By: August Fagerstrom / @AugustF_MLB
When an athlete suffers a serious injury, I think the first thing we should do is take a moment to reflect.
Take a moment to reflect simply on the fragility of life and the human body. On all the hours of hard work that athlete has dedicated towards honing his or her craft, and how many of those hours will be erased by the injury. On what kind of consequences it might have on the future and livelihood of that athlete and his or her family, and the emotions they all might be feeling at the time of the injury. On what the equivalent of a torn ACL for an athlete might be for you at your job, and the effect it would have on you as a person.
At the very least, it’s an exercise in human compassion that can’t hurt, and it’s certainly more productive than worrying about your fantasy baseball team.
That being said, after an appropriate amount of time has passed, it’s still reasonable to worry about your fantasy team (maybe you’ve got money invested in it) and it’s still reasonable to wonder about the implications of that injury on your favorite real-life team (you’ve got time and emotion invested in it).
By now, we’ve had ample time to digest and come to terms with Yan Gomes’ injury, and it stinks for all parties involved. But even though it stinks, the injury, as is often the case with bad things in life, comes with a silver lining if you look hard enough.
The silver lining, for Roberto Perez, is that he now gets a chance to live out his dream and be an everyday player at the Major League level. The silver lining, for the rest of us, is that we get a chance to see what that looks like. The other silver lining is that it might not be so bad for the Tribe.
You’re familiar with Perez’s reputation behind the plate by now. Several years back, even before he he reached the Triple-A level, scouts said things like this:
“Every pitcher in the organization who I ask about throwing to Roberto raves about the experience, talking about how much they enjoy it when he’s behind the plate. Perez has no weaknesses behind the plate, doing everything you’d expect out of a Gold Glove catcher.”
Now that he’s at the Major League level, his coaches are saying things like this:
“He’s a backup here because we have Yan Gomes,” said Sandy Alomar Jr., the Tribe’s first-base coach and a former Major League catcher. “Anywhere else, he could start.”
I say obvious in the title because we all know it’s there. I say hidden because a catcher’s craft behind the plate is still something that’s easy to miss in real-time, and the magnitude of its value is something that’s underrated by the casual fan. Before Tuesday’s game against the White Sox, Trevor Bauer called it a “valuable skill that’s very overlooked by the general public.” Given that Roberto Perez will be this team’s everyday catcher for the next six-to-eight weeks, this all seems like something that warrants further examination.
First, some numbers, for context. For the better part of the last decade, some of baseball’s brightest minds have dedicated their working lives to accurately quantify pitch framing. They’ve come a long way. One of the pioneers of the subject, Mike Fast, then of Baseball Prospectus, quickly got scooped up to work for the Houston Astros once they saw his work. Others have followed a similar path. These guys know what they’re doing, is the point.
The most recent update in measuring pitch framing, published by Jonathan Judge, Harry Pavlidis and Dan Brooks, can be found here. Included, for the first time, was Minor League framing. Where did Perez rank?
Among the best. In limited time at the Major League level, Perez’s framing, prorated to something like a full season’s worth of work, has also graded out around +15 runs above average. We have a good idea of what Perez is worth in this regard, and it’s worth quite a bit.
Maybe you have a difficult time contextualizing what “15 runs” — or about 1.5 WAR — really means over the course of a season. If it helps, 15 runs is what Alex Gordon was worth at the plate last season. It’s what Andrelton Simmons was worth with the glove. It’s what Billy Hamilton and Mike Trout were worth on the bases, combined. In other words, a lot.
In Bauer’s first start of the season, he struck out 11 batters. Perez was behind the dish. Six of those 11 strikeouts were called. Ask Bauer, and he’ll tell you he got some help.
“Roberto definitely got me a couple,” Bauer said. “When you get to two strikes, that’s probably the biggest difference maker when you have a good framer. You can throw a cutter a couple inches off the plate — a really good pitcher’s pitch, people aren’t going to be able to do much with it — and it’s a ball. But, if the guy catches it right, sometimes it’s a strike.”
That sounds a lot like what this looks like:
That’s a huge pitch. It’s a pitch that, according to PITCHf/x, was outside the strike zone. With a poor receiver, that’s a leadoff walk. With Perez, the most dangerous hitter in the White Sox lineup — Jose Abreu — has to go grab some bench.
Another strike three on a ball outside the PITCHf/x strike zone:
A low pitch, that got Bauer ahead 0-2 on George Springer:
This is just two games, and these aren’t even all the examples I could show. Gaining a sense of how this can add up to be worth so much over the course of a season?
It might help illuminate how sound Perez’s technique is by seeing a poor framer in action. If you watched the Indians at all before the Gomes/Perez era, you’ve already seen it. Carlos Santana, Lou Marson and Kelly Shoppach all routinely graded among the league’s worst pitch framers.
Talk to Perez about his technique and you hear him stress things like staying “under the ball.”
“There are different drills we do to work on it,” Perez said. “Instead of catching a pitch, they’ll throw me balls low and I barehand them. I just try to go under the ball and stay soft. I try not to panic. That’s it. You have to trust your hands sometimes.”
That last .gif, against Springer, is a great example of receiving from under the ball.
The following, by Santana, is not:
That’s a pitch well within the PITCHf/x strike zone that Santana caught from the top and jabbed down, out of the zone, for a ball. It should have been strike three.
You hear Perez talk about soft hands and staying relaxed. A sudden jerk of the head is sometimes all it takes to subconsciously convince an umpire that a pitch missed its spot for a ball. Watch Perez, and his head always stays still. It’s most evident in the middle of the series of three Perez .gifs above.
With Santana, you see the opposite of relaxed, or soft:
Comparing the two is like night and day.
And this isn’t the only part of Perez’s game that is elite, defensively. Whip up a quick leaderboard of all catchers who have caught at least 250 innings since the start of last year and put everyone’s numbers on a per-inning scale, and you’ll find Perez as the league’s best catcher at blocking balls in the dirt:
That’s Perez, then the guy who is so good at blocking pitches his only job is to catch R.A. Dickey, then the consensus best defensive catcher in baseball, and then the field.
You’ll also find Perez in the top three catchers at controlling the run game:
Surely, we’re dealing with some sample size issues here, but catcher stats stabilize fairly quickly, given that they’re involved in every pitch, and the point here isn’t to definitively rank Perez in each category, but that it’s rare to see a catcher be elite in all three main areas of defense, as all signs point to Perez being. Even Gomes is just a scratch pitch blocker, and whatever edge Gomes might have with the arm (and it’s not clear there is one — they have the same career CS%), Perez likely makes up with his framing abilities (although Gomes is a plus framer, too).
Are the Indians going to miss Gomes’ bat in the lineup? Of course. Who wouldn’t? But the most important job for a catcher isn’t to hit. Ask any team, and they’d rather have the glove-first catcher who can’t hit over the bat-first catcher who can’t receive. If that weren’t true, Wilin Rosario would still have a job and Jose Molina wouldn’t have had a 16-year career.
If this were an Indians team of years past, with a guy like Marson or Shoppach as the backup catcher, yeah, they’d probably be hurt more substantially if they lost a guy like Gomes for eight weeks. Credit the organization for changing course and correctly valuing guys like Perez.
At the very least, the pitching staff isn’t going to lose a beat with Perez behind the dish. They might even be a little better off, thanks to slightly fewer passed balls. And if Perez can hit anything like the 2014 Triple-A version of himself — y’know, the one that wasn’t dealing with facial paralysis — the difference between him and Gomes over the course of an eight week stretch is probably smaller than you think. Might not even be a win.
It’s not going to be so bad, Tribe fans. Indians’ pitchers are in good hands. Literally.
Once upon a time, I was an intern for MLB.com, cutting my teeth as a beat reporter’s sidekick. That was a decade ago now. You never know where such opportunities will take you. It took me to my current role as the beat writer for Indians.com. And I’ve got a new sidekick of my own coming soon.
Each year, MLB.com searches the country for a crop of associate reporters and sends one to each Major League city. This season, helping me on the beat in Cleveland will be the talented August Fagerstrom. He’s already gained a wealth of experience via the Akron Beacon Journal, and has contributed to Fangraphs, The Hardball Times, Fox Sports 1 and JABO. Give him a follow on Twitter: @AugustF_MLB.
August has already established himself as great source for sabermetric analysis, so I’m planning on giving him the keys to this space throughout this season to go in-depth on certain topics. With my appreciation for historical perspective, and August’s knowledge of advanced stats, I think we’ll create a pretty good team and provide some unique coverage for you this year on MLB.com, Indians.com and on the blog.
For his first piece, August wanted to look at Jason Kipnis’ swing, and the way the April oblique injury last season took a toll on his ability to drive the ball to the opposite field with authority. We’ve heard plenty of anecdotal evidence along those lines, but August wanted to see if the video footage and numbers backed up the idea that Kipnis’ slugging decline was the direct result of the health woes.
I will say, from watching Kipnis during Spring Training, we saw results that looked more in line with the Kipnis we came to expect in 2013. This past spring — before and after the back issue that cost him a week of games — Kipnis was slashing balls the opposite way with authority, and consistently. That’s a great sign.
Here is a taste of some of what you should expect from August this season. Enjoy.
Addressing the Hole in Jason Kipnis’ Swing
A quote, offered by Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis in July of the 2013 season:
“I was joking around in the cage,” Kipnis said, “that I almost don’t even know what its like to pull the ball any more. I almost forgot what it feels like.”
