The Diff is your weekly Wednesday WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, I wrote about NBA conference imbalance and the East playoffs. Now, it’s time to get serious about the Tribe.
I’m giddy about … Danny Salazar’s second MLB start tonight.
Starting at Progressive Field tonight will be the most prolific strikeout artist in minor league baseball this year. That would be 23-year-old Danny Salazar, back for his second gig in Cleveland.
We all vividly recall Salazar’s first outing last month against Toronto. He dazzled in a Thursday afternoon affair against reigning Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, bringing a no-hitter into the sixth. He allowed a run in his final frame, but his debut was among the best ever for a Cleveland starter.
Salazar’s start was announced on Monday with Ubaldo Jimenez being bumped back until Friday. Now that Corey Kluber has landed on the disabled list, with Scott Kazmir taking his spot on Saturday, there are no clear indications over whether Salazar is here to stay. He could be. Based on what he’s done so far in the minors, he should be.
The Dominican Republic native leads all of minor league baseball with both his 12.48 K/9 and 35.5% strikeout rate. That is among all 648 MiLB pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched, per MLB Advanced Media. During his 92 minor league innings, he also has an insanely effective 2.32 BB/9 mark and, oh, just a 2.72 ERA in the meanwhile.
Still mending from August 2010 Tommy John surgery, Salazar began the 2013 season back with Double-A Akron, were he made six solid starts at the end of last year. This time around, he was sensational. In seven starts, he struck out 51 of 133 batters. He only allowed one run in his final four outings.
That’s what led to his first promotion to Triple-A Columbus and the increasing interest: How good of a prospect was he, after all? Shortly after being skipped for a start in mid-May, he then struggled in a five-start stretch through most of June. Perhaps it was all too soon. Since then? He’s been just as good, if not better, than he was in Akron against much tougher competition.
In his last three Columbus starts: 14.0 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 25 K. Again, that’s 25 strikeouts out of 49 batters. Those are ridiculous strikeout numbers that dwarf even the best produced by the game’s elite relievers. Salazar has been a starter this year, albeit one limited as he continues to work his way toward 100%.
Many people want to label Salazar as the 1997 Jaret Wright. Those folks forget that Wright only had a 4.38 ERA in 16 regular season starts, with anonymously mediocre 6.3 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 rates. He just happened to have an 8-3 record. Score another knock against MLB pitcher wins. 1
Yet in the end, 2013 Danny Salazar probably won’t even produce as much as Wright in ‘97. That year, a 22-year-old Wright finished with an incomprehensible 216 combined innings pitched through the postseason. Salazar is at 98 innings total this year and probably will be shut down by the 120-150 range.
But boy, will those innings be exciting. Maybe he ends up doing bullpen work by the time Kluber returns. However it happens, I can’t wait to see Salazar on the mound for the Tribe for a long time going forward.
I’m optimistic about … contending for a wild card spot.
Over the last week, I’ve already began a daily routine of checking the Baseball Prospectus playoff odds. They’re sensational. And I’m a known “sadistic statistical savant” (h/t @The_Real_Shamrock), so it makes sense.
Entering Tuesday, here is how the playoff picture looked in the American League:
Tampa Bay – 94.1% (44.7% division; 49.3% wild card)
Boston – 93.9% (53.5% division; 40.3% wild card)
Baltimore – 15.8% (1.6% division; 14.2% wild card)
New York – 2.8% (0.1% division; 2.6% wild card)
Detroit – 97.9% (93.6% division; 4.3% wild card)
Cleveland – 43.6% (6.0% division; 37.6% wild card)
Kansas City – 4.3% (0.4% division; 3.9% wild card)
Oakland – 76.9% (54.7% division; 22.1% wild card)
Texas – 70.7% (45.2% division; 25.4% wild card)
So that’s your entire AL playoff picture. With about 50 games left in the regular season, there are nine teams competing for five total spots. In most realistic cases, there are only seven contending teams, as New York and Kansas City only combine for 7.1% playoff odds in total.
According to Baseball Prospectus’ simulations, empowered by Nate Silver’s PECOTA system, Tampa Bay and Boston were both lined up for 94.0 wins, Baltimore for 85.1, Detroit for 96.3, Cleveland for 88.1, Oakland for 90.9 and Texas for 90.0.
A fan’s first takeaway should be that you can all but forget about winning the division. Yes, many people refuse to look at playoff positioning for the wild card this early in the season. But it’s just not happening. Detroit and Cleveland play near identical late-season schedules. Detroit’s better. Argument over.
Then, the second takeaway should be that Cleveland’s most direct competitive set for wild card No. 2 2 positioning is with Oakland/Texas and Baltimore. Suddenly, the Rangers, even though they were swept by the Indians just last week, are lining up as the new favorite for that spot. They won again on Tuesday night.
