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August 26, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Requiem for a Race

by Jay Jaffe

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Dear Bill Smith,

Thanks for nothing.

Sincerely,

Everybody who likes playoff races

Earlier this week, the Twins placed Jim Thome and Jason Kubel on waivers, and on Thursday afternoon, Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal reported that the Indians and White Sox had been awarded their respective claims. Hours later, despite reports that he would have preferred a trade to the Phillies, Thome waived his no-trade clause to accept a deal to the team that drafted him in 1989 and played host to the first 334 homers of his career from 1991-2002. While this makes for a nice homecoming story, and provides the Indians with a suitable replacement for the injured Travis Hafner, the chance that the move might make a difference in the AL Central race is virtually nil—and likewise that for any as-yet-unconsummated Kubel move.

A week ago today, the Central still looked like a race. The Indians had just avoided falling under .500 for the first time since April 3 by winning six out of eight against the Tigers, Twins, and White Sox. They headed into Detroit for a three-game series, down a game and a half in the standings, the closest they had been since July 30. The Sox, though still a game below .500 after losing two of three to the Tribe, remained just four games back. Our Playoff Odds gave Detroit a 65 percent chance at winning the division, with Chicago at 17.5 percent and Cleveland at 17.3 percent. In a year with strikingly few races remaining at the three-quarters mark, this appeared to be one to savor, even with both the Tigers and Sox carrying negative run differentials. Had the Thome or Kubel moves been on the table then, they would have been worth getting a little excited about.

Instead, the Tigers broke the race wide open, sweeping the Indians and taking three out of four against the Rays. Reeling from the sweep, Cleveland rolled over and lost three out of four to the Mariners, surrendering 21 runs to the league's worst offense over the final two games. The White Sox did their best to maintain a close race—at least if the race in question is in the AL West; after taking two out of three from the Rangers, they promptly lost two to the Angels. Through Wednesday, the Tigers' Playoff Odds had climbed to 90.5 percent as they opened a six-game lead over the Indians (2.2 percent) and a six-and-a-half game lead over the Sox (7.2 percent), and they padded that with a win on Thursday. Even if Thome can turn back the clock a decade, he can't do enough to close that gap.

It's tough to blame the Twins' GM for not acting sooner, because he's been too busy butchering the roster of a team that hasn't spent a single day over .500 this season. Having already dinged him for mismanaging Joe Mauer and the catching situation as well as the rotation, the middle infield, and the bench, I won't rehash those mistakes. However, it's still worth pointing out that while Smith was busy not trading Kubel and Thome, he left his roster so short-handed that manager Ron Gardenhire was forced to start Mauer in right field just to put a complete team of position players on the field, and didn't have any available reserves on the bench until callup Luke Hughes, who had missed his flight to Minnesota by going to the wrong gate, showed up midgame. These are professionals, folks.

It's not tough to muster at least a bit of sympathy for the Indians. After two seasons of 90-plus losses and a projection for a 74-88 record, they bolted out to a 30-15 start that put them seven games ahead of the Tigers as of May 23. Since then, they've gone just 33-49 (.402), tied with the Mariners for the league's third-worst mark; their -85 run differential in that span is better than only the Orioles' -94. The alarming thing is that they've gone into such a freefall even while making moves that should have bolstered their chances.

On June 27, with starting third baseman Jack Hannahan hitting just .214/.304/.333, the Indians recalled Lonnie Chisenhall, a 22-year-old who came into the year ranked as the team's second-best prospect, and 40th on our Top 101 list. Hannahan hadn't done anything but hit like his 31-year-old futilityman self for the first three months of the season, but after Pipping Jason Donald once the latter went down with a broken finger during spring training, he maintained the job by virtue of outstanding defense (he's at 13.7 FRAA now). Chisenhall went 8-for-30 with four extra-base hits in his first eight games, but since suffering a fractured sinus via a Carlos Villanueva pitch, he has tailed off at a Hannahan-esque .231/.268/.363 clip.

The Indians have had somewhat better luck with Jason Kipnis, who rated ahead of Chisenhall coming into the season. On July 22, with starting second baseman Orlando Cabrera hitting just .244/.275/.323, the team recalled the 24-year-old Triple-A. Since a 2-for-17 start, he's hit a searing .333/.393/.745with six homers in 56 plate appearances. The team has scored 4.56 runs per game during that hot streak, compared to 4.20 prior, but the pitching staff hasn't been up to the task, getting lit for 4.91 runs per game.

The deadline acquisition of Ubaldo Jimenez was supposed to help that cause. Through the end of July, the Tribe had exactly one starter with an ERA better than league average (3.93 to that point) in Justin Masterson, with Josh Tomlin (4.01) not far off, but still 0.2 runs per nine ahead of his peripherals according to FIP. Carlos Carrasco had just been torched for three disaster starts in July, bumping his ERA to 4.67, while Fausto Carmona (5.31) and Mitch Talbot (6.33) were getting clobbered more routinely. The non-Mastersons of their domain had collectively struggled thanks to their inability to miss bats (5.3 strikeouts per nine) or keep the ball in the park (1.3 homers per nine), two areas that remained Jimenez's forte even in an otherwise uneven season.