The left-handed second baseman, in the midst of an All-Star year, was driving the ball to the opposite field so often, he joked he’d forgotten how to pull the ball.
A relevant image, comparing the location of home runs hit by Kipnis, with that 2013 All-Star season appearing on the left and his tough 2014 on the right:
One of those things is not like the other. The good Kipnis, on the left, joked about forgetting how to pull the ball. The struggling Kipnis, on the right, looks like he forgot how to do anything but pull the ball.
This is the part where I remind you about Kipnis’ oblique injury. Kipnis tore his right oblique on April 29, 2014, and, after a lengthy stint on the disabled list, admitted to playing through pain for the rest of the year. While he’ll tell you the injury isn’t to be used as an excuse for his drop in production, playing through pain is the kind of thing that can alter a swing. Altering a swing is the kind of thing that can hurt a player’s production, and so you can connect the dots there. Kipnis has a unique swing, and it’s easy to tell when that swing isn’t there, which we’ll get to in a second.
But first, let’s consult a table with some numbers in it. The numbers measure Kipnis’ offensive production, based on batted ball location. If you aren’t already familiar with weighted runs created plus (wRC+), you can acquaint yourself. It’s really not that complicated — the idea is similar to OPS+, in that it’s an all-encompassing offensive statistic where every tick above or below 100 represents a percentage point above or below the league average.
|Jason Kipnis, wRC+ by batted ball location
The top line is healthy Kipnis. Even healthy Kipnis isn’t a great pull-field hitter, but healthy Kipnis had a unique strength, in that his production, relative to the league average, got better and better the more he hit towards left field. On the far left of that table, you see that healthy Kipnis’ opposite field production, over a three-year stretch, was 96% better then league average, and that was a top-10 mark in baseball. At his best, in 2013, he had an opposite-field wRC+ of 268, which was topped only by Chris Davis and Joe Mauer. Kipnis, at his best, drives the ball to the opposite field as well as any player in baseball. That’s what makes his swing unique, as mentioned earlier, and that’s why it’s easy to see when that swing isn’t there.
The bottom line of the table is last year’s Kipnis. Last year’s Kipnis struggled all around. His production to the pull field dropped by about 20%. His production to the middle of the field dropped by about 20%. But his production to the opposite field — his biggest strength — cratered 90 percentage points all the way down to league average, rendering it no longer a strength at all. Jason Kipnis was missing the biggest part of his game, and any hitter who’s missing the biggest part of their game will struggle.
So, about that hole in Kipnis’ swing. Clearly, there was a hole. Kipnis had a strength, and then it was gone. What you’re about to see are a couple heatmaps, comparing Kipnis’ slugging percentages, by pitch location, in 2013 and 2014. I’ve highlighted the problem area:
It’s no surprise where we find the hole. It’s no surprise that a player who stopped driving the ball to the opposite field had trouble extending their swing. Kipnis was unable to cover the outer- and upper-third of the plate in 2014, and he’s never been much of a pull hitter, so it’s necessary he covers that outer-third to take advantage of his greatest strength in going the opposite way.
Time to see this in action. We’re going to see two pitches. They’re both going to be 94mph fastballs, thrown by a left-handed pitcher, at Progressive Field. They’re both going to be 5 inches out, and 2 inches down, from the center of the strike zone. They are, for all intents and purposes, the exact same pitch. Only difference is, one was thrown in 2013, and the other was thrown in 2014.
The pitch from 2013:
The pitch from 2014:
If you watched a lot of Indians baseball from 2011-2013, that top swing should look familiar. If you continued watching a lot of Indians baseball in 2014, however, the bottom swing should also be all too familiar. What you’re looking at here is, essentially, the difference between the good version of a player, and the bad version of that same player, in two moving images.
Looking at the swings, it’s hard to see much of a difference. Baseball is a subtle game. It’s a game where the batter is working with just tenths of a second to both make a decision and execute a complex swing, and so even subtle changes can cause big differences. If we squint, is there anything to see in Kipnis’ swing?
At the pitcher’s release point:
Not much to see here! Looks like the same guy, with the same stance.
At the moment the front foot comes down:
Now we have something. Where you want to be looking is the right hip, and how it’s flying open just a bit in the bottom image. That hip leaking out prevents Kipnis from staying back on the ball — necessary in order to drive it to the opposite field.
From Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo:
“He was guarding that [oblique] area,” Van Burkleo said, “and it was causing him to just kind of sweep through balls and kind of cast them out and pull them.
At the moment of contact:
In the top frame, Kipnis kept his hips square, which allowed him to keep his hands back, and he drove the ball off the wall in left field. In the bottom frame, the hips flew open just a bit, the hands got started a bit early, and he rolled the exact same pitch over to second base, something that became a recurring theme for Kipnis in 2014. This is the kind of thing you expect to see with a hitter compensating for an injury in his swing. Certainly, there could be more moving parts in Kipnis’ struggle, but this jibes with what Van Burkleo sees, and it jibes with what the numbers see.
So, what did we learn from this exercise?
We learned that the success of Jason Kipnis, as a hitter, stems from the ability to drive the ball to the opposite field. We learned that, in order for Kipnis to drive the ball the opposite field, he needs to cover the outer-third of the plate. He wasn’t able to do that in 2014, and perhaps it was due to his right hip area flying open, just a bit, and the hands not staying back. We already knew that Kipnis was dealing with a right oblique injury, and that could help explain the right hip being the root of the mechanical issue.
And so what does this all mean moving forward? It’s hard to say.
Who knows whether the oblique is back to 100% health, and, even if it is, who’s to say Kipnis is able to re-gain his pre-2014 swing? That’s the thing about coming back from an injury — not only do you have to overcome the injury itself, but you have to overcome the bad habits necessitated by the injury. In all reality, we don’t know, and we likely won’t know until the season is already well underway.
But, we do know what to look for to tell whether Kipnis is back, and it’s something that shouldn’t take long to see. Early in the year, look for what Kipnis does with pitches on the outer-third of the plate, and if you want to get more subtle, you might be able to just look at the front hip. You’d hope that, as long as he stays healthy, the hip stays closed. If the hip stays closed, odds are he can cover the outer-third of the plate.
If he can cover the outer-third of the plate, odds are he’ll start driving the ball off the left field wall again. And if that happens, odds are that Jason Kipnis has his swing back.
The Indians are suddenly one of the sexy picks in the annual predictions from around the media-sphere. ESPN loves them. Fangraphs loves them. And (gasp!) Sports Illustrated put the Tribe on a regional cover and declared them the favorites to win the whole darned thing.
“I don’t know the SI jinx,” said Michael Brantley, who joined Cy Young winner Corey Kluber on the cover. “I’ve never heard about it. I dont want to hear about it.”
Here’s the deal. The jinx isn’t real.
What’s real is that the Indians have a Cy Young winner (Kluber), a top-three MVP finished (Brantley), one of the best young catchers in the game (Yan Gomes), the Major League leader in walks (Carlos Santana), a two-time World Series-winning manager (Terry Francona) and a lot more core talent in the fold, and coming soon.
So, guess what? I’m sippin’ the Kool-Aid this year. Here come my annual preseason predictions and, whether you like it or not, I’m picking the Indians to win the division. I won’t go as far as SI did, but hey, if Cleveland punches its ticket to October, you just never know. The Indians certainly would be set up nicely (in theory) for a short series with Kluber and Carlos Carrasco at the top of the rotation.
Cleveland has a ton of potential, but even Francona has been quick to say throughout the spring that potential is nothing more than exactly that. They have to go out there and prove that there is substance to all the talk and analytical projections.
The Indians have the makings of a dynamic rotation, but there are questions at each slot. Can Kluber repeat what he did in 2014? Can Carrasco be the kind of starter he was in August and September? Will Trevor Bauer take a leap forward? Can TJ House continue to shore up the back end, and will Zach McAllister finally be the innings-eater the Tribe envisioned him to be a few years ago?
Even beyond the Opening Day staff, there are questions about Cleveland’s depth. Danny Salazar looked lost on the mound this spring, Josh Tomlin is out three to four months with a shoulder issue, and no one really knows what Bruce Chen or Shaun Marcum might have left in their respective tanks.
Still, there was a plethora of problems that riddled the Indians last year, and the team still came within earshot of a playoff berth. Really, if Cleveland had played only slightly below-average defense, it would likely have been at least a Wild Card winner. Instead, injuries and a porous defense sent the Tribe to an early winter.
Before I get to this year’s predictions, let’s revisit how I did last year (see: not well).
In the American League, I went 6-for-15 on the standings, and only predicted two playoff teams (Tigers and Angels as division winners correctly). In the National League, I fared a bit better, hitting on 10-of-15 in the standings and 4-for-5 on playoff teams. Of course, I had the Dodgers beating the Tigers in the World Series. Man, what a series that was, huh. Whoops.
For the AL awards, I said Mike Trout would win the MVP (woot!), Felix Hernandez would win the Cy Young (thanks, Kluber), Jose Abreu would win the Rookie of the Year (nailed it!) and Brad Ausmus would be the Manager of the Year (he got zero votes). In the NL, I had Paul Goldschmidt as the MVP (again, no votes), Jose Fernandez as the Cy Young winner (thanks, Tommy John), Billy Hamilton as the top rookie (2nd place!) and Matt Williams as the top manager (score).
