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All Smiles in the 'Land

All Smiles in the 'Land
May 1, 2012
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With a month of the season in the rearview, the calendar’s jump to May offers a logical place to look over where the Indians stand as a team. With an 11-9 record, the Tribe secured a 1st place standing in the AL Central for the start of play on May 1st.

True, it sounds silly to put a lot of stock into division standings with over 80% of the regular season schedule to play; but with all the typical, gloomy skepticism (that comes with a championship-starved fan base) emanating from Tribe fans, it only seems proper to point out positive points worth extracting from a winning month.

After all, if you want to parade around stats about Ubaldo’s velocity, the home run drought or the outfield’s issues, the least you could do is buy a ticket (Cleveland ranks dead-last in attendance, nearly 6,000 fans less per game then the next lowest team, Seattle— and don’t complain about the weather, the Browns never seem to have any trouble filling the seats, despite a poor product).

Here are some stats for you Chicken Littles:

  • The Bullpen Mafia leads the American League in Holds (15)
  • Cleveland is 6-1 in one run games
  • The Tribes defense is 5th in the American League in Fielding % (98.6%) and Defensive Efficiency Rating (.713)
  • Indians pitchers are 6th in the league in ERA in the 7th inning or later (3.52)

So, while you’re taking bets on the next Tribe home run (I’ve got Dru taking Chris Sale deep on Tuesday), take a second to appreciate that— in spite of a less-than-ideal start to the season— the Indians have done no irreversible damage to their hopes of a division crown; in fact, they’re on pace to take the Central.

All joking aside, the Indians do have areas of concern: left field, first base, the top of the rotation. Although the bats have been in the freezer the last seven games (17 runs scored) and the team ERA is a mediocre 4.10 (7th in the American League), the scrappy squad has found a way to avoid the harrowing eclipse of simultaneous hitting and pitching ineptitude. 

So, what’s the key to the Tribe’s ability to compete into the dog days of summer? Answer: pitching.

Since the offense will likely struggle throughout the season, battling for mediocrity, the team’s arms will have to carry any hope of making the playoffs. The strength of the team has been, and will continue to be, the fearsome Bullpen Mafia.

With four to six reliable arms in the ‘pen: C. Perez, Pestano, Smith, Hagadone, Wheeler, and, if he’s able to regain form, Sipp, the relief corps will be relied upon heavily to preserve leads. As it was previously mentioned, this group leads the league in holds. A glance at some individual stats solidifies the point:

  • C. Perez  7 of 8 in save opportunities, ERA 4.00, G 10, IP 9.0, HR 0, SO 7, Opp. BA .229, WHIP 1.33
  • Pestano - ERA 2.79, G 11, IP 9.2, HR 2, SO 14, Opp. BA .216, WHIP 1.03
  • Smith - ERA 1.74, G 9.0, IP 10.1, HR 0, SO 9, Opp. BA .216, WHIP 1.06
  • Hagadone - ERA 2.08, G 4, IP 4.1, HR 0, SO 5, Opp. BA .125, WHIP 0.69
  • Wheeler - ERA 3.68, G 8, IP 7.1, HR 1, SO 2, Opp. BA .250, WHIP 1.50
  • Sipp - ERA 7.71, G 9, IP 7, HR 0, SO 7, Opp. BA .276, WHIP 1.57

Aside from a lackluster start for Sipp and Asencio, this crew has lived up to its moniker. And yeah, Perez will get your blood pressure going from time to time when he starts putting runners on base, but all in all there are some juicy stats to lap up, chief among them, Pestano’s 14 strikeouts in a mere 9.2 innings of work. So, obviously the bullpen is a key cog to the Indians’ chances at prolonged success, but so is the other half of the team’s pitching, the starting rotation.

Oddly, the one-two punch of Masterson & Jimenez has struggled in the first month. We’ll get to Jimenez in a second, but first let’s dissect Masterson’s first five starts. The Tribe’s ace has underwhelmed with a 5.40 ERA and 1.47 WHIP, in addition to failing to capture his first win of the season. The good news is that he has 20 punch-outs and an opposing batting average of .239, plus he looked rather ace-ly in his most recent outing against the Angels, posting 8 1/3 innings of two run ball, with the downside being that he allowed five walks.

Of any struggling pitcher, Masterson is probably the one fans are least worried about. Chalk up his struggles to temporary control issues and chances are he’ll return to last season’s form of 3.21 ERA, 216 innings pitched and 1.28 WHIP. Unfortunately, the Tribe faithful don’t seem to cut Jimenez the same type of dismissal slack.

Oh, Ubaldo. It’s tough to live up to lofty expectations, when fans don’t give you a full season in a Cleveland uniform to start the judging. I get it; the organization gave up four players to acquire the maligned, former-Colorado ace. He’s supposed to step right in and dominate, a la his 2010 season.

Well, 2012 hasn’t exactly been a complete disaster, as Baldy has a 2-1 record, 4.50 ERA, six innings-pitched per start, and an opposing batting average of .242. I know, his WHIP is an ugly buck-and-a-half, but please, wait at least 15 starts into this season before writing off the former 19 game winner.

And, while you’re waiting, stop with these comparisons to Carmona (AKA Roberto Hernandez). So what if they’ve both had a season with 19 wins. Baldy is his own man and fallacious comparisons neither prove, nor predict anything. Jimenez’s struggles have much more to do with the distrust of his fastball, a lack of confidence, and profound control issues, rather than the oft-alluded to decrease in velocity. Tinkering with his delivery in the offseason, Jimenez is still adjusting to a new, supposedly more mechanically-sound windup.

