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.'”
The fact that Corey Kluber won the American League Cy Young Award this season is incredible enough on its own. What Cleveland has here, though, is a tremendous story of identifying a prospect, maintaining patience and developing him into one of the best pitchers in the game.
Now, no one in the Indians’ organization will tell you that they knew they had a Cy Young-caliber pitcher on their hands. What they will say is that Kluber always demonstrated a strong desire to improve, and was willing to work and tweak and listen and experiment and implement. The work ethic and willingness to be open to changes helped a raw Minor Leaguer develop into a fine-tuned rotation leader.
“I think it goes beyond pitching,” Indians GM Chris Antonetti said. “It’s human development, especially in athletics. It’s not always a linear path. You’d like it to be, OK, level to level, every year, get better. It doesn’t always work that way. It doesn’t always play out on typical timeline. I think the one thing that Corey deserves a ton of credit for is he is that guy that constantly looks to improve every year.
“He’s already got a list of things going into the offseason that he wants to be better at for next year, despite the incredible season he’s had. That’s been his mind-set since he came into the organization. He’s always that guy that will put in the work to get the results. Whether that’s working with coaches to improve his mechanics, or working in the weight room. He sets a pretty good standard for the rest of our staff.”
ICYMI, here are clips from Kluber’s Cy Young win:
Developing a Cy Young winner: Kluber’s trek to stardom
Kluber edges out King Felix for AL Cy Young Award
Kluber took over as leader during Cy Young season
Kluber, deGrom bring pride to Stetson University
Castrovince: Kluber was right pick for Cy Young
Within those clips, you’ll find thoughts on Kluber from San Diego’s former farm director, his college coach and plenty of others. Castrovince also has a great analysis column on why voters leaned in Kluber’s direction when comparing the extremely-close race between him and Seattle ace Felix Hernandez.
One of the best parts about this whole situation is that Kluber is still under contractual control for Cleveland for at least the next four years. Plenty of fans of written in bemoaning the Cy Young win, groaning that the Indians will surely trade Kluber now. After all, that’s what they did with CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee. Such low-hanging-fruit replies are from those who really don’t understand the landscape now vs. then.
You could see the writing on the wall in both the Sabathia and Lee cases, as they each were nearing free agency at the time of their respective Cy Young victories. With Kluber, Cleveland has found itself in an opportunistic position. Kluber is in his prime years, but is still in the early stages of his service-time years. The Indians have an elite talent under control for the league minimum, if so desired, for the 2015 season.
“The thing we’re most encouraged about,” Antonetti said, “is we will have Corey continuing to lead our staff for the foreseeable future.”
This also puts the Indians in position to explore a pre-arbitration extension for Kluber this winter. That said, there isn’t a sense of urgency on that front. Cleveland could easily wait until next winter — giving Kluber the chance to put two strong seasons together consecutively — before looking more seriously into a multiyear deal. The Indians have a history of locking up its young position players (Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana, for example), but pitchers are a different story given the risk and cost involved.
What makes Kluber’s situation even more unique is his age in comparison to his service time. He is entering his Age-29 season, but is only in the 2+ rage for service. There have been long-term contracts for 2+ pitchers in recent years in the Majors (Chris Sale, for example) or just 1+ (Julio Teheran and Madison Bumgarner), but the big difference there is they were much younger at the times of their respective extensions.
I did a search of pitchers since 2000 who had 30+ wins, an ERA of 3.50 or better and at least 425 innings in their Ages 25-28 seasons (also Years 1-4 in the Majors). It’s an extremely short list, and the only two pitchers who really fit that criteria are Josh Collmenter and Doug Fister. Collmenter signed a two-year extension prior to 2014 and Fister has gone year to year in the arbitration process. So, neither case really apply to Kluber in terms of finding a comparison.
Between the 2006-09 seasons, pitchers Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright and Scott Baker signed four-year contracts (each around $15M before any club options) while in the 2+ service-time range. More recently, five-year deals have been a trend, ranging between $21-42. Jason Lukehart had a good breakdown of some of these during a July post on LetsGoTribe.
Due to his age, and now the fact that he’s got a Cy Young Award under his belt, there isn’t one singular case that can really relate directly to Kluber’s situation. That said, statistic carry more weight than age when determining possible salaries during arbitration years. Where age would become more of a factor would be in determining potential salaries for free-agent years (2019 is the first for Kluber, who will be entering his Age-33 season at that point).
If the Indians looked at a four-year contract to assume Kluber’s arbitration years, a price tag of $22-25 million seems realistic. If you begin looking at the five-year range, you’re probably looking at a deal approaching the $35-million range. Team options are a common practice for these types of contracts, so it might make sense for the Indians to explore a four- or five-year deal that includes an option or two. Given Kluber’s age, one option might be the way to go.
I’m sure the Indians will explore an extension with Kluber’s camp this winter, but I’m not convinced that there is a pressing need to get something done right now. Cleveland has shown plenty of times that it is not reactionary in its thinking, and I wouldn’t expect the front office to rush into a long-term situation for a pitcher who has one good season and one incredible season on his short Major League resume.
Either way, Kluber is under control for the next handful of seasons for a Cleveland club that suddenly has a promising young core group that is built around Brantley, Gomes, Kipnis, Santana, Cody Allen and solid young starting pitching.