With the Fernandez prediction, I’m reminded of a spring a few years ago, when I walked in the clubhouse on the first day and then-Tribe closer Chris Perez said: “Don’t pick me for anything!”
In honor of Cleveland.com’s Zack Meisel, whose predictions came with poems, slogans and Haiku:
After spring each year,
Bastian stares at crystal ball,
He sees nothing right.
With all of that said, here are all of my preseason picks for 2015…
1. Red Sox
2. Blue Jays
3. White Sox
*indicates Wild Card pick
NL Wild Card: Cubs over Pirates
NL Division Series: Nationals over Cubs
NL Division Series: Dodgers over Cardinals
NL Championship Series: Nationals over Dodgers
AL Wild Card: Angels over Tigers
AL Division Series: Angels over Red Sox
AL Division Series: Indians over Mariners
AL Championship Series: Angels over Indians
Angels over Nationals
AL Most Valuable Player: Mike Trout, Angels
AL Cy Young Award: Chris Sale, White Sox
AL Rookie of the Year: Daniel Norris, Blue Jays
AL Manager of the Year: Lloyd McClendon, Mariners
NL Most Valuable Player: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
NL Cy Young Award: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
NL Rookie of the Year: Joc Pederson, Dodgers
NL Manager of the Year: Joe Maddon, Cubs
Indians manager Terry Francona held a lunch gathering with local reporters on Tuesday and engaged in a wide-ranging, 45-minute interview session. In the order the topics were brought up in the discussion, here are the highlights of Tito’s comments about Cleveland’s roster, the upcoming season and some issues facing Major League Baseball
More quotes from the Q&A:
“I told Swish this the other day. I was like, ‘I don’t care what Opening Day says or what the first day of Spring Training says. When you’re ready to play, that’s when we’re going to run you out there,’ because the last thing we want to do is have him go through what he did and then limp around. Sometimes guys have these artificial [goals], like Opening Day of the season, which is meaningful, but it’s not the end all, be all. So, we just want to get him strong and healthy so he can do what he does. I think he’s doing fine. He’s working hard. He’s probably worked harder this winter than he has in a long time, just because he had to. Hopefully, that’ll translate back into him being on the field every day.”
On the right field and designated hitter logjam:
“If we get to a point where somebody’s aggravated because they’re not playing, that’s probably a good thing. I’ve never really had a problem finding guys that are producing ways to get at-bats. I think [GM Chris Antonetti] did a really good job of trying to protect us, because there is some unknown going into Spring Training, and also having guys who can move around a little bit so we have some flexibility.”
On paying attention to moves within the division:
“I pay attention to all of them, just because I’m a baseball fan. I know the Nationals signed [Max] Scherzer, which I think is awesome, getting him out of our division. I thought the White Sox had a really good winter. They complemented what they have and they’re going to get a lot better. That’s not the best news for us, but were in a little bit of a unique situation, where we had most of our team in place. We just now need to find a way to play six or seven games better than we did last year.”
On the large contracts being signed around baseball:
“Owners have been complaining since when my dad played that players made too much and fans, same way. Now, there’s a couple more zeros added to the end, but that’s kind of the case with everything. You go to a movie now and it’s expensive. I don’t think it changes the game. I think it maybe changes how people talk about the game or maybe sometimes expectations, but the game is still the same, which is really good.”
“I think Lonnie can be a good defender. He’s got good reactions, he’s got a good body and he’s got plenty of arm. I think he’s shown what he can do and how he can react. He’s also had a knack for making errors that are untimely, or just maybe balls he should make A lot of times that’s part of the maturation process. He’s come so far in so many areas that it wouldn’t surprise me if he continues to get better defensively.”
On Michael Bourn:
“This will be interesting to see how Bourny shows up. He’s had a really good winter. He’s worked with a track coach. [Bench coach Brad Mills] just went down and saw him this week and spent a day with him. He’s worked a lot. Millsy said his workout was intense. And Bourny understands that, if he gets on and he’s kind of that guy that creates some havoc, we’re a better team. And I do think he feels like a year removed — I think he felt like his legs hurt his swing and certainly hurt his stolen bases — that he’s in a position to do a little better.”
On the bullpen workload:
“Once the season starts, we have an obligation to try to win however we can. To your point, though, we keep an eye on workload, because it means something. We try really hard. Because they do have a pretty heavy workload, we try not to get them up and down a lot in the bullpen. I think if you look across the board — not just at appearances, because I understand it’s a lot — but pitches thrown, things like that, we weren’t necessarily the leader in the league in a lot of categories.”
On Jose Ramirez at shortstop:
“I thought he did a really good job. I thought it was very noticeable how much his range came into play, especially up the middle. He doesn’t have the strongest arm in the league, but you don’t see a lot of shortstops going in the hole anymore and making that play anyway. And he got to so many balls up the middle that he turned into outs, it was really impressive.”
On Zach McAllister:
“We dont want to put him in the bullpen yet. I think what we’ll do in Spring Training is like we always do: we’ll divvy up the innings and we’ll lengthen out as many guys as we can. It’s two-fold. One is I think we really agree — [pitching coach Mickey Callaway] and I and Chris agree — that to build up guys for a long season, it’s really good to get them stretched out. And then the other thing is you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you don’t know who’s going to emerge, or if somebody’s going to get hurt. So, the more guys you have stretched out, you can make better decisions. Moving forward, you can always put a guy in the bullpen. You can’t just stretch him out again. And then, as we start to lose innings when guys are going longer, we’ll make decisions as they come. I think I’m more excited just to have Zach pitching healthy, because we saw what he can do. He can do that whether he’s starting or relieving. It’s kind of the same thing with [Carlos] Carrasco. If you pitch like that, it doesn’t really matter where you’re pitching.”
“He’s such a good leverage pitcher that I don’t see us really changing the way we’re going about it. The one thing I think we’ll probably do is you might see a time or two where he comes in in the eighth if the game is going to be won or lost. I hate to sit around and wait for the ninth and not get there. I think Cody agrees with that, too. Sometimes you get established guys down there and they’re not really big on doing that. Cody just wants to pitch when it’s exciting. If you do that enough, it’ll backfire on you, but I also think putting your best pitcher in the best situation, the most-leveraged situations, will help you more than it doesn’t.”
On the low run-scoring environment in baseball:
“I think you’re about ready to see [that] the game always makes its own adjustments. I think right now the hitters are still in that mode of swinging like they’re hitting the ball out of the ballpark, but not necessarily doing that anymore. So, you’re seeing the strikeouts, home runs are down and you’re seeing batting averages come down because of the shift. So now, you’ll probably see a segment of hitters start to use the whole field a little bit more. The game always has a way of kind of evening itself out. Hitters make an adjustment, then the pitchers do, then the infielders do. It has a way of doing that — it’s pretty cool.”
On Carlos Santana being the first baseman:
“I do [think it will help]. It was hard last year and he never really said anything to me. I know he was probably a little more open with you guys when he was scuffling, but I don’t think it was so much the catching or the change of position. I think the foul tips are what beat him up a little bit. He got dinged up and when you’re hitting .140, I think it hurts more.”
On Santana making most of DL stint in May:
“You don’t want to lose guys ever, but the timing gave him a week to kind of reset and he did a good job of that. And he came back and was really the offensive player we needed after that. For whatever reason, sometimes guys get lost and they can’t find it and then frustration sets in and then he’s moving positions. It just wasn’t perfect for him. But, it did help our team, too, because for the first month or whatever of the season, he was our backup catcher, so it gave us an extra position to carry.”
On where Gavin Floyd fits in rotation:
“Probably as high as he can handle. Maybe right behind [Corey] Kluber — well see. The idea is, last year when he was healthy, he had, across the board, probably better than Major League-average stuff. And if he can slot in there and we can slow down some of the younger guys — Trevor [Bauer], Carrasco, Danny[Salazar], whoever — and just let them matchup a little bit lower in the rotation, I think that helps their development.”
On Moss’ status for Spring Training:
“I think he’s going to be in great shape. As far as his hip, we will completely go on how he’s feeling. My guess is, before it’s all said and done, he’ll be able to play first, right and DH, which gives us a ton of flexibility.”
“Chris did a really good job. When he traded for Moss, he called Murph I think that day just to say, ‘Hey man, this is what we’re doing.’ And Murph was, as you would expect, about as professional as you can be. He was like, ‘Hey man, if this costs me at-bats, but it’s better for the team …’ And again, I think Murph is smart enough to know that things happen and, if you’re helping the teams win, there’s usually a place for you to play.”
On Murphy’s role:
“Well, it’s hard to say right now, because we don’t know how healthy Swish or Moss are. So right now, Murph’s our right fielder. I don’t know if that’s going to change in the next month or not.”
On Corey Kluber’s Cy Young encore:
“The one thing he’ll have to guard against, which I don’t think he’ll have a problem with, is inevitably people want to look at each start and go back a year. Last year’s done. Good, bad or in-between, it’s over. Now, you move on and try to do something this year. I think he’s certainly more confident. I think he’s smarter. I think he understands the league and I think he understands himself. I’m not sure every year of your career, your numbers can get better, but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve. I know he wants to improve his changeup and things like that. I think you’ll start seeing him working on smaller things.”