Even if his fastball were to remain in the low-mid 90’s (according to Fan Graphs velocity chart for 2012), the more important point is that Ubaldo must trust and throw his fastball more, in order to setup his curveball and changeup. Of course, all of this is predicated on Jimenez’s ability to harness his control. For the record, several big name starters, Sabathia, Buccholz, and Felix Hernandez have all seen early two-three MPH dips in velocity through the first month of the season. Conventional baseball wisdom says that a pitcher’s velocity will heat up with warmer weather. Let’s hope such is the case for Baldy.

Lowe and Gomez have held the starters’ stats together in the early going, combining for five wins. They both possess an ERA under 2.50, and if they’re able to solidify the three and four spots in the rotation, chances are the top of the rotation will start to fall into line. Tomlin, now the weakest link in the rotation, must recover from an unfriendly April that saw him rack up a 5.48 ERA, .302 Opponents’ Batting Average, and 1.36 WHIP. If he continues to nibble, like Jimenez has, then it might only be a matter of time until a new fifth starter usurps Tomlin’s role.

If the starting rotation can get it together at the top and bottom, then the Indians’ pitching could buoy a troubled offense that likely hasn’t seen its last home run/scoring drought. Certainly, the Mafia will hold up its end of the bargain, so hopefully the starting rotation can build off recent dominance in the Angels series.

The Indians will be the WINdians this season if the pitching can lead the way, masking deficiencies in the outfield, both offensively and defensively speaking. Who knows, maybe Damon can bring a little magic with him when he joins the Tribe in Chicago on Tuesday for the start of a three game series against the White Sox. More than likely, there will be a lot more eyes locked on the Tribe’s starter for Tuesday’s game, none other than Ubaldo.

User Comments

May 2, 2012 - 4:46 AM EDT
So, they dealt Ubaldo for Gardner, Pomeranz, White and Matt McBride. Right now, the Rockies likely wouldn't even give us McBride back straight-up. The sad thing is, I'm not even joking.
May 1, 2012 - 1:36 PM EDT
Richard, I agree and disagree. The reality is he is probably a 3/4 starter like you suggest, which is fine. But the problem is the price paid to acquire such a starter, and the fact he is only here this year and next. If he ends up a 3/4 guy, what a terrible trade.
May 1, 2012 - 9:37 AM EDT
While Hernandez, Halladay and Verlander, among others, have experienced velocity drops, Masterson's is largest by number and percentage. Additionally, he is the only pitcher among the group having just a 2-pitch comination. Moverover, each of these other pitchers have other pitches that are plus offerings. Hernandez's changeup, for example, is among the best in baseball. Verlander has a CB and changeup that are both plus pitches. Also, Halladay is in his mid-30s. So, a velocity drop, while problematic, is not necessarily unexpected.

From a results standpoint, Masterson's velocity drop is the most concerning, as it likely will impact his bottom line results to a greater degree into the future.
May 1, 2012 - 9:12 AM EDT
It's time to lower our expectations for Ubaldo. That 15-1 half-season was a fluke, just like Fausto's 19-win season in 2007. Ubaldo has a shot at being a good #3 starter. His stuff is very good, he just needs to get it over.

I've seen him have to groove a lot of 3-1 fastballs this year and they still can't hit it hard, even at 90 mph. And his breaking stuff is nasty. But I think he'll always battle control issues and need a lot of pitches to get through six innings.
Tony L.
May 1, 2012 - 8:28 AM EDT
Actually, I talked a lot about Masterson's velocity last week on Twitter. He and a lot of pitchers in baseball are way down in velocity. Very strange. Guys like King Felix, Halladay, and even Verlander are all down an average of 1-3 MPH. Many more than them too. It is April and the weather is not great yet.....but something to monitor over the course of the season for sure.
May 1, 2012 - 1:56 AM EDT
What no one is talking about is the fact that Masterson's velocity is down 2.9% from 92.7^ to 89.8% so far this season, and that velocity drop has been prevalent from his first start of the season to his most current.

Being just a FB/Slider guy, I don't think it's possible for Masterson to pitch as he did last year if he doesn't regain most of the velocity he had last year and throughout his career. As to whether the velocity loss is permanent or due to some injury is anyone's guess.
May 1, 2012 - 1:13 AM EDT
If Masterson and Ubaldo could turn it around, the Indians could easily take down Detroit. The thing about likening Ubaldo's velocity drop to Sabathia and Hernandez, is Masterson is the better comparison. His fastball's down 2.6mph from last year-bigger drop than Ubaldo's actually. One month though, you figure there's a decent chance it will pass. With Ubaldo, it's been over a year, and it's trending in the wrong direction.

The stats don't back up the claim that control is what we should be worried about with Ubaldo. He's actually throwing more first pitch strikes than usual and his zone % is about the same as it's always been. What you're seeing is his inability to miss bats or fool anyone, which results in more pitches, and more pitches out of the zone. He doesn't trust his fastball because it's untrustworthy. They always used to say that about Huff: he needs to trust his fastball. Well, when it's 91mph, straight, and he doesn't have amazing control, what's he supposed to do?

Ubaldo's peripheral numbers point towards some much worse performances in the near future. 5.4% swinging strike rate, which is responsible for him walking more hitters than he's struck out. 22% line drive rate. And the velocity down another two notches, which is largely the cause of those numbers. Hopefully he can change course, but he's been going in the wrong direction for over a year.

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