By: August Fagerstrom / @AugustF_MLB
At this point, there’s little doubt that if Corey Kluber isn’t the very best pitcher in the world, then he isn’t far from it. He’s established himself as one of the few hurlers in the game who is must-watch television every time he takes the mound, and it’s possible he’s still improving. Coming off an otherworldy second half of the 2014 season that earned him an American League Cy Young Award, all Kluber’s done is improve his strikeout, walk, home run, ground ball, and swinging strike rates, while adding about half a tick to his average fastball velocity.
Not that you need the numbers to understand what company Kluber surrounds himself with, but since the start of 2014, he leads all pitchers in WAR, with a full two wins separating him from the guy in third place. Only Clayton Kershaw boasts a better FIP than Kluber over that span.
It’s gotten to the point where it feels like we’ve run out of ways to talk about how good Kluber really is and what makes him so dominant, and if that’s the case, it means we’ve started to take him for granted. We should always avoid taking the truly remarkable for granted in life, so let’s find a new way to appreciate Corey Kluber.
* * *
A couple years back, over on FanGraphs.com, Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmerman started tracking something called Edge%, which is exactly what it sounds like. Using PITCHf/x data, they found all the pitches that were thrown to the edges of the strike zone, and how often each pitcher threw there.
It’s intuitive that the ability to repeatedly work around the edges and corners of the strike zone is a plus. If you have an understanding of baseball, you have an understanding of this concept. It isn’t necessarily a skill that all great pitchers need to have — some guys make their living by getting hitters to chase out of the zone, while others can get away with pounding the heart of the plate — but it’s something that serves as an indicator of a pitcher in command.
It’s also typically an indicator of a certain type of pitcher. Using Petti and Zimmerman’s data, I made a leaderboard of the 10 starting pitchers who have most often worked around the edges of the strike zone, since the start of the 2014 season:
- Phil Hughes, 32.9%
- Mark Buehrle, 29.8%
- David Price, 29.7%
- Nathan Eovaldi, 29.4%
- Bartolo Colon, 29.2%
- Jordan Zimmermann, 29.0%
- Corey Kluber, 28.9%
- Clayton Kershaw, 28.9%
- Wei-Yin Chen, 28.8%
- Madison Bumgarner, 28.7%
Up at the very top, we find two guys that I’d wager nobody reading this post is surprised to see. Hughes and Buehrle are two of the most prolific and notorious low velocity strike-throwers in baseball — guys who work around the edges by necessity. Joining them in that mold are friends Colon and Chen. And although Eovaldi and Zimmermann possess elite velocity, each tend to favor a more contact-oriented approach, not dissimilar from the Hughes’ and Chen’s of the world.
So, on this leaderboard, perhaps unsurprisingly are six of the game’s most effective contact pitchers. Six contact pitchers, in Hughes, Buehrle, Eovaldi, Colon, Zimmermann and Chen, and four of the most dominant pitchers on the entire planet, in Price, Bumgarner, Kershaw and Kluber.
Some pitchers are contact guys. Some pitchers are swing-and-miss guys. It’s when the swing-and-miss guys can pitch like the contact guys that you wind up with the best of the best. When the swing-and-miss guys can pitch like the contact guys, you find yourself a Clayton Kershaw or a Corey Kluber.
* * *
With that in mind, I wanted to do what I could to gain a sense of Kluber’s ability to command his pitches, and how he uses that ability to work around the edges to his advantage. Gauging a pitcher’s command can be a tough thing to do, because it’s not something that can be quantified, but, really, what else can we do here in our time on Earth but give everything our best effort?
Inspired, as I often am, by some previous work done by Jeff Sullivan, I took to the video of Kluber’s most recent start with the intent of creating some illuminating images. I decided I’d watch an inning of Kluber’s pitches, focusing on where the catcher’s glove was set, and where the pitch wound up. I picked an inning completely at random, the fourth, which ended up being a convenient inning to pick, because Kluber needed just eight pitches and I was making the images as I went along. Hooray for inadvertently saving time!
The events which transpired in the inning are as follows: Jay Bruce, double. Brayan Pena, fielder’s choice. Zack Cozart, groundout. Skip Schumaker, strikeout. Also, I feel it necessary to note that the pitch locations shown below each .gif were generated using BaseballSavant.com.
