2014 Key Players: Midseason Review
For a second year in a row this spring, I profiled five players that I thought were keys to the Indians’ playoff hopes. These were individuals whose performance, for better or worse, would go a long way toward determining the team’s ultimate fate in the 2014 season. Those five players were Danny Salazar, Yan Gomes, Michael Bourn, John Axford, and Corey Kluber. The previous article covering each player is linked to their name.
With the All-Star Break upon us, now is a good time to review those players and see how they’ve done thus far.
In the Key Player hierarchy, you could make the case that Salazar was more important that the rest. After coming up from AAA late in 2013, Salazar pitched 52 innings and dazzled with a 100+ MPH fastball and 11.25 K/9 rate. It’d been a long time since the Indians had a home grown pitcher with number one starter ability, but Salazar fit the mold. Even with workload concerns, the team hoped that Salazar could provide that type of performance over a full season.
For me, it was Salazar’s considerable upside that earned him a spot on this list. The rotation entered the year with plenty of question marks. Beyond Justin Masterson, no pitcher in the opening day rotation had pitched a full year in the majors. Not only that, but for Zach McAllister and Carlos Carrasco, there were legitimate performance questions. The hope was that Masterson would have a repeat performance of 2013, and Kluber and Salazar could replicate their performances over a full season. That would mean anything from McAllister and Carrasco would be a bonus, and Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer would be in Columbus as backup.
Salazar in particular entered the season with plenty of hype, with some national writers even considering him a dark horse CY Young candidate. The Indians just wanted him to stay healthy and give them quality innings. They knew he wasn’t a finished product, but they also knew he could be a difference maker in the major league rotation. He wasn’t able to do that.
A number of things have gone wrong for Salazar this year. The velocity of his fastball is down, his control has regressed, and recently he had an elbow and triceps injury that goes back to spring training. If that wasn’t enough, his lack of a true third pitch was exposed. Last year, Salazar has success elevating his fastball and blowing it by batters. This year, that pitch is a couple of MPH slower, isn’t being chased as often, or it’s not being located correctly. Last year batters swung at over 38% of Salazar’s pitches outside of the zone. This year that number has fallen to 28%. The number for first pitch strikes has likewise plummeted. Last year Salazar got ahead in the count 67% of the time, and this year that number is 57%.
Improved control and development of a third pitch are the keys to getting Salazar back to Cleveland as an effective starting pitcher. Right now, that seems to be a long way off as his struggles have continued in Columbus. In Salazar’s last start he walked six batters in six innings of work. The gaudy strikeout totals are still there, but he needs an extended stay in AAA to put his mechanics back together and develop his off speed pitches. At this point, the season looks like a total loss for Salazar. I don’t see him as an option in Cleveland unless an injury forces the team’s hand.
Gomes is a player who derives a good portion of his value from his work defensively and in managing the pitching staff. Therefore, I’d be remiss to not first mention his throwing struggles behind the plate. Gomes has 11 errors on the season, an unsightly number for a catcher, and ten of those errors are of the throwing variety. He’s managed to bounce back, limiting the errors over the last couple of months, and still managing to throw out 35% of would be base stealers. Furthermore, his framing skills and overall defensive performance still rate strongly.
As predicted in March, Gomes isn’t the same player he was in 2013 offensively. His low walk rate and high BABIP worried me coming into the season. Now that his BABIP has normalized, you’re seeing a true reflection of Gomes’ offensive skill. He’s still showing great power for a catcher, but he’s simply not the .290 hitter he was last year. His biggest negative as a batter is his plate discipline. That’s something that has worried the team all along. His 20.8% strikeout clip in 2013, while high, was still lower than what he posted the year before splitting time between Toronto and AAA, and the year before that in AA. Most projections figured that number would rise this year – and it has.
Still, it hasn’t prevented him from being a capable and productive major league hitter. That’s the good news. We’ve all seen bad plate discipline torpedo certain players at the major league level. We saw Lonnie Chisenhall struggle with it for years, for example. Instead of falling into that mold, Gomes is one of the more productive catchers in baseball. He’s one of the team’s best hitters against left handed pitching, and right now is posting a 2.5 WAR (Fangraphs). That’s good for third on the team behind Michael Brantley and Kluber. Among catchers, that ties him with Yadier Molina for fourth in baseball, and ahead of players like Buster Posey, Miguel Montero, and Brian McCann.
When I wrote my original article on Gomes, I made the comment that he was a “season pillar.” That was because he would have as much responsibility as any player on the team, and his performance affected so many others. He’s done his part this season. He’s one of the players who is keeping the Indians alive in the playoff race. He’s on pace to finish with a 4 WAR season. For perspective, only Jason Kipnis finished with a 4+ WAR for the Indians last season.
This is a player who has grasped his expanded role in 2014 and reinforced his position as a key player for the Indians, not just this year, but for years to come.
Michael Bourn was the one person I really debating having on this list. After all, the team did manage to make the playoffs last year without him having a good year. I eventually included him because I felt he could bounce back, at least somewhat, and become a difference maker. I envisioned what a player with a .340-.350 OBP in the leadoff spot, 40 SB’s, and great defense in centerfield could do for the team. That would be a dynamic player, and prior to 2013 Michael Bourn was that guy.
