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Covering the Bases: Game 80

CarreraNotes and quotes from Saturday’s 9-6 loss to the Blue Jays:

FIRST: They tried. Man, did they try. Even with a pitching staff depleted in the wake of a 19-inning game, the Indians tried to get their 15th win in a row.

Instead, Cleveland will have to *settle* for the franchise-record 14-game winning streak that we all just witnessed. They’ll have to live with the fact that the Indians, for once, have a solid lead atop the American League Central and don’t have to worry about playing catch-up for the time being.

And, if it’s all just too much for Indians fans to bear in the wake of this one, just focus on the fact that the Tribe is 14-1 in its past 15 games. That’s still pretty good.

“It was going to end at some point,” Indians catcher Chris Gimenez said. “We weren’t going to go 100-0.”

Let’s take a quick look back at The Streak.

June 17: 3-2 win over the White Sox
Highlight: Carlos Santana hits walk-off home run

June 18: 13-2 win over the White Sox
Highlight: Tyler Naquin reaches base five times, ends a double shy of cycle

June 19: 3-2 win over White Sox in 10 innings
Highlight: Jose Ramirez hits walk-off single

June 20: 7-4 win over the Rays
Highlight: Francisco Lindor has a double, homer and three hits

June 21: 6-0 win over the Rays
Highlight: Corey Kluber spins three-hit shutout

June 22: 6-1 win over the Rays
Highlight: Trevor Bauer fans 10 in complete game

June 24: 7-5 win over the Tigers
Highlight: Four triples, including three in a five-run fourth

June 25: 6-0 win over the Tigers
Highlight: Carlos Carrasco throws a four-hit shutout

June 26: 9-3 win over the Tigers
Highlight: Four home runs in the fifth off Justin Verlander

June 27: 8-3 win over the Braves
Highlight: Lonnie Chisenhall hits key three-run home run

June 28: 5-3 win over the Braves
Highlight: Three-run rally in ninth inning seals the win

June 29: 3-0 win over the Braves
Highlight: Danny Salazar gets 10th win with seven-inning gem

June 30: 4-1 win over the Blue Jays
Highlight: Carrasco strikes out 14 and gives up three hits

July 1: 2-1 win over the Blue Jays in 19 innings
Highlight: Bullpen logs 13 shutout innings, including five from Bauer

That run topped the previous team record of 13 wins in a row, achieved in 1951 and 1942. It was the longest run in the American League since the “Moneyball” A’s rattled off 20 straight wins en route to a movie starring Brad Pitt.

The pitching powered Cleveland’s streak.

Overall, the Indians had a 1.58 ERA and .176/.239/.294 opponents’ slash line over 137 innings, in which they tallied 138 strikeouts against 38 walks. The rotation went 10-0 with a 1.83 ERA, 99 strikeouts and 62 hits allowed in 103 innings. The bullpen had a 0.79 ERA with a .182 opponents’ average in 34 innings.

Here is how the individual pitchers fared over the 14-game stretch:

Pitchers

As for the offense? Cleveland out-hit its opponents, 154-84, and outscored them, 82-27. As a team, the Indians produced a .295/.341/.515 slash line overall and a .288/.352/.432 mark with runners in scoring position. Cleveland had 25 home runs and 57 extra-base hits during The Streak.

Here is how the individual batters fared:

Hitters

Here is what closer Cody Allen had to say, when asked about how this streak compared to the 10-game run the Indians had to clinch a playoff spot at the end of the 2013 season:

“In ’13, we did it to end the season to make the playoffs. That was my first experience of it. Because we made the playoffs, I cherished it, but I didn’t really understand how hard it was to do that as a club, especially in the American League. You can run into a buzzsaw of a starting pitcher one night. Like Toronto, they could’ve been on a nine-game or 10-game winning streak, but if Carrasco pitches the way he does, there’s nothing you can really do about it. Then, the next two years, you kind of grasp how tough it was to do what we did in ’13. It makes right now even more special.”

Here is what Josh Tomlin had to say about it:

“I think we have 25 guys right now that are buying in. They’re playing as a team and doing whatever it takes to help us win a game today. We’ll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. … That to me is the biggest thing for this year, is watching how everybody just tries to do their part, do their job to help us win today.”

Gimenez had this to say about The Streak:

“I really think it’s just the group of guys. I think we’re starting to believe that we’re pretty good, and that’s something that can be a very powerful thing, to be honest with you. You get a group of guys together that start believing that something can really happen here, it’s amazing. We don’t have the flashiest names out there and a couple of our better players have been hurt for a while, and we’re still managing to claw wins out.”

SECOND: Toronto scored nine runs, so there were plenty of pitches and plays that went wrong for Cleveland’s pitching staff. That said, a close play at the plate in the eighth inning proved to be the dagger.

With runners on first and second and the game caught in a 6-6 deadlock, Josh Donaldson drilled a pitch up the middle. Center fielder Tyler Naquin made a nice leaping grab on the high bouncer and then uncorked a strong throw to the plate.

Ezequiel Carrera (remember him?) sprinted from second to home and slid in headfirst as the throw arrived. Gimenez received the ball and made a swift lunging tag on the diving runner. The catcher’s glove grazed Carrera’s leg around the same time the outfielder’s fingers were sliding across the dish.

Blue Jays reporter John Lott got this tremendous photo from the press box:

If Gimenez has the tag on in that photo (it’s hard to tell), then clearly Carrera is out. If the tag arrived a split-second later, well, then maybe Carrera is safe. Looking at many replay angles, it’s hard to say definitively one way or another.

“Our replay coordinator came up to me and said that I definitely tagged him,” Gimenez said. “That was, I think, my biggest fear, was that I might’ve missed him at some point. But, I definitely thought I had his leg. From where my vantage point was, where I was at, and where he was at, I didn’t feel like he could touch the plate yet.”

Home-plate umpire D.J. Reyburn agreed with that assessment in real time, calling Carrera out on the play. The runner jumped up and motioned to the Toronto dugout, where manager John Gibbons emerged and quickly challenged the ruling. At that point, it’s out of the hands of the on-field crew. It goes to the Replay Operations Center in New York.

After three minutes and 32 seconds, the call was overturned.

“I went and looked at it six or seven times and I don’t know how you can overrule that,” Francona said. “I mean, I couldn’t tell if he’s safe or out. If he would’ve called him safe, I don’t know how they would’ve overruled it to call him out. I don’t how you overrule that. I know they keep telling us it has to be conclusive. I will look forward to an explanation that I understand from the league, because as of now, from what I’ve seen, I don’t know how they did that. I was shocked.”

Gimenez said the explanation he received was that the replay officials deemed that Carrera made contact with the plate before the catcher applied the tag. So, that at least acknowledges that Gimenez made the tag, which was also hard to decipher. If he did make the tag, it was very hard to say without a shred of doubt that Carrera was safe.

” I don’t know. He might be safe, but you can’t tell,” Francona said. “I looked at every angle there is. They’re supposed to have the same angles we do.”

Added Gimenez: “I thought we had him out. Nake made a pretty good throw on a pretty tough high hop, but I definitely thought I had him in the leg. The explanation that they gave us was that his arm got in there before I tagged him, which I don’t necessarily think that was the case, but I can’t tell, either. But, I definitely thought we had him out.”

Toronto tacked on two more runs to essentially seal the Tribe’s first loss in more than two weeks.

“It was a hard game to win,” Francona said. “But I still would’ve liked to have seen our chances if that guy’s out at the plate.”

THIRD: On the Indians’ transactions page, this is what you see for today:

transaction

Look how tidy that move was for the Indians. Truth be told, that was an extremely complicated transaction that required key contributions from multiple people in multiple states and countries.

Check out the behind-the-scenes story on Morimando’s trip to Toronto:

And then for his Major League debut, he was asked to enter the game in the third inning with Donaldson, the reigning AL MVP, and slugger Edwin Encarnacion due to bat. Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

“I could hardly feel my release point or my legs,” Morimando said.

The 23-year-old rookie worked 3 2/3 innings in an admirable effort, considering his hectic path to Rogers Centre, the fact that he’s never even pitched in Triple-A and that he was forced to face the Blue Jays’ offense in the middle of Cleveland’s record winning streak. Talk about pressure.

He was needed because Trevor Bauer — Saturday’s planned starter — logged five innings to close out Friday’s marathon. Reliever Zach McAllister started for the Indians inetad and gave up a three-run homer to Encarnacion in the first inning, his lone frame in the loss.

Morimando’s lone setback came in the fifth inning, when he gave up a two-run homer to Troy Tulowitzki. That blast came with two outs, and after a play that should have gotten him out of the inning. Third baseman Juan Uribe charged a grounder from Russell Martin and made an off-target throw that Santana couldn’t pick from the dirt at first.

“We bring in Morimando and he actually showed some poise,” Francona said. “And he went out and got two quick outs and he had a ground ball to third that we don’t convert. And then the home run hurt.”

HOME: The last Indians batter to hit for a cycle was Travis Hafner on Aug. 14, 2003. And, whenever that fact is presented, it begs the question: Travis Hafner? Yes, Pronk had a triple, and he was asked about it plenty of times in the years after that game against the Twins.