Let’s now attempt to learn something from just eight Corey Kluber pitches:
Pitch #1: 0-0 sinker
Kluber and Perez begin the inning by setting up with a sinker, low and away, to Bruce. Kluber hits his spot, but the pitch’s seven inches of natural armside run carry it a bit out of the strike zone. This is, more or less, exactly what Kluber wanted to do with this pitch. If Bruce swings, it’s either a whiff or weak contact. If he doesn’t, Kluber either catches the corner of the plate or falls behind 1-0, which is far from the worst result in the world when Jay Bruce is leading off an inning against a righty.
Pitch #2: 1-0 cutter
Here’s the one mistake pitch Kluber makes in the inning. Even Corey Kluber makes mistakes! After falling behind 1-0 to Bruce, Perez wants a cutter low and inside, on the part of the plate to which Kluber almost exclusively throws his cutter. It’s a comfort pitch for Kluber, the pitch he commands better than any other, but he leaves this one a bit up in the zone and, breaking into the barrel of Bruce’s bat, he sends it into right field for a double.
Pitch #3: 0-0 sinker
Here, Kluber and Perez just want a sinker to go for a strike. With the leadoff man on base, they’re just looking for a quick out, and they get it here. The pitch starts out over the inner-third and runs towards the plate, jamming Pena as he weakly rolls over to first base. This is the second-biggest miss Kluber makes all inning, which is saying something, because he barely missed at all.
Pitch #4: 0-0 sinker
Perfect pitch. Perez sets up for a sinker low-and-away and Kluber executes with remarkable precision. PITCHf/x thought the pitch was a strike, the home plate umpire didn’t. Doesn’t really matter. This is exactly where Kluber and Perez wanted this pitch to be.
Pitch #5: 1-0 sinker
Another perfectly-commanded sinker. Perez essentially tells Kluber to throw the same pitch he threw last time, just a couple inches up so that if Cozart takes again, they actually get the call this time. Kluber starts the sinker outside the zone and runs it into the outer-third, and Cozart weakly grounds out to third.
Pitch #6: 0-0 sinker
Nailed it. Perez sets up for a sinker on the outer half and Kluber puts it right where the glove is. Pretty similar to the first pitch of the inning. Schumaker reaches out and makes contact, but with the location and the movement, it’s an impossible pitch to square up. This ball, when contacted, almost never goes for a hit. Schumaker weakly fouls it off towards the Indians dugout and falls behind in the count.
Pitch #7: 0-1 curveball
Enough with the contact stuff. Kluber has finally gotten ahead of a batter, and now it’s time to put him away. Perez sets up for a low curveball, and Kluber delivers. He probably wanted this pitch to be just a bit lower, but given the insane movement this pitch has, he’s got some room for error. Schumaker again fouls it off, and is quickly behind 0-2.
Pitch #8: 0-2 curveball
You can ignore where Perez sets up here. On an 0-2 curveball to Skip Schumaker, the intent is clear. Perez helped make it clearer by motioning to Kluber before the pitch:
Where they wanted the curveball was in the dirt. Where they got the curveball was in the dirt. Skip Schumaker doesn’t stand a chance against this pitch. No hitter in baseball stands a chance against that pitch.
* * *
This has been an inning with Corey Kluber’s command. Kluber made eight pitches and recorded three pretty easy outs. He made one real mistake, and it turned into a double. Around that mistake are seven pitches that, more or less, were spotted perfectly every time. Kluber worked around the edges throughout the inning, keeping the ball down on almost every pitch while avoiding the heart of the plate.
I’m being completely honest with you when I say I chose this inning totally at random, with no prior knowledge of what Kluber might have done. It ended up being almost a perfect inning, and surely Kluber isn’t always this sharp, but that’s also kind of the point. Sometimes, when you choose a Corey Kluber inning at random, you wind up with an eight-pitch frame that somehow includes both an extra-base hit and a strikeout. Sometimes, you get an inning where he never misses his spot by more than a handful of inches on any given pitch. Given those two sentences alone, Kluber’s separated himself from the majority of pitchers in the world.
The movement on Kluber’s stuff is what allows him to pile up strikeouts and makes him one of the most aesthetically pleasing pitchers in the game to watch. That’s the obvious part. The command, like we saw in this inning, is what keeps his walk rates among the best in the league. The command is what allows him to consistently work deep into ballgames, which, by proxy, helps pile up the gaudy strikeout totals. The command is what allows Kluber to consistently work around the edges as well as almost any pitcher in baseball. The command is, perhaps, the underrated part of Kluber’s game, if he has one. The two put together — the command and the movement — is what makes Corey Kluber as dominant of a pitcher as this game has to offer.