On Kipnis’ defense:
“It was sinconsistent, as he was in and out. Sometimes when you’re playing with injuries, I think other things show on the field. Just because a guy is playing, that doesn’t mean they’re at 100 percent. He’s an outfielder that moved to second base, so he may never be the smoothest guy on the field, but he’s very athletic and I think he can be a much better defender than he showed last year, yeah.”
“We wanted to get Danny there about a month, six weeks ahead of time. He’s still young and he has so few innings compared to everybody else. … He’s had a habit of, by the end of the first half he’s ready to go. Even in his Minor League seasons, it took him a while to kind of ramp up into the season. When you’re in Double-A, that’s not the end of the world, but when you’re pitching with us, those are costing you wins. So, we were thrilled that he bought into it and he wanted to get out there, because I think it will really help him.”
On Anthony Swarzak:
“It kind of reminds me a lot of [Scott] Atchison. I don’t think that was the sexiest sing last year, but the guys that knew Atch had a feeling that he could really help us. And Swarzak’s done it now for a number of years, where shoot, I think he almost threw 100 innings out of the bullpen a couple years. He’ll fit right in. If he goes like 10 minutes without pitching, man, it’s like he breaks out in hives. We have Scott Downs. We have some guys that are coming in on non-roster. I think it will be healthy for our team to have some guys that are pitching. I know it’s not the easiest way to come into a camp, especially for a veteran guy, but it’ll be good forour team.”
On building bullpen depth through low-level signings:
“I don’t think you can just throw money at a bullpen, because the names may stay the same, but the production changes. It’s pretty volatile. And it wasn’t easy for us to sign guys, because guys look at our bullpen and they see the names and know guys aren’t going anywhere. But, I think it’s a good way to kind of enhance what we have.”
On teams going to bullpens earlier in games:
“Well, I think bullpens are so good that you have to make a choice. Your starter that’s nearing 100 pitches can face a hitter for a third or fourth time, or you can bring in either a specialty arm, a situational guy or a guy throwing 98. And most teams, most good teams, have those guys. You used to try to get to the bullpen early. Nowadays, you’re not always doing yourself a favor.”
On Carrasco’s turnaround:
“I think when it’s all said and done, Mickey, [former bullpen coach Kevin Cash], everybody tried so hard to get him to a point where he could get from the bullpen to the game and relax. He just really had a hard time doing that. They tried even quirky things, like staying in the bullpen or throwing out of the stretch. Although he still throws out of the stretch, he doesn’t need to do anything quirky anymore. He has a solid routine and if he just stays with his routine, he’s good, and I think he knows it. And that’s probably what got him over the hump.”
“I think he can carry the mentality. Now, again, he might not go 12 starts in a row where he has a 1.70 ERA, but I don’t think it was a fluke that, however [many] starts he had, he was at the top of the league in just about every category. He didn’t walk people. He struck out people. His stuff is off-the-charts good. It’s a nice feeling for us. … That’s why we’ve said it a number of times, ‘You don’t give up, even when it appears maybe like you’re being stubborn,’ because we can’t have those guys go somewhere else and be good.”
On outside perception after quiet winter:
“I don’t know if we’re flying under or not. I’m not sure I need to spend much time worrying about that. Again, we were in a little bit of a unique situation where most of our team was in place. You don’t see that very often anymore these days, so I thought the additions of Moss and Floyd were good and important. Now, it’s up to us just to see if we can go play better.”
On lefty-heavy lineup:
“Well, if we don’t hit lefties it does [create a problem]. But we have [Santana], who’s a switch hitter. Swish is a switch hitter. I think it comes down to how the guys do. The year before , Carlos and Swish were pretty good right-handed and [Ryan] Raburn mashed. That was kind of the difference. There’s going to be a lot of times, if you have that many left-handed hitters and you face a really good lefty, you’re at a little bit of a disadvantage. But, those are the days you usually give a guy or two a day off and try to put a couple right-handed bats in there.”
On pitch clocks being tested in Minors:
“I think it’s great. I think it’s easy. I know they’re trying to speed up the game and I understand what they’re trying to do. They had these signs last year [in the ballpark]. They had red, green and yellow. I guarantee you no players knew what they meant, because I didn’t know what they meant. You put a clock up and the pitcher knows, ‘When it hits zero, I’ve got to be ready to pitch.’ … If you want to throw [warm-up pitches] in the bullpen, throw them in the bullpen. If you want to throw them on the mound, throw them on the mound. But,t when it says zero, we’re ready to go.”
On the 2015 Hall of Fame class:
“Our hall of Fame I think is so different than others. And I’m not taking away from any sport, but when you make it to the Basbeall Hall of Fame, it’s pretty special. And the guys this year are no different. And until they figure out how to treat the 90s or whatever, there’s going to be a cloud or [whatever you want to call it]. It’s kind of an unfair position right now to be a voter, so if they could clear that up, that would probably help everybody.”
On voting or not voting for suspected PED users:
“It’s not fair to anybody, because as an industry we kind put our heads in the sand maybe 20 yeas ago, so we’re paying for it now. But, I also don’t think that’s fair to hold somebody responsible, because somebody said they might’ve taken something. … I think at some point, if you do enough like that, you’re going to do somebody wrong, which isn’t fair. But then again, you come back, it’s not fair to the writers, either. I just think they should vote for the guys they think deserve it and then let the fans make up their mind whether they want to like them or not. Because, in baseball, the numbers are there and they’re not going away. … What do you do if somebody’s already in and they find out years later [he wasn’t clean]? … Nobody knows [for certain if a player from that era was clean or dirty]. That’s what I’m saying. There’s a lot of people that are playing judge and jury that just don’t know. Until you do, there’s no other way around it.”
What are we to believe when we look at Carlos Carrasco’s 2014 season? Or, for that matter, what should be believe when we try to examine the trends established throughout the course of his rocky career path with Cleveland?
Should we toss his pre-August career numbers as a starter out the window? Maybe we shouldn’t be putting too much stock in two-months worth of a sample, which includes just 10 starts (albeit, they were really, really good starts) from Aug. 10 through the end of last season.
Here’s what we know right now: Carrasco headed into this offseason with his head held higher than it has been at any point in his career and he projects as the Tribe’s No. 2 starter for ’15. He and the Indians both felt that the pitcher finally turned a corner and figured it out. All those years of faith shown by the team, trial-and-error by the pitcher, and all those drastic highs and lows, it all finally — finally — paid off.
The Indians kept trusting that Carrasco would put it all together.
“Now I trust myself, too,” said the pitcher, following his final start of 2014.
There you have it. Are you sold?
Many prognosticators are indeed sold, at least when it comes to projecting how good the Indians’ rotation can be in 2015. Obviously, it helps to have breakout start and American League Cy Young-winner Corey Kluber leading the charge. Then comes Carrasco, followed by veteran Gavin Floyd, and a young, promising, developing trio in Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and T.J. House.
As we sit here today, Fangraphs.com believes Cleveland’s rotation has the potential to be the fourth-best group in all of the Major Leagues (second in the American League). Only the Nationals (now with Mad Max Scherzer), Dodgers and Mariners rate higher under the projections used on the site. Click here for a look at how Fangraphs breaks down baseball’s rotation depth charts.
Projecting a player’s statistics is hardly an exact science, and it’s even more difficult to do when looking closely at a player such as Carrasco.
Remember, prior to his surge through August and September, when Carrasco posted the second-best ERA (1.70) in the Majors among pitchers with t least 60 innings, the right-hander had a considerable drought on the mound. Now, I’m not an advocate of pitcher wins as an evaluation tool, but it can lead you in a direction. This is why it’s worth noting that Carrasco had precisely zero wins in 17 straight starts in a stretch from 2011-14. That was tied for the longest such winless streak in franchise history. In that span, Carrasco went 0-12 with an 8.09 ERA.
That’s your No. 2 starter, folks.
Now, this is where we note that Carrasco posted a pristine 1.30 ERA over his final 10 starts of the season. In that awesome stretch of outings, the righty struck out 78, gave up 45 hits and walked 11 in 69 innings. Across August and September, Kluber and Carrasco were arguably the best one-two punch in baseball.
Now, that’s a No.2 starter, folks.
Herein lies the rub, though. What should we expect from Carrasco in 2015? Is there any way to even try to project his numbers, considering the polarizing nature of his career as a starting pitcher? Well, we can at least try, and I’ve done so by combining some elements of his career (10 starts based off career averages), his pre-2014 performances (top five and worst five starts based on Game Score, prior to ’14) and his stellar late-season run last fall (10 starts).
That’s a 30-start sample in which two-thirds is influenced by his 2014 to some degree. I felt that was important, because much of Carrasco’s success in the bullpen (late April through early August) and in the rotation over the final two months was due to a shift in pitching style on the mound.
“His mentality, I think, was the biggest difference,” Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said this week. “We’ve seen Carlos throughout his time as a pitcher, he’s always had very good stuff. He took the time in the bullpen and really focused on his mind-set and how he wanted to attack hitters. He was very aggressive from almost Day 1, really, out of the bullpen. And then when he had the opportunity to start again, he maintained that same aggressive mind-set and attacked hitters. He was able to obviously be very, very successful with that type of approach.”
Not only did Carrasco adopt a more aggressive mentality, he pitched out of the stretch exclusively and altered the manner in which he featured his pitches.
