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The Corner of Carnegie and Ontario finds an ace

The Corner of Carnegie and Ontario finds an ace
May 15, 2013
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 We all got a taste of first place here at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario, as your Indians found themselves all by their lonesome in first on Monday afternoon after Justin Masterson did his best Cy Young impression in beating the New York Yankees. I’m not going to lie. It tasted pretty good.

Sure, the Indians were in first place at this point last year, and the year before as well, but this team is a whole lot different.

The offense is sustainable, and it’s healthy.

The defense is stable and improving.

The starting pitching is…well…what it is, but there’s potential there as well in a couple of kids named Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco.

The bullpen is arguably one of the top four or five in the game.

Do you think the Tigers took notice this weekend? Sure, it’s only April, but I sure love the tenacity of this team. The scary thing?

They are going to get better.

Justin Masterson was absolutely brilliant on Monday in game one of the doubleheader against the New York Yankees. I have questioned Masterson’s ability to be a top of the rotation guy, but anyone who watched that game knows that he is exactly that.

Masterson threw 118 pitches, and 79 of those pitches were strikes. 22 of the 33 batters he faced saw first pitch strikes. He gave up four hits in that outing, and they were all singles. He faced six left handed hitters in that Yankees lineup, and just ran them into the ground.

That’s exactly where you want to be if you are a top-end guy.

I’m particularly interested in that number against left-handed batters, where Masterson has struggled over his career. It’s really been the one area that’s kept him from being a dominant #1 starter, and good managers on good teams have been able to really work Masterson over since he came into the league.

Now I’m not a Sabr-guy, and I don’t ever intend on being one, but here’s what I can tell you just from watching him on Monday. He seems to be hammering lefties with a slider, as opposed to his sinker. He seemed to use it a bunch more than he usually does, and it really seemed to be an out pitch. Not only did it move in on the lefties he faced, but it seemed to drop low in the zone. Yankees hitters had no clue what to do with it.

While, overall, he’s not exactly dominating left-handers, the fact that they’re only hitting .250 against him is a big step, considering they’ve been around .300 over his career.

He also just seems to be throwing more strikes. I’ve said this since the start of last season: Masterson reminds me of the old Fausto Carmona, whose stuff almost seemed too good. Hitters started laying off of Carmona in 2008 because he was living and dying just a bit outside the zone. Professional bats killed him, got in his head, and essentially destroyed his opportunity at remaining a top-of-the-line guy.

That’s where Masterson and Carmona differ.

Masterson is pelting the zone with a devastating three-pitch mix of that four-seam fastball, and now a devastating sinker/slider combination that he’s really figured out how to use. I don’t see his change-up much anymore, but he does use it a bit, so while he really is a three-pitch guy, he does have a fourth pitch that he will utilize just to keep hitters guessing.

They are guessing well.

Oh, and I know some folks are concerned that Masterson threw 118 pitches, worrying about the long haul of the season. I suppose it’s not optimum to have a guy rolling out 118 pitches night-in and night-out, but Masterson has always been a workhourse. While he didn’t throw 118 pitches in any start last season, he threw 109 or more 10 times in 2013, and 100 or more 16 times. That did seem to taper off late in the year, but Masterson has always been a guy that logs innings.

All of the good ones are.

The question with regards to Masterson going forward is whether or not he can continue to improve against left-handed hitters. If that trend continues, the Indians have their ace.

The other question with regards to Masterson is whether or not the Indians sign him long term. What will it take? The Detroit Tigers just signed Anibal Sanchez to a 5-year, $88 million dollar contract through 2017, with a team option for 2018. Sanchez is a 29-year old righty, who is 52-54 lifetime, with a 3.65 ERA over his career.

Masterson is a 28-year old righty who is 45-55 lifetime, with a 4.10 ERA over his career.

Obviously, there are other intangibles to consider, but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to do the math. Masterson will command a five-year deal in the neighborhood of $90 million dollars to stay with the Indians. That’s just simple fact.

The question really with Masterson is when to offer him a deal?

Do you strike while the iron is hot, and nab him now before we get to the end of this season, a season in which he appears to be heading towards ace-dom? Do you wait until after the season, and tempt fate? Do you wait until after 2014, and allow other teams to bid for him?

…or…do you tender him a deal, like many did this year without success?

Moving forward, it appears as though the Indians have four guys who could have long-term success, if you include Masterson. McAllister can’t become a free agent until 2019, and isn’t even arbitration eligible until 2016. I believe the Indians have control of Trevor Bauer until 2019 as well, although there may be some play there to bump that up another year. Either way, they have him wrapped up for a long time as well. Carlos Carrasco is under control through 2017. If you sign Justin Masterson to that five year deal, you seem to wrap up a good portion of your rotation for the foreseeable future.

We’ll see if the Indians begin to move on that front, and I find it hard to believe that they haven’t already. Of course, they may have a number in their head that they don’t want to go over, because I do believe the Indians will move on free agents, if they don’t think that Masterson will sign.

Mickey Callaway has had a tremendous effect on this team as the new pitching coach. It’s early yet, but you need not look any further than the starting rotation to see just the type of effect that he’s had on the staff. The starters last year struck out 621 hitters on the year, which was 28th in the league, and had 351 walks, which was second-to-worst in the league to the Toronto Blue Jays. You can see the ratio for yourself. The league also hit .281 against the Indians’ starters, which was 27th in the league.

Compare that to this year.

The Indians are 11th right now in K’s with 192. They are still fifth worse with regards to walks, but you would have to be a blind man not to see the difference with regards to the location of the pitches for this staff. The Indians are eight in the league with a .242 average against…again…a massive improvement.