Before Sunday’s Mother’s Day game against the Twins, Indians manager Terry Francona was asked if there was a memory that stood out about his mom, Roberta. She passed away years ago after a battle with breast cancer, so this day gives Francona a chance to reflect each year. He shared a fun story from his childhood with reporters. Here’s the tale in his own words:
“I lost my mom a long time ago, so it gives me a chance to reflect, which I appreciate. But then it also gives me a chance to celebrate. I’ve got a daughter that’s now a first-time Mother’s Day recipient. So, that’s a pretty cool thing. In our game of baseball, more often than not, the mom is usually the mom and the dad.
“Probably my favorite story of all about my mom was … when I was 10 or 11, they used to have this thing called the Phillips 66 — remember that was the gas station back then? — they used to have this thing called the pitch, hit and run contest. And my dad was gone that summer and we couldn’t go. You had to throw a baseball into a net — like from the mound. You had five throws into a net. You threw the ball up and hit it. It was almost like punt, pass and kick. So, my mom got a bucket, put cement in it and we put a fishing net [in it]. I practiced for months on my own, because my mom couldn’t catch to save her life.
“And we went down there, me and my mom were sitting in the front row getting ready for it. All the dads were like telling their sons all this, ‘Get your arms up,’ and all this [crap]. The competition starts, man, and I beat everybody’s [butt]. And then they disqualified me, because my dad was a Major League player. I hadn’t seen my dad in three months. My mom was so upset. She was so upset that we’re driving home, right? And she was crying. You know when you’re tearing up when you’re so mad? She’s grabbing the wheel and she was going to take me to get ice cream. And I said, ‘Mom, we don’t have to go to Ohio to get ice cream.’ We were across the line. Maybe that’s where I got that from. She was so [ticked].
“For years, it was the funniest story ever. If you look, there was a disclaimer. I’m not sure why the hell it mattered. I hadn’t seen my dad in three months. I was heartbroken, man. And I kicked everybody’s [butt]. I practiced [so much]. It was a little disclaimer like, if you were a kid of one of their employees or a son of a Major Leaguer. Who in the hell thought of that? I hadn’t seen him since February.”
Happy Mother’s Day to all the great moms out there.
Before Friday’s game at Progressive Field, music was blaring in the Indians’ clubhouse. Reporters had to request that the volume be reduced for a moment in order to conduct an interview. The point is this: one day after a rough loss to Toronto, the Tribe had good vibes flowing through the clubhouse.
After all, it was May 1. That alone was reason for optimism.
“I don’t ever want this place to be a morgue,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “And that’s hard I think for fans to understand. They want to see the players grumpy and moping. Believe me, we care. But when you show up the next day, it doesn’t help to mope about last night’s loss. If I thought there was a way it helped, we’d do it. … When you show up the next day, it’s got to be the next day. Sometimes, that’s hard, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Or, when you show up the next month, it needs to be the next month.
“April’s over,” Indians third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall said with a smile after a 9-4 win on Friday night.
For the second season in a row, April was not a memorable month for Cleveland. A fitting image for the way things went came when Yan Gomes and Michael Brantley accepted their Silver Slugger Awards a few weeks ago. Gomes (sidelined for six-to-eight weeks after a knee sprain on April 11) was on crutches and Brantley was out of the lineup that day due to a nagging back issue.
Cleveland lost Gomes to the injury, saw Carlos Carrasco take a line drive off the jaw (it only cost him a handful of days, thankfully) and dealt with rough starts from key players such as Michael Bourn, Jose Ramirez and Brandon Moss, among others. While the rotation had flashes of its great potential, the bullpen struggled and runs were scarce for the first four weeks.
“It’s early, but we can’t say that forever,” Indians outfielder David Murphy said after a loss in Detroit last month. “We don’t want to be in a situation that we were last September. And, you don’t want to have to think back to April and think, ‘Well, if we just would’ve picked up this win here or there.’ There’s definitely a sense of urgency.”
With the arrival of May, Cleveland will try to put the first month in the past, while attempting to chip away at the deficit created by the hot starts by the Tigers and Royals.