Indians outfielder Michael Brantley, who took home a Silver Slugger Award on Thursday and will find out where he falls in voting for the American League MVP next week, met with Cleveland reporters via conference call on Friday afternoon. Here are some of his thoughts on the awards, the Royals’ playoff run, Cleveland’s chances next season and more…
Q: What does it mean for you to not only receive a Silver Slugger, but to be one of the final three candidates for the MVP?
Brantley: “It’s a great honor. It really is. When I sit back and kind of reflect on the season, from the coaching staff, teammates, to the trainers, to my family’s support, just everybody that helped me get through the season, and the season we had together, to be recognized for these awards, it’s a blessing and an honor.”
Q: Is is special to share the Silver Slugger honor with Yan Gomes?
Brantley: “It’s very exciting, because you see all the hard work that he puts in each and every day. He’s a great teammate. He’s one of the leaders on our team. He’s in the cage with me side by side and he works hard each and every day. As a catcher, it’s not easy to catch as many games as he does. To be his teammate and to watch how hard he worked this year, I couldn’t be more happy for one of my teammates. He deserves it.”
Q: What was the key to not only taking the next step offensively this past season, but to maintain your consistency all year?
Brantley: “One of the biggest things was I changed my mental approach. I wasn’t up there just trying to walk or work counts. I was really trying to get a fastball early and put a good swing on it. In the past, I never tried to do that before, really. I used to try to work counts, get on base, making sure I was getting the perfect pitch. This year, I wanted to be more aggressive. I figured, maybe there’s a good first-pitch fastball to hit early. I was ready to swing and try to put a good swing on the ball.
Q: Did you watch any of the postseason?
Brantley: “I did not. I’m a family man. Family comes first. My daughter and step-son keep me really busy and I enjoy being a father, so I didn’t get a chance to watch as much as I would’ve liked.”
Q: What was your reaction to seeing Kansas City — a team you were chasing — reach the World Series?
Brantley: “Anybody that gets to the World Series, it’s a great season and it’s a great honor. It’s something I look forward to participating in — hopefully next year. Any time a team gets a chance to play in the World Series, it’s a lot of hard work. You’ve got to tip your cap to them.”
Q: Does Kansas City’s playoff run make you feel like your team isn’t that far behind?
Brantley: “Absolutely. We made it to the postseason the year before, even though no one really gave us a chance to that year. And now we have the same group of guys and it’s fun coming to work every day. We have a great group of guys that work hard and care about one another. All it takes is getting hot at the right time, making sure that we’re all working hard and pulling on one chain.”
Q: What did it mean for you to see Terry Francona sign his contract extension?
Brantley: “It’s exciting, because it’s somewhere that he wants to be and he’s happy being here coaching us. And we’re happy playing for him. He’s a player’s manager, as everybody always says. He allows you to go out there to play the game of baseball, have fun and enjoy it. A 162-game season is a long season, but when you enjoy coming to work every day, enjoy your manager and you enjoy a group of guys that you’re with and are your teammates, it’s awesome. It’s awesome to be a part of and something special is going to happen.”
Q: With Corey Kluber being in the Cy Young mix and you being in the MVP race, do you feel like you guys have the makings of a yearly contender?
Brantley: “Well, I hope so. The more time that you have at the Major League level, the more you grow. The harder you keep working and always push yourself to get better, the more success you’re going to have. We have group of young guys that are coming together. Now that we’re all starting to be established Major Leaguers, it should be fun to watch. I know I’m very excited for next year and I hear from a lot of my teammates in the offseason that they are as well. A lot of guys are working hard already and are looking to come to Spring Training and work together as a team, and make it to the playoffs and hopefully win a World Series.”
Q: If the team doesn’t make any major offseason additions, do you think the group in place achieve that goal?
Brantley: “Yes I do. We made it to the postseason once already. We’re still adding little pieces to the puzzle, but if we don’t, I just think just being with one another, knowing what you’re going to get out of your teammates to the left and right of you, especially the group here, it’s a great group of guys that we have in the locker room, it’s special. I really think it is. It’s a lot of hard work that we’ve got to put in, and we understand that. We’ve got to continue to push, push each other and work hard, and good things will happen at the end.”
Q: Will you do anything different with your offseason training this year?
Brantley: “Not at all. I really pride myself on just kind of working hard in the offseason. I’ve been kind of doing the same routine for the last couple years. I’m just making sure I stay consistent. I think it’s consistency and your workout routines and eating right and making sure that you come in healthy to Spring Training and ready to play. I’m not a position player that feels like I take Spring Training to get ready. I want to come into Spring Training ready to play, so that once the first game, I’m acclimated and I’m ready to go. Spring Training is short. It’s getting shorter and shorter every year, so you have to come into Spring Training prepared and ready to play baseball.”
Q: Did it mean more to you to make your first All-Star team or to be named an MVP finalist?
Brantley: “Really, it’s just an honor to be mentioned for both of them. That’s not something you take lightly. It’s a lot of hard work. Obviously, your peers and voters and everybody have their say as well. I’m just honored to be mentioned in that category of guys that I’m in. I don’t think one award is going to be special more than the other. I just think it’s a good tribute to a lot of hard work paying off.”
Q: Have you had a chance to reflect on your season with your dad?
Brantley: “Yeah, it’s funny. We were just talking the other day. After a couple awards came out and I was nominated for a couple things, I looked at him and I said, ‘Hey, Pops. I had a pretty good season, huh?’ He just laughed at me. He said, ‘Son, you had a great season.’ But I’ve never been that player that is really stat driven. I care about wins and losses and I care about my teammates. That’s what comes first and foremost for me. My goal, just like every other year, as soon as I step into Spring Training, is to get to the postseason and win the World Series. That’s a group effort, and we all know that in the locker room. That’s No. 1 on my list.”