Based on my basic formula, Carrasco’s projection included: 3.61 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 2.5 BB/9, 8.1 K/9, 182 innings, 176 hits, 50 walks, 163 strikeouts. I did this prior to checking out what the Steamer projection on Fangraphs included. That projection system spit this out for 28 starts: 3.58 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 2.6 BB/9, 8.6 K/9, 163 innings, 150 hits, 47 walks, 155 strikeouts.
Going off what I came up with, I identified eight pitchers over the past five seasons who registered between 180-190 innings with an ERA in the 3.50-3.70 range. That list includes Zack Wheeler (2014), Tim Hudson (2014), Jarred Cosart (2014), Wei-Yen Chen (2014), John Lackey (2013), Paul Maholm (2012), John Lannan (2011) and Johnny Cueto (2010). Combined, that group comes with a 106 ERA+ for those particular seasons. That means, on average, they performed at a level six-percent higher than league average.
Going off the Steamer projection, Carrasco is pegged at 2.7 fWAR. Two pitchers who registered a 2.7 fWAR in 2014 were Alex Cobb and Yordano Ventura. Whether looking at the names I came up with from the past five years, or the ones who turned in that same fWAR last season, it’s a solid group.
On the whole, Carrasco had a 2.55 ERA and 146 ERA+ last season in 40 games (14 starts) and 134 innings. That is one season’s body of work, but it still comes with the SAMPLE SIZE! warning. The most starts that Carrasco has logged in any one season is 21 in 2011, and he finished with an 85 ERA+ while dealing with elbow issues that eventually necessitated Tommy John surgery.
Also, Carrasco was not the same style of pitcher back in 2011. Not only has the right-hander changed the use of his pitches since ’11, he did so within the confines of ’14. In the graph on the right — courtesy of brooksbaseball.net, which was also the source for the following percentages (all rounded) — you can see how Carrasco’s pitch usage changed throughout the ’14 campaign.
Carrasco’s use of his four-seamer has climbed from 36 percent in 2010 to 51 percent in ’14 (though down from 56 percent in ’13). His two-seamer percentage has steadily declined (22 (’10), 14 (’11), 6 (’13), 5 (’14)) since 2010. The same is true of his curveball (18-12-10-9). And his slider? He used it only three-percent of the time in 2010, but featured the pitch 22-percent of the time last season. His changeup was used 13 percent of the time last season — also down from previous levels in his career (between 18-21 percent from 2010-13).
Last season alone, Carrasco used his slider 13-percent of the time in April, but increased the usage to 29 percent in September. He used the curve 17-percent of the time in April and stuffed it into his back pocket (six percent) by September. Along the way, Carrasco slightly increased the use of his sinker (two percent in April, 10 percent in August and seven percent in September) and steadily decreased his four-seamer use (61 percent in July, 51 percent in August and 41 percent in September).
Those changes over the final two months last season are why I think it’s best to put more stock in Carrasco’s 2014 production when trying to assess what his 2015 could look like for Cleveland. I don’t think we can just dismiss the ups and downs of his previous stints as a starter, but those pre-August-2014 outings came with a difference in mound mentality and pitch usage.
With that in mind, it’s entirely possible that Carrasco surpasses the preseason projections attached to his name, because every formula will be influenced by his pre-2014 statistics. I think the reality is that we don’t really know for sure what the Indians have in Carrasco, but it could be something special. All Cleveland can hope for right now is that his final 10 starts were more of an indicator and less of a fluke.
As the story goes, Indians reliever Bryan Shaw was in Terry Francona’s office last season when he spotted the bullpen-use card on the manager’s desk. Shaw had been used a lot during this particular stretch of games and Francona had written “down” next to the pitcher’s name.
Shaw grabbed something to write with, scratched out the manager’s note and scribbled “awesome” next to his name instead. When Francona noticed the correction, the manager had a good laugh, but he didn’t change his mind about the pitcher’s status for that day’s game.
“He still wasn’t pitching,” Francona said.
On Friday, Cleveland avoided arbitration with Shaw with a one-year contract worth $1.55 million and chances are that the right-hander will be pitching a lot once again in 2015. Last year, Shaw appeared in a career-high 80 games and logged 76.1 innings, setting a single-season club record for appearances. He became the first Cleveland pitcher to lead the American League in games since 1955 and the first to lead baseball since 1920.
Throughout last season, Francona discussed the internal tug-of-war he endured while determining whether to use Shaw or give the pitcher a day off. The pitcher always wanted to take the ball and he expressed that extra days off led to poor results. Glancing at Shaw’s career splits, there’s some truth to that: one day off (.677 opponents’ OPS), two days off (.677), three days off (.774), four days off (.857).
Cleveland valued having Shaw willing, ready and handling the bulk of the setup duties last season.
“He would’ve been more valuable if we could’ve just found ways to get him into games more frequently,” Indians GM Chris Antonetti joked. “I was thinking about 140 games would be reasonable. No, that’s one of the great things about Bryan. I know he pitched a lot last year, but he always wants to pitch. He’s that guy that, every day, it’s, ‘Hey, I’m good. I’m ready to go today.’ We actually had to try to manage his volume, because Bryan, if he had his preference, I think he’d try to pitch every day.
“Having a guy like that, with that type of mentality of just wanting the ball regardless of the situation, regardless of the time of year, regardless of the game, it’s a invaluable guy to have. Not only someone who wants the ball, but when he takes it, is very, very effective. He’s been a huge part of our bullpen since the time he joined the organization and we continue to be excited about having him be a core guy out there for us.”
The fact of the matter, however, is no pitcher has a rubber arm. A high volume of pitches, innings and games can have a toll on any pitcher. Over the 2013-14 seasons, Shaw has given the Indians a 2.91 ERA over 150 games and 151.1 innings. In that span, he ranks second in the AL (third in the Majors) in games pitched and second in the Majors (first in the AL) in innings for pitchers with zero starts logged.
Should there be some concerns about Shaw heading into 2015, given his usage not only in 2014, but in ’13-14 combined? Should the Indians plan on monitoring and managing his innings a little closer next season?
“Believe it or not, we actually tried to do that last year,” Antonetti said. “I think for a while, he was on pace for 95-plus games. We tried to curtail his use in the second half, but it’s always a balance with Bryan, because we’re trying to manage his innings and he’s constantly going, ‘No, no, I want the ball. I can’t go two or three days without
pitching. My arm doesn’t feel great,’ or, ‘I don’t feel as good or as sharp when I go too many days without
pitching.’ So, it was a constant balance throughout the course of the season. I’m hopeful it’ll be a balance
again this year.”
In an effort to see what kind of effect logging the kind of games and innings Shaw has over the past two years can have on a pitcher, I took a look at all the pitchers who had 80-plus games and 70-plus innings in a season, dating back to 2007. I used that year as the cut-off, because that’s as far back as PITCHf/x data goes. Excluding Shaw, because we obviously don’t have his 2015 to examine, there are 19 such instances.
The list includes Joel Peralta (2013), Shawn Camp (2012), Matt Belisle (2012), Jonny Venters (2011), Sean Marshall (2010), Nick Masset (2010), Luke Gregerson (2010), Mike Gonzalez (2009), Peter Moylan (2007, 2009), Carlos Marmol (2008), Luis Ayala (2008), Heath Bell (2007), Jonathan Broxton (2007), Aaron Heilman (2007), Cla Meredith (2007), Scott Proctor (2007), Jon Rauch (2007) and Saul Rivera (2007).
When looking at the pitchers’ seasons, and then comparing it to the results of the following year, there was a 26-percent spike in ERA for the group as a whole. There is also a .005-percent drop in velocity, a 16-percent increase in walk rate and a 28-percent decrease in innings pitched from the platform year to the following season. Of those 19 instances, there were 15 cases of an ERA increase, 12 cases of a velocity decrease, 12 cases with an increased walk rate and 18 with a decrease in innings.
Some of this can be chalked up to natural regression, but not all of it.
The only pitcher to defy each of those four categorical trends was Sean Marshall, who had an improved ERA, velocity and walk rate in more innings in 2011 than he had in 2010. That said, Marshall dropped to 61 innings in a still-effective 2012 before logging only 24.1 innings combined over the ’13-14 seasons, leading up to shoulder surgery.
Venters needed Tommy John surgery after ’12. Masset developed shoulder issues by ’12-13. Gonzalez has a shoulder injury in ’10. Moylan had Tommy John in 2008 and, after two more 80-game seasons, had back and shoulder surgeries. Broxton eventually had elbow issues. Meredith and Proctor eventually had Tommy John surgery, too.
Of course, these are just the examples that led to health woes in the year or years following excessive use out of the bullpen. There are other cases (Belisle, Gregerson, Rauch, for example) where the pitchers continued to be effective after their Shaw-like season. The results are varied, but there are enough cautionary tales found here to believe that Cleveland will be careful with Shaw going forward.
What about the fact that Shaw has handled a heavy load for two years?
Dating back to 2007, there have been 29 instances, excluding Shaw, where a pitcher has logged at least 150 games and 140 innings over a two-year span. Consider this: Cody Allen and Shaw were the only pitchers in baseball over the past two years to meet that criteria. At least in Allen’s case, his future as Cleveland’s closer should naturally lead to a decrease in innings in 2015 and beyond.
