When my Cubs are rebuilding, as they have been the past few seasons, it becomes hard to invest too much emotion or excitement into their games at about this time of year. It slowly becomes clear that no miraculous run is in the offing. Players become fluid assets, potential trade chips but not intrinsically valuable to the on-field product itself. Wins and losses cease to feel important enough to differentiate, and I find myself watching only when certain players who might actually have a role on the next good iteration of the club are involved in the action.
I love baseball, though, so once that malaise sets in, I start looking around for the teams I’ll be pulling for in various playoff races down the stretch. I look for teams that match my stylistic preferences; have one or more of my favorite players to watch; have a narrative around them that I can stomach, if not embrace; and that are unlikely to run away and hide from the competition. I want to see a team that plays the game enjoyably, is well-rounded and well-managed, rarely bores you and has a rival or two who will keep games taut and interesting down to the final weekend of the season.
This year, my team is going to be the Cleveland Indians. I have seen them play just once or twice all season, but I’m in love. What a terrific team to watch.
First of all, consider their collective approach at the plate. I say this all the time, especially as OBP continues to disappear from the league: The value of plate discipline accumulates by magnitude.
It’s like base-stealing. Realistically, any but the fastest few players in baseball are adding only a few net runs per year with their legs, because the outs most guys make on the base paths offset a large percentage of the value added when they succeed in stealing a base.
Just so, many hitters add less than one might suspect with their patience at the plate. The best pitches to hit tend to come early in counts. Guys who wait pitchers out can draw walks, which are great, but which don’t exactly change the course of a game. In the meantime, they usually also strike out more, and hit from behind in the count more often.
A lone walk is worthwhile, and the people who built a revolution in understanding the game were not wrong to say that a walk is generally underrated as a positive offensive outcome. When those people were doing their thing, though, the offensive environment of the league was drastically different. When Bill James began the OBP revolution, power was near its nadir, this side of 1968. Teams scored by putting guys on base and using the running game to create holes through which key hits could be punched. Walks had major value, because it took a few good things happening to push across a run in any frame, and walks are good things. Then, when Baseball Prospectus and Moneyball took the stathead niche mainstream, offensive levels were preposterously high, almost across the board. Home runs were up. Batting averages were up. Doubles were up. Nothing was lacking, so positive offensive events began to take on flatter relative values. A walk is only about 65 percent as valuable as a single, in a vacuum. In an era when the next hit is just a batter away, though, that number might be 70 percent. In 1996, the league-average on-base percentage was .340. The rate at which teams could cash in a walk was very high.
These days, strikeouts rule baseball. The league-average OBP is down 25 points from the lofty heights of 15 and 20 years ago. The advent of highly specialized six- and seven-man bullpens; a sea change toward individualized defensive arrangements and growing appreciation for range over fluidity afield; and the abolition of amphetamines and PEDs have changed teams’ approaches to scoring runs. Power is more crucial to team success than at any other time in the game’s history, save perhaps the first decade post-integration. Walks, at least as we find them in any one player, are less valuable than ever.
In Cleveland, though, we see a shining example of how it is still possible to become a dynamic, even juggernaut offense by working the count and looking to draw walks. Their lineup is laden with guys who refuse to expand their strike zone. As a result, only the Twins and Red Sox have seen more pitches per plate appearance than the Tribe, with the Athletics tied. It’s the cumulative effect of team patience, like the effect of team speed, that can start to return tangible benefits.
I contend that Cleveland is actually a more truly patient team than even those. Both Minnesota and Boston rank among the handful of teams least likely to swing at the first pitch in an at-bat. Through Sunday, the number was 21 percent for each. In just 21 percent of all plate appearances did batters for those teams swing at the first offering. That’s a fine tactic, in general, but it’s programmed. It’s an organizational directive. One can see certain players who come to bat knowing the first pitch or two is not to be hacked at, and lose their aggressiveness early in the count. A secondary objective of the approach may still be achieved: Pitchers rack up pitches against those teams. But I think they pass up hits they could have had by locking their hitters into hard take signs at the points when the pitcher might be most likely to lay in a hittable pitch. The Indians rank close to the bottom in this area, too, swinging at just 23 percent of first offerings, but it feels fundamentally different. The Twins are simply taking and raking. The Indians have hitters who are naturally inclined to wait for their pitch. I like the second method better.