Here is a look back at the month that was for the Tribe…
Record at home: 2-7
Record on road: 5-7
Offense (AL rank)
.238 AVG (13)
.302 OBP (10)
.373 SLG (11)
.675 OPS (11)
79 R (t-12)
168 H (t-12)
19 HR (t-8)
56 XBH (10)
77 RBI (12)
10 SB (11)
66 BB (8)
139 K (2)
263 TB (11)
1.4 WAR (11)
Notes: It was an anemic month for the Indians, who scored their fewest runs in a single month since plating only 77 in April of 2010. Prior to that, the next occurrence of 79 or fewer runs in a non-strike-shortened season was June 1991 (69). June of 1991 is also the last time Cleveland had 79 or fewer runs with an OPS of .675 or lower. That June, the Tribe had a .589 OPS. Oof.
Pitching (AL rank)
7 wins (t-14)
4.54 ERA (11)
4.88 rot. ERA (11)
4.03 rel. ERA (8)
4 saves (t-10)
184.1 IP (13)
17 HR (t-4)
74 BB t-11)
202 K (2)
.273 AVG (14)
1.46 WHIP (14)
3.53 FIP (4)
2.5 WAR (5)
Notes: This marked the first time since Sept. 2003 that the Indians had no more than seven wins and an ERA of 4.54 or better. This marked only the second time in team history that the club registered 200-plus strikeouts, but only won seven or fewer games. The only other time that happened was — shield your children’s eyes — August of 2012. I don’t need to remind you that the Tribe went 5-24 that month, right? Right. Didn’t think so.
Player of the Month: OF Michael Brantley
Stats: .339/.381/.458/.839, 7 2B, 7 RBI, 6 R, 4 BB, 3 K, 20 H, 15 games
Notes: Brantley missed a handful of games in early April with a back issue, but returned strong enough to fashion a solid month for the Tribe. He is the only Indians batter in the past 12 years to have a month with at least four walks, no more than three strikeouts and 20-plus hits. He also did that in Sept. 2012. The last Indians player other than Brantley to do so was Victor Martinez in Sept. 2003. v-Mart also had an .839 OPS that month. The last player to do that for the Tribe with at least a .458 slugging? Tony Fernandez in 1997.
Pitcher of the Month: RHP Trevor Bauer
Stats: 2-0, 1.80 ERA, 25 IP, 28 K, 13 BB, .174 AVG, 1.12 WHIP, 4 starts
Notes: Prior to Bauer, only six Indians pitchers had enjoyed an undefeated month that included at least 28 strikeouts, an ERA of 1.80 or lower and an opponents’ average of .174 or better. Bauer makes it seven. The others: Corey Kluber (June 2014), Cliff Lee (April 2008), Gaylord Perry (May and June 1974), Luis Tiant (Sept. 1968), Sonny Siebert (Aug. 1965) and Bob Feller (April 1939).
Reliever of the Month: LHP Nick Hagadone
Stats: 2.16 ERA, 8.1 IP, 11 K, 5 BB, .188 AVG, 1.32 WHIP, 10 games
Notes: It wasn’t a stellar month for the bullpen, but Hagadone had a solid showing for the Indians. He joined John Axford (July 2014), Vinnie Pestano (May 2011), Paul Assenmacher (Sept. 1997) and Derek Lilliquist (July 1992) as the only relievers in team history with 10-plus games, 11-plus strikeouts and a 2.20 ERA or better in no more than nine innings in a single month.
Game of the Month (hitter): OF Brandon Moss
April 24 at Tigers: 3-for-5, 2 HR, 1 2B, 7 RBIs, 10 total bases
Notes: Moss became the 15th player (18 times) to have at least two homers, seven RBIs and 10 total bases in a single game. The previous two occurrences were Lonnie Chisenhall (June 9 last year against Texas) and Shin-Soo Choo (Sept. 17, 2010 against the Royals). The last player to have such a game for Cleveland against Detroit was Bill Glynn on July 5, 1954.
Game of the Month (pitcher): RHP Trevor Bauer
April 9 at Astros: 6 IP, 0 H, 0 R/ER, 5 BB, 11 K, 78 Game Score
Notes: Bauer became the only Major League pitcher since at least 1914 to give up no hits and record 11-plus strikeouts in an outing lasting no more than six innings. He joined Len Barker (May 15, 1981), Dennis Eckersley (May 30, 1977) and Bob Feller (April 30, 1946) as the only pitchers in Cleveland history to give up no hits with at least 11 strikeouts in a start.