Averaged out, those 29 cases combined for a 3.23 ERA, 3.3 walks per nine innings, 7.7 hits per nine innings, 1.22 WHIP and 77-plus innings over their two-year samples. In the third year, they posted a combined 3.57 ERA, 3.4 walks per nine innings, 8.2 hits per nine innings, 1.30 WHIP and had 57-plus innings on average. That’s a 26.5-percent decrease in innings and an 10.5 percent increase in ERA from the combined two-year stretch to the third season.
The average velocity dropped from 92.89 mph to 92.17 mph (.008 percent decrease) from Year 1 to Year 3 in the examined seasons. Note: the velocity excludes Venters (2011-12) and Masset (2010-12), because they each missed the entire third season. Seventeen of the 27 cases used for pitch speed in this sample experienced a drop in velocity from Year 1 to Year 3. Sure, age and natural regression can account for some of this, but it could certainly be argued that the high volume of innings potentially played a role. There is no way to know for certain.
One pitcher that stands out within the ones found in the research is Gregerson, who just signed a three-year contract worth $18.5 million with the Astros. Over his Major League career, his yearly games logged has gone: 72-80-61-77-73-72. His innings by year have gone: 75-78.1-55.2-71.2-66.1-72.1. That staggered pattern has contributed to a run of effectiveness that includes a 2.47 ERA over his past four years.
What does this all mean? It could mean nothing. Maybe Shaw proves to be an exception, returns as the setup man and cruises through another 70-plus inning season. Or, maybe the Indians will be a little more proactive with curtailing Shaw’s innings load, especially if the club wants him to be fresh deep into the postseason. We know by now that Shaw won’t be asking for any days off.
At the end of the season, though, Francona said he has established a high level of trust with Shaw when it comes to being honest about how the pitcher feels on any given day.
“There’s a huge trust,” Francona said. “You don’t use somebody that much and not trust them to tell you how they feel, and to be honest. But, you also have to be good. There’s a reason he’s pitching. He’s pitching in leverage situations pretty much half the time. To do that, you’ve got to be good. It’s not just luck. You’ve got to bounce back, you’ve got to work at it, you’ve got to find ways to command pitches, because you’re facing teams multiple times over and over again, the same hitters. He’s been durable and he loves to pitch.”
It was Spring Training in 2006. I had interned in Toronto with MLB.com during the previous season, but I had just been handed the keys to the full-time beat reporting job and was in Florida for the start of camp.
In the prior summer, I kept mostly quiet as a rookie part-timer, staying in the back of scrums and sticking mainly to follow-up questions out of respect to the main beat guys. So, in my new role, I wanted to make sure I introduced myself to the players one by one. When John McDonald walked out of the clubhouse, heading home for the day, I stuck out my hand and began, “Hey, John. I just wanted to re-introduce myself and say that …”
Johnny Mac shook my hand, but cut me off.
“I know who you are,” he said with a smile. “Walk with me to my car.”
It was a two-minute walk — nothing significant. Mac asked about my background, about my family. He let me know that players do, in fact, read what I write. And, he offered to help me out if any situations arose where I felt a veteran player could lend some advice for a young, learning reporter. It was a short conversation, but it said a lot about the kind of person John McDonald strove to be during his playing days. He was the consummate professional and class act.
This week, one day after the 2015 Hall-of-Fame class was revealed, Johnny Mac quietly announced his retirement after 16 years in the big leagues. The timing struck me, because for all the bickering and complaining about the system in place for the Hall voting, and all the griping over the way some reporters went about their ballots, here was an example of what is so great about baseball. John McDonald, who could very well have seen his career end as a Minor Leaguer, carved out a career that spanned the better part of two decades, and he did so by sharpening one specific skill-set and by being one of the nicest people you would ever encounter.
Over his 16 seasons, McDonald had stints with the Indians, Blue Jays, D-backs, Pirates, Phillies, Red Sox, Angels and Tigers. He hit .233 with a .596 OPS over 1,100 games, averaging only 68-plus games per season. He posted a 6.6 WAR for his entire career. For comparison, Cleveland’s Michael Brantley posted a 7.0 WAR in 2014. McDonald also has the rare distinction of having been traded for himself (sent to Detroit by Toronto on July 22, 2005, for a player to be named later. And then shipped back to the Blue Jays by Tigers on Nov. 10, 2005.).
So, how on earth did this guy last for 16 years?
For starters, being a terrific human being goes a long way. You can’t quantify what having a player such as McDonald in the clubhouse can do for a team. I have no doubt that — if McDonald wants to stay in the game — he’ll have plenty of options in the way of coaching, and might have the potential to be a future manager. All of that said, it also helped that McDonald was a versatile, plus defender in the infield (especially at shortstop).
McDonald’s career dWAR was 11.0, according to baseball-reference.com. Over the 2002-14 seasons, among players with at least 3,500 innings at short, McDonald ranks eighth with a 6.3 UZR/150. Two spots above him on that list is Omar Vizquel, who played with Johnny Mac in Cleveland. McDonald will tell you that he learned a lot by working alongside Omar during his early Tribe days.
During the 2013 season, Cleveland re-acquired McDonald via trade when the club was thin at shortstop. We chatted at length about how he managed to stay in the Majors for so long and McDonald shared the advice he gives many young players. Identify your strengths as a player and practice those areas until your skill reaches a point where it becomes a valuable asset for a team. For McDonald, it was defense. He knew he would never be an elite hitter, but he knew if he could play above-average defense consistently, the jobs would be easier to come by. Of course, that’s only a theory if a player doesn’t put in the work. It’d be hard to find a player who worked harder than Mac did in his career.
All of that combined is why McDonald is worthy of the praise and appreciation that has flowed in articles and on Twitter over the past couple of days. Fellow MLB.com writer and Clevelander Anthony Castrovince wrote a great column (CLICK HERE)on McDonald, too. It spoke volumes that the Indians, Blue Jays, Angels and D-backs wanted to announce his retirement in unison.
A few Johnny Mac memories…
- Fans will often ask for my favorite moment that I’ve covered as a reporter. Without hesitation, I always point to John McDonald’s incredible Father’s Day home run in 2010. His dad passed away a few days before McDonald was back in Toronto for Father’s Day and, in his first at-bat back with the Blue Jays, he hit a home run. There are so many more layers to the story, which I detailed in this Christmas Day tribute that offseason: CLICK HERE.
- The postgame interview with McDonald after that June game is the first and only time I’ve teared up during an interview. I don’t think there was a dry eye among reporters as we tried to interview Johnny Mac about the special moment, which I would wager will be more memorable than any playoff or All-Star Game I will cover in my career. Here is the game story from that day: CLICK HERE.
- One of my favorite quotes, and a great sentiment to apply to everyday life, came from McDonald in the wake of his father’s passing and his memorable home run and everything that followed: “Things do happen for a reason. You don’t always have to question why. You just be really thankful for what you have.”
- Any time Johnny Mac hit a home run, it was special. He had 28 long balls for his career. Another that stands out was the one hit hit off Matt Garza at the Metrodome on Aug. 11, 2006. It stands out because after the game, McDonald quipped that they must have turned the air conditioner on full blast. That was his only explanation for how he got that one out of there.
- Not surprisingly, one of the best defensive plays I’ve seen came courtesy of McDonald. On May 12, 2006, Tampa Bay’s Jonny Gomes hit a towering fly ball that rattled into the “B” catwalk at Tropicana Field. Gomes sprinted around the bases, while McDonald drifted into shallow left field, his eyes focused on the catwalk, where the ball was still rolling. It eventually fell from the “B” ring and knuckled back toward the turf, where Johnny Mac made an unexpected and improbable diving catch. Gomes was nearly to home plate at the time of the catch. Rays manager Joe Maddon argued that it should’ve been ruled a ground-rule double, but the umpires called it an out and it held as such. Here’s a notebook item I did on the catch. I wish I had video of it, too. CLICK HERE
- McDonald’s defensive abilities stood the test of time, too. Just last year, in his 16th and final season, he made one of the best plays of the season: a 720-degree spin-and-throw to get an out at first base. CLICK HERE to check it out. McDonald will always rank among the best I’ve seen ranging to the right. His ability to pluck balls from the hole while sliding on one knee — and then quickly popping up with bullet of a throw — was uncanny.
I stopped by the Angels clubhouse last year to chat with former Tribe reliever Joe Smith, who had been giving me a hard time (through other reporters) for not coming over to say hello right away. When I finally had a moment to walk over to the Angels’ clubhouse, McDonald was right by Smith, so I sandwiched myself between them, put my back to Smith and stuck out my hand. “Johnny Mac! It’s great to see you,” I said, as Smith groaned and laughed.
After catching up, McDonald headed off to go through his pregame routine and I quipped, “I can’t believe you’re still playing.” He laughed and shrugged. “Me neither,” McDonald said. “I keep fooling people.”
No fooling. McDonald turned in a remarkable career.
Well done, Johnny Mac. Enjoy retirement.
Cleveland knows better than to target a hitter strictly based on the batter’s box he chooses to stand in. The Indians headed into this offseason in need of an impact bat — preferably one with power as a main attribute — and that meant acquiring a hitter, no matter which way his hands happen to wrap around a bat handle. The Indians found one in slugger Brandon Moss.
“We think he fits our ballpark very well and his power plays to our ballpark,” Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said after landing Moss from the A’s on Monday in exchange for Minor League infielder Joe Wendle.
