February 2013

Earning their wings

OutfieldThe Indians are expecting to field a dynamic outfield defense this season, given the fact that Michael Brantley, Michael Bourn and Drew Stubbs are all center fielders by trade.

“I think it’ll be a good outfield, man,” Bourn said. “We’ve all got speed out there. We’ve all got pretty good arms and we’re all going to make plays. You put that combination together, I think we’ll be just fine. I think we’ll be exciting to watch.”

This does not mean that their defensive partnership will come without growing pains.

In Friday’s spring opener against the Reds, it was evident early on that the group will need some time to learn how to work together.

This is why the preseason is so important.

“We had a little mix-up in the outfield early,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “Those are things that, not that you want to have happen, but if it’s going to happen, that’s why you have Spring Training. You can take that and work on it, and it ends up helping you.”

In the first inning, Cincinnati’s Ryan Hanigan sent a pitch into the right-center gap. It was a catchable fly ball, but Bourn and Stubbs had some communication issues are they sprinted toward one another. The baseball dropped in and Hanigan was rewarded with a two-run double.

“That was really my fault,” Bourn said. “I didn’t go at it, because I thought he already had it. That happens in Spring Training. You’d rather for it to happen now than when it really counts. I take the blame for that one.”

Stubbs also felt at fault, according to Francona.

“Drew said, ‘I took for granted that he was going to catch it,’” Francona said. “Those are things that you iron out now.”

All three outfielders are such good runners that they will need to learn how to account for the other’s range as they convene on fly balls. Bourn said learning and adjusting to the athleticism offered by Brantley and Stubbs will be important this spring.

“That’s the biggest key for me the first couple weeks,” Bourn said. “I just want to figure out who has what ranges with each other. I’ll go from there. Because I’m in the middle, I want to know what the corners look like. I know we have good corner outfielders.

“It’s pretty much three center fielders out there playing. We’ll just watch each other, feed off each other and we’ll learn as we go.”

Final score: Indians 11, Reds 10
Cactus League record: 1-0

Catching you up on some stories and happenings of late…

Keep checking Indians.com for more news and features throughout the spring, and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter (@MLBastian) and Instagram (bastianmlb). I have posted photos from camp on both social-media sites.

–JB

Spring in Tribe’s step

KipChizTalk about a hectic, news-filled first few days in Indians camp. Cleveland turned in one of the busiest offseasons in the long, storied history of its franchise, and it turned out the ballclub wasn’t done. Since the team began gathering in Goodyear, it has added veteran Jason Giambi, pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka and, the stunner of the winter, free-agent Michael Bourn.

“There’s a lot of buzz around this locker room,” Nick Swisher said on Wednesday morning. “If you’re a Tribe fan, you should be super excited.”

It sure seems like Indians fans are indeed excited.

Since arriving, my Twitter feed has been peppered with fan inquiries about single-game tickets becoming available. I can’t say that has been the case in my previous two springs covering this team. On Wednesday, the team went as far as issuing a reminder that tickets for all 81 home games will go on sale starting at 10 a.m. ET on Feb. 25. Mark it down. A few other notes offered by the team:

  • On Tuesday, the Tribe reached one-day season-ticket sales totals that equal what the team typically sees during an average offseason month.
  • Retail was up over 50-percent on Tuesday compared to the same date last year.
  • Indians.com site traffic doubled on Monday and Tuesday compared to the previous week’s daily average.
  • The team tripled the amount of @indians Twitter mentions on Monday and Tuesday compared to previous days

There is much to be said about the Terry Francona Effect. The manager is quick to point to his coaches, and players such as Swisher, who have helped in the recruiting process. And there is no denying many people have played a role in this winter transformation. That said, it all started when Francona agreed to take on Cleveland’s managerial challenge.

“Ever since we got Tito, it seems like the dominos keep falling,” Vinnie Pestano said.

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StringStrings attached: During some of the team’s early bullpen sessions, there have been two parallel yellow strings lined above the frot of the row of home plates. The idea, which Francona said was a suggestion of new pitching coach Mickey Callaway, is to help the pitchers focus on pounding the lower part of the strike zone.

“The guys are trying to build their arm strength,” Francona said. “Hopefully, along with that, we start seeing, as we get moving, command without effort. That would be really exciting. That’s why sometimes you see the strings out there. I think guys when they’re throwing sides, Mickey’s idea is if the strings are there, it shows you what ball down actually is.

“Sometimes guys get comfortable just throwing it across the plate and it ends up being a little bit up and very hittable. So it’s just a reminder. If guys want it, it’s there for them. If they don’t want it, we don’t use it.”