“I was on turf in the Metrodome,” Hafner recalled on Saturday. “I have an extra gear on turf. But actually [Torii] Hunter was playing me a little towards left-center and I hit it to right-center. No collisions or anything like that.”

Well, Hafner’s name has now been pushed down a line in the Indians’ record book.

In Saturday’s loss, Rajai Davis homered in the first, tripled in the third, doubled in the seventh and singled in the ninth. And the Rogers Centre faithful, who know Davis from his Toronto days, offered him a standing ovation.

“That was awesome,” Davis said.

For 4,706 days, Hafner enjoyed the distinction of being “the last Cleveland hitter to complete a cycle.” No more.

“I’m glad someone fast has done it. I got tired of people asking me how the heck I hit a triple,” Hafner said. “I’m pumped for Raj. He’s playing great and is a huge part of the Indians’ success this season.”

Here’s more on Davis’ historic day:

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

“We’re going streaking.” –2016 Indians

WinningStreakIt appears that I have been voted off the island.

More than 1,000 of my Twitter followers have turned in a ballot and only 18 percent want me to return to the Tribe beat on Thursday. The reason? As of this writing, the Indians are on an 11-game winning streak. I went on vacation when Cleveland was only three games into this incredible run.

First of all, a big THANK YOU to the 18 percent! I’m flattered! To the 82 percent that voted for me to stay far away from the Tribe? I’ll remember this. And, sorry, I’m scheduled to be in Toronto on Thursday for the four-game set north of the border. Hopefully for the Indians’ sake, the Bastian Jinx doesn’t clear customs.

Sidenote: I don’t really believe in jinxes.

The only baseball I’ve seen over the past 10 days has involved my 6-year-old son’s team. A lot of swings and misses, infield choppers, throwing errors, playing in the dirt and packs of kids chasing down baseball’s skipping away deep in the outfield. You know, stuff like this…

Before I return to the press box, though, I wanted to post some notes from The Streak, along with some leftovers I stashed in my back pocket before I departed on this staycation. Let’s get to it…

ON THE STREAK

MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince touched on the 11-game winning streak in detail in this column:

Castrovince, who I joined for a podcast this week as well, hit on all the key narrative points involved in this memorable run for Cleveland. As we discuss in the linked podcast, too, this stretch seems to be the embodiment of all the reasons why the preseason prognosticators, and projection systems, were so high on the Tribe this year.

Going into this season, Cleveland was viewed as a contender due to the combination os strong starting pitching, good run prevention and enough offense. Well, we’ve seen the first two aspects on full display over the past 11 games. The offense? It’s gone above and beyond. When this team hits, it’s dangerous, because the pitching and defense should be there on the majority of nights.

Something else that’s interesting about all of this. As you may recall, Bad Luck Bastian was in Kansas City, where the Royals swept away the Tribe before this winning streak. After the sloppy final game in that set, Francona said: “We didn’t play very well. I think that’s on me. They weren’t prepared to play tonight and I guarantee you that’ll change.”

Cleveland hasn’t lost a game since Francona issued that message to his clubhouse.

THE STREAK BY THE NUMBERS

The Rotation

Trevor Bauer: 2-0, 1.64 ERA, .162 AVG, 24 K, 7 BB, 22 IP
Corey Kluber: 2-0, 1.06 ERA, .111 AVG, 16 K, 3 BB, 17 IP
Carlos Carrasco: 1-0, 1.10 ERA, .164 AVG, 13 K, 5 BB, 16.1 IP
Josh Tomlin: 1-0, 3.60 ERA, .196 AVG, 6 K, 1 BB, 15 IP
Danny Salazar: 2-0, 3.65 ERA, .200 AVG, 10 K, 6 BB, 12.1 IP

Total: 8-0, 2.07 ERA, .165 AVG, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 69 K, 22 BB, 82.2 IP

The Bullpen

Total: 3-0, 1.56 ERA, .242 AVG, 24 K, 3 BB, 17.1 IP

The Pitching Staff

Total: 11-0, 1.98 ERA, .180 AVG, 93 K, 25 BB, 100 IP

The Lineup

Carlos Santana: .320 (.920 OPS), 43 at-bats
Jason Kipnis: .262 (.843 OPS), 42 at-bats
Francisco Lindor: .357 (1.036 OPS), 42 at-bats
Mike Napoli: .297 (.832 OPS), 37 at-bats
Jose Ramirez: .295 (.781 OPS), 44 at-bats
Lonnie Chisenhall: .371 (1.091 OPS), 35 at-bats
Juan Uribe: .281 (1.105 OPS), 32 at-bats
Yan Gomes: .286 (.775 OPS), 28 at-bats
Rajai Davis: .375 (.818 OPS), 24 at-bats
Tyler Naquin: .450 (1.727 OPS), 20 at-bats
Chris Gimenez: .375 (.750 OPS), 16 at-bats
Michael Martinez: .267 (.620 OPS), 15 at-bats

Overall: .317/.365/.565, 73 runs, 121 hits
With RISP: .333/.396/.500 (96 at-bats)

Fun fact: The Indians’ rotation has allowed only 47 hits, while the Indians’ offense has produced 46 extra-base hits during the 11-game winning streak.

LONGEST WINNING STREAKS IN TEAM HISTORY

13: Aug. 2-15, 1951
13: April 18-May 2, 1942
12: July 8-21, 1922
11: June 17-June 28, 2016 (and counting)
11: May 23-June 4, 1982
11: Sept. 8-20, 1954
11: May 12-23, 1954
11: April 25-May 5, 1941


ON TREVOR BAUER

The danger with Bauer over recent years has been that, once you believe that he’s finally turned that corner, the right-hander would slip back into a prolonged slump and render all the analysis moot. Well, we’re starting to buy in to that corner again, because Bauer has looked as strong and consistent as he ever has on the Major League stage.

Over his past 10 outings, Bauer has a 2.60 ERA with 62 strikeouts, 21 walks and a .605 opponents’ OPS in 69.1 IP.

Here was an excellent piece posted recently by August Fagerstrom on Bauer’s evolution as a pitcher this season:

About a month prior to that post, I did some interviews and work looking at the improvement on Bauer’s two-seamer and curveball, but I stashed it away because I wanted to see if the righty would sustain his success a little longer. He has, and the sample is growing large enough to begin looking at what he’s been doing differently this season.

What we’re seeing now is not only the result of Bauer’s diligent offseason training over the past few years, but of him finding a sort of middle ground between his philosophies and those of the Indians. He is sticking with his strength of pitching up in the zone, while pitching with more authority down and away. Bauer has also narrowed his arsenal, but he’s become more unpredictable in the process due to his approach and improvement with specific pitches.

First, let’s focus on his two-seamer, which has become Bauer’s primary fastball this year. As Fagerstrom pointed out in the linked article above, take a look at the progression here of his fastball usage:

BauerFBuse

Why did Bauer move more towards a two-seamer? Here’s what he had to say about the switch:

“I throw a pretty high percentage of cutters,” Bauer said. “So, I just felt like something that was moving laterally to pair with the cutter [would be good to] try to get as much lateral spread as possible. My four-seamer is like four or five inches. My cutter moves like one in the opposite direction, so that’s six inches of spread. I can make my two-seam move 10 inches. My cutter moves one or two the other way, so I get up to 12. And you can pair a four-seam with that at the top of the zone. So, you can share the middle with three pitches, three things that are hard and split it. I don’t know. There’s a lot of reasons for it. I’m trying to get more movement on the fastball and trying to make it more effective.”

The effectiveness of Bauer’s two-seamer this year (career-best 52.6 groundball rate on balls in play with the pitch) comes, in part, from two areas of improvement over the past two years.

First, Bauer’s velocity has steadily ticked up with the two-seamer:

BauerTSvelo

Next, the movement has increased along with the pitch speed:

BauerTShoriz

One thing to note here is that Bauer doesn’t refer to his two-seamer as a sinker (like you would for Corey Kluber’s tw0-seamer, for example). It has been nicknamed the “laminar express” due to its lateral movement. The tweet below is from Kyle Boddy, who works with Bauer over the offseason at Driveline Baseball in Seattle.

“It’s a true two-seam fastball,” Bauer explained. “But, there really is very little difference. It’s just about the spin axis. If I want it to sink more, right now I throw a hard changeup that has more depth to it that’s like 88-90. If I want to get below the zone or the bottom of the zone, I can throw that. It has better depth to it. I’d rather have a two-seam that I can keep on plane, especially to lefties so I don’t run into their barrel. Two-seam sinkers running down and away from a lefty can run right into the barrel plane. I think the flat two-seam is a little bit better of a pitch there.”

Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said another reason for the change to the two-seam dominant approach this year for Bauer was pitching low and away. Callaway indicated that Bauer was more comfortable going down in the strike zone with the two-seamer. In the past, the pitcher has noted that he’s studied the way others such as Marcus Stroman can backdoor a two-seamer to the outside corner against right-handed batters.