Indians catcher Yan Gomes joined the Cleveland media on a conference call Friday to discuss winning an American League Silver Slugger Award, among other topics. Here are some of Gomes’ thoughts on MVP-candidate Michael Brantley, Cy Young-candidate Corey Kluber and more.
Q: What was it like to take home a Silver Slugger Award and me nominated for a Gold Glove after your first full season as the Indians’ starting catcher?
Gomes: “It really just sums up a pretty eventful year. From signing a contract to having my baby and even to some of the downs. … Oh my gosh. To end the year like that is pretty amazing. It’s pretty nice right now.”
Q: How happy were you to share winning a Silver Slugger with Michael Brantley?
Gomes: “Honestly, I’m so, so freakin’ thrilled for Mike, man. He had an unreal year and to be recognized as an MVP Award candidate and, to me, the Silver Slugger for him was just a hand’s down thing. He had an amazing year. I credit him a lot for me having the year I had. Seeing him in front of me, he kind of set the tone for the lineup. That helped me out a lot.”
Q: Did you learn from your early defensive struggles?
Gomes: ‘Absolutely. That was the point I made to you guys in the middle of the year, or at the beginning of the year when that was going on. I told you guys my aggressiveness wasn’t going to go away. Maybe I just needed to be a little smarter with my decisions and not be undisciplined. I think towards the middle and at the end of the year, I got a little bit more disciplined with my attempts and it definitely helped. I credit [first-base coach Sandy Alomar Jr.] and [bullpen coach Kevin Cash] a lot for that. They helped me out a ton with that.”
Q: What helped you stay so consistent offensively?
Gomes: “Definitely the more consistent at-bats, and [manager Terry Francona] telling me that I needed to just worry about my defense and carrying the pitching staff. I think that definitely helped me relax at the plate. There’d be times when if I struggled at the plate for a couple at-bats, I would be able to help the team out defensively, and then [help] that last at-bat. I’d let all the at-bats go and somehow I’d have a good at-bat and I’d try to make a difference. Just being able to relax and not worry so much about the hitting part, I think that helped.”
Q: Was there a point early on this season when you began to relax more?
Gomes: “It’s usually the other way around, I hear. You get a contract, you’re able to relax. I definitely put a little more pressure on myself early in the year and then my wife and I talked, we just relaxed. No matter what happens now, in a way, the contract’s still going to be there. They can’t take it away because I start to suck or something. So, I just started to relax and started to enjoy the game the same way I did before, and then just let that hunger stay in there. I told Tito, ‘That’s something I promise will never go away.'”
Q: Are you excited to find out where Corey Kluber falls in Cy Young voting next week?
Gomes: “Absolutely, man. I’ve been in touch with him a couple times this week and several times this offseason, just talking about how amazing his year was. You know what? If he doesn’t get the hardware, which I think would be [upsetting], I think he needs to be still really thrilled and honored with the kind of year that he had. I might be biased, I think it’s a hands-down thing for him. The way he carried that pitching staff, especially stepping up when they traded [Justin] Masterson, who was a big core guy in our [rotation]. I think he definitely helped out.”
Q: Is there an outing by Kluber that sticks out to you the most?
Gomes: “Even though it didn’t go his way at the end, that outing against Kansas City [on July 24]. You see they’re definitely a World Series-caliber team. He shut them out for nine innings, even though we ended up going to extras and losing it. I think that was definitely a great outing. And his last outings throughout the year. The Cy Young talk started getting a little louder for him. some guys will let the pressure hit them and they’ll go down. I think once the Cy Young talk started happening, I think he stepped up and did even better. He was pretty unreal his last three outings.”
Q: What was it like to see Kansas City in the postseason?
Gomes: “It was almost like I was so jealous. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, man.’ Not to take anything away from Kansas City. After we played them, and I think we were almost on the brink of being eliminated, I talked to a couple of their players and was like, ‘Look, you guys are the team to beat in the playoffs. You guys are going to be a tough team to beat,’ just because of the way they played. They had a pretty unbelievable bullpen and they got guys on and moved guys over and scored. Once you get to the World Series, those little runs count. I just felt like it showed that we’re right there, too.”
Q: Do you have hopes for what the team can do this offseason? Can the core group in place get it done?
Gomes: “Well, that’s kind of out of my job description. I just show up and be ready to play with whoever we’re there with. But I think the core group of guys that we have are guys that have had two- or three-year experience with each other, and I think we’re going to keep building from that.”
Q: What was your reaction to seeing Francona sign his contract extension?
Gomes: “That just shows the commitment that the guy has for us. It’s almost like he didn’t even have to do that. He was willing to. I talked to him after the extension happened and I’m just thrilled. I think he told me he’s going to be there for my whole contract. It’s exciting. That guy, he’s helped me a ton throughout the early part of my career. I’m very thankful for that and excited that he’s going to be there for a while.”
The Indians didn’t make the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean it was a season devoid of drama or fun moments. In fact, this was one of the more bizarre and entertaining seasons I’ve covered. There were elite individual performances, records broken and plenty of oddities experienced. Let’s take a tour of the Tribe’s memorable 2014 season. There are links to videos and stories throughout the events listed below. Enjoy.
