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May 7, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Cleveland Indians, Montreal Expos, Seattle Mariners

by Baseball Prospectus

Cleveland Indians

  • Positive Signs: The Indians started off this season almost as badly as their mates here, but then knocked off four straight against Baltimore and Boston before a Wednesday loss. Pleasant surprises have included the performance of lefty Cliff Lee who has gone five games, though not very deep into them--only 28.1 innings--hasn't allowed a home run yet, and in his last three games struck out 17 in 18.1 innings. Lee is a 6'3" guy with a rare repertoire for a pitcher of his size. He gets batters out with movement and his wicked slider more than sheer speed, and his success is a testament to the Indians' ability to look at what their prospects can do, rather than fixate on trying to get the big guy to throw 97 and close. Lee was part of the deal with the Expos that brought in Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips and (cough) Lee Stevens in exchange for Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew.

    Meanwhile, catcher Victor Martinez is creaming the ball: .286/.364/.519 (through Wednesday) and looking like the stellar catching prospect that we saw in him back in the day. Like Lee, Martinez is just 25 and part of the Indians youth movement that could build the next contender. Martinez also got some national attention when he hit a two-run home run in the first inning off of Curt Schilling on Monday that stood up in a 2-1 win. These two are backed up by Travis Hafner, who's mashing at a .313/.417/.550 rate (through Wednesday). Even big Hafner booster fan club members from way back ("We Haf a thing for Hafner") look at that and have to admit he's due to come down to earth, soon.

    Phillips, former second baseman of the future who after his promotion caught fire and then crashed into a toxic waste dump inside an abandoned insane asylum/execution chamber built on the site of an ancient Indian pet cemetery, is quietly hitting .362/.451/.507 in Buffalo. While the total lack of power is a little concerning, it's nice to see him hitting the ball and taking walks. Phillips aggravated a left hamstring strain and is expected to sit for a few days.

  • Everything That's Old is New Again: Russell Branyan debuted in Cleveland in a promising 2001 campaign at 25. He did what he'd always done--struck out a lot, walked a little, and hit for crazy power. In 2002 they ran him out of town when he couldn't cut down on the Ks or defer to hitting coach Eddie Murray. After two years injured and in Cincinnati, he's back, and Eddie Murray's still the hitting coach. Branyan's one of the wildest projections I've seen PECOTA, our forecasting system, spit out:

    10th percentile: .153/.252/.249
    90th percentile: .277/.384/.620
    Weighted Mean: .234/.340/.479

  • Hidden Indicator: Jake Westbrook's been a tweener for a while now. He's always had good stuff but never enjoyed great success, and he's flipped back and forth between the rotation and bullpen the last few years. Well, he's back in the rotation after his duel with Schilling, which lowered his ERA to an eye-catching 1.32. Let's take a closer look at that game:
    
                    IP      BF      H       BIP     H%      BB      K       HR
    Schilling       7       28      7       20      35%     1       6       1
    Westbrook       6       26      6       21      28%     2       3       0
    
    

    Both of them used 103 pitches. Schilling threw 71 strikes, Westbrook 60. Westbrook's starts haven't been all that impressive: he's kept both strikeouts and walks down, which isn't a good long-term bet for success. While this outing was nice, it was only notable because he won and a high-profile ace did not.

    Westbrook's best performance has been forgotten. In a stunning outing in front of 13,650 fans in Detroit, Westbrook relieved Jeff D'Amico when D'Amico gave up four runs without recording an out. Westbrook threw seven innings of perfect baseball, striking out seven--one an inning--and walked no one. (That outing was part of a hidden perfect game he was able to cobble together.) While he was pitching, his team came back to tie the game, but the relievers after Westbrook gave up six runs and lost the game. This next week and possibly two will see manager Eric Wedge pick two of Jason Davis, Jason Stanford and Westbrook, and Westbrook's experience working out of the bullpen might push him out of the rotation even if his statistics are comparable.

Montreal Expos

  • Eyeing History: Through 28 games--17.3% of the season--the Expos are still on track for one of the worst seasons in baseball history. They may be the worst offensive team in recent years, as detailed in this column by Derek Zumsteg last week. What you may not know is that the Expos were shut out for 32.1 consecutive innings, which is almost historic. From Orlando Cabrera grounding out after a Jose Vidro sac fly in the April 11 loss to the Mets all the way to Tony Batista's leadoff home run in the second inning of a 4-2 loss to Philly on April 16th, the Expos didn't cross the plate once.