“He felt more comfortable with the two-seamer,” Callaway said, “starting it off the plate and bringing it back. He really practiced that in the offseason, because he knew he wanted to start pitching down and away a little bit more. And he also wants that effect of crisscrossing those corners, so he’s got a cutter and a sinker to do that.

“They look like their balls and then they come back at the last second and nick the back corner. Those are hard to hit.”

Added Bauer: “I can throw anything down there, really. I got [Carlos Correa on May 10] on a backdoor two-seamer, a backdoor changeup and then a backdoor two-seam. I can throw cutters down there and four-seams down there. It’s been beneficial to be able to throw multiple pitches down there, because it’s hard to know exactly which way the ball’s going to move, I would assume, for hitters. That’s the thought process anyways.”

One more item of note is that, if you just look at the PITCHf/x data, it looks like Bauer scrapped his slider and replaced it with the cutter this season:

BauerCutter

What really happened is that Bauer’s offseason velo training has caused a kind of recording glitch for the system. That “cutter” you see this year is the “slider” is featured last year, just with more velocity. With the increased pitch speed, the breaking ball has been reclassified by PITCHf/x on brooksbaseball.net. Both Boddy and Bauer have noted this

ABOUT BAUER’S CURVEBALL….

As critical as the two-seam has been for Bauer this season, his curveball has developed into one of the game’s top breaking pitches. According to Fangraphs, Bauer’s curve is the fifth-best curve in the game, and second-best in the AL behind Kluber:

  1. Kluber, 9.4
  2. Aaron Nola, 8.6
  3. Jerad Eickhoff, 8.5
  4. Clayton Kershaw, 6.5
  5. Bauer, 5.8

Bauer’s curveball has been so good, it’s even catching him by surprise:

062216_cle_bauer_surprise_med_0uyzzz63

Take a look at this three-year progression with the pitch:

BauerCB

What that shows you is that he’s fooling a lot of batters, as shown in the above GIF. Hitters aren’t swinging at the pitch nearly as much as in the past, but Bauer’s strikeout percentage on the offering has soared nonetheless.


ON JOSE RAMIREZ

When Ramirez got the nod as Cleveland’s cleanup hitter in Atlanta on Tuesday night, he completed lineup bingo for this season. The pesky switch-hitter has now started in each spot in the batting order this year for the Tribe.

If you ever mention Victor Martinez to Indians manager Terry Francona, you’ll get a warm smile and Tito will go on to call Martinez one of the best “protection hitters” in the game. Francona has started to view Ramirez in a similar light. He’s a switch hitter who uses the entire field and puts the ball in play at a high rate.

“As you’re coming through the middle of the order,” Francona said recently, “those guys are going to be on base the most. Having somebody that’s going to put up a good at-bat and hit the ball in the gaps, I think is very important. A little bit of a connector to the rest of the order.”

If you recall, Francona used Michael Brantley in a very similar fashion back in 2013. This was Brantley before the power spiked and he turned into a legit run producer. From 2012-13, Brantley was more of a gap-to-gap, high-contact hitter. Like Ramirez, Brantley hit in all nine spots in ’13 (starting in eight batting order positions).

Brantley is obviously sidelined right now. But, when you look a little closer at the numbers, it’s almost as if the Indians have replaced Brantley with… Brantley. Well, the ’12-13 version of Brantley I just referenced anyways.

Take a look…

Player A: .288/.348/.402, 92.2% contact rate
Player B: .292/.354/.424, 87.3% contact rate

Player A is 2013 Michael Brantley and Player B is Jose Ramirez this season.

BrantRam

“He’s done a great job this year. He’s hit with confidence,” Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo said of Ramirez. “In terms of the contact, he finds the barrel really well. Obviously, you give yourself more of a chance if you put the ball in play in those situation. How hard is going to help, too. The harder you hit the ball, the more chances you’re going to have of getting a base hit. He’s been pretty good at finding the barrel and hitting the ball hard.”

Heading into Wednesday’s action, Ramirez was sporting a 1.025 OPS with runners in scoring position and a 1.118 OPS with RISP and two outs. Brantley, who has one of the highest contact rates in the league, has also excelled in RISP situations throughout his time with the Tribe.

All of this said, Indians could still use Brantley back as soon as possible. Two Brantley’s are better than one.


DRAFT LEFTOVERS

The unsung heros of the annual MLB Draft are the area scouts. They’re the ones beating the bushes, getting to know players and their families, traveling all over the country, filing reports and doing it all over again right after the Draft takes place.

Area scout Junie Melendez, who lives in the Cleveland area, handles Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Kentucky for the Indians. He was back in town for the Draft earlier this month and saw Cleveland take three of the players on his list. Then, after working to get the players signed, he was headed to the Cape Cod League.

“Right back at it,” Melendez said. “You hope to sign these guys as soon as possible, get them into the system and start working towards 2017.”

The three players taken who were scouted by Melendez were Ball State righty Zach Plesac (12th round), along with Ohio University outfielder Mitch Longo (14th round) and Ohio State left-hander Tanner Tully (26th round). All three are signed and starting their pro careers with Cleveland.

Melendez, on Plesac, who is the nephew of former Major Leaguer Dan Plesac and is working his way back from Tommy John surgery:

“The first thing about Zach is the athleticism. He’s a tremendous athlete. He was a two-way player at Ball State. He also had some wide received in his background and also the size. He’s 6-foot-3, 200-plus. That was the No. 1 intrigue with him, was his athleticism. And obviously we liked his delivery and what he can do on the mound. Given that athleticism and that size and the success that we’ve had with guys who have had Tommy John, we felt Zach was a person that, once he rehabs with us, we can get him back, hopefully, even stronger than he was before the injury.

“I would say we think he has a chance to be a starter. He’s got three pitches that all have a chance to be average or better. He’s got a fastball to 93 and he’s got a slider and a changeup that we feel can also be effective pitches for him. He throws a little bit of both. He uses a four-seam and two-seam. He can sink it, but he also has the four-seamer that he works with as well.”

On Longo, who hit .355/.426/.481 with more walks (60) than strikeouts (48) in 142 career games with the Bobcats:

“Mitch Longo, he’s a hitter. We like the offensive skill-set that he has. He can swing the bat. He’s got a consistent history of success at Ohio University. And he can run. He’s athletic. The tools he brings offensively are what we like. He knows the strike zone. He’s a very patient hitter. He gets on base. He’s got a track record of walks and getting on base and he can swing the bat. All those things combined is what we liked about Mitch. He’ll play left field and maybe he’ll have some center sprinkled in, because he can run.”

On Tully, who had 175 strikeouts against 45 walks with a 2.93 ERA in 276 innings over three seasons with the Buckeyes:

“Three-pitch mix left-hander who can throw a ton of strikes. He’s had a history of success in the Big Ten at Ohio State. He’s not an overpowering guy by any means, but he can command the zone and pitch to both sides and change speeds. That’s pretty much Tanner Tully in a nutshell. We’ll try to develop him as a starter. We think he
has a chance to start. That’s how we envision him. He was an all Big Ten performer this year as their Friday night guy. He throws a ton of strikes. His freshman year, he had like Nintendo numbers.”

Thought I spotted Melendez at my son’s game tonight, too.

Stay tuned for more from Toronto…

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 67

ShieldsSome notes and quotes from Saturday’s 13-2 win over the White Sox.

FIRST: Heading into Saturday’s game against Chicago, James Shields’ struggles were hardly a secret.

Shields earned the nickname “Big Game James” many years ago for his work with the Rays, but that moniker and his recent meltdowns make for perfect Twitter fodder. After yet another abysmal performance, though, whether you’re a White Sox fan or not, you have to feel for the guy.

Indians manager Terry Francona even admitted that, while Shields’ latest lapse was good for Cleveland, it is odd to see the big right-hander dealing with a slump this dramatic.

“I have seen him so good for so long,” Francona said, “in the American League East when he was going out against really good lineups, and staying for seven, eight, and nine innings. We want to win every game we can, but that’s a tough night for him.”

Shields issued a leadoff walk to Carlos Santana in the first inning and it did not take long for the wheels to come flying off. Jason Kipnis doubled off the left-field wall. Francisco Lindor chipped in an RBI single. Then, Mike Napoli crushed a three-run, opposite-field home run. Tyler Naquin’s two-out, run-scoring single gave the Tribe a 5-0 lead in the first.

In the second, the Indians added three runs, which were all charged to Shields, too.

“I’ve got to get better — bottom line,” Shields told reporters. “You want to come in to your new team and pitch well, play well for these guys. I mean, I’ve said it before: This is a special team and I see these guys want to win every single night. It’s disappointing.”

Chicago acquired Shields from San Diego on June 4 in exchange for Erik Johnson and Fernando Tatis Jr., and the White Sox are paying a considerable portion of his contract. In his past four starts, including his last one with the Padres, Shields has allowed 32 runs (31 earned) on 32 hits in 11 1/3 innings. He has 13 walks and six strikeouts in that span, with a .485 opponents’ average and a 24.62 ERA.

SECOND: When there are 13 runs and 15 hits, including a trio of home runs, it’s hard to single out one player as the highlight. Rookie Tyler Naquin stood tall on this evening, though.