Minor League standouts for April
Player of the Month: OF Tyler Holt
Stats: .328/.438/.393/.832, 3 XBH, 4 RBI, 12 BB, 12 R, 5 SB, 19 games
Pitcher of the Month: LHP Bruce Chen
Stats: 1.08 ERA, 25 IP, 17 K, 1 BB, .155 AVG, 0.56 WHIP, 4 starts
Player of the Month: OF Ollie Linton
Stats: .280/.400/.340/.740, 3 2B, 2 RBI, 8 R, 7 BB, 5 SB, 15 games
Pitcher of the Month: RHP Cody Anderson
Stats: 1.13 ERA, 24 IP, 18 K, 4 BB, .235 AVG, 1.00 WHIP, 4 starts
Class A (high) Lynchburg
Player of the Month: OF Brad Zimmer
Stats: .357/.452/.586/1.038, 4 HR, 8 XBH, 11 RBI, 15 R, 10 BB, 10 SB, 19 games
Pitcher of the Month: RHP Adam Plutko
Stats: 1.14 ERA, 23.2 IP, 19 K, 3 BB, .148 AVG, 0.63 WHIP, 4 starts
Class A (low) Lake County
Player of the Month: None
Stats: .191/.270/.281/.551 combined for the team
Pitcher of the Month: RHP Dace Kime
Stats: 1.85 ERA, 24.1 IP, 25 K, 3 BB, .218 AVG, 0.90 WHIP, 4 starts
By: August Fagerstrom / @AugustF_MLB
Take a moment to think about what you know of Danny Salazar, the pitcher. Maybe even close your eyes and visualize a typical Salazar pitch, if you will.
Did you see it? It was a fastball! Elevated, around 97 mph. Salazar throws hard, and he keeps it up in the zone. If there’s one thing you know about Salazar, it’s that. OK, visualize another pitch.
Fastball again! This one got a whiff! Salazar throws his fastball a whole bunch. For his career, three of every four pitches have been a fastball. He throws hard enough to where he gets a lot of swings-and-misses, but, boy, that’s a lot of fastballs. More than just about any starter in baseball, in fact. Onto another pitch.
Split-change! It started at the knees and ended in the dirt. The batter either chased, and whiffed, or didn’t, and it was a ball. You decide. This isn’t a real at-bat, you know. Let’s visualize one more Salazar pitch.
Another fastball! And, aw, shoot. This one went for a dinger. The hitter — let’s call him, I don’t know, say, Yelmon Doung — was sitting fastball all the way and parked it about halfway up the left field bleachers at Progressive Field. Salazar starts the next hitter off with a fastball because, hey, what can you do?
* * * * *
This is the Salazar we’ve come to know. The Salazar we’ve come to know has those two pitches, and not much else. There’s been a slider hanging around, too, but it’s a pitch that’s done more bad than good. It’s a pitch that’s seemingly stuck around only out of necessity, as Salazar needed something beyond just a four-seam fastball to get right-handed hitters out.
This isn’t meant to be a knock on Salazar as a pitcher and the innings he’s given the Indians. Since Salazar made his debut in 2010, he’s made 33 starts and thrown 181 innings — conveniently, about a full season’s worth of work — and has produced 3.3 Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs. That’s quality, above-average production, and his 27.8 K% — sandwiched between Matt Harvey and Chris Sale on the leaderboard — makes him one of the more electric starters in baseball.
Yet, all this time, watching Salazar, it’s always felt like there’s been one thing missing that’s kept him from making that jump to the next level. Despite all the success, he’s still the same guy who got sent back to the minors for two months in May last year, and who opened there this season. Each time Salazar has struggled, cries have come out from many fans to move him to the bullpen. He’s better suited to be a late-inning reliever, people say. I’ve always been quick to reject this notion, as even back-end starters can provide teams more value than the most dominant late-inning relievers, but it’s easy to see where the critics were coming from.
Salazar is a guy who throws gas, and a guy who’s relied on his gas in a way you typically only see relievers do. That’s because he’s only ever had one other effective pitch — the split-change, a pitch that serves as a way of getting opposite-handed hitters out. His slider has never done its job of getting same-handed hitters out, and because of that, Salazar has ran some nasty reverse-platoon splits in his career. He’s held lefties to a dominant .642 OPS. Righties, on the other hand, have tagged Salazar for a .784 OPS.