While the Indians are by no means an odds-on likely team to make the wild card, I still do view them favorably down the stretch. Texas just lost Nelson Cruz, by far their second-best offensive player. The Tribe will remain within striking distance well into September, when the schedule is light. All you have to do is get in; it doesn’t matter how pretty it looked along the way.
I’m undecided about … the red-hot Indians starting pitching.
You’re not wrong: I’ve probably written way, way too much about the Tribe’s starting rotation over the past several months. But you can’t blame me: No one really knows what’s happening next.
In December, I wrote about how the Trevor Bauer addition helped the less-than-rosy future outlook. That month, I also wrote about the team’s hunt for a veteran starter.
In January, I wrote about how the Brett Myers signing wasn’t sexy but would help (oops).
In February, I wrote about intriguing starter narratives heading into the season.
In April, I wrote about the extent of the starters’ awfulness last year.
In May, I wrote about their mercurial start to the season.
In June, I wrote about building next year’s rotation.
Then, on Friday, I gave credit where credit was due: I wrote about the rarefied air of their recent accomplishments. It’s true: The Indians starting rotation has been as good over the last month as it has been in years, perhaps decades.
The updated totals in 26 games since July 7: 10-4 record, 2.30 ERA, 164.0 IP, 8.2 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, .206/.271/.299 line. Without crossing separate seasons, those stats represent the best ERA, AVG, OBP or SLG numbers in a 26-game stretch for the Indians starting rotation since at least 2000.
For months and months, I was writing about how the 2012 Indians starting rotation was abysmal and one of the worst ever. Now, they’re on pace to do something that no American League team has ever done before: Have four pitchers with 100+ innings and 8+ K/9. They’re also on pace to do something no Indians team has done since 1969: Have five pitchers with 12+ starts and ERAs less than 4.20.
Let’s reset the picture. Justin Masterson is a 28-year-old sorta-ace with odd inconsistency 3 . Corey Kluber is a 27-year-old surprise pick for FanGraphs’ favorite player. Zach McAllister is a 25-year-old with great control and efficiency. Scott Kazmir is a 29-year-old reclamation project blazing in the 90s. Ubaldo Jimenez is a 29-year-old with split pitching personas.
Kluber is now on the DL, possibly out for 4-6 weeks. As I wrote above, Salazar will be taking his place for now. Who knows what might happen next. But no one saw this shocking turnaround coming. I don’t buy in that they’ll be this good forever. Better? Certainly they’ve proven that.
I’m worried about … the Indians offense.
Let’s go through this collection of disappointing statistics.
Last weekend, the Indians won a three-game series in scoring six runs or less for the first time since September 1989. That doesn’t bode well before a monumental home four-game set against Detroit. Especially when facing off against the Tigers’ four best starters.
Since the start of July, a five-week period, Cleveland’s best qualified player in OPS is Carlos Santana at .784. As of last night, that ranked 60th among qualified MLB players. Despite that odd mark of no consistent offensive force, the team is still 18-13 since July 1.
Dating all the way back to May 30, sluggers Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds have combined for just 11 extra-base hits and a .255 slugging percentage. That’s in a whopping 401 plate appearances. Consulting my XBH% chart, that 2.7% ratio is worse than the slugging rate of homer-less Ben Revere.
Everyone’s favorite (position player) punching bag Asdrubal Cabrera is batting just .198/.256/.293 in 129 plate appearances since July 2. Surprisingly, that’s only tied for ninth-worst in the AL during that time frame. But again, he’s also arguably the worst defensive shortstop in baseball since 2010, per UZR/150 4 .
Michael Bourn, who nearly single-handedly won Saturday’s game with his speed, recently went through a 54-game stretch where was successful on just five of 11 stolen base attempts. From 2008-2012, Bourn stole at an 81% clip and averaged 18 steals per 54 games.
And finally, Jason Kipnis, whose 4.8 WAR is nearly a full point higher than last year’s team leader, also isn’t as hot as he once was. After batting .335/.421/.624 in a 59-game stretch from April 29 through July 3, he’s only batting .268/.328/.353 in 27 games. Not awful, but disappointingly mediocre.
Overall, the Indians offense has been good in 2013 even while embracing the strikeout. I’m purposefully short-changing their success by picking arbitrarily gruesome statistics. Among MLB teams entering Tuesday, they ranked fourth in runs per game and seventh in OPS. But they’ve really struggled of late and another bat would have been a worthwhile addition at the deadline.
I’m supremely concerned about … the contention window.
Under the current roster construction of the Cleveland Indians, what is the ideal peak contention year? I don’t know the answer to that question.