Naquin ended the night 3-for-3 with a single, triple, homer, two walks and a career-high four RBIs. It marked only the 13th time in club history that a player had at least one homer, two walks, three hits and four RBIs in a game. The last player to do it for the Tribe was Grady Sizemore on Aug. 10, 2005.

“I think he’s more relaxed, especially at the plate,” Francona said. “He had a little bit of a tough week in the road trip and then bounces back and takes some good really swings and does some damage. When you have guys sitting down in the eight or nine holes, it really helps.”

On the year, Naquin is batting .320/.375/.553 with a 151 wRC+ in 103 at-bats across 41 games. Since his latest recall from Triple-A, following Marlon Byrd’s suspension on June 1, Naquin has turned in a .325/.426/.775 slash line in 14 games (40 at-bats). All five of the rook’s home runs and 12 of his 14 RBIs have come since he returned to the Majors.

Naquin’s homer was a 428-foot shot off former Tribe reliever Matt Albers. The solo shot in the sixth came against a changeup and had a 106-mph exit velocity, per Statcast.

“Albers, I knew he had that fastball and liked to go to his changeup,” Naquin said. “I was just looking for something out over the plate, took a good swing on a fastball, missed it. I was confident to just keep hunting the heater. He left the changeup up and I was able to put a pretty good swing on it.”

THIRD: The Indians also had a big bat back in the lineup on Saturday night.

Juan Uribe, who missed the past few games after taking a 106-mph Mike Trout one-hopper to his manhood, was batting sixth for the Tribe against Chicago. The Big Juan collected three hits, including an RBI single in the second and a two-run home run in the sixth. Progressive Field just could not contain Uribe’s 415-foot blast to center.

“Uribe comes back and swung the bat better than he has all year,” Francona said.

HOME: The wealth of offense helped Danny Salazar cruise to his eighth victory of the season. The right-hander went 6 2/3 innings, limiting the White Sox to two runs on five hits and ending with seven strikeouts against one walk.

Salazar’s ERA actually went up… to 2.23.

What was the key for Salazar in this one?

“Bauer wearing my jersey out there,” Salazar said. “That was great.”

No, seriously. Trevor Bauer wore a Salazar jersey in the dugout:

Kidding aside, Salazar was sharp against the Sox. He retired the first 10 batters he faced in order, escaped a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the fourth and dialed it up when needed. In that fourth inning escape, for example, Salazar struck out Todd Frazier with a 97-mph heater up and in. He then got Dioner Navarro to ground out on a 98-mph fastball.

On the night, Salazar sat around 95-96 with his fastballs and topped at 99 mph. An 11-run cushion was more than ample.

“The way Danny was throwing the ball, his stuff was so good tonight,” Francona said. “You see his velocity, but his changeup almost looked like a breaking ball at times.”

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 66

Chicago White Sox v Cleveland IndiansSome notes and quotes from Friday’s 3-2 win over the White Sox.

FIRST: This is the benefit of playing at home.

You saw what happened in Kansas City, where Cleveland dropped a pair of close games to open what wound up being a three-game sweep. You watched Bryan Shaw blow a lead late and that was that. The Indians did not come back and did not have the benefit of last at-bat.

Back in the own backyard, though, the Indians capitalized on Friday night in front of a nice crowd.

“We play better here,” Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said. “It’s nice to play in front of your home crowd. It’s nice to get back to a park you’re familiar with. It was a great crowd tonight, a full one. We appreciated that. It’s always nice to have the last say in the game.”

After closer Cody Allen blew a save in the ninth — allowing one run to pull the game into a 2-2 tie — Carlos Santana gave the Tribe a win with a walk-off homer to lead off the bottom of the inning. Santana cruised around first base with an arm raised skyward, and his teammates celebrated with a water shower at the plate.

“He tried to save the game but it happened,” Santana said. “But, he never put his head down. We tried to fight, especially being at home and we played very good.”

Francona said the sting of the ninth inning only lasted a moment.

“When you’re playing at home,” Francona said, “even though it’s a kick in the stomach for a minute, you’re still hitting last. You see what happens. You make a mistake on the road and you can lose. Fortunately, they did, because they had Santana down 0-2. Man, he took a nice swing.”

SECOND: The decisive at-bat pitted White Sox right-hander Nate Jones against Santana.

Hitting from the left side, Santana slipped into an 0-2 count after Jones started him off with a pair of sliders low and away (both in 87-88 mph range). Jones considered going with a fastball for the third pitch, but opted instead to stick with what was working.

“That was the first call,” said of considering a heater. “But, I was trying to backfoot a slider. Just left it over the middle.”

SantanaHR

Santana admitted that he was actually looking for the fastball.

“I tried to find the fastball,” Santana said. “But, he threw a slider again and I tried to hit it down the middle with good contact. He threw a slider and I got a home run.”

THIRD: One inning earlier, the Indians took advantage of Chicago’s defensive alignment to generate the rally that produced the temporarily, 2-1, lead.

First, utility man Michael Martinez pushed a pitch from lefty Jose Quintana through the hole on the right side of the infield for a leadoff single. That hit upped Martinez’s average to .444 (8-for-18) in his past seven games, and gave him a .333 average in 21 games.

“They were overplaying him when he was hitting,” Francona said. “And you could see him just trying to shoot the ball through the hole, and that’s exactly what he did. He’s been really good for us.”

Before the Indians signed Martinez, he posted a 32 OPS+ in 440 Major League plate appearances across the 2011-14 seasons. That was the lowest OPS+ in baseball among players with at least 400 PAs in that time period. Since joining Cleveland? Martinez has hit .307 (23-for-75).

“I’ll tell you right now: He’s probably everybody’s favorite player on the team,” Kipnis said. “The guy is awesome. He’s a good dude that you like rooting for. He’s a baseball player. He wasn’t your prospect probably when he was coming up. He’s not a big kid, but the guy is a good baseball player and does everything well.”

Two batters later, Kipnis shot a pitch from Quintana into the right-center field gap. Since center fielder J.B. Shuck was shaded toward left field, the ball was able to skip by to the warning track for a double. Martinez was able to score from first as a result.

“They overplay him so much to the left side,” Francona said. “It allowed Michael, whose done some really good things for us, to score all the way from first.”

KipnisSprayChart

Here is a look at Kipnis’ spray chart for the season. He has noticed outfielders shading him to the opposite-field, and he’s been hoping to exploit it. Kipnis said he even talked about it lately with hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo.

“Me and VanBo have been joking about that,” Kipnis said. “When are we going to finally burn one of those center fielders playing me to left-center? Couldn’t have picked a better time. I’m happy about this one.”

HOME: Two things shouldn’t go unnoticed in this one: Trevor Bauer’s start and Rajai Davis’ key stolen base.

As for Bauer, he gave the Indians seven strong innings and was only charged with one run. He struck out nine and walked three. He’s run into some bad luck lately, and that continued in this one. In the third, right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall slipped while charging a low liner from Adam Eaton, opening the door for a triple and, eventually, a run.

“It’s tough, because it cost you a run,” Francona said. “But there’s nothing you can do about that.”

Over his past four starts, Bauer has a 2.12 ERA and a .204 opponents’ average, with 28 strikeouts and eight walks in 29 2/3 innings. In that span, he has one win and three no-decisions.

“Trevor was good,” Francona said. “He was really effective. His stuff wasn’t dropping off. Really good changeup. His pitches were moving. I thought he pitched really well.”

The steal from Davis came in the first inning.

After opening with a base hit off Quintana, Davis swiped second on a slide step from the left-handed starter. It was not only the first steal of the year off Quintana, but it marked Davis’ 18th theft, putting him in a tie with Jose Altuve for the American League lead. The stolen base also set up an RBI single by Francisco Lindor.

“It’s been impressive,” Francona said, “because Rajai’s stolen bases seem like a lot of them have come when they’re trying to defend it. And he still has the ability to go. It’s been something that we had hoped for when we signed him, but it may be better than we expected, just because of the timing of them. They’re trying to defend it and he’s still going.”

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 64

PerezHosmerSome notes and quotes from Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to the Royals.

FIRST: The cards and cribbage board were sitting on Terry Francona’s desk in the visiting manager’s office on Tuesday afternoon. As is typically the case before each game, Bryan Shaw had been in there, taking on his manager. Josh Tomlin joined this time, too.

After the daily meeting with the media, Francona was asked how he fared.

“I got killed,” the manager said in disgust.

When the eighth inning rolled around later in the evening against the Royals, Francona played the card he usually plays, sending Shaw out to the mound. Through thick and thin, the manager has remained loyal to his setup man. And that is not expected to change after what took place in the latest loss to Kansas City.

Shaw allowed a two-out, two-run home run to Salvador Perez to put Cleveland on a path to another tough defeat. It’s the third straight outing in which the righty has given up at least one run. Two of those included a homer. His rate of 2.5 homers allowed per nine innings in a career worst. His ERA has ballooned to 5.68.

Francona is sticking with his guy.

“I don’t want an alternative,” said the manager. “That would not be a smart move on my part. He’s been a good pitcher for us and his stuff’s good. We can’t run away from guys when they have a tough week. That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Francona’s argument for keeping Shaw as his eighth-inning man stems from a few things.