That’s an important quote, because it sheds some light into why the Indians continue to lean so heavy to the left when it comes to their lineup.
With Moss in the fold, Cleveland could potentially have eight left-handed batters (six pure lefties and two switch hitters) in a lineup against a right-handed starter. A few seasons ago, the Indians were constructed in a way that led to an all-lefty lineup at times. While offensive balance is obviously ideal, so is building a team to account for the place a team plays 50-percent of its games.
Progressive Field is very favorable for lefty hitters and is especially friendly for left-handed power hitters. Antonetti also brought up another point.
“And 70-percent of the pitching is right-handed,” noted the GM.
So, while some fans might have rolled their eyes at adding yet another lefty-swinging batter to the mix, the Indians were thrilled with their acquisition. One reason for that is the fact that Moss was one of baseball’s top power hitters over the past three seasons, while hitting in an offensive graveyard in Oakland. Getting a chance to move his home games to Cleveland is something Moss is looking forward to for 2015.
“I’ll be honest,” Moss said, “other than it being our home stadium — I love the fans there — I hated playing at the Coliseum. It killed me as a hitter. … I’ve pretty much made my seasons on the road. I’d hit 10 or 11 or 12 home runs there, but it’s just a tough place to hit. You don’t get rewarded for fly balls unless you absolutely crush the ball. It’s just a tough place to play, so I’m really excited about playing in a park where I’ve had some success. I’ve always enjoyed playing there.”
Consider this: Moss posted a .232/.317/459/.776 slash line in 569 at-bats (18.35 at-bats per home run) in Oakland over the past three seasons combined. Even so, he posted a rate of one homer per 15.93 at-bats overall in that span, ranking ninth among players with at least 1,000 plate appearances from 2012-14. Moss accomplished that by posting a .274/.361/.544/.904 slash line in 642 road at-bats (14.27 at-bats per homer) in the same time period.
That .544 road slugging percentage for the past three years combined ranks fourth in the Majors among players with at least 500 plate appearances, trailing only David Ortiz (.557), Mike Trout (.555) and Miguel Cabrera (.554). Moss’ .904 road OPS in that same span ranks seventh in the same grouping. Only eight players in baseball have a .900+ OPS in that span: Trout (.958), Cabrera (.941), Ortiz (.924), Buster Posey (.921), Paul Goldschmidt (.920), Andrew McCutchen (.911), Moss and Edwin Encarnacion (.901).
How badly was Moss “killed” as a hitter in O.co Coliseum? Consider the difference between the production of all left-handed hitters combined in Cleveland vs. Oakland over the past 10 seasons. Lefties have posted a .420 slugging percentage and .759 OPS at Progressive Field, ranking sixth and fifth, respectively, among current stadiums. Lefty hitters in Oakland have turned in a combined .385 slugging percentage and .709 OPS.
According to Fangraphs, left-handed hitters experienced a nine-percent boost in home run rate over league average in Cleveland last season (fourth-highest in the American League). Then, there is Oakland, which produced a home run rate 12-percent below league average. That is a 21-percent difference — a power boost percentage that has Moss excited to step up to the plate in Cleveland for half of his games.
What can we expect Moss’ potential power spike to look like in 2015?
Looking at his past three years of production, Moss had a rate of 14.14 at-bats per home run in his road games (Cleveland excluded). Swap his Oakland rate (18.35) in for Cleveland and you get an estimate of 14.59 at-bats per homer. For his home rate, you get 15.04 by taking his three-year homer rate and giving it a 21-percent boost. I took those two rates, calculated for an 500 at-bat sample (250 for home and 250 for road) and came up with 33.76 home runs.
This is where it’s fair to point out that I didn’t take age regression or Moss’ atypical fly-ball success rate into account for that projection. That said, August Fagerstom of the Akron Beacon Journal (and Fangraphs) attempted to factor those aspects into his own projection, and he came up with roughly 30 homers for a sample of 600 plate appearances. Chad Young did a similar projection (click here) for Let’s Go Tribe. The general consensus is that Moss stands to benefit greatly simply with a change of address.
Of course, this is all assuming Moss — coming off October hip surgery — is healthy next season.
The hip was problematic for Moss as early as May last year and his numbers dramatically dropped off beginning that month. Through May 21, Moss was sporting a .301/.393/.595/.988 through 153 at-bats. Over his next 347 at-bats through the end of the season, he hit .205/.308/.369/.677. In his final 25 games, Moss hit .127/.273/.270/.543 in 63 at-bats.
Moss was asked on Monday how much the hip was to blame for his drastic second-half decline:
“The hip was probably 90-percent of the problem. It started bothering me in early May and then I just kind of dealt with it, because it was just tight. But, as the season wore on, other things started flaring up and it started to have some actual pain and then it started to affect the muscles in my glutes and stuff like that. By the end, I couldn’t even hit into my front leg. I was hitting against it. I was hitting away from it and it caused me to pull off the ball a little bit. My numbers as far as fly balls, ground balls and strikeouts didn’t change very much. I still hit as many fly balls as I always do. It’s just that, by not hitting into that front side, I wasn’t getting the carry on the ball. That’s really all it was. I didn’t have that power.”
Moss stayed in the lineup for the A’s, who were dealing with a rash of injuries, even as tightness in his hip developed into pain and hindered his ability to drive the ball. After a cortisone shot late in the season, though, he felt much improved and then had two home runs and five RBIs in the AL Wild Card Game against the Royals. Sample size alert! But that feeling, and that performance, convinced Moss that the hip was indeed to blame for his statistical nightmare over the final four months.
Now, could the Indians use another right-handed bat, especially for power, to help balance the lineup? Of course. Right now, Cleveland’s righty options include starting catcher Yan Gomes, first baseman Carlos Santana (switch hitter), designated hitter Nick Swisher (switch), shortstop Jose Ramirez (switch), backup catcher Roberto Perez and utility men Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn.
Maybe Cleveland will find another righty bat to add to the fold (trades remain the most likely avenue for upgrading upon the lineup in place), but it’s important to know why the team values lefties so much.
Not only is Progressive Field very favorable for lefty hitters (the 11,296 total bases by left-handed hitters in Cleveland over the past decade rank first in that span among MLB ballparks), but it’s a park that hinders righties. One glace to left field, where there is a 19-foot wall, should tell you that right-handed batters have an uphill battle. Over the past 10 seasons, righty hitters have posted a combined .391 slugging percentage and .707 OPS in Cleveland. Only Oakland, new Yankee Stadium and Seattle rank lower in that time period.
Per Fangraphs, home runs for right-handed batters at Progressive Field were suppressed by seven percent in comparison to league average in 2014. That was tied for last in the American League. The last time Cleveland came within five percent of league average was 2006. This doesn’t mean the Tribe should avoid right-handed batters, but it shows how those hitters are at a disadvantage in Cleveland.
Last year, the Indians’ right-handed batters posted a .647 OPS (22nd in MLB) against right-handed pitching and a .684 OPS (24th) against lefties. Cleveland’s righties combined for 805 plate appearances against righties — far and away the fewest in baseball. Seattle ranked 29th with 1,026 PAs. That tells you that opposing teams threw as many lefty pitchers at the Tribe as possible to create a platoon advantage.
Those are all reasons to feel that the Indians could use a right-handed addition, but they are not reasons to bemoan the addition of Moss. What Cleveland really needs is for players such as Aviles (.645 OPS vs. LHP in 2014), Raburn (.596) and Swisher (.481) to perform better against southpaws.
The Indians began this year’s Winter Meetings with a bang, finalizing a trade with the A’s to bring slugger Brandon Moss to Cleveland. That addressed the need for a power bat for the Tribe, which is still exploring ways to improve its pitching depth.
Here are some Day 1 items and notes involving the Indians:
- Moss brings some serious pop to the Tribe’s lineup (one homer per 15.93 at-bats over the past three seasons) and positional versatility (first base and the corner outfield spots). He also has a strong reputation for being a valuable part of a clubhouse.
- But, but, Moss isn’t a right-handed hitter! [sarcasm] Said Indians general manager Chris Antonetti: “The thing we continually try to focus on is scoring more runs and preventing them. We felt Brandon significantly impacts our ability to score more runs. It made sense in that way. We have to find ways to balance that and make sure we are productive in as many ways as we can and have the right options for [manager Terry Francona]. Brandon fits into that.”
- To get Moss, Cleveland traded 24-year-old Joe Wendle (a sixth-round pick in 2012). Wendle has an .828 OPS in his Minor League career and won the organization’s Minors hitter of the year award in ’13. That said, players such as Jason Kipnis, Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor were blocking Wendle’s path to the Majors.
- Does Antonetti think Wendle is close to being MLB ready? Said the GM: “He’ll have a clearer path to the big leagues to Oakland than we would have had with us. That is one of the silver linings in trading him. Not only [is he] a real good player and performer, but a great person.”
- To add Moss to the 40-man roster, Cleveland designated righty Bryan Price for assignment. The Indians now have 10 days to either trade or release the 28-year-old Price, or assign him to the Minors, if he clears waivers. Price came to Cleveland (with righty Justin Masterson and lefty Nick Hagadone) as part of the 2009 trade that sent Victor Martinez to Boston.
- With Moss in the fold now, Antonetti was asked if he will still look to add offense: “We’ll look to improve our position players if we can. This is a big step towards that, but if there are other opportunities that present itself that way, we’ll examine them. More of our attention will be on pitching.”
