The Lost Tribe and the Usual Suspects

Still trying to catch up on my z’s from a fun but draining weekend at SABR where my trade deadline-related work cost me face time with some folks I only get to see once a year, not to mention a handful of missed presentations and a foregone ticket to Camden Yards (when the professional meteorologist you count as a colleague suggests rain will wipe out the game…).

Plenty busy since I’ve been back as well:

• On Tuesday I examined the Indians’ fall from grace (Baseball Prospectus/ESPN Insider):

What’s gone wrong in Cleveland? PECOTA’s division-winning projection called for a meager 86 wins (around three more than the above method suggests) and a 38 percent chance of making the postseason, casting them as weak favorites over the Tigers. The offense, despite injuries to Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore, has essentially lived up to expectations; projected to rank fourth in the league in scoring, they actually rank fifth. The pitching, however, ranks dead stinking last instead of the projected seventh.

The responsibility for that showing rests with both the rotation (13th in SNLVAR) and the bullpen (14th in WXRL). Blame Shapiro for assembling the rotation which has put up a 5.95 ERA beyond Lee. While his acquisition of Anthony Reyes was a worthwhile gambit that went sour due to elbow problems culminating in Tommy John surgery, his signing of Carl Pavano has brought plenty of bad (five disaster starts, with more runs than innings pitched) to go with the good (10 quality starts), with a 5.37 ERA and 1.4 homers per nine. Wedge and his staff own a share of the blame for failing to straighten out Fausto Carmona; hoping the sinkerballer would regain his stellar 2007 form after mechanical and injury woes ruined 2008, they suffered a 7.42 ERA over 12 gruesome starts before farming him out in June. The rest of the rotation fillers—Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, Zach Jackson, David Huff and Scott Lewis—apparently arrived from a big-box store where hittable lefties are sold by the gross; that quintet has given the Tribe 36 starts with a 5.73 ERA and just 4.7 strikeouts per nine.

The bullpen’s been worse, a major reason the team is an AL-high 7.7 wins behind their projected third-order record, their Pythagorean record after adjusting for scoring environment, run elements, and quality of opposition. Poor early-season performances by Kerry Wood, Rafael Betancourt (since traded to Colorado), Rafael Perez (since demoted) and Jensen Lewis (recalled this past weekend after a five-week demotion) dug the team an early hole; they were already 4.7 games behind their third-order projection by mid-May. That was around the time the buzzards started circling Wedge, who presided over an uncannily similar debacle last year, when the relievers he rode hard late in 2007 spit the bit. Wedge has now presided over three slow-starting teams in the past four years, and while his overall record stands at 540-537, just two of his seven teams have finished above .500, and they’ve fallen a cumulative 29 games shy of their Pythagorean projections.

Shapiro will have to answer for his pledge to keep his skipper in place, and ultimately, for the drying up of the team’s talent pipeline amid years of unimpressive drafts. From 1997 through 2008, the Indians’ organization produced more major league talent than any other AL Central team, according to the Value Production Standings work which Steve Treder presented at the most recent SABR convention. Alas, an increasing proportion of that value, from Manny Ramirez and C.C. Sabathia down through Jeremy Guthrie, was delivered for other teams. As ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick pointed out recently, Guthrie has been the most successful of the 19 first-round or supplemental pics on Shapiro’s watch, but all of that success has been with the Orioles. Among those on their major league roster, top 2004 pick Sowers and top 2006 pick Huff, are among the glut of low-upside southpaws, while top 2005 pick Trevor Crowe looks like a card-carrying member of the Future Fourth Outfielders of America.

The article, and particularly the draft stuff, generated a lengthy discussion at the Lets Go Tribe! blog.

• Yesterday I previewed the Yankees-Red Sox series (BP/ESPN), exploring how the two teams’ in-season upgrades have changed them, particularly since the Red Sox won the first five of their eight straight against the Yanks:

On Thursday evening, the Yankees and Red Sox—once again the AL East’s top two teams—kick off a four-game series in the Bronx. Much has been and will continue to be made of the fact that the Yankees are 0-8 against their heated rivals this year. Beyond that lopsided tally, they’ve been the better of the two ballclubs to date, particularly since Alex Rodriguez returned from the hip surgery which sidelined him for the first month of the season, a period during which the Red Sox beat the Yankees five times in a two-week span. After all, it’s the Yankees who lead the division by 2.5 games, the result of them currently having the upper hand in the division’s never-ceasing arms race.