The Tribe’s pitching woes of 2012 have been well-documented:

  • 543 walks ranks 13th in the American League and 27th in baseball
  • 1,503 hits allowed ranked 12th in the AL and 27th in baseball
  • 1,086 strikeouts ranked 13th in the AL and 29th in baseball
  • 1.42 WHIP ranked 14th in the AL and 28th in baseball
  • 845 runs allowed ranked 14th in the AL and 29th in baseball
  • 4.79 ERA ranked 14th in the AL and 29th in baseball

Oof.

Give ‘em strings. All of them.

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Swisher1Some notes from the first few days in camp:

  • Where was I when the Bourn news broke? Buying shower shoes for the gym. Ah, the life of a journalist. No trip to the store is safe. In fact, that’s always the precise time news breaks. Bourn is expected to be in camp Thursday for his physical and his four-year, $48 million contract (with a fifth-year vesting option worth $12 million) will likely become official on Friday.
  • Closer Chris Perez spoke his mind about plenty of things last season. Most controversial was his late-season critique of Cleveland ownership. Well, the Indians have spent $117 million on guaranteed contracts this winter, and suddenly look like a team on the rise. “It feels like we’re a big-market club,” Perez said.
  • No Spring Training is without some bumps and bruises along the way. Early injuries to watch: Joe Smith is taking things slow out of the gates due to a left oblique issue, but he’s already playing catch up to 75 feet; Minor League Trey Haley has a “balky” right shoulder (as Francona described it) and is also being slowed for the next week.
  • Giambi arrived to camp on Wednesday afternoon and will be with the team on Thursday. With Bourn in the fold, causing a ripple effect that now has Mark Reynolds as the main designated hitter, Big G will be competing for a part-time DH and pinch-hitter role. At the very least, the 42-year-old Giambi will provide another veteran voice this spring for a team filled with youngsters.
  • There was a slight passport problem with lefty Edward Paredes, but his name is in fact Edward Paredes and he is no longer stuck in the Dominican Republic. After missing the report date for the Indians, the non-roster invitee has made it to Arizona and will be in camp on Thursday.
  • Trevor Bauer will get a legitimate chance to make the rotation, said both GM Chris Antonetti and Francona on Wednesday. One day earlier, Bauer responded to even more criticism from D-backs catcher Miguel Montero.
  • The Indians released their promotional schedule, and there will be an Albert Belle bobblehead, and it will feature his famous biceps-pointing pose, from what I’ve been told.
  • Dice-K arrived in camp with a large Japanese media following, but nothing like what he experienced when he first came to the United States. Read about his comeback attempt on Indians.com.
  • Swisher has had an immediate impact on the clubhouse and atmosphere in camp. Read about it here.
  • Gomes is leaning toward not playing in the World Baseball Classic. Francona is hoping Chris Perez and Vinnie Pestano can maybe get some work in with the Indians during their training period with Team USA.
  • Matt LaPorta is feeling “a million times better” than he did last season.
  • MLB.com’s Zack Meisel fashioned this fine feature on Perez.
  • I will be posting photos on Twitter (@MLBastian) throughout the spring, and you can also find me now on Instagram (bastianmlb).

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Leaning left

LeftoriumThe snow storm that is pounding the East Coast has caused a ripple effect throughout the entire country in terms of traveling. Many flights were canceed this morning. Mine out of Cleveland was not, but it was delayed and the de-icing of my plane essentially iced my day.

My connecting flight out of O’Hare in Chicago actually left two minutes early. Great news for those passengers who happened to already be in the Windy City. As for the rest of us, and there were plenty, we have been stranded. I’m scheduled on a 7 p.m. flight to Phoenix. I’ll get to Arizona eventually. It could be worse.

In the meantime, I have been wandering the airport aimlessly — I now know the precise location of at least three Starbucks and where the Nuts on Clark stands are found — and answering Tribe questions on Twitter. I’ve also, as you’ve gathered, sat down at a tiny work station (elbow to elbow with my fellow weary travelers) to knock out this post.

Let me tell you, finding an outlet in this airport is akin to searching for the Holy Grail.

“Get to the point, Bastian!” you shout.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. When you’ve got six hours to kill (two left), you walk slow and type your thoughts out even slower.

On a recent morning, I spent some time trying to see how much Cleveland has potentially improved itself against left-handed pitching after last year’s dismal showing. The Tribe went 18-35 against southpaw starters in 2012 and ended the season ranked last in the league in average, slugging and home runs versus  lefties.

