him in the Rule 5 Draft in December.

For your reading pleasure…

AC weighs in with an off-day feature: Believers or not, Tribe shattering expectations

I weigh in with the latest Indians Inbox: White on borrowed time with Tribe?

Catch you from Oakland.

–JB

“What a month.”

What a month, indeed.

In fact, in the entire 111-year history of this Cleveland Indians franchise, no team had enjoyed an April like the one this band of Tribesmen just turned in.

The Indians wrapped up April with an 18-8 record — just like we all predicted they would, right? The previous club mark for April wins was 16.

“To me, you remember the teams of the ’90s and all the success here,” Indians manager Manny Acta said. “And in 111 years, this is the first time this club wins 17, now 18, games in April. To me, it’s pretty amazing.

“I told my coaching staff [Friday] night, ‘No one can take that from us as a team.’ It’s amazing if you look back at the great ballclubs that have been in Cleveland for 100 years. It’s historic.

“We’re always going to cherish that. The season’s not over, but what a month.”

On top of that, the Tribe entered May with the best mark in the American League and the team was tied with the Phillies for the best record in baseball. Cleveland’s 12-2 ledger in front of the local fans? Best in the business. The team’s attendance ranks last, but that has not affected the performance so far.

Here’s a glance at the past month as we head into May…

Offense:

141 runs – 1st in the AL
242 hits – 3rd in the AL
34 homers – 3rd in the AL
381 total bases – 2nd in the AL
135 RBIs – tied-1st in the AL
.272 average – 1st in the AL
.294 average at home – 1st in AL
.344 on-base – 1st in the AL
.447 slugging – 3rd in the AL
.791 OPS – 3rd in the AL
86 extra-base hits – tied-3rd in the AL
100 runs with RISP – 2nd in the AL
.322 average with RISP – 2nd in the AL
.313 average vs. LHP – 1st in the AL

Pitching:

18 wins – 1st in the AL
3.49 ERA – 4th in the AL
18 quality starts – 2nd in the AL
80 walks – tied-4th in the AL
.237 average against – 2nd in the AL
316 total bases allowed – 3rd in the AL
16 homers allowed – 2nd in the AL
1.24 WHIP – tied-3rd in the AL
3.79 pitches/PA – 3rd in the AL
3.71 starters ERA – 4th in the AL
3.04 bullpen ERA – 5th in the AL
13 wins by starters – tied-2nd in the AL
.211 bullpen avg against – tied-4th in the AL

Defense:

3 unearned runs – 1st in the AL
13 errors – tied-3rd in the AL
.987 fielding percentage – 4th in the AL

The Ledger:

Record at home: 12-2
Record on the road: 6-6

Streaking:

8-game winning streak (April 3-11)
12-game home winning streak (April 3-30)

Bastian’s April Awards:

Player of the Month: Asdrubal Cabrera
Comment: Cabrera hit .262 with five homers and 17 RBIs, mixing in four doubles and a triple while playing strong defense. When Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana were slumping hard early, Cabrera provided some much-needed pop out of the lineup’s second spot. He also has formed a solid combo up the middle with second baseman Orlando Cabrera.

Pitcher of the Month: Justin Masterson & Josh Tomlin
Comment: Hard to give the nod to one over the other. Masterson went 5-0 with a .218 ERA, striking out 22 and walking 11 over 33 innings. Tomlin went 4-0 with a 2.45 ERA, striking out 18 and walking eight over 33 innings. Masterson has looked unhittable at times. Tomlin has been downright baffling. With Fausto Carmona’s inconsistency early on, and injuries to Mitch Talbot and Carlos Carrasco, Masterson and Tomlin have been integral in the Tribe’s April success.

Comeback Player of the Month: Grady Sizemore
Comment: I couldn’t make him my Player of the Month with only 11 games played, but Sizemore certainly has a case: .378 with four homers, a team-high eight doubles and nine RBIs. His swing has looked smooth, his power has been impressive and he hasn’t looked like he’s missed a step on the bases or in center field. No stolen bases yet, but those will come (Grady actually did swipe one, but a missed call turned it into a caught stealing).

Biggest surprise: Jack Hannahan
Comment: We all knew he could man the hot corner and he has done so fantastically with highlight-reel plays seemingly on a daily basis. What we didn’t expect was him to hit this well. Hannahan entered May hitting .273 with four homers, four doubles and 14 RBIs for the Indians. He’s played so well that the Indians opted to option Jason Donald to Triple-A Columbus when he got healthy. Hannahan has been solid on the field and in strengthing the lower third of the lineup.

Rookie of the Month: Vinnie Pestano
Comment: OK, so he wins this award by default by being the lone rookie on the roster. Yeah, I know Alex White is a rookie as well, but he’s only made one start. I declare him ineligible for this honor. Besides, Pestano has a 0.82 ERA over 11 innings in 12 games. The righty has 13 strikeouts and only four walks and five hits allowed. He has not looked like a rookie at all out there and that’s been a big boost for the back end of the bullpen.

Plays of the Month:

Hard to pick only one, so here are four…

1. April 29: The Slam – Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, one out, tie game. Could it have been set up any better? Carlos Santana works into a good hitter’s count and makes the Tigers pay with a bullet into the right-field seats for a walk-off grand slam. Watching the highlight hasn’t gotten old, especially seeing Santana toss the helmet and do his stutter-step while smiling wide as he runs into the mob at home plate.

2. April 7: The Squeeze – In the bottom of the eighth inning against the Red Sox, Asdrubal Cabrera layed down a perfect squeeze bunt down the third-base line with one out. Adam Everett scored and the Indians beat Boston, 1-0. It was an early sign that this Cleveland squad will go small if that’s what it takes to win.

3. April 3: The Triple Play – The White Sox had pounded the Indians relentlessly in the season’s first two games. In the fourth inning of the third game of the year, Alexei Ramirez attempted a bunt. He popped it up and Santana, playing first for the first time in his big league career, dove head-first to catch it for an out. A quick to toss to first base, and another to second and the Indians had a triple play. They went on to win, 7-1, for the first ‘W’ in an 8-game streak.

4. April 17: The Return – In his second at-bat back with the Indians, after a long rehab from microfracture surgery on his left knee, Sizemore launces a home run into the right-field stands. The Indians win in his first game back, 7-6, over the Orioles. Sizemore then goes on an offensive tear to help bring some more energy to an already-hot Tribe team.

Quote of the Month:

“It seems like nobody else wants this division, so we’re going to take it. Why not, right?”
–Orlando Cabrera

–JB

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