Consider the following:

Overall     NYY     BOS
W-L 65-42 62-44
Pct .607 .585
Pyth .567 .586

Since 5/8 NYY BOS

W-L 52-27 44-33
Pct. .658 .571
Pyth .618 .587

…The real turnaround has been in the bullpen, however. Since [Alex] Rodriguez’s return — a point that more or less coincides with Alfredo Aceves’ recall from Scranton — the relievers have put up a 3.78 Fair Run Average with 8.0 WXRL, the latter mark rating as the second best in the majors. That ugly first month aside, manager Joe Girardi has reasserted his ability to sift through a handful of off-brand relievers to build a bridge to Mariano Rivera, with Phil Hughes (1.8 WXRL) and Aceves (1.3 WXRL) emerging to supplant those aforementioned arsonists as well as injured and ineffective Brian Bruney, joining Phil Coke (1.4 WXRL) among the Yankees’ late-game options. After struggling as a starter, Hughes has flat-out dominated in a relief role, with a 1.00 Fair Run Average and a 39/7 K/BB ratio in 30.1 innings. General manager Brian Cashman remains adamant that like Joba Chamberlain, his future lies in the rotation, but for the moment, he stands as one of the Yankee season’s saviors. Thanks in large part to their remade relief corps, the Yanks are now 4.3 wins ahead of their first-order Pythagorean projection, second only to the Mariners among AL teams — a margin that’s allowed them to leapfrog their division rivals.

As for the Red Sox… After enduring a three-week stretch in which the Sox hit just .224/.314/.386 while averaging a meager 4.2 runs per game and going 9-9, general manager Theo Epstein chose to make a deal to augment his lineup rather than his rotation, so instead of gunning for Roy Halladay, he dealt two pitching prospects for the Indians’ Victor Martinez, also acquiring Chris Duncan, Casey Kotchman and (briefly) Adam LaRoche in smaller deals, moves which particularly provide manager Terry Francona with considerable flexibility at catcher, first base and third base. Since Epstein began dealing on July 22, the revamped offense has averaged 6.3 runs per game, highlighted by an 18-run breakout in which Martinez went 5-for-6.

It was quite a joy to watch the Yanks take it to John Smoltz last night (is it just me or did Paul O’Neill keep calling him “Schmaltz”?), not surprisingly a topic of discussion on my weekly radio hit on what’s now being dubbed “The Boston Sports Post Game Show” on ESPN 890…

• … and the Hit List:

[#2 Yankees] Trilogy: Johnny Damon homers in three straight games, including once off Roy Halladay, whom he owns (.356/.426/.533 in 101 PA lifetime), and once off John Smoltz, his first career hit off the 42-year-old. It’s hardly the only hit the Yanks collect off of Smoltz; they paste him for nine hits and eight runs in 3.1 innings to gain their first victory over Boston in nine tries this year. As lopsided as their series has been, the Yanks have been the better team since their early meetings thanks to the return of Alex Rodriguez and the revamping of their bullpen. They now lead the AL East by 3.5 games, a swing of eight games in the standings since A-Rod’s May 8 return, and they’ve won 28 out of their last 38.

[#4 Red Sox] In just his second game with the Red Sox, Victor Martinez makes himself at home with a huge day (6 1 5 4) in an 18-10 drubbing of the Orioles, a nearly four-hour epic in which the two teams combine to score in every inning, just the third time that’s happened this year. The win keeps the Sox just a half-game behind the Yankees, but Clay Buchholz’s ugly performance and the three losses that follow provide a sobering reminder of the pitching upgrades they bypassed at the deadline, as Buchholz, Brad Penny and John Smoltz are torched for 24 hits, seven homers and 20 runs in 13.1 innings. All three have Support-Neutral Winning Percentages well under .500.

Going up state this weekend, so any Yanks-Sox action I catch will be audio-only via my iPhone. Here’s hoping the Yanks continue to kick serious ass.

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