First, nine of the 16 runs allowed by the righty came within two ugly outings in early April. That did a number on Shaw’s overall ERA. After that rough start to the year, Shaw spun a 1.35 ERA with a .200 opponents’ average over the 23 games (20 innings) prior to his last three appearances. On top of that, Shaw has averaged a career-high 94.5 mph on his cutter.

“His stuff’s been really good,” Francona said. “It’s not always one thing. I remember there was a bloop. There’s factors. I think the one recurring thing when he has a tough time is he’s fallen behind in the count.”

To Francona’s point, Shaw slipped behind, 2-0, to four of the five hitters he faced in this loss.

The bloop he probably remembers from this week was the broken-bat, walk-off single by Yunel Escobar vs. Shaw. If that bat doesn’t break, it’s probably a flyout to center field on Thursday night. Similarly, if Jose Ramirez didn’t botch a play in the eighth on Tuesday, Perez might never have stepped into the batter’s box.

SECOND: With one out in the eighth inning, Shaw got Eric Hosmer to chop a full-count offering to the left side of the infield. Playing in the shift, Ramirez ran in and gloved the grounder cleanly.

But, then…

“The transfer, I think he tried to rush a little bit,” Shaw said. “It just looked like he tried to rush a little bit, tried to get it over there, get the out, and it just came out. It’s one of those things. It happens.”

Ramirez fumbled the ball on the transfer and Hosmer was rewarded with an infield single (that could have easily been ruled an error). Said Francona: “That’s a good pitch. We probably need to make that play.”

Asked about the miscue, Ramirez said through a translator: “It was a grounder that wasn’t that easy. It was a grounder that was moving forward and I tried to throw it and I couldn’t. I try to do the best that I can, but this happens. I can’t always do the best.”

Shaw followed with a strikout of Lorenzo Cain. Had Ramirez retired Hosmer on the previous play, the inning would have ended with that punchout and Cleveland would’ve carried a 2-1 lead into the ninth. Instead, the Royals were given a extra life and Perez (1-for-12 against Shaw before that at-bat) took advantage.

“I threw the pitch where I wanted to,” Shaw said. “I probably should’ve maybe thrown it more off the plate, but I threw it for a strike. Obviously, he hit that. Everybody else, we fell behind, but we came back at them and attacked and got the outs when we needed to. I think falling behind guys.

“Maybe I should’ve shook. Maybe I should’ve thrown something else there. You can second-guess the pitches all you want. Obviously, hindsight, after what happens. If it hits a popup there to center, we get out of the inning, we’re not even having a conversation.”

It went 415 feet.

THIRD: That three-batter span in the eighth inning was the difference in Josh Tomlin walking away with a no-decision instead of improving to 9-1 on the year.

Tomlin had “everything” working, per Francona. The right-hander logged seven strong innings, with his lone hiccup coming via a homer by rookie Whit Merrifield in the third. Tomlin struck out five and walked none, improving his American League-leading strikeout-to-walk ratio to 7.14.

“He commanded. He competed. He changed speeds,” Francona said. “We didn’t always help him. We had one inning where, man, he gets a big popup and all of a sudden it’s second-and-third and he pitched out of that. There were some high-leverage innings because of the score of the game, but he was terrific.”

About that popup.

With a runner on first and two outs in the sixth, Perez sent a high fly to shallow center and the Royals catcher flipped his bat away in anger. Rookie center fielder Tyler Naquin sprinted in and, as shortstop Francisco Lindor closed in fast as well, called for the ball and made a sliding catch attempt.

Naquin didn’t make the grab, Perez got a double and Tomlin was forced to work out of a tough jam with a 2-1 lead.

“Naquin called him off. Frankie would’ve caught it,” Francona said. “That’s just I think a little bit of inexperience. He’s got to let Frankie take it if he can’t there. It’s not his fault he can’t get there. We had him [playing] really deep. But, you can’t call it unless you know you’ve got it.”

Heading into the night, Naquin had an MLB-worst minus-10 Defensive Runs Saved in center field this season. His minus-32.5 UZR/150 was the lowest among the 36 big leaguers with at least 200 innings in center this season. Naquin was lauded for his defense coming up through the Minors, but the transition to the Majors has been rocky to date.

HOME: The eighth inning did end in spectacular fashion for the Indians.

After Perez’s game-changing shot, Shaw induced a grounder up the middle off the bat of Kendrys Morales. Just as they did in Cleveland on June 4, shortstop Francisco Lindor and Ramirez teamed for a highlight-reel 6-5-3 putout. Lindor dove, snared the ball and flipped it to Ramirez, who threw out Morales at first base to end the inning.

EXTRAS: The late collapse also spoiled a handful of good offensive performances (albeit in a low-scoring affair). On the one-year anniversary of his MLB debut, Lindor collected three hits for the Tribe. Jason Kipnis, who headed into the game with an .888 OPS this June and an .864 OPS in June for his career, chipped in a go-ahead, RBI single in the fifth. Carlos Santana also belted a home run in the third inning.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

The Tribe’s first 10 rounds

Benson3Will Benson was just one of two players to accept the invitation to experience Day 1 of the MLB Draft from MLB Network’s Studio 42. As part of the day in and around New York, the young hitting prospect received a tour of Yankee Stadium.

MLB.com’s Mark Newman sent this note over from that trip: “One of the cool scenes during the day as he toured Yankee Stadium was him posing between the plaques of Jackie Robinson and Nelson Mandela as his mom, Ramona, took his picture. Then he proceeded to read all the Mandela quotes on the plaque closely.”

After chatting for only a few minutes with Benson via conference call, that story is not the least bit surprising. What is surprising about it is that Benson is all of 17 years old. This kid has lofty goals and aspirations, and he hasn’t even stepped onto a professional baseball diamond yet.

Now, we’ll see where Benson goes from here, and he has a long road ahead of him before he potentially reaches the Major Leagues. I will say this, though. In my decade-plus of covering the Draft, there have been two players who struck me as extremely polished and mature well beyond their years after the first interview. One is Benson, and the other was Francisco Lindor.

Lindor also had big goals for himself on and off the field. We’ve all seen what he’s turned into between the lines for the Indians. This year, now that he’s a full-time shortstop in the big leagues, he’s also started to do work away from the stadium. On Saturday, for example, the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., will host Lindor, who has made it part of his mission to impact youth in Cleveland and around the country.

Asked if he had heard of Lindor’s work with the R.B.I. program, Benson said it was actually a topic of conversation with Cleveland’s scouts before he was drafted by the club:

“CT Bradford with the Indians, the area scout in Georgia, he was explaining to me how the Indians are all about giving back to the kids and being prevalent in the community. That’s kind of part of my mission. I’m very thankful the Indians drafted me, but it doesn’t mean anything if I don’t impact the people that are in Cleveland, impact the world.”

Benson will be a fun player to follow as he climbs the organizational ladder, and not only for the tape-measure home runs he can launch.

Here is the rundown on Cleveland’s picks in the Draft’s first 10 rounds:

Round 1 (No. 14): OF Will Benson
School:
The Westminster Schools (Atlanta)
Slot value: $2,973,700
MLB.com pre-Draft ranking:
38

Brad Grant, Cleveland’s director of amateur scouting: “We couldn’t be more excited about this pick. He’s a big, physical athlete — a potential five-tool-type player. Very good ability to hit, to hit with power to all fields, to run, throw and field. Really, the whole package. He’s a special person that comes from a very special family, as well. A guy we’re very excited about and a guy that our scouts did an unbelievable job in working through and really getting to know and putting all the pieces together with him.”

Benson


Partially due to his size and frame, and also because he comes from Atlanta, Benson has faced comparisons to Jason Heyward. Grant said he doesn’t like to label a prospect in that manner, but he added: “Those are obviously natural comparisons with the body and the size and the presence to him and the power potential. I think Will Benson is exciting for all of those reasons.”

Benson had this to say about being compared to Heyward: “It’s an honor to have that comparison. I think, defensively, that’s a good comparison. I think we both have a lot of range and can throw the ball really well. I think, offensively, I can possibly do better. That’s no discredit to what Jason Heyward has done. He’s a monster on the offensive end. He’s always on base and he can hit for average. But, I think I can hit for a little bit more power and still have that average. Defensively, I want to be just like that or even better. Offensively, I think I can take it to the next level.”


 

Round 2 (No. 55): INF Nolan Jones
School:
Holy Ghost (Pa.) Prep
Slot value: $1,159,200
MLB.com pre-Draft ranking:
20

Grant: “He’s another guy that we couldn’t be more thrilled about getting. Again, a very good hitter. He’s a guy who we feel is going to hit with power as well in the future. He has a plus arm — solid fielder. Another guy with really good makeup as well. He’s a guy that we spent a whole lot of time with — our scouts spent a whole lot of time with — and got to really know him and his family well as well.”

