Second Thoughts Game #37: Indians 1, Rays 7
In any baseball season, there will come games like Saturday's contest against Tampa Bay - contests whose sole highlight is its absence. Such was the case when Zach McAllister took the hill; the brightest moment of the night was its conclusion, the clement words: It's Over.
That the Indians wanted the game to end was illustrated by two unusual events near the game's merciful conclusion. First, that Lonnie Chisenhall, for the first time in the majors, was deployed at first base (not a single error!).
The team's offensive performance leaves little room for commentary, beyond 'hit more than two line drives in a game,' and 'get plural hits when facing Erik Bedard.' As both the readers and the Indians are aware of this fact, the pitching staff offers slightly more in the way of discussion.
Relievers not named Shaw or Allen
On Friday's series opener, John Axford threw his fourth outing in six days - a strenuous but not unreasonable workload if devoid of context; however, in those four outings, spanning a combined nine outs, Axford threw a grand total of 101 pitches. The last of these outings, wherein he allowed a run and left the game with the bases loaded, was the last of his days - pro tem, at least - as the Indians' closer.
If Francona intends to stick by his words - to only use Axford in low-stress situations until such a time as Axford is capable of hitting the zone with consistency - the Indians' regular reliever rotation, most of which innings presently are taken by Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Marc Rzepczynski, and Scott Atchison, will soon require a new member.
The logic might hold, then: what better time to hold tryouts for this reliever rotation than while down seven?
Outman is making it appear increasingly that the trade that sent Drew Stubbs to Colorado in exchange for the aforementioned left-hander was equally as disastrous for Cleveland as the Esmil Rogers trade was for Toronto - not in the sense that the Indians gave up particular value for Outman but rather that the former Rockies reliever has provided substantial negative value for the Indians. Walking one batter, striking out none, and allowing three baserunners with only one out recorded compelled Francona to pull Outman from an appearance that was garbage time before he entered the game. There are better omens for those wishing for regular bullpen work.
Carrasco, the pitcher who replaced Outman, was called in to extinguish the flames - yet his case was only moderately more convincing than Outman's. After surrendering a walk and a sacrifice fly to center, Carrasco proceeded to get four consecutive outs - all in play, two of them on fly balls, one on a liner, and only one on a ground ball. The author, since Carrasco's removal from the rotation, has asserted that the move was only justifiable if Trevor Bauer, with his excellent 40/11 K/BB ratio in AAA through 40.1 IP in Columbus.
The author, even now, still considers Carrasco's removal a mistake, but he cannot deny that this particular panicked Rubicon has been crossed. Carrasco's strength was in his groundball rate and - while he was starting - his strikeout rate. Each of those strengths have eroded. Carrasco was a force in the bullpen in 2013, but if he's not going to get consistent work, he will be - unsurprisingly - inconsistent out of the pen, as he has been. Carrasco has not necessarily disqualified himself from regular bullpen work, but the walk, coupled with a lack of strikeouts and eclectic mix of batted balls allowed, has put off his full assimilation to bullpen work substantially.
The singular gainer from Saturday was Lee. Lee's Saturday performance place him firmly on the inside track to regular relief appearances. Having entered in the bottom of the 5th inning with one out and a baserunner on third, Lee proceeded to strike out Wil Myers and induce a ground-ball to end the threat. Lee then followed up with a scoreless bottom of the sixth inning, inducing two swinging strikeouts of Yunel Escobar and Ryan Hanigan. Lee's appearance was fairly compelling, recording 3 Ks in 1.2 IP.
More intriguing, however, are the opponents against whom Lee induced the strikeouts. While Myers has extreme levels of swing-and-miss in his offensive profile, Escobar and Hanigan are each quite strikeout-averse, recording career Swinging Strike rates far better than the league average. Striking out Adam Dunn, for instance, says nothing about a pitcher's offensive profile - merely that one is capable of throwing the ball in the batting area. To strike out players like Escobar and Hanigan, players with extremely solid strikeout skills, while not allowing a single run almost assuredly gives Lee the inside track on whatever remaining regular relief work exists for the bullpen.
If Saturday's loss gave Francona the looks he needed to pinpoint which reliever he could trust to give consistent work, then the game was not wasted. In a bullpen characterized by total ineffectiveness after its #4 man, Saturday's opportunity to redefine the landscape of the bullpen may prove the game to be beneficial in the long scale.