Was there any doubt? The Klubot ended with 18 wins, a 2.44 ERA and 269 strikeouts. His 7.3 WAR (via Fangraphs.com) was the highest by a Tribe starter since 1972 (Gaylord Perry). Kluber’s 269 strikeouts were the most in a season by an Indians starter not named Bob Feller or Sam McDowell. Led by “Klubes” (as manager Terry Francona often calls him), the Indians set the Major League record for strikeouts by a team (1,450) in one season. The right-hander was a machine and now he’s a Cy Young candidate. CLICK HERE for a feature I wrote in early August on Kluber’s ascension to the top of Cleveland’s rotation.
Another no-contest in terms of Tribe picks. In fact, if it weren’t for some guy named Mike Trout, we might be sitting here arguing for Brantley as the American League’s MVP. He was named to his first All-Star team this season and then became the first Indians batter in history to turn in a 20-homer, 20-steal, 40-double, 200-hit campaign. His 59 multi-hit games were the most by a Cleveland hitter since 1999 (Omar Vizquel) and he joined Victor Martinez as the only batters in baseball this year with fewer than 60 strikeouts and more than 50 walks. Brantley reaching 200 hits in his final game of the season was one of the highlights of Cleveland’s season.
Allen became the primary ninth-inning man by mid-May and was the clear-cut closer by the season’s second half. The hard-throwing righty was a force in the final frame and turned in a dominant campaign for Cleveland. An Indians pitcher has had at least 20 saves 24 times. Among those instances, Allen (24 saves) turned in the second-highest strikeout total (91) and the fourth-lowest ERA (2.07). His 76 appearances were the most among any Tribe pitchers with at least 20 saves in one year.
I’ll go with co-winners for this category. The Bauer backers will cite the fact that he logged 153 innings, shoring up the middle of the rotation The House homers will note his consistency and improvement down the stretch (2.53 ERA in the second half), giving Cleveland a solid fifth starter. As a duo, Bauer and House gave Cleveland only its fifth pair of rookies with at least 100 innings apiece in a season during the Expansion Era (since 1961). With apologies to Jose Ramirez and Kyle Crockett, this honor goes to two members of the stellar five-man staff that the Tribe utilized down the stretch.
On June 9, Lonnie Chisenhall became Lonnie Baseball. In not only one of the greatest games in Indians history, but one of the greatest individual shows in baseball history, Chisenhall delivered three home runs, five hits and nine RBIs in a romp over the Rangers. He became the fourth hitter in MLB history to have at least that many homers, hits and RBIs in one game, joining Boston’s Fred Lynn (June 18, 1975), Brooklyn’s Gil Hodges (Aug. 31, 1950) and Cincinnati’s Walker Cooper (July 6, 1949). Chisenhall was the only player in that group to do so in only five plate appearances.
As overpowering as Kluber was all season long (he was fifth in the Majors with an average game score of 62.6), it was Tomlin who turned in the greatest single pitching performance of the year for Cleveland. On June 28 in Seattle, the righty struck out 11, walked none and spun a one-hit shutout. For perspective, Tomlin’s 96 game score was the same as the rating for Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter. Tomlin joined Len Barker as the only Tribe pitchers int he past 100 seasons to have a shutout with at least 11 strikeouts, no walks and no more than one hit allowed. Barker did so in his perfect game in 1981.
If we were going with an in-season comeback player, I’d probably go with a different Carlos. Santana hit .159 (.628 OPS) through the first two months and then hit .266 (.872) over the final four, finishing with a team-high 27 homers and Major League-leading 113 walks. As for Carrasco, he was winless by the end of April, making him 0-12 with an 8.09 ERA in 17 starts across the 2011-14 seasons. He was banished to the bullpen and it seemed unlikely he’d return as a starter. That changed in August, when Cleveland gave him another chance. Carrasco seized his moment, spinning a 1.30 ERA with 78 strikeouts against 11 walks in 69 innings over his final 10 starts of the season.
Aviles has served mainly as a utility infielder throughout his career, but the Indians used him plenty in the outfield this season. On July 13, Aviles did his best Yoenis Cespedes impression, making an incredible throw from the side wall in foul ground down the left-field line to first base, doubling up a baserunner for a jaw-dropping double play. CLICK HERE to watch the gun show.
I hate to do this to you, Ray, but a season recap just wouldn’t be complete without the Royal Spike. With one out in the eighth inning of a scoreless game in Kansas City, Mike Moustakas sent a ball tailing down the left-field line. Raburn made a sliding catch attempt, missed and hustled after the baseball. When he retrived it, he accidentally spiked it to the ground, giving Moustakes a four-base double. Kluber’s expression as he watched from behind home plate said it all.
(To be fair, I present to you the runner-up for the defensive play of the year. Check out this spectacular diving catch that Raburn made in late August: CLECK HERE)
Yes, I’m making up categories now. With apologies to Roberto Perez’s first career home run (a double overturned by replay), Cleveland’s best replay moment took place in Chavez Ravine on July 1. L.A.’s Adrian Gonzalez flared a pitch from Crockett to left, where Brantley made the catch and threw out Dee Gordon at the plate. Yasiel Puig tried to move from first to second on the play, but Gomes fired a throw to Jason Kipnis for the third out. The plays at the plate and at second were each reviewed, both results in outs and Cleveland had the first triple-double replay-play in Major League history… or something like that. CLICK TO WATCH.
