June 22, 2005
Wednesday EditionCleveland Indians: Who'd have guessed that exiling a first-ballot Hall of Famer could spur a team to such success? Eddie Murray might have been the fall guy for the Cleveland Indians' limp offense, but his dismissal was hardly a surprise. It was June 4, and the team had lost four straight games to rivals Minnesota and Chicago. A hapless team effort of .244/.308/.400 prompted the Indians' decision.
The next day, a man named Derek Shelton poked his head into the visitors' clubhouse door at US Cellular Field. And something happened.
Since that day, Cleveland's 11-3 surge has been spurred by an offense that's averaged 6.5 runs per game. There are several turnarounds at play.
Aaron Boone, whose profoundly meager bat had begun to soften a few hearts in Boston, perked up when the change was made:
AVG OBP SLG Under Coach Murray .160 .211 .259 Under Coach Shelton .333 .400 .646If you think that's hot, behold the wrath of Grady Sizemore:
AVG OBP SLG Under Murray .271 .307 .422 Under Shelton .407 .465 .625Sizemore is finishing his Pipp job of Juan Gonzalez, having also withstood the May 18 return of Jody Gerut. The lineup's other prominent up-and-comer, Jhonny Peralta, is slugging over .500 and his EqA of .293 licks that of his predecessor, Omar Vizquel (.269). Add in league-average defense at shortstop, and the 23-year-old is putting himself in fine company.
Gerut, who thrashed International League pitchers during an extended rehab stint, was another jolt to the lineup--especially since his arrival effectively benched Casey Blake.
Before and after Gerut's return:
AVG OBP SLG Blake, before 5/18 .197 .302 .385 Gerut, since 5/18 .295 .375 .410Cleveland's pitching staff is third in baseball with a 3.65 ERA. The bullpen's 2.58 mark is easily the best in the game, and when your posse's weakest link is the AL saves leader, you're probably in good shape. The stellar bullpen features seven men with ERAs no higher than 3.15. Interestingly, four of those seven--Bob Howry, Rafael Betancourt, Scott Sauerbeck and Matt Miller--first joined the Tribe on minor-league contracts. Bear in mind that Cleveland's bullpen had a 5.20 ERA at the All Star Break last year; the only new faces this season are Rhodes and Sauerbeck. A good bullpen really can be assembled at a low price.
Furthermore, the rotation has taken a modest step forward despite the DL stints of C.C. Sabathia and Kevin Millwood. Sabathia and Jake Westbrook, All-Stars in 2004, have each been satisfactory. But Millwood's renaissance and Cliff Lee's breakout have fortified this rotation, and the currently healthy quintet has posted an ERA of 3.99. As Mark Shapiro's primary free-agent acquisition last winter, Millwood signed for one year and $7 million. His deal is structured to allow up to 20 days on the DL before he starts gradually missing out on a portion of his paycheck. (Funny, isn't it, that his absence lasted exactly 20 days?) Apart from that, he's enjoying a terrific season:
Millwood ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9 90th percentile PECOTA 3.55 7.1 2.7 0.9 Actual 3.34 7.3 2.6 0.9
Lee ERA K/9 BB/9 HR/9 90th percentile PECOTA 3.35 7.9 3.4 1.1 Actual 3.33 6.7 2.5 1.0With the offense finally clicking, the pitching will now have to hold up in order to climb closer to the Twins and White Sox. Assuming Chicago cools off their 111-win pace, can the Indians capitalize? Several BP authors picked Cleveland to win the Central, and while an imposing 10.5-game deficit looms, the adjusted standings offer hope to Clevelanders. And while it's easy to forget, there's no rule requiring the AL Wild Card to come from the East.
St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals are famous for their modern-day Murderer's Row: Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Reggie Sanders (hitting a robust .290/.356/.555 with 13 stolen bases in 2005), Jim Edmonds, and the relative newcomer, Larry Walker. It's a vicious lineup when all cylinders are firing, but lately that's been fairly infrequent.
Rolen has been battling knee and back problems all year, but it was a sprained shoulder that put him on the DL for almost 40 days. In his absence Abraham Nunez played a passable if unexceptional third base (.283/.349/.354 in 31 games and 109 plate appearances). Assuming that Rolen would have played those 31 games at his current line of .248/.333/.453, the difference between the two players, according to MLVr, is a cumulative 3.1 runs. If Rolen was playing at his PECOTA Weighted Mean projection of .293/.386/.545 the difference jumps to a more significant 8.2 runs, or over 8/10ths of a win. In a tight race, over a full season, this type of injury could be a difference-maker, but with the way the Cardinals are bludgeoning the rest of the NL Central it's not all that important. The goal right now is just to make sure that Rolen is healthy for the post-season. Remember that according to Clay Davenport's fantastic Playoff Odds Report, the Cardinals are a 94.2% lock to make it to the post-season. They'll want the entire lineup healthy in October so as not to repeat last year's heartache.
Edmonds' "rib contusion" was re-diagnosed as a hairline fracture over the weekend, and the extended delay in getting him back into the lineup now makes a lot more sense. Swinging a bat or playing center field just plain requires you to use your rib cage, and until his side is less painful, Edmonds isn't going to push it. The latest news is that Edmonds will not be flying back to St. Louis for a special examination with team doctors and was able to complete nearly a full session of batting practice, which are both good signs. So Taguchi has taken the lion's-share of CF starts in Edmonds' absence, but Skip Schumaker also slipped in there for a game.
"Who," you ask? Schumaker was a 5th round pick out of UC Santa Barbara in the 2001 draft (Go Gauchos!). He's fast, which hasn't been too helpful--Schumaker is a horrible base stealer (career professional numbers: 60 stolen out of 100 attempts). Schumaker's best skill is his center field defense; his hitting record through his first three seasons confirmed suspicions that he would develop to be no more than a 5th outfielder type in the majors (career through the end of 2003: .270/.343/.346). Then out of nowhere he took a huge leap forward in Double-A in 2004, finishing the season with a line of .316/.389/.419. Almost all of the improvement came from an increase in batting average, so we were not optimistic about his chances in last year's BP annual. In Triple-A in 2005, in 239 plate appearances, Schumaker saw his batting average and on-base percentage fall back to his career levels (.286/.332) but kept most of that moderate pop (.406 slugging, .120 isolated power). Interestingly enough, he didn't hit any triples in that partial season, so no part of those power numbers is artificially inflated by his speed. We still think Schumaker is no more than a fringe major leaguer, but if he's really able to put together an average on-base percentage with a little bit of pop, he might someday grow into something a little more useful.
The sixth best hitter in that Cardinals lineup according to VORP is not who you might expect. With a cumulative line of .343/.378/.571 in 37 plate appearances, Jason Marquis has racked up 8.9 runs of hitting VORP. Those figures make Marquis the best hitting pitcher in baseball by a huge margin. The first runner-up, Javier Vazquez, has ridden a Bank One Ballpark-assisted .240/.323/.357 line to 4.3 runs of VORP. Marquis is no stranger to the top of the "Best-Hitting Pitchers" list: last year his .292/.289/.375 line netted him 11.5 runs of VORP and another first place finish.