We've Made Contact
The foremost source of the author's concern in the Indians' 2014 rotation was the potential of an unholy duo of Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin. Through 2013, each was hailed as control guys who pitched to contact, each of which claims were contentious: neither Tomlin nor McAllister, separated from narrative, actually had particularly good walk rates, and pitching to contact - unless one has Justin Masterson's sinker - remains a surefire way to pitch 200 innings with an ERA of 4.75. On the plus side, an ERA of 4.75 through 200 innings has its perks - the Royals seem to covet innings-eater types.
Yet through Saturday's game against Tampa Bay, Zach McAllister remains near the top of the FanGraphs leaderboard in Wins Above Replacement in 2014. Although McAllister has been predominantly buoyed by an unsustainably low 1.9% Home-Run-per-Fly-Ball ratio, his walk rate has been better-than-average, and his strikeout rate has spiked, from a 17.4% strikeout rate in 2013 to a 20.2% strikeout rate in 2014 (league average: 20.5%).
Upfront, two facts about Saturday's outing should be made clear from McAllister's perspective: first, that it was only one start, and second, that it was in every way a terrible start.
If McAllister's lucky, he will throw upwards of thirty starts over the course of the season. In several months, this start will pass almost assuredly forgotten - nor, moreover, should this singular start unduly shape our opinion of the season. Recency bias is extremely dangerous in terms of forecasting, both because of its obvious flaws and because of how perniciously persuasive it can be if one is unaware of it.
Bearing in mind this caveat, this reminder that one start is only one of many, it is equally true that McAllister's start was deficient from nearly every perspective. Allowing 5 runs over 4.1 IP with 2 Ks and 1 BB, the start was underwhelming whether one looks at it from a run prevention perspective or from a fielding-independent perspective; McAllister did, after all, record only 2 strikeouts over 4+ IP - allowing an offense like the Rays' to put the ball in play is an excellent way to jeopardize the game.
What this game allows us to do is not to call McAllister's strikeout prowess, but rather examine McAllister more closely - to find that, beyond the cosmetic increase in strikeouts, the underlying indicators suggest that McAllister has improved not at all in missing bats. During Saturday's game, McAllister induced only one whiff on his 69 pitches. This has been reflective of a season-long inadequacy in his whiff induction in 2014 - McAllister had a Swinging Strike rate* of 7.0%, a decline from his 2013 rate of 7.3% Swinging Strikes as a percentage of total pitches, and a substantial sight short of the league average Whiff rate of 9.3%.
It is no exaggeration to say that Swinging Strike rate is perhaps the most critical strikeout metric out there - given that it is a per-pitch metric, it stabilizes extremely quickly, and it is the single most effective statistic at predicting future strikeout rate. Even a small change in Swinging Strike rate can lead to a very large spread in strikeout rate - Corey Kluber, despite being 9th in the majors in strikeouts, has a Swinging Strike rate of 11.0% - approximately the same distance above average as McAllister is below average.
Friday's game was a useful illustration of the predictive nature of Swinging Strike rates - McAllister acquired only two strikeouts in four innings for a Sowers-esque 4.77 game K/9. While the obvious caveats should be applied - that it was only one game and that Tampa Bay has actually been the second-best team in the league in terms of making contact - one must carefully manage expectations of Zach McAllister, particularly in re: his strikeout rate.
McAllister entered the year with concerns about his strikeout rate, and while he has induced strikeouts at an impressive rate thus far through 2014, one cannot expect McAllister - with his repertoire as it is - to maintain it. His repertoire, one of the most fastball-heavy in the league, has not missed bats at the rate necessary to suggest an average - much less an above-average - strikeout rate is sustainable.
Perhaps McAllister's recently-added slider can become the out pitch that would make the Illinois baseball product a legitimate strikeout threat. Until that time arrives, McAllister remains one who allows balls in play at an higher-than-average rate; in sum, McAllister a more strikeout-prone version of Tomlin, with decent but tremendously overrated command, the beneficiary of lionizing apocryphal narratives from a fan-base yearning for a feel-good story, no matter its factual accuracy.
Barring Masterson, who himself has an above-average strikeout rate, contact pitchers are, one and all, gamblers. Inevitably, even the most adept gamblers lose.
*N.B.: The author uses 'Whiff Rate' and 'Swinging Strike Rate' interchangeably. Unless otherwise specified, both refer to Whiffs per Pitch, rather than Whiffs per Swing.
John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimm. He can also be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
And it's not true, either, that he's an extreme pull hitter. He gets shifted and he has pull tendencies from the left side, but his left-handed pull tendencies are not peculiarly more extreme than any other hitter. Swish has been making good contact - not just in terms of line drive rate, but even qualitatively, simply watching the games - he's made good contact - just right at defenders.
Santana - different story.