Anyway, Cleveland has not merely one or two pitch-taking paragons, but a lineup full of them. Setting 100 plate appearances as a minimum, the Indians have four of the 11 AL hitters who see the most pitches per trip, in Carlos Santana, Jason Giambi, Jason Kipnis and Mark Reynolds. Ryan Raburn, Nick Swisher, Asdrubal Cabrera and Yan Gomes all see more pitches per time up than the average AL hitter. More importantly, maybe, there never is a break. Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley, Mike Aviles and Drew “Mike” Stubbs (a faux nickname, but it should be so) average 3.70 pitches seen per PA between them. Forty-one AL batters with at least 100 PA fall shy of Stubbs’ team-worst mark, 3.67. The Indians are relentless; they will wear you down.
With that kind of cohesive strategy, reasonably objections to both the objective and the aesthetic value of patience evaporate. This is team baseball. Decide on a method for wearing down and exploiting the opponent, and execute it, if not in unison, at least in turns. No one can find it boring, and as long as the players have sufficient talent, no one can say it doesn’t work. Only five AL teams have scored more runs per game than Cleveland; only four have a better OPS+. Their OPS+ in fifth innings is 65 percent better than the league average, by far their best mark, and a reflection of how tired many opposing starters are by then when facing them. They also improve more than most teams each time they go through the order against an opposing starter, from league-average the first time to 13 percent better, to 21 percent better.
That the offense is so singular in its focus on wearing down opposing pitchers belies the fact that the overall corps of position players is quite dynamic and difficult to exploit, because it is so diverse. When Asdrubal Cabrera and Nick Swisher are healthy, the heart of the Indians order can feature three straight switch-hitters. This team has the platoon advantage basically whenever it wants it. The starting second and third basemen bat left-handed. Aviles is as good as backup shortstops get these days. Raburn offers positional flexibility. With Swisher, Reynolds and Santana, the team has three first basemen with strong enough bats for the job and solid defensive chops. All three of Bourn, Brantley and Stubbs can play center field well. When Stubbs doesn’t start, he provides value with his legs as a pinch-runner.
Some of them have big power; some have great patience; and some simply never strike out. No single player dominates the way the chieftains of the lineups all around them do (Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder to the north, Joey Votto to the south, Andrew McCutchen to the east), but there simply isn’t a gaping hole in this team’s lineup, and it would be hard to punch one, as injuries to Cabrera, Swisher and Bourn have proved.
The versatility of the offense bespeaks the excellence of the defense. The infield is far from elite, but it gets the job done. No one on that unit embarrasses himself with the glove, and often, a good infield is like a Greek phalanx, as strong as its weakest link but unbroken unless a link goes missing almost altogether. The outfield is where they really close ranks, with the aforementioned center fielders scattered to the corners running down damn near everything. It’s as fun to watch as it is frustrating to opponents.
While I prefer teams I perceive to be deep and well-rounded, one key ingredient to a delicious second-half story is the intrigue of the trade deadline, and the opportunity to improve upon the talent at hand. The Indians have a delightfully gaping hole to fill, and the story of the month of July should be how they decide to fill it, and how well it works.
The starting rotation is atrocious. Actually, the bullpen is fairly weak in its own right, having been beaten up by injury (Vinnie Pestano missed time; Chris Perez is just coming back), overuse (the rotation ranks 10th in the AL in innings per start) and trades (Tony Sipp and Esmil Rogers sent packing over the winter), but it’s far from the major issue. Bullpens have ways of healing themselves, especially if their yoke lightens as the season progresses. Rotations, though, just spiral downward, unless something happens to salvage them.