Instead, Jimenez has been lit up in three out of four starts, pitching more than five innings just once while being rocked for a 7.29 ERA and a 9.00 RA. On Sunday, with the Indians desperate to avoid a sweep so as to remain two-and-a-half games out of first place, the mercurial 27-year-old was lit for eight runs and nine hits in 3 1/3 innings. The Tribe's offense rallied back from a 7-0 third-inning deficit to pull within one run at 8-7, and even put the tying and winning runs on base with no outs in the bottom of the ninth, but the comeback fell short, and the game ended via a spectacular double play in which Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson caught Matt LaPorta's line drive and then threw home to nail Kosuke Fukudome (another less-than-impressive deadline acquisition). Game, set, match, season, taxi to the airport.

You could argue that the Indians waited too long to make the aforementioned moves, and you'd probably be right, but even then, you're left with a team that has gotten below-average production at left field, right field, and first base. Michael Brantley (.256), Shin-Soo Choo (.277), and LaPorta (.270) all have True Averages below the major-league average at their positions, with raw triple-slash lines that are less impressive in 2011 than they would have been in 1968. That Brantley has served as the team's leadoff hitter about two-thirds of the time hasn't helped matters, nor has the intermittent availability of Hafner and Grady Sizemore, who rank second and fifth on the team in True Average at .296 and .273, respectively, but are seventh and ninth in plate appearances, with less than 600 combined.

Furthermore, the pitching staff is still second-to-last in the league in strikeouts, underscoring the point that for whatever manager Manny Acta's sabermetric credibility, this team wasn't optimized for 2011 contention—but then we knew that in March. In that light, you could also argue that the Indians had no business trading 2009 first-rounder Alex White, 2010 first-rounder Drew Pomeranz, and two lesser prospects to the Rockies for Jimenez. Given the team-friendly terms of his contract—Jimenez is owed less than $10 million for 2012 and 2013—I quite liked the deal at the time, particularly as it provides Cleveland with a front-of-the-rotation 1-2 punch in a division with a shortage of the same. Jimenez's 4.88 ERA and falling velocity suggest that something may be amiss; on that latter note, Mike Fast has provided data showing that even after adjusting for ballpark and weather, his fastball is averaging just 93.6 mph this year, down from 96.1 in 2010, 95.6 in 2009, and 95.0 in 2008, and the decline appears to be accelerating in his recent starts:

Still, it's better to have contended and fallen short with a team that began the year with a $49 million payroll than to have... well, what would you call what the White Sox have done with a team that cost two and a half times as much? Flailed about aimlessly, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Chicago started the year 11-22, and even by following that up with an 11-5 run, they were a full 10 games back on May 23, when the Indians were at their zenith. They've spent exactly one day above .500 since April 12, when they were 7-4; their 14-inning win over the Indians on August 16 moved them to 61-60, but since then they've gone 2-5.

Sox GM Kenny Williams appeared to be waving the white flag on July 27, when he traded Edwin Jackson and Mark Teahen to the Blue Jays for Jason Frasor and Zach Stewart; soon afterward, the Sox embarked on a five-game losing streak against the Red Sox and Yankees that featured some of the most lifeless stares this side of The Stepford Wives. With manager Ozzie Guillen presumably providing the appropriate clubhouse pyrotechnics, they proceeded to go 8-2 against the soft underbelly of the AL—the Twins, Orioles, and Royals in three straight series—but even that has turned out to be a tease.

In all, the Sox have allowed 4.65 runs per game since the Jackson trade, well above the 3.99 they were yielding prior—if only Williams could have somehow scared up some starting pitching!—while their offense has remained parked at that latter figure, still suffering the effects of carrying Replacement-Level Killers Alex Rios (.202 TAv, −1.0 WARP) and Adam Dunn (.223 TAv, −2.1 WARP). Having five other starters with True Averages below .260 isn't helping, either.

The sad fact is that neither the Indians nor the Sox are good enough to win anything, a point underscored by their negative run differentials. According to Baseball-Reference's Expanded Standings, Cleveland is 37-26 (.587) against teams that now have records below .500, compared to 26-38 (.406) against teams .500 or better, and that's even having split 12 games with Detroit. Likewise, Chicago is 39-32 (.549) against the crud and 24-33 (.421) against the studs. The Tigers, on the other hand, have turned it up a notch against stronger opposition, going 44-38 (.537) against sub-.500 teams and 26-21 (.553) against teams .500 or better—a selection that at the moment doesn't include either the Indians or Sox. The team of Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and 23 other guys is hardly a juggernaut, but they're good enough to win this exceptionally weak division.

So aside from a few well-deserved feel-good moments in front of the Cleveland crowd, don't expect too much out of the Thome move, and don't expect any potential Kubel deal to create real drama either. The AL Central race has been decided. It was fun while it lasted, but it's all over except the shouting for the guy with 601 homers.

Thanks to Mike Fast for research assistance.  

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

Related Content:  The Streak,  Cleveland Indians,  Jason Kubel,  The Who,  Indians

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