This is one I’ll be telling my grandkids about, if I haven’t lost my mind by that point. On Aug. 5 against the Reds, the Indians were on the wrong end of a truly bizarre turn of events. On a double to right field by Yan Gomes, David Murphy hustled from first to third base. At the exact moment that the cut-off man caught the throw from right field, Reds reliever Jumbo Diaz uncorked a wild pitch from the bullpen, sending the baseball to shallow right-center field. Murphy, confused upon seeing the second ball in the grass, drifted too far off third base and was thrown out. It was a crazy play, one that could not be examined by instant replay and one we are unlikely to see again.
Swisher’s season was a trainwreck due to knee issues that led to surgery on both joints in August. Still, the Tribe’s living, breathing energy drink delivered one of the best moments of the season. On June 19, in the bottom of the 10th inning, Swisher launched a pitch from Ernesto Frieri for a walk-off grand slam. Cleveland will be hoping for similar heroics from Swish come 2015. Swisher’s shot was one of seven walk-off home runs on the season for the Indians.
Never forget what King George did for Cleveland. On May 4, the catcher crushed two home runs, becoming the first player in Indians history to have two homers in his first two plate appearances with the franchise. By the time he left town, Kottaras had a .714 slugging percentage and 1.099 OPS in an Indians uniform (in 10 games). Oh, and Kottaras (Cowtaras?) successfully defended his cow-milking crown during Cleveland’s series in Texas in June. Multi-homer games and multi-milking championships. That’s the stuff of legends.
With the score caught in a 10-10 deadlock in the 13th inning on May 21, all Raburn had to do was stand in the batter’s box to help the Indians earn a win against the Tigers. With the bases loaded, Detroit’s Al Alburquerque balked, sending Cleveland to one of its wildest wins of the season. And, to go along with the quirkiness of baseball’s rules, Raburn does not get credited for a plate appearance for that clutch (cough) moment in extra innings.
The Indians had their Rally Chicken in 2013. One year later, the club had a Rally Squirrel pay a visit to Progressive Field. On May 21 against Kansas City, the critter caused a delay as it scurried around the infield and then headed to the outfield. It ran near the mound, avoided Swisher’s glove at first and was eventually led out through the center-field bullpen. Alas, the squirrel did not carry with it the same kind of magic as “Cody” the chicken.
During a game against the Tigers in May, Kluber was asked to do a TV interview. The pitcher obliged and his teammates plotted. He was hit with water, sunflower seeds and powder. And Kluber did not flinch. He sat there, answered questions and remained unflappable as the players tested his poise. It was just another reason why he has earned the moniker “Klubot” over the past few years.
Get Bauer in a non-game setting and the young pitcher will hold court with insightful and intelligent thoughts on pitching, analytics and approach. A small group of us chatted with the right-hander for more than a half hour before the end of the season (Q&A coming soon to the blog). But, catch him in a postgame scrum following a loss, and Bauer can be a little rough around the edges. Chalk that up to the competitive side a kid. That side of Bauer was on full display in Kansas City, where his responses to a local reporter were classic in their abrasiveness. Bauer: “We lost.” Reporter: ” Can you elaborate?” Bauer: “We lost, 4-1.” I wasn’t there, so CLICK HERE to read a great account of it by Cleveland.com’s Zack Meisel.
I used to keep a log of favorite on ad off-the-record quotes, just for my own entertainment purposes. Like the time Reed Johnson told me: “The last couple weeks, I’ve been struggling for pretty much a month.” My favorite from this season came from House during the final road series in Minnesota. With the Indians on the brink of elimination, the pitcher was asked what mentality Cleveland had to take in the final games of the season. House replied: “You’ve got to hit it right in the face. Just punch it right back in the face and hopefully get a knockout.” Hey, I’m not going to argue with a man with a Fu Manchu.
Rain delays and Cleveland baseball go hand in hand. It’s not a question of if it will rain, but how often, and how many doubleheaders we reporters will have to cover. On Aug. 13, Aviles made the most of it. When the game was postponed, he picked up the phone in the dugout, called the manager’s office and asked if he could do some tarp slides. Terry Francona did not necessarily say yes, but Aviles heard all he needed to hear, hung up and put on a show with Kipnis and Chisenhall.
It got ugly in late August, when a plethora of Indians players and staff decided to grow mustaches in an effort to start a hot streak. It was unfortunate that John Axford wasn’t around to see it in person. House went the Fu Manchu route, Kipnis had whatever it was that he had, while Chisenhall, Bryan Shaw, Marc Rzepczynski and Scott Atchison went with classic ‘staches. Aviles went thin, Tyler Holt tried his best, and Bauer and Crockett are still waiting for the first hairs to emerge. Even PR men Bart Swain and Curtis Danburg got in on the action, and it was not a pretty sight. All of that said, it was good entertainment and a fun part of a strange season.
Could 2014 have been the golden thong’s swan song? Before the start of the regular season, Jason Giambi’s famous undergarment hung in his locker in the University of San Diego clubhouse. Big G told of its magic powers and Swisher confirmed that he once donned the thong. As of this writing, I can’t confirm whether any Indians players wore it under their uniform this season. I’ll be sure to investigate in the spring. For now, we’ll just wait to hear whether Giambi is going to hang the thong up for good.
What a year, and I’m sure I missed plenty. Feel free to share your favorite moments from 2014 in the comments.
Michael Brantley just finished putting the final touches on one of the greatest all-around offensive seasons in the long, storied history of the Indians franchise. For his work, the Cleveland outfielder has been nominated for some hardware.