    Courtesy of retrosheet.org, the top five longest scoreless streaks ever:

    
    Team Inn       Start           End
    PHI N  43     5-18-1983       5-25-1983
    HOU N  43     7-13-1985       7-20-1985
    CHI A  40.1   5-21-1968       5-26-1968
    PHI N  40     5-28-1979       6- 1-1979
    CHI A  38.1   7-21-1968       7-24-1968
    ATL N  38.1   5- 7-1985       5-13-1985
    
    

    OK, six, but they were tied for fifth. Interestingly, these weren't all terrible teams. The '83 Phillies went 90-72 and won the National League. The '85 Astros went 83-79. So you can just get unlucky. But it's still easier if your team stinks. The Expos' 32.1-inning streak ties them at 24th all-time, alongside the 1974 Orioles, the 1978 California Angels, the 1991 Yankees, and...surprise! the 1972 Expos.

  • Expos Win! Expos Win!: Les Expos scored 16 runs in their two wins Sunday and Tuesday (before getting shut out Wednesday), after averaging an anemic 1.96 runs a game in their first 25 games of the year. Key to the two-game surge: Sunday it was Cabrera, who went 3-4 with a home run and a walk; Tuesday it was Endy Chavez, 2-4 with a walk and a homer, Vidro 2-4 with a walk and a homer, and Terrmel Sledge, 3-4 with a homer. Moreover, the team drew nine walks in those two games, compared to just 55 in their other 26 games.

  • Down on the Farm: Outfielder Ryan Church is tearing up the Pacific Coast League. The outfielder's hitting .380/.477/.606 through 20 games and is fifth in the league among regulars in minor league equivalent average at .376. His major league EqA of .305 would be the best on the big club by a mile. Church plays a passable center field and can rake righties, though he's struggled against lefties in his professional career. He's 25 this season. If he keeps hitting, the team's not going to have much choice but to swap him out for the light-hitting tandem of Peter Bergeron and Chavez.

  • That's a Lot of Lineups: Frank Robinson had used 25 lineups through the team's first 26 games. An interesting Aim for the Head article covered the topic of same-lineup frequency a few years ago, though you could have guessed that a different lineup 25 out of 26 times puts the Expos on pace to break more records; at this rate they would barely edge out the 1985 California Angels, who used 155 lineups in one season. There is a very weak correlation between fewer lineups and winning, but as Keith Woolner put it:
    ...the cause and effect are important to consider: teams that are healthy and winning have less incentive to voluntarily change lineups, since what they are doing is working. It's the teams who are losing who might as well try something different, from changing the batting order to taking a look at some prospects. Injuries will force any team to adapt. Mostly, though, strong teams lead to using fewer lineups, not vice versa.

    The Expos are not a strong team right now.

Seattle Mariners

  • Waiter, There's a Fly in My Soup. Here's $20, I'm Looking Forward to the Entrée: Mariner General Manager Bill Bavasi decided this week to exercise a team option on manager Bob Melvin's contract for 2006, two years away. Bavasi said that this was not a response to recent criticism of Melvin and rumors that the manager's job as in jeopardy, but instead that Bavasi had finally had enough time to watch Melvin and make an informed decision. After just over a month of regular-season games, Bavasi guaranteed that Melvin would be paid for 162 games of work two years in the future. The Mariners stand at 10-17 through Wednesday's games.

  • America Can and Must Blow up the Moon: Local newspaper polls asking their Web site visitors what's wrong with the Mariners point a collective finger at the pitching and offense. But are either to blame for the team's record?

    Offense: This team's hitting .254/.324/.377 and scoring 4.1 runs a game (112 runs in 27 games). Last year the team hit .271/.344/.410 and scored 4.9 runs a game. Ow.

    Pitching: A little harder to jigger, but they're striking out .64 batters/IP, walking .39 batters/IP, and allowing .13 home runs/IP. The 2003 staff struck out .69 batters/IP, walked .32 batters/IP and allowed .12 HR/IP. So that's pretty much the same.

    Defense: The team is tops in fielding percentage with a sparkling .990 (thank you, generous Safeco Field scorer) but STATS Inc.'s Zone Rating has them in the middle of the pack. Last year they were tops in fielding percentage with a sparkling .989 (thank you, generous Safeco Field scorer) and STATS Inc.'s Zone Rating had them rated as the top team in baseball. Defensive Efficiency--a measure of how good the team is at converting balls in play into outs--shows the team declining from last year's heights to a mid-pack position as well.

    One of Bill Bavasi's stated off-season objectives was to give up some defense in exchange for some offense. It would appear he has accomplished half of that goal.

  • Buy My Tickets...Suckers!: It's hard to gauge attendance this early in the season, because the park draws better later and the Yankees haven't shown up. It seems, though, that some fans are just as interested in watching a team that's not in the pennant race but still features family-friendly players who star in humorous commercials. Last year in late April the Mariners hosted the Indians in a mid-week series that drew around 26,000 a game. And in 2002, the team drew about 36,000 fans a game for a mid-week series with Toronto May 7-8. The team announced attendance Tuesday night of 32,727, though it didn't appear that all 32,727 were in their seats or even at the ballpark. Predictions that Mariner fans would desert the team at the first sign of weakness have not been borne out, though we'll keep an eye on the attendance picture as the year goes on.

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