The Matter With Cleveland
In a wide open, if mediocre, AL Central, the Cleveland Indians are the clear-cut dregs of the division through 53 games. This, despite ranking third in the AL in runs scored and on-base percentage. Asdrubal Cabrera*, Shin-Soo Choo and Victor Martinez are all having strong seasons at the plate.
*update: Cabrera left tonightâ€™s game against the Twins in the first inning with an apparent shoulder injury.
The real problem is run prevention, in which the Indians rank dead last. Much has been made of the bullpen, an ever-changing entity thatâ€™s already blown 10 saves and allowed 42% of inherited runners to score. The situation is so dire that general manager Mark Shapiro gave top prospect Hector Rondon a brief, unhappy trial in the bullpen at Double-A Akron.
This article will deal with three other areas that the Indians hope to address: the performance of Cliff Lee and Fausto Carmona, and the infield defense.
If there is anyone pulling his own weight on the Cleveland staff, itâ€™s Cliff Lee (although Carl Pavano has been decent as well). Heâ€™s in the top ten in the league in ERA, innings pitched, and fewest walks and home runs per nine innings. His 2-6 record is more a problem of offensive supportâ€”just 2.7 Indians runs per start. There are a handful of indications, however, that heâ€™s not pitching up to his 2008 Cy Young ability.
First of all, Leeâ€™s BABIP is at .349, the highest mark of his career, and unlikely to be sustained. At the same time, though, heâ€™s giving up line drives at a higher rate than ever before in his careerâ€”21% of the time, compared to 17% last season, and 16% in 2007. Also, his groundout/air out ratio of .82, though in line with his career numbers up to 2007, but significantly lower than 2008â€™s 1.06. In hindsight, that rate may have been a lucky aberration. Similarly, his walk, strikeout and home run ratios (per nine innings) are all better than his pre-2008 career marks, but worse than what he did in 2008.
How can Lee help turn his team around? His best bet would be to keep the ball down in the zone, where it will lead to more groundballs. Also, thus far, heâ€™s been pounded for 227 more points of OPS on the road, compared to in Cleveland. That may or may not continue in his next start, on June 3 in Minneapolis.
Unlike Lee, fellow starter Fausto Carmona has been fully deserving of his poor record (2-5). He leads the league in both walks and earned runs allowed, and has a .382 on-base percentage against. Carmonaâ€™s biggest problem is with control. In 2009, heâ€™s walked 13.7% of the batterâ€™s heâ€™s faced. Extended to 879 plate appearancesâ€”the number he made in his breakout 2007 seasonâ€”that would mean 120 walks, more than any major league pitcher since Matt Clement and Chan Ho Park in 2000. Compare his 2009 numbers to 2007 and 2008:
When the ball is put in play, Carmona has always been more of a groundball pitcher than Lee, but he, too, is struggling to keep it on the ground. This presents an interesting, if troubling, development for Carmona. Last year, which was widely viewed as a disappointment for him, his peripheral numbers, at least on batted balls, were similar to what theyâ€™d been in 2007. This year, his basic stats continue to be poor; the trouble is that his peripherals have followed suit:
The yearly progression of this chart is different than the one above. On batted balls, his numbers in 2009 are much worse than 2008. This suggests that not only has the wildness created extra walks, as it did in 2008, but also better pitches for batters to hit. Combined, those two factors wonâ€™t win many games.
Even if Lee, Carmona and the other Tribe hurlers can turn their games around, though, the teamâ€™s infield defense is another serious question mark. Their .683 defensive efficiency mark is 11th in the AL. More specifically, in the infield, Cleveland has given up far more groundball singles than any other team. Even for a groundball inducing team, that is an unmistakeable sign of poor infield defense.
The main culprits have been Jhonny Peralta at shortstop, Asdrubal Cabrera at second base, and Mark Derosa at third. Derosa in particular has struggled at the hot corner, leading to a recent lineup shuffle. Peralta moved to third, Cabrera to short, and Luis Valbuena took over at second base. In 2008 at Triple-A, Valbuena put up a 5.25 range factor, which is excellent for a second baseman at any level.
Improved infield defense would benefit not only Lee and Carmona, but the rest of the rotation and the bullpen as well. With even league average run prevention, the Indians could certainly compete in the AL Central; even now, theyâ€™re only eight games out. What stands between them and the top of the leaderboard is more groundballs from their aces, and better groundball coverage from their infield. Now, with Asdrubal Cabrera possibly going to the disabled list, that may become more difficult, but itâ€™s the only way to turn the season around.