It’s due to these struggles against righties that Salazar has had troubles turning lineups over and pitching deep into ballgames. It’s due to these struggles against righties that, despite the electric stuff and above-average results, one could imagine a future in bullpen for Salazar if he wasn’t able to figure out a way to retire same-handed hitters. Two-pitch pitchers just aren’t able to stick as starters in the Majors, more often than not. To date, Salazar’s been a starter getting by with a reliever’s arsenal, and, usually, that can only last for so long.
Now, take a look at this, from Wednesday night’s game:
That’s a first-inning curveball, at 82mph, for a swinging strike to Alex Gordon. Ignore the fact that it isn’t against a same-handed hitter, which we’ve identified as the problem. It’s a Danny Salazar curveball, and that’s what’s important. And it looks pretty good.
In Salazar’s 2013 debut, he made 10 starts, and threw zero curveballs. In 2014, he made 20 starts, and threw three curveballs. In 2015, he’s made three starts, and thrown 23 curveballs. On Wednesday alone, he threw 14 — more than he’d thrown in his entire Major League career to date.
Immediately following that start, I tweeted this:
This is something new for Salazar, and the early results are encouraging. The big thing here is that, if it proves to be effective, he’ll have the weapon to use against same-handed hitters that’s escaped him throughout his career. The other thing is that it gives hitters standing on either side of the plate a third speed to worry about. They all worry about the 95-mph heat. But both the split-change and the slider go around 87. Even the slider, serving as a third pitch, never served as a third speed. Hitters only had to worry about 95 or 87. Now they have to worry about 82.
I’d like to examine a particular sequence from an at-bat from the fifth inning of Wednesday night’s game, against Paulo Orlando. We’ll walk through it with added commentary from the man himself. Let’s begin.
Salazar starts Orlando off with an 81-mph curve, spotted perfectly below the knees. In Orlando’s first at-bat, he swung at a first pitch fastball, so Salazar decided to keep him off balance.
“His first at-bat, he was pretty aggressive with the fastball,” Salazar said. “He hit a line drive to center field and Michael Bourn caught it. So I knew he was looking for a fastball again. I put that in my mind and I tried to go either curveball or changeup down.”
Then, Salazar comes back with another curve, this time at 82 and again spotted perfectly. Going back-to-back curves is a new development, even in the midst of a new development.
“I think that’s the first time I’ve thrown back-to-back curveballs,” Salazar said. “I wanted to see if he wanted to swing at it again. And he did.”
After throwing consecutive curveballs for the first time in his Major League career, he comes back with yet another. This one, 83. This one, spotted perfectly, yet again. I asked Salazar whether going three in a row was more his idea, or more of catcher Roberto Perez’s.
“That was Roberto there,” Salazar said. “Sometimes, if they look bad with one pitch and you see that in the second pitch and they don’t make that adjustment, sometimes you want to try to do it again.”
Then, the heat. The heat’s still there. The heat will always be there. The interesting thing about the curveball development is that it helps set up the heat. Salazar hasn’t had that in the past. In the past, the heat set up the heat. Now, he’s got a new wrinkle to make his already-deadly heat even more lethal.
“I was trying to put him away there,” Salazar said. “I was ahead in the count and so maybe if he likes that pitch, he’ll swing. If he doesn’t, it’s a ball, and I can still come back and throw a change or a slider or maybe another curveball.”
And so that’s exactly what he did. After three curveballs at the knees at 82, he went with a fastball at the shoulders at 96, which is unfair. Even more unfair than that, is to follow up the high heat with an 87-mph splitter in the dirt. Typically, a splitter or changeup is more of a putaway pitch for opposite-handed hitters, so I asked Salazar about the decision to use it as a put-away pitch to a righty here.
“My changeup, it goes down — like straight down, not to the sides,” Salazar said. “So I feel comfortable throwing it to both righties and lefties, so that’s what I did.”
* * * * *
Now, granted, Salazar’s thrown 26 curveballs in his career, and I might have shown the best four he’s ever thrown in this one post. Over half of them have gone for balls, and there’s a wild pitch mixed in there too. It’s not like Danny Salazar suddenly has Adam Wainwright’s curveball. But he has one, and it’s improving. He’s trusting it more. Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway admitted that it’s being developed as a way to replace the slider as his weapon against right-handed batters, and that the slider had “flattened out” in recent years.
“This Spring Training, he really threw [the curve] a lot and I was like, ‘That looks pretty good,’ and now it’s better than it ever was before,” Callaway said. “Now, it’s a pretty good pitch. We graded it out and it’s a full grade better on PITCHf/x and things like that. We were like, ‘Hey, let’s keep on using it.'”