- Cleveland now has a surplus of options for a first base-right field-DH rotation. Moss (1B, LF/RF, DH), Nick Swisher (1B, RF, DH), Carlos Santana (1B, DH), David Murphy (LF, RF) and Ryan Raburn (1B, 2B, LF, RF, DH) are all in the mix. In that grouping, Murphy and Raburn appear to be the most logical trade candidates, but the Indians will surely continue to gauge interest in Swisher.
- What does the Moss trade mean for Swisher? Antonetti: “We expect him to be a big part of the team. His focus is on getting healthy for the start of Spring Training. The one thing we know about Nick is he is a productive player when healthy and offers versatility to play the outfield and first base.” Translation: trading Swisher will not be easy, considering his offensive regression, recent injury history and lucrative contract.
- Could the Indians really carry all of Moss, Swisher, Santana, Murphy and Raburn on the roster? Antonetti: “We could. Right now, we could go to camp the way we are and open the season with the team we have. This gives us a lot of versatility and depth to our team. We’ll see what other opportunities present themselves.”
- How is Swisher doing in his rehab from his knee surgeries? Antonetti: “He had a recheck in Cleveland two weeks ago. It went well. Recently, [members of the training staff] visited Swish in New Orleans and felt like he was progressing well. Nothing really new to report, other than that he is in the rehab process and hopefully he will be ready for games in Spring Training.”
- Could Moss (hip surgery in October) open the regular season on the DL? Antonetti: “It’s not our expectation that he will open the year on the DL, but it’s a possibility. A lot depends on how quickly he progresses. Our expectation is he will be in games during Spring Training and ready for the start of the season.”
- Two other rumors that swirled around the Manchester Grand Hyatt on Day 1: Jon Paul Morosi of FOXSports.com reported that teams have called about Santana and Joel Sherman of the New York Post said the Indians had interest in Braves outfielder Justin Upton. I don’t see either report having much legs. Calling about Santana makes sense. He’s one of the games top hitters when it comes to the combination of power and patience, and he’s got a good contract. That doesn’t mean Cleveland is looking to trade him. As for Upton, there’s really no room in the inn. The outfield is crowded with the aforementioned logjam, plus the presence of center fielder Michael Bourn and left fielder Michael Brantley. Unless the Indians find a taker for Bourn (freeing up a possible move back to center for Brantley), I don’t see how Upton fits.
- The Indians have two very cool fan experiences up for auction in an MLB partnership with the non-profit organization, LUNGevity, which helps raise awareness and money for lung cancer. The auction lasts through Thursday and proceeds benefit cancer research and treatment: MLB.com/lungevity
- Scroll down to check out a Q&A with Moss, who discussed the trade, reuniting with Francona, working his way back from hip surgery and more. Or, hey, if you don’t feel like scrolling, you could always CLICK HERE.
Stay tuned for more…
During his hectic Monday, new Indians outfielder Brandon Moss spent 10 minutes with MLB.com discussing joining the Tribe, reuniting with manager Terry Francona and hitting in Cleveland, among other topics. Here is a transcript of the interview.
MLB.com: You’ve known this trade has been in the works for almost a week. Now that it’s official, what are your thoughts on joining the Indians?
Moss: “I’m excited. Obviously, I know that young pitching staff. I’ve faced them. They’ve got some great arms. They have the Cy Young Award winner, which is pretty awesome. I faced the guy that finished runner-up to him a lot. To beat out that guy, you’ve got to have a pretty special year. And that lineup — I think it’s a great lineup. You can go around the field. There’s quality bats everywhere. There’s a great core group of guys and, in all honesty, it reminds me of after 2012, when they brought us all up and we all kind of took off. That next year in 2013, we had that core group of guys and the young pitching staff and we won the division by a pretty good margin. It reminds me of a team like that. It’s a team with a lot of talent and a lot of capability and it’s going to be exciting to be a part of it.”
MLB.com: You played for Francona in Boston. Does it help your comfort level to have Tito in Cleveland?
Moss: “Yes. Yes, because any time you go to a new team — it doesn’t matter if it’s in the Minor Leagues, Major Leagues, trades or whether you just come up — there’s always that little bit of anxiety, just because you don’t know what to expect. You don’t know how things are done or how things are going to be run. Everything’s always a little bit different, but seeing that group of guys, and knowing the guys that are in that clubhouse, and knowing Tito, I’m really excited to get in there and to be a part of it. I know how he does things and the way he runs a clubhouse, the way he runs a team. And, watching those guys, they just look like they’re having fun.”
MLB.com: Where are you currently in the rehab process after your hip surgery in October?
Moss: “My hip’s coming along great. It feels better than what they’ll let me do. They put me on a really conservative track with the rehab process, just because they wanted to make sure I didn’t get ahead of myself and do anything to re-injure anything. But, it feels great. I don’t have very many limitations. They don’t want me running and pounding my hips right now, but I feel like I could do a lot of things that they won’t let me do yet, just because they’re being conservative. At the end of the day, that’s a good thing, because you want this thing to heal and you want this thing to do what it needs to do so I don’t have to deal with that issue anymore.”
MLB.com: When do you think you’ll be cleared to resume running?
Moss: “I’m supposed to be cleared to run right after Christmas. At the beginning of January, I’m going to go back to Dr. [Thomas] Byrd and have him re-evaluate to make sure everything still looks good, and then he’ll clear me to run. But, I’ve never been much of a runner in the offseason anyways. I’m a big lifter. I like to lift and then I’ll do my baseball-oriented stuff. But, as far as running long distances or doing all that, I’ve never been big into doing that anyways. … You don’t do a lot of running for distance anyway when it comes to baseball. Everything is quick bursts, so that’s the way I do my offseason training, especially with weights and everything. There’s no need to train for something you’re not going to do. I expect to do that in January and then I guess everything after that is a progression.”
MLB.com: Well, if you hit home runs, you only have to jog…
Moss: “One-hundred percent. That’s the way I see it
MLB.com: You had a lot of power success in Oakland, but that’s a hard place to hit. Are you looking forward to playing in Cleveland, where your power numbers could increase?
Moss: “Yes. I’ll be honest, other than it being our home stadium — I love the fans there — I hated playing at the Coliseum. It killed me as a hitter. I know this past year I hit under .200 at home and the year before that I think I hit exactly .200. I’ve pretty much made my seasons on the road. I’d hit 10 or 11 or 12 home runs there, but it’s just a tough place to hit. You don’t get rewarded for fly balls unless you absolutely crush the ball. It’s just a tough place to play, so I’m really excited about playing in a park where I’ve had some success. I’ve always enjoyed playing there.”
MLB.com: Do you have a preferred position? Or, are you happy to bounce around?
Moss: “I’m open to whatever. I’ll do whatever. My whole thing is I play defense, and I give defense everything I have, but I love to hit. I know what I do best is hit and that’s my focus, and I try to do my best when it comes to defense. I’ll play anywhere. Anywhere you can play to get in the lineup, that’s good for me.”
MLB.com: Looking at your second-half numbers, is the explanation as simple as the hip was extremely problematic? Or, did pitchers approach you differently after Yoenis Cespedes was traded?
Moss: “I was definitely pitched a little differently, but if you’re a power hitter, you’re going to be pitched with offspeed and more carefully anyway. That’s just the nature of the beast as it is. The hip was probably 90-percent of the problem. It started bothering me in early May and then I just kind of dealt with it, because it was just tight. But, as the season wore on, other things started flaring up and it started to have some actual pain and then it started to affect the muscles in my glutes and stuff like that. By the end, I couldn’t even hit into my front leg. I was hitting against it. I was hitting away from it and it caused me to pull off the ball a little bit. My numbers as far as fly balls, ground balls and strikeouts didn’t change very much. I still hit as many fly balls as I always do. It’s just that, by not hitting into that front side, I wasn’t getting the carry on the ball.
“That’s really all it was. I didn’t have that power. It wasn’t because of the hip being injured or the tightness. It was the pain. When you would hit into it, the pain was there and I just couldn’t do it. It’s one of those things where pretty much our entire roster was battling injuries and I was going to be the guy. When we’re all battling to get to the postseason, and we’re all battling things, I wasn’t going to be the guy to pull myself out just because my numbers we starting to slip. That’s not how it works. We’re all in it together and, yeah, the numbers would look better on your baseball card at the end of your career, and you wouldn’t have to deal with the constant questions, but at the end of the day, when you’re in a playoff push, you want your guys in the lineup and you keep yourself in the lineup, if you possibly can. And I could, so I did. It was what it was.
“I knew, we knew, everyone knew there was an injury and that my hip was a little messed up. I didn’t want to get it looked at until the end. When I got it looked at, I knew there was going to be pretty definite damage in there, just with the way that it felt. But the cortisone shot that I got before I went to Texas, which was the last series of the year before we went to Kansas City, helped immensely. That honestly relieved a lot of the stress that was on my mind. When youre going through that, you’re like, ‘Man, how much of the struggle is the hip, or am I just losing it? Am I just terrible?’ And then I got the hip fixed and a few days later I was able to hit normal and take my normal swing, and we went to Kansas City and I hit some balls well and they went out of the park, and they weren’t even close to staying in the park. I was like, ‘Thank you, Lord.’ It was that affirmation of, ‘OK, the hip is the entire problem.'”