Brantley is the Tribe’s representative among Major League Baseball’s 30 nominees for this year’s Hank Aaron Award, which recognizes the most outstanding offensive performance in each league. The winners will be announced during the World Series after fan balloting and voting by a Hall-of-Fame panel that is led by Aaron.
“He’s a complete player,” Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. “And we think he’s deserving of MVP consideration with the year he had. He was a huge part of our success and we think one of the best players in the American League.”
Among the other AL candidates for the Hank Aaron Award are Mike Trout of the Angels, Victor Martinez of the Tigers, Jose Abreu of the White Sox and Nelson Cruz of the Orioles, among others. In each of the past two seasons, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera has taken home the award, which was first established for the 1999 campaign.
In 156 games this season, Brantley turned in a .327/.385/.506 slash line to go along with 20 home runs, 45 doubles and 97 RBIs for the Indians. The left-handed-hitting outfielder also finished with two triples, 23 stolen bases, 52 walks, 56 strikeouts, 94 runs scored and 200 hits for the Tribe.
Among his AL peers, Brantley ranked second in hits, third in average and doubles, fourth in on-base percentage, sixth in runs, seventh in OPS (.890), 11th in stolen bases and 12th in RBIs. His 6.6 WAR (Fangraphs.com) ranked second to only Trout in the league.
“I actually don’t need the stat line,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “I know that backs up everything, but he has had a remarkable year in every way, shape and form. To play the amount of games he played. He hit third all year. He made an All-Star team. He was one of the best teammates you’ll ever see. He cares so much. He knows his responsibilities to our team.
“You’re seeing a kid grow up, and he’s always been a mature kid. You’re seeing a kid grow up as a baseball player right in front of our eyes and go from being a good player to one of the better players in the game. That’s really exciting.”
Brantley became the first batter in Indians history to have at least 20 home runs, 20 steals, 40 doubles and 200 hits in one season. That has only been done 11 times overall in the past 100 years in the Majors. Brantley joined Jacoby Ellsbury (2011), Larry Walker (1997), Ellis Burks (1996), Chuck Klein (1932) and Babe Herman (1929) as the only players in baseball history to also have at least a .320 average and 90 RBIs on that unique stat line.
This season, Brantley and Martinez were the only AL hitters with no more than 60 strikeouts and at least 50 walks. Brantley and Martinez also joined Cabrera (2010-13), Trout (2012-13), Adrian Gonzalez (2011) and Josh Hamilton (2010) as the only AL batters in the past five years to have a slash line of .320/.380/.500 or better.
Prior to Brantley, the last Cleveland hitter to hit at least .320 with at least a .380 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage was Roberto Alomar in 2001.
Asked what he learned from his breakout season, Brantley said recently that staying mentally strong was the biggest challenge.”[You have to] stay in each and every at-bat,” Brantley said. “In a season, it’s not just the physical tired, but the mental as well — maybe giving up on a pitch or taking a play off. I was just making sure I was in each and every play. I don’t want to give up any at-bats, still scratching and clawing. I have to make sure I come in next year and do the same thing.”
Roughly 24 hours after Cleveland’s 2014 campaign was officially in the books, general manager Chris Antonetti and manager Terry Francona met with reporters to dissect the season, discuss the future and address a wide array of topics.
The bottom line: 85 wins was good, promising even, but it was also a disappointing finish. The Indians headed into the year with playoffs as the goal and the club fell short. In that way, this was a lost year for the Tribe.
That said, for all that went wrong, a lot went right. Corey Kluber emerged as a Cy Young contender, Michael Brantley developed into an MVP-type player and the rotation finished strong enough to breed optimism for the foundation that exists for 2015. MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince did an excellent job of summing up Cleveland’s situation over on his blog, writing that the optimists and pessimists both seem to be right at the moment.
Rather than post the entirety of the hour-long session, I’ll pull out the highlights on some of the more pressing topics and issues. Over the coming days and weeks, I’ll also be rolling out some analysis of the season that was and going in-depth on some individual players and elements from this past year. For now, here is what you need to know from the meeting with the Tribe brass:
General reaction to the Indians’ season:
Antonetti: “Obviously, we’re not playing today, so we’re all a little bit disappointed. Our goal is to win the World Series. To do that, you need to get to the postseason. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. But, I think if you reflect back, I’m incredibly proud of watching the way Tito, our coaches and our players came to the ballpark every day and competed and, regardless of what happened the night before — whether or not we won, whether or not we had a heart-breaking loss — we showed up the next day and went out there and gave our best to win.
“We had some pretty trying times this year. There were times where it would’ve been relatively easy to just let it snowball and say, ‘You know what? This wasn’t our year.’ But our guys, every day, showed up at the ballpark and found a way to try to compete and win that night’s game. When you’re able to step back and look at the view, and take a broader view, it was an incredible year in terms of progress. If you would’ve told me at the start of the year some of the things that transpired would’ve happened, I’m not sure I would’ve been optimistic that we would’ve won 75 games, let alone 85 games.”
What hurt the team’s chances at a playoff run the most?
Antonetti: “It’s hard to say any one thing, but obviously we had some injuries to veteran guys that had an impact. Obviously, with the year and things [Nick Swisher] went through this year, that had an impact on us, because he wasn’t able to perform up to the level he has in the past as he was battling through injuries. [Michael Bourn] missed a significant amount of time. And we just had a tough time with [Justin Masterson], getting him on track with us. So, guys that we were counting on pretty prominently to start the year, we just weren’t able to get the contributions that we may have hoped for at the start of the year.”