Part of the issue — more like the entirety of the issue — stemmed from the lopsided left-handed-ness of the Indians’ lineup. In 2011, one team, on one occasion, ran out an all-lefty lineup for a game. Cleveland did so numerous times last season. It was a platoon advantage to the far extreme.

Consider this, over the past two years, Indians hitters have combined for 4,085 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers — the most in baseball across that span. Last year, the Indians had 2,103 PAs vs. LHP, marking the fourth most in the Majors, but the most in the division.

Plate appearances vs. LHP in 2012 (AL Central)
1. Cleveland (2,103)
2. Minnesota (1,935)
3. Kansas City (1,903)
4. Detroit (1,875)
5. Chicago (1,612)

The Tribe’s total last season marked the club’s most plate appearances against lefties in a single season since 2004, when Cleveland had 2,189 such PAs. Obviously, something had to give, and general manager Chris Antonetti went to work this season on trying to upgrade this glaring weakness within the lineup.

By adding Mike Aviles, Drew Stubbs and Mark Reynolds, Cleveland has improved its lineup balance with three right-handed hitters. In Nick Swisher, the Indians now have a third switch hitter (joining Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana) to help the lineup’s flexibility for RHP vs. LHP starters.

I wanted to see how much better the incoming group is than the cast fielded by the Indians last year. For this experiment, however, I did not delve into projection-based numbers like I did with my recent offense and pitching posts. For this, I simply looked at what the players did in 2012. That’s all. Pretty simple.

I wanted to create two groups of hitters that piled up roughly the same amount of at-bats as a whole during the 2012 season.

With that in mind, my 2012 Indians class includes: Casey Kotchman, Jason Kipnis, Cabrera, Jack Hannahan, Santana, Michael Brantley, Shin-Soo Choo, Travis Hafner, Jose Lopez, Ezequiel Carrera, Lonnie Chisenhall, Johnny Damon, Lou Marson and Shelley Duncan.

Let’s call that Group A.

For the 2013 roster, I included: Mark Reynolds, Kipnis, Cabrera, Chisenhall, Santana, Brantley, Stubbs, Swisher, Aviles, Marson, Carrera, Yan Gomes and Ben Francisco.

We’ll call that Group B.

That is obviously 14 players in the first sampling compared to 13 in the second group. I did that because the first group had a combined 1,623 at-bats vs. LHP (4,941 at-bats overall) in 2012 and the second group had a combined 1,644 (4,983). That is a pretty close comparison in terms of at-bats.

I added Gomes and Francisco to the mix simply to increase the at-bats total to mirror that of the first group. Both Gomes and Francisco will be in the mix for bench jobs this spring, but neither are a lock to make the roster. So, it goes without saying, the numbers here might wind up being slightly different come Opening Day.

Moving on…

In 2012, here is what Group A did compared to Group B.

Against Left-handed Pitchers

Group A: .235 (381-1,623)/.314 OBP/.347 SLG
Group B: .255 (420-1,644)/.334 OBP/.381 SLG

Group A: 30 HR, 65 2B, 182 RBI, 176 BB, 315 K, 563 TB
Group B: 39 HR, 72 2B, 192 RBI, 188 BB, 333 K, 627 TB

Against Right-handed Pitchers

Group A: .264 (876-3,318)/.337 OBP/.410 SLG
Group B: .251 (837-3,339)/.325 OBP/.408 SLG

Group A: 94 HR, 172 2B, 401 RBI, 351 BB, 592 K, 1,360 TB
Group B: 104 HR, 189 2B, 418 RBI, 361 BB, 762 K, 1,361 TB

Overall Production

Group A: .254 (1,257-4,941)/.330 OBP/.389 SLG
Group B: .252 (1,257-4,983)/.328 OBP/.408 SLG

Group A: 124 HR, 237 2B, 583 RBI, 527 BB, 907 K, 1,923 TB
Group B: 143 HR, 261 2B, 610 RBI, 549 BB, 1,095 K, 1,988 TB

So, on paper, based on last season’s production by these two sets of hitters, it appears the Indians have an offense that is relatively the same overall, but with more potential for power. There will be strikeouts, but this group also has the potential to draw more walks, knock the ball out of the yard more often and score more runs.

Against lefties, Cleveland should be noticeably improved if the incoming roster hits near its level from a year ago. The strong lefty advantage vs. right-handed pitching from 2012 will probably take a hit, though. In the end, though, more balance was sought, and it looks like more balance will be achieved.

Now, would they board my flight already?

–JB

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