Fast forward another four months, and it’s been a second straight disappointing campaign for Bourn. The player he used to be, and that the team thought they were getting, appears to be long gone. Before the season, I wasn’t sure to what to make of Bourn’s declining speed game, but I was confident that his walk rate would rebound. Even if the stolen bases didn’t come back, if his on base percentage rebounded to his pre-2013 totals the offense would have a great table setter. Of course, that hasn’t happened. Bourn’s performance in 2014 is essentially a carbon copy of 2013, with the added touch of recurring hamstring injuries.
I envisioned him having a better season defensively. After all, this was one of the best centerfielders in the game just two years ago. That too, hasn’t happened. Right now, his defense rates average to below average. That’s a drastic fall for a player with multiple gold gloves to his name. The cold truth is, right now Michael Bourn doesn’t do anything well. He’s not getting on base, not playing good defense, is a non-factor on the bases, and as always doesn’t provide much in the way of power or batting average. He’s a replacement level player.
This is a big problem for the Indians. They’re still on the hook for two more years of Bourn, and with the leg injuries mounting, it would take a considerable leap of faith to believe he’s going to turn it around and return to form. I don’t think we’re close to the day where the team pays part of his salary just to trade him away, but they may at least want to consider taking the step of removing him from the leadoff spot. He has no business being at the top of the order. Likewise, it’d probably be a good idea to sit him more frequently against left-handed pitching (.491 OPS in 79 at-bats).
As discouraging as it is, that’s where we’re at with Bourn. He’ll continue to get chances to prove his health and ability, but I’m of the opinion that the team needs to begin the process of reducing his usage and limiting his prominence in the lineup. As a key player in 2014, he’s been a major disappointment.
This is another player who hasn’t had the year we hoped. Signed to be the team’s closer in the offseason, Axford was stripped of the title in early May. Since then Cody Allen has served as the closer, leaving Axford to find work in a variety of roles, from mop up reliever to set-up man as he tries to salvage his season.
The problem for Axford this season has been the same problem that’s always plagued him. He can’t throw strikes. With his control issues (career high 6.32 BB/9) he can’t be trusted at the end of games. The stuff is still there, the mid 90’s fastball, good slider, and effective curveball. However, similar to Salazar, it doesn’t do much good if you can’t throw strikes and hitters aren’t chasing. That’s exactly what’s happening. Hitters are swinging at just 22.2% of Axford’s pitches out of the zone, the lowest percentage of his career.
Axford doesn’t have confidence in his curveball, and for good reason. It’s the pitch he can control the least. He’s begun relying more on his fastball and slider as the season has progressed. The heavy majority of his first pitches or pitches in a three ball count are fastballs. While he may not be tipping his pitches any longer, his control issues still make him fairly predictable.
Axford’s importance this year wasn’t so much about him, but about the rest of the bullpen. He needed to take care of the ninth inning so better relievers like Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw could be used more liberally to bridge the gap between the starter and closer. I thought Allen and Shaw’s roles were especially important this year with the number of starters in the rotation who’ve never pitched full seasons, or haven’t proven they can pitch deep into games. As predicted, the Indians have relied on their set-up man heavily this season. Allen, Shaw, and Marc Rzepczynski all rank in the top ten in appearances. The Indians bullpen as a whole has pitched 309 innings, third most in baseball.
Still, despite Axford’s struggles and Allen moving to closer, the bullpen has continued to be a strength (sixth lowest reliever ERA in baseball). Scott Atchison has teamed with Rzepczynski and Shaw to provide solid setup work in Allen’s absence and Carlos Carrasco has been solid in a variety of roles. While there were certainly higher expectations for Axford, this is one key player whose lackluster performance has been mitigated by the success of others. From this point forward, anything Axford can bring to the bullpen would just be a bonus.
For the Indians rotation, Kluber has been the saving grace. After last year, we thought he was good. The questions were whether or not his performance was a fluke, and if not, how good can he become? Halfway through the season, we know now that Kluber is the real deal. He’s become one of the best pitchers in the American League.
Kluber entered the season slotted behind Justin Masterson as the teams #2 starter. He was coming off an impressive season, almost out of nowhere, and seemed like a decent bet to provide quality innings. I felt that I was a little higher on him than most people, saying that I thought by the end of the year he’d establish himself as one of the better starting pitchers in the majors. I felt he was still someone who had upside left in him, despite his age. Kluber really reinvented himself over the last couple of seasons, and was still developing his newfound repertoire.
The biggest thing I’ve noticed this year is that Kluber has increased the use of his cutter and slider. His slider in particular has accounted for 68 of his 142 strikeouts. He’s thrown that slider 330 times this year, giving up only nine hits (6 singles, 3 doubles). He’s also limited the use of his changeup in 2014. Last year Kluber threw his changeup 10% of the time, whereas this year that number is down to just over 4%. He continues to throw his groundball inducing two-seam fastball 50% of the time, and has managed to raise his groundball rate to 48.5% and lower his HR rate from 2013 levels.
Kluber is the total package. He keeps the ball on the ground, his secondary pitches generate tons of swings and misses, he’s able to control all of his pitches, and appears to be a durable innings eater. Taking into account the importance of pitching in general, you’d have to call Kluber the best player on the team. He’s solved the biggest quandary facing the team long-term, the need for a number one starter. If the team has playoff hopes this year, he’ll be the pitcher and player leading the charge.