What about the poor defensive play?
Antonetti: “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about it over the course of the season and we’ll spend a lot more time talking about it over the next four weeks, five weeks, actually longer than that. The encouraging thing is it was much better in the second half than it was in the first half. As you look around the diamond, there’s reason to feel that we’ll be better moving forward, but we do need to look at it critically, because it needs to improve for next year. We’ll examine a lot of different ways where we can do that.”
Should Swisher have undergone surgery earlier than he did?
Antonetti: “We all tried to do the best we could. Swish tried to play through it. We were working through all the information we had at the time and everything pointed to trying to continue on the path we were on. Obviously, it didn’t play out exceptionally well, but hindsight is always 20/20. We had to deal with the information we had there, including how Swish was feeling. It clearly had an impact on him. How much and when, it’s really hard to pinpoint.”
How will Indians evaluate Jason Kipnis’ season in light of oblique issues?
Antonetti: “I think with a guy like Kip, our focus is on how do we help him be in a better spot coming into next year. He’s a big part of our team, our organization, and we expect him to be a cornerstone guy for us next year. So, rather than spending a lot of time dissecting what happened, our focus is how do we help him take advantage of the offseason, come into Spring Training ready to go and look at 2015 rather than dwell on ’14.”
Francona: “I think there was a little bit of everything. I don’t think it’s ever just black and white. I think he came back real quick, because players come back. They want to help. I thought he was pushing the bat through a little bit at the beginning to try to maybe compensate so he wouldn’t feel it. I think guys are so good at what they do that they can get away with it, and then that creates some habits where, even when he hit the ball to left field, it wasn’t that backspin ball that were used to where he’s hitting it off that wall. It was maybe a lineout to left or a single to left. I think that created some habits where, all of a sudden, he cheated to get to the fastball. He felt like when he hit the ball away to left, it didn’t have that same thump. So now all of a sudden, maybe the ball looks like it’s further away, so he’s working down in the count, he’s taking strike one, and then [comes] the changeup, because he’s trying to cheat to get tot he fastball. It’s a little bit of a cycle where one thing leads to another. It’s never just one thing. But I don’t think that [injury] helped and I think he played through a lot, and I think he’ll come back next year with a vengeance to be the player that we need.”
What did Indians think about Jose Ramirez’s play at short in second half?
Antonetti: “Jose did an incredible job. When he came back to the Major League level, I think he was more comfortable the second time offensively. He really did everything we could’ve asked. Offensively, he did his job trying to get on base as much as he could. I think he led the American League in sacrifice bunts and tried to get runners over, and then helped stabilize our infield defense and made some well above-average plays there. It was a really good year developmentally for Jose and it’s important to remember he’s only 21 years old.”
Does Ramirez’s emergence help keep Francisco Lindor on a steady development path?
Antonetti: “They’re not necessarily intertwined. I think with each guy, we’re trying to look at what’s best for his development. When are they ready? Anybody can come up to the Major Leagues. We can bring anyone in our Minor League system up. It’s a question of, ‘Are they prepared to succeed when they come up here? Francisco had an incredible year developmentally. He’s still, at every level he’s been he’s been the youngest player at that level. The same thing happened in Triple-A and he had some challenges that he was working through there. He had a very good year developmentally for him and we’re excited to see where that goes over the winter and into next year.”
Thoughts on Corey Kluber’s season?
Antonetti: “It was an incredible year. He was, in our view, the best pitcher in the American League this year. His consistency, and his consistent dominance, was a big part of the reason we were able to win as many games as we did. It’s not an accident why that happened. It’s because of the work he’s put in. He put together an incredible season and the thing that excites us most is this is not a guy who’s going to be complacent with what transpired this year. He’s going to go out and try to do it even better next year, which is going to be really hard for him to do. But that’s what he’s focused on.”
Will you approach him about an extension this offseason?
Antonetti: “That’s probably a conversation for a little bit later in the winter. We’re right now just wrapping up this year. He’s a guy, I can tell you, we value incredibly high and are thankful that he’s going to be here for a while. That’s a good starting point for us.”
Is adding a “big bat” a priority this winter?
Francona: “I think that’s the easy. It’s, ‘Hey, go get a power bat.’ OK. What we’re really trying to do is see how many runs our pitching staff we think is going to give up and how many runs we’re going to score offensively, and then where does that fit moving forward. Do we think that makes us a team that can contend? I can tell you from personal experience, I’d rather win 3-1 than 8-7, because it’s a hard way to win consistently. I agree, there are times in a season when you have to win like that, but when your pitching gives you a chance… even the last couple months, as hard as runs seemed to be for us to score, we seemed to have a chance pretty much every night.”
With runs down across the board in MLB, how does that change the way you evaluate and construct an offense?
Antonetti: “If you look at performance, you always want to consider the context. I think that actually goes back to even the point of Kluber early. What he’s done in the context of our team versus what some other guys in the context of their team — probably if you look at it that way — he stands out far above any other candidate. Offensively, we try to do the same thing. We look at what is the run environment now. Who are the best players in that run environment and how can we acquire them? While the aggregate numbers may look a little bit different, what we try to focus on is relative to what’s available, relative to the context of the league, who are the players who can help our team. The absolute numbers have come down. Not nearly as many payers are hitting with the power and the home runs that they had 10 years ago. But the whole league was elevated, so now we’re looking at a little bit of a different context.”
