Sunday, July 06, 2008

Biblical Proportions

Hi gang. I'm kind of bushed tonight, so I'm running what I wrote on Thursday for the Dugout Splinters insert in GameDay titled "Biblical Proportions". While I'm at it, I'll throw in some postscript notes in blue. Hope you like it. - John


Dr. Peter Venkman: This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.
Mayor: What do you mean, "biblical"?
Dr Ray Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.
Dr Ray Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!
Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes....
Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave!
Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!

- From Ghostbusters

(I think it's fair to say that I don't quote Ghostbusters nearly enough. It's possible that nobody does.)

Any other year, the collapse of the Indians might be large enough to rate as “biblical”. This year? The perpetually terrible Tampa Bay Rays have the best record in the majors. The NL pennant-winning Rockies are 17 games under .500. Throw in the Padres, Tigers, White Sox and Twins, and the Indians slide might not make the top five.

That doesn’t make it any less astounding. Last October, this team had a 3-1 game lead in the American League Championship series. This year they are in last place in the modest AL Central, 11 (now 14) games under .500, and 12.5 (now also 14) games behind the division leading White Sox - who just swept them.

So what in the name of Hal Trosky is going on?

Well, it’s been a combination of things, really. There’s been some bad luck, preceded by a slow start, and followed by some key injuries. You can start with the bad luck, because this team has actually scored more runs than it has given up. And yet they’re nowhere near having a .500 record. I’d like to tell you the cause, and there are plenty of people who will claim they can. But in reality, it’s a little like watching the roulette ball land on red ten times while you’re betting on black. You can try to explain it, but even if you can explain it you can’t do much about it. Except congratulate the guy who has been betting on red.

(After watching this team, it looks like the biggest reason they've underperformed is their bullpen. That certainly makes sense. But there is a reason that the stats guys say that it's mostly about luck despite pretty clear anecdotal evidence to the contrary. Here's an example:

I once studied several years of baseball teams over the first half of a season and over the second half of a season. I compared how often their record overperformed or underperformed versus their run differential. You might expect that if a team underperformed versus their runs over the first half of a season, like Cleveland has, that they would likely underperform against it the second half of the season, too. Certainly that would make sense if it was primarily due to something like a team's bullpen.

But when you compare them, there is no correlation. A team that overperforms before the all-star break is just as likely to underperform as to overperform again after the all-star break. It truly seems to be dependent on how the ball bounces.)

Cleveland also didn’t get out of the gate very fast this year, sporting a record that was at or below .500 for most of April. That was largely fueled by inconsistent and outright hideous outings from starter and current Cy Young Award holder C.C. Sabathia, who finished April with an ERA of 7.76.

There were plenty of offensive culprits, too. Last year’s spark for their pennant run was rookie second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera. He hit .283, and seemed to come through in every key-at bat. This year, he spent most of April and May extinguishing offensive flames before he was sent to the minors in early July. He’s hitting down there, and will likely return soon since Cleveland second basemen collectively have the second worst offensive mark in the major leagues by OPS (On-base Plus Slugging).

But the most damaging decline to the offense has been inflicted by #3 hitter Travis Hafner. His production declined last season, falling from 42 home runs in 2006 to just 24. Most assumed the 30-year-old (now 31) would bounce back this year. After all, he looked like he was pressing a bit, especially after he signed a contract extension guaranteeing him another $60 million through 2012.

So what is his home run total this year? Try four. Just four home runs. And it isn’t likely to go up soon, because he was placed on the disabled list at the end of May for … well, there things are a little unclear. We know it’s his shoulder, and that he’s always had problems with that shoulder, and that it’s weaker than the other one, and that he’s working on strengthening exercises. But they don’t know when he’s going to come back. And they don’t know exactly how good he’s going to be when he does.

The injuries don’t stop with Hafner. While Sabathia won the Cy Young award last year, it’s arguable that Fausto Carmona, who also had 19 wins and a lower ERA than Sabathia, was the best pitcher on the Indians staff. He was placed on the disabled list at the end of June with a hip strain and won’t be back until after the all-star break. Pitcher Jake Westbrook, who was another ace pitcher early this year, underwent Tommy John surgery in June. And the middle of the lineup was really gutted when catcher and cleanup hitter Victor Martinez also underwent surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow joint. He won’t be back until the end of July at the very earliest.

And, of course, no Dugout Splinters about the Cleveland Indians would be complete without talking about the Tribe’s under-performing bullpen. This is GameDay’s seventh year, and Cleveland visits about three times per year, so this is roughly the 20th time that we’ve talked about the perpetually putrid Indians bullpen. I could plug in the same verbiage I’ve been using since 2002. In fact, let’s try that. It’s a little like Mad Libs™. Play along, won’t you?

This offseason, despite being a priority, the Indians failed to upgrade their bullpen, instead staying with somewhat shaky veteran Bob Wickman Joe Borowski as their closer. He’s blown his last few save opportunities, so this series it’s likely that manager Charlie Manuel Eric Wedge might turn to Mark Wohlers Rafael Betancourt Bobby Howry Fernando Cabrera Masahide Kobayashi in the late innings.

Given all that bad mojo, it isn’t shocking that General Manager Mark Shapiro is hinting that he is preparing to move Sabathia, who will be a free agent at the end of the year, at the trade deadline. That’s in four weeks (and is rumored to be near completion). If they’re swept by the Twins (giggle) like they were by the Sox, last year’s division flag will likely be replaced by a white one.