NolanJones

Lottery Round B (No. 72): C Logan Ice
School:
Oregon State
Slot value: $892,200
MLB.com pre-Draft ranking: 108

Grant: “What really stands out about Logan is his defensive ability. He’s an advanced framer, an advanced defender behind the plate. He does some things defensively the are very, very good and he put together a very good offensive year as well. He’s a guy that we’re very  excited about getting with that third pick.”

Ice

Round 3 (No. 92): RHP Aaron Civale
School:
Northeastern
Slot value: $655,500
MLB.com pre-Draft ranking: 136

Grant: “We view him as a right-handed starter, a guy that can really throw strikes, a guy that has a solid-average fastball, the making of a plus slider, a very good changeup. What really stands out about him is his ability to control the fastball, the ability to work it to both halves, the ability to keep it down in the zone.”

Civale

Round 4 (No. 122): RHP Shane Bieber
School:
UC Santa Barbara
Slot value: $482,500
MLB.com pre-Draft ranking: 151

Grant: “He’s another guy that has an advanced feel to pitch. He really commands the fastball extremely well and he’s another guy who throws a ton of strikes. He’s got a solid-average fastball, a solid-average slider and a feel for a changeup.”

Bieber

Round 5 (No. 152): OF Conner Capel
School:
Seven Lakes (Texas) HS
Slot value: $361,300
MLB.com pre-Draft ranking: 73

Grant: “He’s a big strong guy that we feel is probably going to be more power than hit. He does make consistent contact — he made it all summer. And we think the power is going to continue to develop with him. We feel like he’s got a chance to be a solid-average hitter and then hit for power as well. So, a good combination there.”

Capel

Round 6 (No. 182): INF Ulysses Cantu
School:
W.E. Boswell (Texas) HS
Slot value: $270,300
MLB.com pre-Draft ranking: 105

Grant: “We’re going to play him at third base and see. What stands out about Cantu is his ability to hit. All summer long we watched him. All summer long he hit. He’s got some power in the bat, too, despite the 5-11 frame. But, he can really hit. He’s got an unbelievable understanding of the strike zone. He doesn’t chase. There’s not much swing and miss at all. His bat is what stands out about him.”

Cantu

Round 7 (No. 212): C Michael Tinsley
School:
Kansas
Slot value: $202,900
MLB.com pre-Draft ranking: n/a

Grant: “We’re going to send him out there as a catcher, certainly. But, what really stands out about him as well is his bat. He’s a guy that does not strike out. In 251 plate appearances, it was like 18 strikeouts. So, he’s a guy that makes hard consistent contact, uses all the fields, and we’re going to continue to give him every opportunity to catch. I think if you look at our organization, you look at our instructors and our managers, we’ve got a lot of former catchers in our system. So, we’re going to work with him and see if we can get him better.”

Round 8 (No. 242): RHP Andrew Lantrip
School:
Houston
Slot value: $178,700
MLB.com pre-Draft ranking: n/a

Grant: “He’s another guy with elite ability to command the strike zone. I know I keep pointing it out, but 90 innings with five walks. He’s a guy who’s got solid-average stuff across the board. He can really pitch with his fastball, move it around. He’s got an average slider. He’s got a feel for a changeup. He’s a guy we feel could start and can advance as a starter with his ability to throw strikes.”

Round 9 (No. 272): OF Hosea Nelson
School:
Clarendon College
Slot value: $166,700
MLB.com pre-Draft ranking: n/a

Grant: “We try to factor that in [that his statistics came in Juco]. I mean, to hit .530 with 20 home runs and 18 doubles in Juco with a 1.600 OPS is still pretty good. Wherever you do it, it’s really good. He’s a good athlete. He’s a plus runner. He’s a guy that put together an unbelievable year, so we’ll see where it goes. But, we definitely factored in the numbers with him, too.”

Round 10 (No. 302): SS Samad Taylor
School:
Corona Senior (Calif.) HS
Slot value: $156,600
MLB.com pre-Draft ranking: n/a

Grant: “Samad is an interesting guy. He’s only 17 years old. He played really well over the course of the summer, played well over the course of the spring. He’s a plus runner. He can play both short, play second, play the middle infield. Just with his age and where he’s going, we feel the bat has some upside. He does make contact right now and, as he continues to get stronger and continues to fill out, we feel there’s more upside in the bat as well.”

–JB

2016 Napoli vs. 2013 Reynolds

ReynoldsNapAs I sat down to begin writing this post, Mike Napoli sent a fastball from Wade Miley to right field for a long single in the second inning in Seattle. That he took the pitch — one low and on the outer half of the plate — to the opposite field was a good sign.

We’ll get to that a bit later.

First, let’s start a few seasons back, because Napoli’s solid start to this season has many followers of the Tribe thinking back to another right-handed slugger who got off to a solid start. Remember Mark Reynolds? He’s a cautionary tale for Cleveland, which is enjoying what it’s getting from Napoli, and hoping it will continue.

Flashback to May 6 of that 2013 season, when Reynolds dropped jaws after flicking his bat away. He absolutely crushed a pitch against the A’s and admired it as he walked out of the box, spitting before moving into his home run trot.

It was a thing of beauty, and it was the beginning of the end for the slugger in Cleveland.

After that game, we interviewed Reynolds about the blast and about his reaction to it — a bit of gamesmanship that stemmed from being hit by a pitch a few innings earlier — and we discussed his strong start. At the time, Reynolds was batting .300 with a 1.026 OPS out of the gates for the Indians.

“To be able to come out and have the start I’ve had,” Reynolds said that day, “I think it has a lot to do with experience. It has a lot to do with not caring what you guys write about me. I’m just doing my thing and having fun out there.”

And then, as we all said our thanks and began to walk away, Reynolds added…

“Wait ’til I go into an 0-for-30. Then you [guys] will be all over me.”

He wasn’t far off. Reynolds hit .179 with a .532 OPS in his next 71 games and was released by the Indians on Aug. 12.

Throughout that May in ’13, many Indians fans were e-mailing and tweeting and calling in to talk shows, begging the Tribe to hand Reynolds an extension. Surely, that incredible start was worth more than the one-year deal the Indians handed him. He was the Right-Handed Power Bat that Cleveland needed.

But then, he wasn’t.

That brings me to this tweet I received not long ago about Napoli:

For starters, the 34-year-old Napoli is five years older than Reynolds was during that ’13 campaign, so a contract extension is already questionable simply due to age. Perhaps a short-term pact wouldn’t be out of the question at some point, but if the Reynolds situation taught us anything, it’s not to overreact, or even just react much at all, to roughly two months of at-bats.

And, when you look at the numbers, 2016 Napoli has been very similar to 2013 Reynolds.

Here’s a look at Napoli through Monday (223 plate appearances):

.234/.305/.502. 14 HR, 42 RBI

Here’s Reynolds April 2-June 4, 2013 (223 plate appearances)

.247/.332/.485, 13 HR, 41 RBI

Now, much of Reynolds’ production there is inflated due to his incredible five-week showing out of the gates. Napoli, for the most part, has stayed relatively close to his slash line all season. That alone is reason to believe Napoli’s production is a little more sustainable. His peaks and valleys have been there, but not nearly as extreme as with Reynolds back in ’13.

There is also the matter of strikeouts. Napoli strikes out a lot — like 35.9-percent-of-the-time a l0t. During the noted sample of plate appearances for Reynolds, his strikeout percentage was 27.8. That’s still high, but not to the same level as Napoli this season. That said, not all strikeouts are created equal.

Anyone who has paid close attention to Napoli this season would probably be quick to tell you that he strikes out looking quite a bit. Heading into Tuesday’s action, Napoli had gone down looking in 28 of his 80 strikeouts (35 percent). Prior to ’16, Napoli had a 27.3-percent looking strikeout rate, so there’s reason to believe he’ll improve there as the season wears on.

One of the big issues with the looking strikeouts has been low-and-outside pitches.

NapZones

The above strike-zone map shows that 20 the 80 strikeouts by Napoli this season have been low and away. Half of those called. Ryan Lewis of the Akron Beacon Journal chatted with Napoli about that trend back on May 20. As it happens, Napoli hasn’t had a called strikeout to those quadrants since May 21. Ten of the 14 strikeouts to those two areas through May 21 were called.

So, there’s been progress of late. Consider Napoli’s home run against the Royals on June 5. Not only was a pitch to that low-and-away portion of the plate, but Napoli took it to the opposite field for a home run off Chris Young.

Here is Napoli’s production on pitches to that area of the strike zone:

NapSpray

This does, in a way, bring us back to Reynolds. Reynolds struck out fewer times in the noted sample, but he went down swinging more than Napoli. Cleveland’s current first baseman averaged 4.7 pitches per plate appearance (contributing to some of those called third strikes), while Reynolds saw 4.3 P/PA.

Reynolds went down looking in 12.9 percent of his strikeouts through June 4 of 2013. His swinging strike rate of 14.4 percent was higher than Napoli’s is now (12.7 percent). Their ball-in-play percentages are roughly the same (28.9 for Nap and 30.5 for Reynolds). And, their respective BABIPs were in line with their career norms (.306 for Napoli, who has a .307 career mark; .287 for Reynolds, who’s had a .284 mark from ’12-16).