Yes defense helps, but the rotation isn’t drastically different than it was in make-up from last year. Ubaldo has dramatically improved, as has Masterson. The fact that Scott Kazmir has been so efficient has been equally shocking.

Francona has been a massive addition, but Callaway can’t be overlooked, and this coaching staff as a whole is drastically improved. The buy in from the staff is proof.

So what really is the deal with the Indians’ attendance? They didn’t exactly pack the place on Monday for the New York Yankees doubleheader this past Monday, but 23,300 is certainly better than a normal Monday draw. The question is, would it have been more than two scheduled Yankees’ games? Perhaps in May it is, but I do believe two June dates would have outdrawn those numbers.

Inside the numbers though, there were some interesting pieces to the traditional doubleheader that should perk management’s interest. There were several Yankees fans at the game, but there were also several fans from other cities that trekked to Cleveland for the bargain of seeing the Yankees (and perhaps, the Indians) twice in for the price of one. I had two sets of friends make the drive from Pittsburgh to see the game, and a crew from West Virginia as well.

The Indians “market” has dwindled since the run in the 90’s, but this doubleheader showcased a bit of drawing power for MLB, if not for the Indians. No, fiscally, you can’t have three or four doubleheaders a year, as it would be too costly. I’d even go as far to say you don’t schedule one. But, I do think it would be interesting if the Indians scheduled a couple of off days as designated “doubleheader days.” On these days, early season rainouts HAVE to be scheduled as traditional doubleheaders, depending on the team and the games surrounding it.

Once you use one of them, the other becomes optional.

No, I don’t expect this to be the tipping point for attendance, but the doubleheader got a lot of press, and none of it was bad. Again, it’s part of the culture that has to be rebuilt, or in many cases, built.

I was born in Cleveland, and it will always be home. I love Cleveland sports more than anything, but Cleveland isn’t a baseball town. To understand the difference, go to St. Louis for a day game at Busch Stadium, or to Wrigley, or Fenway, or even Philadelphia. There’s a difference, and it’s not subtle. There’s a general knowledge there about the game that lacks in Cleveland. No, the diehards that are reading this right now aren’t the fans that I’m talking about. It’s the general fan.

If you go to Busch Stadium, everyone there knows more about the Cardinals than most fans in most cities know about their team. It’s not trendy to go see the Cardinals play, it’s just what they do. It’s the same in Boston, and the same in Chicago, and the same in Philly. You can name 10 other cities or more that fit that mentality.

In the 90’s, it was trendy to see the Indians play. Sure, it was more complicated and complex than that, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t rare to see a substantial group of people not paying a lick to the game action on the field. Sure, that happens at all stadiums, but it was rampant at Jacobs Field in the 90’s.

Go see a game at Busch, and you just don’t see it.

My point is…the core fan in Cleveland just isn’t there.

Sure, there’s us, the crazies that call Cleveland our passion…but there aren’t a lot of “us.” A culture has to be built, and you can make a case that it can’t be built at this point.

Instead, you have to hope and pray that the Indians become trendy again, and that absolutely can happen.  As my good friend Steve Orbanek says with regularity, “Everything can catch on for their fifteen minutes.” I believe it can happen with the Indians. Why? Mark Reynolds has turned into Paul Bunyan. Nick Swisher is outlandishly outgoing. Jason Kipnis has moments where if you squint your eyes, you see a poor man’s Pete Rose. Carlos Santana has a bit of Manny in him. Then there  is Terry Francona, who just IS Cleveland.

Will this turn into the Indians of the 90’s?

No, but can they catch their fifteen minutes? I really believe they can.

Rearviewmirror…

I really love the ebbs and flows of a baseball season. The Indians rolled into a first place tie on Sunday night with a big win against the Tigers. Took over first place by themselves on Monday afternoon with their one run win against the Yankees, fell behind the Tigers by a half game when they lost to the Yankees on Monday evening, after the Tigers victory, and remain there today. It’s baseball at it’s finest. Let’s hope it continues throughout the season. I’m looking forward to a fun season.

Tune in to Cleveland Sports Insiders every Sunday Night at 9:00. CSI editor extraordinaire Steve Orbanek and myself talk all Cleveland sports, and it’s really starting to round out into a pretty good show after a year of production. Right now, we’re focused mostly on the Indians, but we’ll throw out some Cavs and Browns discussion as well. Check it out, right here at IBI at http://www.indiansbaseballinsider.com/radio.

Travis Hafner has a sore right shoulder, and is having an MRI. I love Hafner…but…uh…didn’t see that coming? Boy it’s good to have Mark Reynolds.

Ahhhh…it’s a beautiful day for baseball…everybody…

 

Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as  the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at jpete@indiansprospectinsider.com.

User Comments

DJ Sebastian
May 15, 2013 - 9:57 PM EDT
Great insight Jim. You are exactly right about Cleveland baseball fans. Us diehards will always be there. But not enough casual fans to make a difference. I would like to know how far down the market is for the Tribe compared to, say Cinci or Detroit. The motor city has lost population in droves, but they still fill Comerica Park.
Homer
May 15, 2013 - 2:49 PM EDT
Tremendous difference with the pitching staff. Callaway and Cash have teamed well together. In fact, I give credit to Cash for sighting Gomes' talent as a member of the Jays staff.

The Tribe will face some tough decisions with this team and soon, it feels like they could really make a push if they had another big time arm, I'm not sure they have what it would cost to obtain one in the farm outside of Lindor. Btw, there are some (not associated with the Indians) in the game who suggest Lindor could be the number 1 prospect in all of baseball this offseason. All of this said, Id love to see the Tribe make an offer for Masterson for around 4 yrs with options.

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