This thought runs deeper than any short-term concerns about Cleveland’s ability to contend for a 2013 playoff spot. Don’t get me wrong, again: They’re very much in the running and should remain a factor for a while, no matter how bad things turn this week against Detroit.
Now, let’s review ages and free agency status for, in my mind, the 12 most valuable Indians players:
Zach McAllister, 25, free agent after 2018
Michael Brantley, 26, free agent after 2016
Jason Kipnis, 26, free agent after 2017
Corey Kluber, 27, free agent after 2018
Carlos Santana, 27, team option for 2017
Asdrubal Cabrera, 27, free agent after 2014
Chris Perez, 28, free agent after 2014
Justin Masterson, 28, free agent after 2014
Scott Kazmir, 29, free agent after 2013
Ubaldo Jimenez, 29, mutual option for 2014 (per @TonyIBI)
Michael Bourn, 30, vesting option for 2017
Nick Swisher, 32, vesting option for 2017
That listing includes all five starters (because, again, they’ve been that good of late), one reliever and six position players.
I could certainly buy the argument for the value of part-time players Yan Gomes (FA after 2018) and Ryan Raburn (FA after 2013). Both sport 2+ WARs, better than either Bourn or Cabrera. Gomes certainly could be a long-term piece of the Indians puzzle. Raburn has probably played his way out of town this year. [Update: Raburn and the Indians agreed to a two-year extension today.]
Relievers Cody Allen (FA after 2018) and Joe Smith (FA after 2013) could pitch on any team in baseball. Both have WARs better than either Perez or Jimenez. Allen is another long-term cog. Smith also is likely gone after this year due to the organization’s plethora of relief options 5 .
But overall, I’m just looking at an arbitrary concept of free-market value, so hear me out on this debate: When is this peak contention year? Anybody … ?
My only thought: 2014. By the end of that year, decisions would have to be made on Masterson, Perez and Cabrera, at least. While another ace-ish, a new closer and obviously a star shortstop prospect could emerge, those are valuable pieces to somehow replace or majorly invest in for the future.
Otherwise, it’s 2015, as I dreaded last August. By then, Francisco Lindor, Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar could be cemented into the majors. But the Indians system lacks other impact prospects. Bourn will be 32, Swisher will be 34 and the rest of the players on the list will all be on the wrong side of the ever-crucial year-27.
When you get to 2016, the current core is all pretty old and you’ll be counting on an entirely new wave of players to contribute at a high level. McAllister will be 28. Brantley and Kipnis will be 29. Kluber and Santana will be 30. These players might seem inexperienced, but they’re not young.
It’s concerning. Really concerning. And if you want to be frustrated with anything, be frustrated with bad drafting and prospect development that’s left the Indians in a peculiar win-by-2014-or-else state.
- For added context: Jaret Wright was baseball’s No. 22 prospect entering ’97, per Baseball America. That’s a la Trevor Bauer in 2013. Danny Salazar was just barely a top-1o prospect in Cleveland’s system; Keith Law had him fourth, Tony Lastoria had him fifth, others ignored him completely. In Wright’s 15 minor league starts that season, he had a 2.82 ERA, 9.6 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9. Those were his only career outings post-Single-A. He probably needed more seasoning as his career never really took off in the majors. [back]
- Boston and Tampa Bay combine for 188% playoff odds right now. One will win the division so that means, in 88% of scenarios, one of those two teams is nabbing a wild card spot. The other teams are simply positioning for the second spot after that. [back]
- As I shared again today, I don’t really buy the idea of “Justin Masterson, MLB Ace”. His ERA+ numbers over the last four seasons: 84, 122, 79 and 109. Again, 100 is average. With Cleveland overall in 823.1 innings pitched, his ERA+ is 95. He’s the team’s de facto ace: Even with all his success in 2013, his 3.46 ERA ranks 15th among qualified AL starters. He’d be a starter on any team in baseball, but more logically, he’s a high-end No. 2. [back]
- My comrade @WFNYTD has been on an Cabrera-Carlos Baerga rampage on Twitter over the last few days. Don’t get me wrong, dating back to 2010, he’s also produced the fourth-most batting runs for a shortstop. He’s just incredibly frustrating to watch. I’ve long been on Team Trade to Cardinals for Pitcher (link) along with Jon. [back]
- Just because I’m calling them options doesn’t mean I believe they’re GREAT options. Listen, Joe Smith is a valuable third-best reliever on a good team. Does that mean the Indians should even consider signing him, as a 30-year-old to start the 2014 season, to any sort of actual, realistic contract? Absolutely not. You go to war with Rzepczynski, Shaw, Allen, Pestano and Perez, and bring along Nick Hagadone, Chen-Chang Lee, Matt Langwell, Preston Guilmet and others. [back]