In terms of all those swinging strikes for both players, here’s the comparison:

SwingingKs

So, it’s pretty clear here that pitchers were exploiting a weakness of Reynolds with pitches low and outside the zone. That’s been an area in which Napoli has run into a good chunk of called strikeouts, but not nearly as many swings and misses.

Of all those swinging strikes for Reynolds, a good portion came against sliders/curveballs (33.3 percent). Napoli’s swinging-strike rate on those breaking balls is 21 percent. Napoli has been more prone to swinging and missing at hard fastballs. Napoli has a .160 ISO/.320 SLG on pitches of 94 mph or greater, while Reynolds had a .259/.481 showing on such pitches in the comparison sample. On the other hand, Napoli has a .225 ISO/.450 SLG on sliders/curveballs, while Reynolds had a .164/.377 showing.

So, as much as they look similar on the surface, 2016 Napoli and 2013 Reynolds are hardly the same hitter. Napoli might swing through the hard heat at times, but he can fight off put-away breaking pitches and grind through longer at-bats. Reynolds, if he didn’t jump on the hard stuff, was more prone to being put away with breaking pitches, espcially out of the zone.

Does this mean Napoli can avoid the kind of collapse Reynolds experienced three years ago? Well, when he strikes out in eight straight plate appearances — like he did in last month’s trip to Boston — it’s not hard to envision a prolonged slump. That said, there are aspects of his season to date that make it seem like he’d be less likely to fall into a cavernous slump like Reynolds did.

Still, I wouldn’t come running to him with a contract extension if I were Cleveland just yet. I’d just enjoy what Napoli is doing and see how far it helps take the Tribe.

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 55

CKGomesSome notes and quotes about Sunday’s 7-0 win over the Royals.

FIRST: Place. How’s that sound?

The American League Central is beginning to play out the way we all expected. The top four teams — each of which has spent time in first place at some point this season — are clustered closely together.

Right now, though, your Indians are atop the division.

The Tribe headed into this series after a rough 2-4 showing to open this homestand. The second of those wins, however, was a walk-off victory. And, it was a walk-off that arrived on the day Marlon Byrd was sent packing with a 162-game suspension. It was a much-needed win on an emotional day, and it came at a great time, given that the then-first-place Royals were coming to town.

“It’s a good end to a really long day,” Indians manager Terry Francona said that night. “You can’t help but have emotions when you’re dealing with some of the stuff we did. It’s a nice way to end the day. I think we’re all going to sleep good.”

The Tribe should sleep well Sunday night, too, especially considering a three-hour rain delay in the sixth inning interrupted play. Now, it’s off to Seattle for the start of a 10-game swing against the Mariners, Angels and Royals.

In this set against Kansas City, Cleveland had a chance to gain some ground. The Indians went ahead and swept the Royals, turning a 2.5-game deficit in the division into a 1.5-game lead.

Before the rain arrived, Corey Kluber led the way to the win column with six stellar innings. After a pair of first-inning singles, Kansas City went 0-for-16 against the right-hander with six strikeouts and five outs via grounders.

 

During the four-game sweep, the Indians’ pitching staff posted a 1.50 ERA with a 3.1 K/BB ratio and 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings. Over 36 innings against the Royals, Cleveland’s pitchers allowed a .198/.257/.294 opponents’ slash line. Kansas City managed only six runs on 25 hits, including six extra-base hits.

On the other side of the coin, the Tribe offense posted a .308/.354/.608 slash line to go along with 25 runs and 40 hits, including 19 extra-base hits. That includes a season-high seven extra-base hits in Sunday’s win.

SECOND: With a sweep of the Royals on the line, the Indians had a favorable matchup with Kluber squaring off against right-hander Chris Young in Sunday’s finale.

This marked Young’s first start for Kansas City since May 9. He had a stint on the disabled list, but the righty had also been extremely homer prone in his time in the Royals’ rotation. That aspect came into play in a big way in Cleveland’s win.

Mike Napoli started the party with a leadoff shot in the fourth and the Indians belted three more long balls in the fifth. Those came off the bats of Tyler Naquin, Carlos Santana and Francisco Lindor — each pulled shots to the right-field seats.

With that showing, Young has now allowed 3.73 home runs per nine innings this season. Among the 162 pitchers with at least 30 innings logged in the Majors this year (as of this writing), Young has the highest HR/9. The right-hander’s negative 0.8 fWAR is also the lowest in baseball.

THIRD: Naquin didn’t win the longest drive competition — Santana’s shot traveled 441 feet, per Statcast — but the rookie did have the hardest-hit homer of the night.

Naquin’s leadoff blast against Young rocketed off his bat at 109 mph and carried to the first row of the second deck.

The home run was the third in as many days for Naquin, who was called back up from Triple-A on Wednesday after Byrd exited stage left. Dealing with being sent back and forth between The Show and the farm can be tough on a young player, but Naquin has looked more relaxed this time around in Francona’s view.

“I do think he’s in a better place,” Francona said before Sunday’s game. “Early in the year, he was finding ways to get hits. You can tell, like he was trying not to swing at those breaking balls in the dirt. Now, he’s taking [pitches] a little bit better. You can tell he’s a little bit more relaxed. It looks like things are starting to slow down a little bit.”

Naquin became the first Cleveland rookie to homer in three straight games since Jason Kipnis accomplished the feat in four consecutive games from July 31-Aug. 3, 2011.

HOME: There is no place like it for Napoli.

With his 1-for-4 showing on Sunday, Napoli ended this 10-game homestand with six home runs and a dozen RBIs for the Tribe. In that span, he also posted an .805 slugging percentage. His opposite-field shot in the fourth (Napoli’s first oppo taco of the season) came with a 103-mph exit velo and flew 355 feet, per Statcast.

According to Cleveland.com’s Zack Meisel, it was not only Napoli’s first opposite-field homer of the year, but his first since April 25 last season.

The recent homestand was also just a continuation of Napoli’s play at Progressive Field to this point this year. Through 29 games at home, the first baseman has hit .284 with 10 of his 14 home runs and 32 of his 42 RBIs. Napoli has a .637 slugging percentage in front of the local audience, too.

And, yes, after his homer, Napoli made a call to the bullpen. No, we still don’t know who he’s calling out there.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 52

SalazarSome notes and quotes from Friday’s 6-1 win over the Royals.

FIRST: Remember the scene in Bull Durham? Crash Davis jogs out to the mound and instructs the flame-throwing Nuke Laloosh to throw the next pitch at the mascot. Laloosh plays along and hits the ball.

“I wouldn’t dig in if I was you,” Davis tells the hitter through laughter. “I don’t know where it’s going to go. Swear to God.”

Danny Salazar wore the Wild Thing glasses during Spring Training, but the Tribe’s hard-throwing righty has a touch of Nuke in him this season. He has been the epitome of “effectively wild” and Salazar has been one of the American League’s best pitchers in the process.

With his eight-inning performance on Friday night, Salazar’s statistics to this point paint a picture of a top-five starter in the AL. Here are his ranks among starters in the league as of this writing:

10.7 K/9 (first)
29.2 K% (first)
2.24 ERA (second)
5.8 H/9 (second)
.181 AVG (second)
1.8 fWAR (fourth)
3.01 FIP (fourth)

Look at this one, though…

4.4 BB/9 (45th out of 49 qualified starters)

On Friday night, that overall pattern continued. Salazar issued five walks, but he limited Kansas City to just one run via a solo homer by Drew Butera in the third inning. The righty only allowed three hits overall, and he balanced out the occasional lapses in command with nine strikeouts.

“Even though he did have some walks, his stuff was so good,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “His fastball, I think even on his last pitch was 97 or 98 [mph]. Really effective offspeed to go with it. When you are throwing that hard, and he starts throwing that breaking ball and changeup — a lot of good weapons. He did a good job, because they came into the series swinging the bat pretty good.”

It was impressive that Salazar even made it eight innings.

Typically, between a hefty pile of walks and a high volume of strikeouts, a pitcher will leave early due to a high pitch count. Salazar threw 67 of his 113 pitches between the walks and punchouts on Friday night, but he managed to stay on the hill thanks in part to Kansas City’s aggressive lineup.

Consider this: The last pitcher to go at least eight innings with at least nine strikeouts and five walks was A.J. Burnett on May 12, 2001. If you recall, that was his wild no-hitter for the Marlins. Before Salazar on Friday, it hadn’t happened since Sept. 7, 2000, when Kansas City’s Dan Reichert had that rare combination. Prior to that? Not since 1993.

“I think trying to stay focused there and a little bit mad,” Salazar said, “helped me a lot to be aggressive and forget about the walks.”

Salazar said the Butera home run got underneath his skin.

“That made me mad,” he said. “I tried to throw a slider there and I threw it for a strike. I just put it there, instead of throwing it down in the zone. After that, I got a little bit mad and started being aggressive.”

SECOND: Tyler Naquin experienced the joy of making an Opening Day roster this season. He has also felt the sting of being sent back to Triple-A more than once. It can be tough to be a young player with options when a team is in a roster crunch.