So, Danny Salazar has a curveball now, and it looks pretty good. And it’s getting better. The slider’s getting phased out, because the slider was always more of a placeholder pitch anyway. Its job was to get righties out, and it didn’t do that. Enter: curveball.
The curveball is there to help get righties out. The curveball is there to give hitters a third speed to worry about. The curveball is there to help Salazar turn lineups over. The curveball is what’s turning Danny Salazar from a starter with a reliever’s arsenal, into a real starting pitcher.
Indians general manager Chris Antonetti met with reporters prior to Monday’s game against the Royals, hitting on a variety of issues facing his team. The GM discussed his club’s slow start, Francisco Lindor’s hot start, Nick Swisher’s comeback and more. Here is a transcript of the Q&A:
Q: How concerned are you over the slow start?
In an ideal world, we would’ve won more games than we have already, but I think we’ll refrain from reading too much into just a handful of games. I continue to believe in the roster that we have and that we’ll play better than we have so far.
Q: Does the way the Tigers and Royals have started add any sense of urgency?
There’s a sense of urgency to every game. I think we have enough things that we need to focus on in-house, to control and try to improve the way we’ve played, rather than focus on anyone externally. The good thing is we’re going to have our opportunities to play those teams a lot over the balance of the year. If we play the way we’re capable of playing, we can certainly make up the ground that we’ve lost so far.
Q: Do you find it difficult not to overreact to Detroit, considering the way things have gone the last few years?
Not necessarily to any one team. I thought you were going to ask do I find it difficult not to overreact to any game. Yes, that’s always difficult. We’re all emotional and we all care so much and try to win every game that we can. I think the thing we’re all focused on is how do we help our group play to its potential and it’s capabilities. That’s where we’re spending all of our energy.
Q: As we get closer to a month in, and people see Jose Ramirez isn’t performing the way you guys want, and it seems like every time he misses a play in the field there’s a public outcry for Francisco Lindor. He’s hitting .300 now. What is it that’s keeping him in Triple-A? What do you guys want him to continue to work on? What do you say to people who say, ‘Why isn’t Lindor here?’
Well, I would encourage them to take a look at Jose Ramirez’s body of work. Not only what he did last year at the Major League level, but the way he played and performed throughout our development system, because he’s a guy that’s produced at each level and played very well at each stop he’s been at, including the Major Leagues. Admittedly, he’s had a rough start to the season — offensively especially — but he’s the same guy that came up last year, struggled initially and then figured things out the second time, and performed pretty well and was a big part of our team’s success in the second half. That’s the first part.
The second part, with Francisco, we’re really encouraged with the progress of his development. I think we said that in Spring Training and at the end of Spring Training. He took advantage of the days that he was in Goodyear and the offseason to continue to improve as a player, and he’s continued on that path in Columbus. He has a bright future in front of him that he can control in terms of the type of player he’s going to ultimately become. He’s on his way to doing that. What the timetable is for his ascendance to the Major Leagues hasn’t changed from what we talked about in Spring Training.
Q: What does Lindor still need to do? Is there something specific?
There’s a litany of things, a number of things that we’ve talked with, not only Francisco, but each player has a specific developmental plan that we talk with them about. Rather than getting into the specifics of those, because it’s something that’s really between the player and us, I can tell you that Francisco is committed to that plan and has worked extraordinarily hard to continue to improve and get better as a player.
Q: Do you ever worry about a player in Lindor’s situation wondering, ‘What else do I have to do to get that call?’
If we weren’t communicating with him, I’d worry about it. But, we are. Francisco has got a very clear understanding of the things that we’ve partnered with him and talked with him about, that he can continue to improve as a player. In fact, Tom Wiedenbauer, our field coordinator, was here and we just spent an hour talking about Francisco and other guys on the Columbus team, and where they are in their plans and their progression. I’m very confident that Francisco has a really clear understanding of the things he’s working on. So, I don’t think there’s that frustration with him, while there may be some uncertainties for people that don’t have a chance to see Francisco play every day and part of the process. I can understand why that would be the case, but I don’t think that’s an issue for Francisco.
Q: Offensively, are you starting to get a clear picture of what type of player Lindor is?
I think we believe he has a chance to be a complete player — offensively, defensively, on the bases, as a teammate, as a leader. He’s on that path. I think he’s a guy that’s always controlled the strike zone well, manages at-bats well from both sides, has shown power as well. We wouldn’t set any limit as to what type of player he can be offensively, other than a pretty good one.