It’s more fun when a team truly has to make a tough decision, not merely pull the automatic trigger, and in this case, the Indians have two paths worthy of consideration. They could trade for a mid-rotation starter, someone to chew up some innings, or they could hand a rotation spot over to Trevor Bauer.
Obviously, the latter would be more fun. It would be more exciting. It would also leave undrawn a well of prospects rapidly running dry, which has to appeal to a front office that has always favored sustainability in its team-building. The chief problem is that Bauer is even more of an enigma than the average pitching prospect, as likely, perhaps, to derail Cleveland’s season as to save it.
I’ll spare you my amateur scouting or armchair psychology on Bauer. It will suffice to say that he is among the most talented pitchers in the minor leagues, and was a consensus top-level prospect even coming off a mildly disappointing 2012 season, but has continued to frustrate observers both in Triple-A and with the parent club this year. In three big-league starts, he carries a respectable 2.76 ERA, but has walked 15 of the 71 batters he has faced, and fanned only 11. In 12 trips to the hill with Columbus, he’s been better at missing bats, but every bit as bad in terms of command, leading to a 4.13 ERA. Some say it’s a problem of approach, being too fine, using four pitches where two will do. Whatever the case, Bauer could pop up and reel off a dozen dazzling starts down the stretch for a team charging toward the playoffs–or fall flat.
I’m more in favor, on behalf of the Indians’ decision-makers, of taking aim at a mid-range target in the trade market, and making it work somehow. No one likely to become available can reasonably command elite shortstop-in-training Francisco Lindor, and beyond that, the Indians’ farm system is peppered with upside, but lacking a bona fide stud. This is a good thing. General Manager Chris Antonetti and company should be able to land whomever they’re after simply by dangling whomever turns out to be the favorite of the targeted player’s club’s scouting department. In a system so packed with maybes, it should be easy to locate the team who has someone you want, and likes someone in your system better than you like them.
Scott Feldman or Matt Garza of the Cubs could be options. Ricky Nolasco might enjoy the defensive bump in the outfield. Bud Norris. If the Angels are realistic, Jason Vargas should be available. The Tribe could aim even a bit lower (Joe Saunders and similar), but I wouldn’t. One of those names should be obtainable. Two might not be out of the question.
It’s a team with cohesiveness. It’s a team that can beat you in different ways. It’s a team that must improve, and can. All that is left to talk about are the soft factors, and I won’t spend much time on them. But they’re good.
First of all, Terry Francona is back in the game. He’s partially responsible for the approach thing, I imagine. He’s also a big reason the Indians were able to bring aboard Swisher and Bourn. Maybe most importantly, he’s a name, a face and an energy, things this team lacked not only at the top step of dugout, but up and down the roster, for the last half-decade or so. I want Terry Francona to succeed, because I think he deserved a lot better than he got at the end in Boston, and because he manages rosters and games better than most other skippers in the game right now.
The team itself, and the city, are very much in need of a good run. A long run. A real run. Consecutive tease seasons in which the club seemed legitimate, but had catastrophic second halves, have sent Indians fans down the rabbit hole. They’re not coming out to games. They’re frustrated, distrustful and skeptical. I kind of like that. What I want to see, though, is not a Rays-type run wherein the town half-heartedly gets into it at the wire. I want to see slow but certain buy-in, a team convincing its city to believe in them. The Midwest has seen a few such teams lately, like the 2008 Brewers, the 2010 Reds and the 2011 Tigers.
I want the Indians to be next in line. This was the team that might actually have started the revolution within the game, when it comes to using as much information as possible to make the best decisions possible. Their process always seems sound, and yet, they have had shockingly little to show for it since about 2000. This team is well-constructed, well-congealed and a delight to baseball connoisseurs’ palates. I’m pulling for them.
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