“I agree with that. I think it is [tough],” Francona said. “The last time was harder than maybe we realized. I think that’s when you have conversations with guys. The big
thing is maybe not the emotions at the time, but where do you go from here. How do you make it better?

“I think we are in a really good place, which is really good. This kid’s got a chance to be a good player for awhile.”

On Friday night — in his second game back with the Tribe from Triple-A Columbus — Naquin cleared a Major League wall for the first time. He hit .315 in the 22 games before his first trip back to the Minors. He hit .333 in five games in his second brief stint with Cleveland. Since coming back this time, Naquin has gone 2-for-6.

Lonnie Chisenhall, who remembers all too well what it was like to deal with the trips back to Triple-A, has been impressed with how Naquin has handled things.

“When he comes up, he’s positive. When he gets sent down, he’s positive,” Chisenhall said. “It’s part of the game. I know he’s put a lot of miles on his truck from here to Columbus, but when he comes up, he’s got energy when he’s here. He doesn’t feel sorry for himself. He doesn’t sulk.

“He goes down and gets to work and, when he gets back, he’s working here, too. That’s good to see, especially out of a young guy who has options, and he’s not really sure of his fate.”

Chisenhall was also impressed with Naquin’s home run in the seventh inning, when the rookie outfielder shot a pitch from Edinson Volquez over the 19-foot wall in left for a solo shot. It rocketed off the bat at 104.5 mph and soared 401 feet.

“I haven’t seen too many lefty oppo home runs here,” Chisenhall said. “There’s probably been six or seven that I’ve seen and that was one of the more impressive ones. It’s up there. He’s got pop and quick hands.”

Naquin obtained the baseball and said he’s “just gonna put it in a case and let it sit there.”

“[It’s] awesome,” Naquin said. “A Major League home run. No words that could describe that.”

Did he know it was gone?

“I knew when I hit it that I hit it well enough to get it out,” Naquin said. “I always run hard. I’m always going to run hard. You never know. The wall is a little tall out there.”

Said Francona: “That ball went out in a hurry. That’s hard to do. Good for him. He’s come back this time and seems more relaxed, which I think is good.”

THIRD: Also in the seventh, Chisenhall flashed some of his defensive prowess.

Cheslor Cuthbert ripped a pitch from Salazar to deep right field for a sure single, but he was tempted to try for a two-base hit. Chisenhall gathered the baseball near the warning track and had other plans.

Chisenhall uncorked a 90-mph throw that covered 225 feet, per Statcast. Shortstop Francisco Lindor snagged the throw from the dirt with a nice pick, and applied a swift tag for a highlight-reel out.

“I loved it. I was jumping there,” Salazar said. “He has a great arm. He’s becoming a great outfielder going from third base to right field. The way he’s playing, the way he works every day, he’s out there taking fly balls and things like that. I love having him back there when I’m pitching.”

After the tag, Lindor stood up quickly and pointed out to Chisenhall in celebration.

“He told me to hit him in the chest next time, too,” Chisenhall quipped. “He made a great pick. That was probably one of the better parts of the play. The throw was on line, but he did a good job staying with it. I’ll try to hit him in the chest next time.”

HOME: We’ve mentioned Cleveland’s above-average baserunning in this space this year, because that aspect of the Tribe’s game has been a great development this season. The Indians have been, and continue to be, arguably the top baserunning team in the AL.

This came into play again in the eighth inning, when Jose Ramirez delivered a one-out double down the left-field line. Ramirez then stole third base, forcing an errant throw by Royals catcher Drew Butera. That allowed Ramirez — sans helmet — to sprint home for an insurance run for the Tribe.

“I think, in general,” Francona said, “our entire team has done a really good job of going hard but being smart. Not running into outs, but trying to be aggressive while still being intelligent. That’s a good combination, our guys have done a good job of that.”

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Covering the Bases: Game 52

LindorSome notes and quotes from Thursday’s 5-4 win over the Royals.

FIRST: We will get to Francisco Lindor’s heroics, and what was running through his mind in the ninth inning on Thursday night, but let’s start with what ignited Cleveland’s latest walk-off win.

With Kansas City clinging to a 4-3 lead in the final frame, Carlos Santana led off by ripping a pitch from Joakim Soria into right field. The Indians’ designated hitter, who has been an above-average baserunner all season long, hustled up the line and around first base, forcing right fielder Paulo Orlando to quickly get the ball.

Orlando bobbled it and Santana made it to second base thanks to the error.

“That’s what won the game for us. Right there. That play,” Lindor said. “That’s what won the game for us. Besides the stuff that happened in the earlier innings, that play right there, I think it won the game for us. First, it gave us the momentum. Second of all, we started to believe. It was like, ‘Yes, we’re going to score. That run has to score.’

“The hustle by him — he’s not the fastest guy — but that hustle by him says a lot. He not only wanted a base hit, but he wanted to get to second. That’s important.”

Indians manager Terry Francona credited Santana for playing a part in the fielding error, too.

“Carlos put himself in a position where maybe he kind of helped the miscue,” Francona said. “Because, if you don’t push it, that doesn’t happen. And to get himself in a position to maybe not only maybe cause it, but to be in a position to where he can move up, which kind of set up the inning.”

Jason Kipnis followed with a sac bunt, moving pinch-runner Michael Martinez to third. Lindor then delivered the key hit — a triple to the wall in right-center. That set the table for Mike Napoli to deliver a game-winning sacrifice fly. Lindor scored from third, diving head-first across the plate to set off another on-field party.

Three times in this one, Cleveland took advantage of a Kansas City error.

First baseman Eric Hosmer made a throwing gaffe in the third, allowing Lindor to advance to second on a single. Lindor later scored on a hit from Jose Ramirez. In the eighth, Napoli singled into the hole, but shortstop Alcides Escobar made an ill-advised throw, which led to an error that moved Napoli up 9 0feet. He later scored on a single by Tyler Naquin.

“It’s rare. Whenever they make errors, it’s rare,” Lindor said. “They’ve got a great defensive team. Whenever you see them making mistakes and us taking advantage and making them pay for it, it’s huge.”

The Indians have now won back-to-back walk-offs for the first time since May 17-18, 2013.

SECOND: Now, about Lindor…

After the game, the shortstop said that he usually has a song running through his mind when he is walking to the plate. Lately, and again on Thursday, it was “Space Jam” by the Quad City DJ’s, a tune that’s been his walk-up music for a couple weeks now.

“Usually I’m singing my song in my mind,” Lindor said. “It gets me off the game.”

When Lindor walked to the plate in the ninth, though, something else was on his mind.

“Brantley’s voice,” Lindor said with a laugh.

Let’s let Frankie explain:

“He was telling me, he was like, ‘You can’t go to the plate thinking, “I’ve got to get a hit.” To get out of the slump, you can’t go to the plate thinking, “I’ve got to get a hit.” That’s when you’re going to go up and go straight back down. Think about making hard contact. If you make hard contact, that’s a plus. Think what you did right and, after that, take it to the next at-bat.’ That’s what we were talking about.”

Heading into the game, Lindor was in an 0-for-12 funk, or a 1-for-15 dry spell if you go back a little further. Leading up to the ninth inning, Lindor was in a 2-for-19 drought. The shortstop didn’t really view this as a typical slump, though.

“I never felt like I was going through a slump,” Lindor said. “I felt like I was having good at-bats. I felt like I was on time. I was just either getting on top of it or getting under it. So, I felt good the whole entire time.”

Lindor certainly felt good after what happened in the ninth.

THIRD: Before the late-inning comeback, the story of the night was the return of right-hander Carlos Carrasco. The starter was limited to around 80 pitches, and his night ended after he logged 78 in five innings. Carrasco allowed three runs on nine hits, including eight singles, and ended with two strikeouts and one walk.

It wasn’t a great outing, but having Carrasco back was a mental lift for the Indians.

“It’s a big relief. A big relief,” Lindor said. “It’s a relief. That’s at least 10-15 wins right there. I’m happy for him. I’m happy for the Indians. I’m happy for the fans, because he’s a fun guy to watch.”

Carrasco admitted to being a little nervous, but was happy with how things went overall.

“It was a lot of work that I did for the last six weeks,” Carrasco said. “It feels great to see my teammates fighting. We are close. Coming back today and pitching, I tried to go deep in the game. I only went five innings, but I feel great.”

HOME: The last play of the game came down to Lindor’s legs vs. Jarrod Dyson’s arm.

Napoli sent a pitch from Soria to left field, where Dyson made the catch. Lindor didn’t care how far or close Dyson was to the infield, the shortstop was planning on running home to try to score the winning run.

“No one is stopping me,” Lindor said. “I’m going no matter what. It could’ve been a little closer. I’m going no matter what. I wanted to score. That’s the ultimate goal. You get on base, because you want to score. You don’t want to get on base and just stay on base. As soon as I saw the ball go up, I’m going. I’m going. I’m going. And the third baseman kind of got in my way. I tried to get away from him. As soon as I saw him catching the ball, I was going no matter what.”

Lindor sprinted from third to home in 4.2 seconds, hitting a top speed of 19.8 mph. Dyson unleashed a 95-mph throw that traveled 261 feet. Lindor, and the Indians, won.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

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