Q: What’s an ideal scenario for calling a guy like him up? Is it when he’s hitting well? When the Major League team is playing well, so he doesn’t feel added pressure?
In an ideal setting, in an ideal world, the team is playing great and the player is playing great and there’s an opportunity that naturally presents itself. But, rarely in life, as we’ve seen so far in the first few weeks, do we live in an ideal world.
Q: What are your thoughts on Danny Salazar, with where he was at at the end of Spring Training to where he is now?
Danny has made great strides in the first month of the season. I think he went down to the Minor Leagues with a clear purpose and, to his credit, he worked on the plan we discussed in Major League camp. He and Carl Willis and Ruben Niebla stayed consistent with that plan and put in a lot of work to get Danny to kind of execute the plan we talked about. He went down there with a purpose and worked his tail off to do it. It’s been really encouraging to see that progress come so quickly. I think Danny’s next challenge will be staying consistent with it. Can he continue with the work in between starts, the preparation and then when he takes the mound with that same approach that he’s demonstrated in his first couple starts up here, and the start he made in Columbus.
Q: What have you thought of Nick Swisher’s recent progress?
We spent some time with Nick today. He’s made great progress. The way he’s gone about his rehab has been extraordinary, with his mind-set and his approach and how committed he is to doing everything in his power to get back, not only to get back as quickly as possible, but to get get back as quickly and as completely as he can. I think he’s starting to feel more and more comfortable offensively. I think now the next step in the progression is to continue to build up his volume and to continue to build up his defensive play where he’s comfortable and unrestricted playing in the outfield. He’s made progress along those lines and hopefully will be ready in the near-term to impact our team up here.
Q: How has the loss of Yan Gomes impacted the rotation, if at all?
Any time you lose a player like Yan, we are cognizant of what he means to our team. There’s no replacing a guy like Yan Gomes. But, that said, I think Roberto Perez has stepped in and done an admirable job. He’s a guy that, if Yan weren’t our catcher, we’d feel completely comfortable having as our regular catcher at the Major League level. It’s also important to remember that there are a lot of things being thrown at Roberto right now for the first time, and he’s a young player that’s still developing. We’ve been really pleased by the way he’s gone about that. I think, in time, you’ll see him continue to improve as a player in all facets of his game.
Q: Back to Salazar, is it an advantage having Carl Willis around again to help out, given his experience?
Having Carl back in the organization is unquestionably an incredible asset to have. The fact that he’s in Columbus and sharing his experience with our guys, and not only having those experiences to share, but someone who is so aligned philosophically with who we are as an organization and what’s important to us in our developmental philosophies, has made that transition back here seamless. Carl, in a very short time, in Spring Training and the early part of the season, has already had a great impact.
Q: What do you make of Michael Bourn’s slow start? He’s healthy and running well, but what is your perspective?
I think offensively he’s still working to find his swing and his approach. I know he’s working with Ty and Q every day to try to get back to a consistent level of offensive performance. The way to do that is start with a consistent base, a foundation, with his swing and approach at the plate. He’s working to do that. He just hasn’t yet found it. The great thing about Michael is he’s never going to short-change the work. He’s going to show up today just as committed as he was yesterday and last week to try to get there. The encouraging thing is that he’s healthy. He’s not restricted physically in any way. In the past, when Michael’s been healthy, he’s been a productive player. We’re confident he’ll get back there.
Q: Are Indians fans ever going to see the impact he can have with his speed?
I think we saw it — it wasn’t the way we’d ideally like to see it — this weekend. On what we’re relatively routine double-play balls, he beat those balls out to first. I think if you look at his run times on those plays, they were still well above average. Now, we’d like to see that, instead of it being just beating out the back-end of a double play, maybe stretching a double into a triple and pushing the envelope, extending a single into a double and having that impact in center field. I think we’ve seen signs of Michael getting back to that type of player. It’s just hard to see on the offensive side if you’re not on base consistently and not hitting the ball with more authority.
Q: Do you think the Tigers have intimidated this club?
I don’t think so. I think they’ve out-played us so far. I don’t think there’s an intimidation. I think maybe we haven’t executed as well as we’re capable of executing, but I don’t see us afraid or intimidated when we’re playing with them, either in the way we play or the way we pitch. We just haven’t executed.
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.