Thoughts on Michael Brantley’s emergence this season:
Antonetti: “We’ve always felt Michael was a really good player. We were hopeful that he would stay healthy and just continue to do what he’s always done. … He’s that guy that’s also gotten better each and every year. He came into Spring Training this year more physical than any year in the past and was really committed to keeping his body strong. In the past, he had a little bit of a tendency, just because of the rigors of a season, to lose a little bit of weight and strength throughout the course of a year. He was pretty determined not to let that happen. He put in the work, going back to last offseason, preparing for the season and he stayed with it throughout the year. It was fun to see his continued development. He’s a complete player. And we think he’s deserving of MVP consideration with the year he had. He was a huge part of our success and we think one of the best players in the American League.”
On the unique nature of Lonnie Chisenhall’s season:
Antonetti: “I think if you were to rewind 12 months and they say, at the end of last year, ‘What would your hopes be foo Lonnie at the end of this year?’ I think Lonnie did more than we probably could’ve asked. Now, there was some inconsistency along the way to get there, but if you’d say, ‘Would you sign up for what Lonnie did this past year?’ Absolutely. So I think what we were able to see, it was actually pretty cool. … Even beyond maybe what you guys see on the surface, Lonnie’s development as a teammate, the way he improved as a baserunner, how important the little things were to him and how hard he worked at those things, was one of the developmental highlights of our year. You guys were able to see the results on the field, but there were a lot of other things underneath the surface that Lonnie worked incredibly hard at and made great progress with. So, we’re really excited to see how that continues, because he’s such a young player. If he continues the same path he’s on, next year could be a really good year for him.”
On potentially having the entire five-man rotation from second half back for 2015 and beyond:
Antonetti: “[The rotation] was one of the highlights of our year. To have the youngest pitching staff in the American League, maybe in baseball, and for them to be the best pitching staff in the second half, and know that they’re all going to be here for the foreseeable future, that’s really exciting and encouraging. But, we’re not going to be complacent with it. We still need more pitching. We’ll always be looking to add to both the rotation and the bullpen. So, as we go throughout the course of the offseason, we feel like we’re entering it with a position of strength that may be unlike any position we’ve had in recent offseasons, with the quantity and quality of pitching that we have. But, we’re still going to look to improve on it.”
Thoughts on Trevor Bauer’s strides in 2014:
Antonetti: “[He’s] another guy who had a great developmental year. He made incredible progress over the last 12 months. The thing that excites us most is, if he can make the same progress over the next 12 months that he’s made in the last 12, we’ll be in a much better spot next year. He’s committed to working as hard as possible. There may not be a guy who’s more committed to improving himself as a pitcher as Trevor is. He’s got a plan for the offseason already and the information he’s going to seek and put together and then come back and huddle with Tito and [pitching coach Mickey Callaway and bullpen coach Kevin Cash] to make sure that we have a plan that we’re all on the same page with going into the offseason. Hopefully he can make as much progress this offseason as he did last offseason.”
Will Indians pick up Mike Aviles’ team option for 2015?
Antonetti: “We have a little bit of time. We don’t want to short-change the process. We all appreciate Mike’s contribution to our team: what he means on the field, his versatility, the way he’s filled in really almost anywhere on the diamond when we’ve had injuries, the presence he has in our clubhouse, and the way he helps kind of unify our group and create the energy and atmosphere in the clubhouse every day. We don’t take those things for granted.”
On Yan Gomes’ season:
Francona: “The first week or two, he had a bunch of errors. He came out of the chute rushing some throws and that’s going to hurt his fielding percentage. Other than that, I thought he had a spectacular year. I think Salvador Perez is a really good player, because I don’t want this to come out [sounding wrong] in any fashion, because he’s really good. But if you look at Gomer’s year, Gomer outperformed him by 100 points in OPS. He threw out the same number of runners the last two years, playing 45 less games. So, I guess that kind of answers that. This guy is really a good player.”
Will Bourn need to change winter program in light of hamstring issues?
Francona: “He’s had a really solid offseason program. To your point about the hamstring, it crept up three different times, which doesn’t help us. We talked to Bourny [Sunday] about trying to come into camp, one, with health. That’s huge. And then the second one is being confident in that health so he can be a disruptor. I don’t think he’s lacking any [motivation]. He wants to go work. He wants to be that guy that can go do that. So that’s the goal, is to get him not only feeling really healthy, but have some confidence in those legs so he can go do what he does. I think disrupting the game is a really good way to put it, because guys like that can make it hard on the opponent. That’s a goal and he understands that.”
Do you have the kind of depth in the farm system that can help with trade talks this winter?
Antonetti: “We do. We have depth in our farm system to make a trade if there’s a trade there. It’s an area where we’ve made steady progress over the last three years and we want to continue on that path and continue to be in a better spot a year from now than we are today. But, we have the players in our farm system to make a meaningful trade if that’s a direction we decide to go.”
It sounds like you actually feel like you’re in a better position to start this offseason than you did at the end of last year:
Antonetti: “We were actually talking about that exact thing the other day. At the moment, we’re more disappointed, because at this time last year we still had games in front of us. But, as we start to transition to the offseason, we have virtually the entirety of our roster in place for next year. Again, there’s no complacency, we want to improve on that, but that’s a great position of strength going into the offseason. Last year, we had more questions going into the offseason than we do right now.”
Stay tuned for more…