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July 13, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

Cleveland Indians @ New York Yankees, 7/10/05

by Jonah Keri

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Randy Johnson has become a spectacularly ordinary pitcher, highly hittable and lacking the blow-you-away fastball that was once the hallmark of his greatness. Of course if teams let him off the hook the way the Cleveland Indians did Sunday, it may not matter.

Time and again during Sunday's tilt between the Indians and Yankees, Johnson got into trouble. The Indians started each of the first five innings with a runner on base. Johnson's fastball kept catching the middle of the plate, leading to several booming hits into the gaps. But just when the Tribe looked ready to blow the game open, they'd blow it by hacking at fastballs up and out of the zone, the only kind Johnson could throw by anyone. That impatience, along with Johnson's still-lethal slider, some Indians base-running blunders and some Yankee luck, combined to keep the Bombers in a game they should have lost early on. Here's what transpired:

We're joined by Ken Singleton--an excellent broadcaster dating back to his days working alongside Dave Van Horne in Montreal--and Dave Justice, who may be the worst baseball broadcaster in America. Justice leads off by telling us how Johnson has come into his own in his last few starts. Indeed, the numbers support Justice's claim, as Johnson struck out eight and yielded just two runs in seven innings his last time...except he yielded 18 runs in his previous 14 2/3 innings. Johnson heads into the game with an excellent 109 to 23 strikeout-to-walk ratio, albeit with a lower strikeout rate than is usual for him in 121 2/3 innings pitched. He's also proven to be far more hittable, yielding 124 knocks and an alarming 19 homers. While a .313 BABIP explains much of the hit total, the homer count, combined with watching just a few Johnson innings, seems to suggest he's catching a lot more of the plate with his pitches, while lacking the velocity he once used to overwhelm hitters. He's facing an Indians lineup that's started to hit in recent weeks after a slow start by nearly the entire team.


Indians

CF Grady Sizemore
LF Coco Crisp
DH Travis Hafner
C Victor Martinez
RF Casey Blake
1B Jose Hernandez
2B Ron Belliard
SS Jhonny Peralta
3B Aaron Boone

Travis Hafner came in riding the majors' longest on-base streak (36 games), while Victor Martinez, Coco Crisp and Jhonny Peralta have also turned it on lately. Grady Sizemore jumps all over Johnson's first pitch--a low-90s fastball right down the middle--for a hard double to right. Sizemore, who doesn't turn 23 until next month, has racked up an impressive .285 EqA, heading an Indians order that figures to be potent for years to come. The trade of Bartolo Colon for Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips ranks as one of the best prospect bounties ever snagged at the trade deadline. While Phillips hasn't yet panned out, Sizemore and Lee have established themselves quickly and could soon develop into front-line players.

Justice wastes little time coming back with some more nails-on-a-chalkboard "analysis." First, he makes no comment about Sizemore's scorching double--jumping straight into Johnson's stats as if on auto-pilot. Then, after Crisp strikes out on a high, outside fastball out of the zone, Justice offers this: "I'm really surprised that Coco Crisp didn't do any bunting there. You want to get on the board early against Randy Johnson, you're not going to get many opportunities. When you get a chance, you want to make him pay." Really, Dave? A lefty hitter just smoked Johnson's first pitch for a double, Johnson hasn't been the Johnson of old for most of the season, the Indians have the middle of the order coming up, it's the first inning, the Yankees are one of the best run-scoring teams in the game, and this is the time to bunt? Cool, just checking.

After a nasty slider low and off the plate causes Hafner to whiff for strike one, the next slider proves flat, as Hafner whacks it off center fielder Melky Cabrera's glove for a double, with Hafner taking third on the throw home (Sizemore had stopped, thinking the ball was going to be caught, then ran through a stop sign to score). Martinez then smacks a hard shot to third on another fat fastball, but the ball goes right to Alex Rodriguez for the out. Johnson's approach to Casey Blake underlines his new strategy. He's using fastballs to set up hitters early in the count, hoping they'll offer at high ones they can't handle. Late in the count, Johnson will then go to the slider, which burrows so deep beneath right-handed hitters' hands that it's almost unhittable. Blake works the count to 3-2, only to be caught looking when a Johnson slider catches the plate instead for the strikeout.


Yankees

SS Derek Jeter
2B Robinson Cano
RF Gary Sheffield
3B Alex Rodriguez
LF Hideki Matsui
1B Jason Giambi
DH Ruben Sierra
C John Flaherty
CF Melky Cabrera

Hideki Matsui's hitting .450 with five homers over a five-game hitting streak heading into Sunday. After a slow start, he's combined with Gary Sheffield and Rodriguez to form the best 3-4-5 combo in the majors:

TEAM    VORP
NYA    122.2
CHN    118.5
FLO    97.7
CLE    96.8
SLN    89.1
ATL    87.8
HOU    83.7
LAN    82.3
CIN    78.5
TEX    77.2
BOS    72.4
PHI    71.7
WAS    67.3
BAL    66.3
DET    64.9
PIT    63.0
MIL    62.3
SEA    61.6
ARI    61.6
NYN    58.5
MIN    57.9
ANA    56.1
KCA    51.6
COL    45.1
CHA    44.5
OAK    43.7
SFN    43.5
TOR    39.0
SDN    34.9
TBA    16.1

Jake Westbrook is on the mound for the Indians. A sinkerballer who rarely strikes hitters out, Westbrook is at his best when batters pound the ball into the turf all day. He'd love this first inning: Derek Jeter 1-0 groundout back to the mound. Robinson Cano 0-2 groundout to second (it's a mystery why Cano and his .316 OBP are batting second in a loaded lineup like this one, instead of, say, Jason Giambi and his league-leading OBP--though maybe we shouldn't be surprised, given how managers too often pick their #2 hitters). Sheffield 3-2 groundout to third.

Jose Hernandez, starting at his fourth different position this year and continuing his very effective utilityman/lefty-masher act, starts the 2nd with a single to center on another unimpressive Johnson fastball--if it's not above the belt and outside, hitters are going to jump all over it at this stage. Ron Belliard hasn't gotten the memo, though, striking out on a too-high fastball as Hernandez steals second. But oh, that slider. Down 2-1 to Peralta, Johnson throws a frisbee under Peralta's hands for a big whiff. Another tough slider barely gets fouled off. A show-me fastball runs the count to 3-2, before Johnson comes back with a rare slider breaking away from a righty hitter--strike three...

...and then Boone destroys a juicy, first-pitch fastball for a long RBI double to left, 2-0 Indians. To Sizemore: slider strike, fastball ball, slider strike, slider strike three. Notice a pattern here?

The bottom of the second shows the fine line sinkerballers must walk to succeed. After Rodriguez makes it four straight weak groundouts to start the game, Matsui hits a slow hopper to Belliard, one of the worst fielders at the deuce in the game. Belliard's slow charge and inability to get off a throw allow Matsui to beat the play. Giambi then wisely lays off an array of sinkers to draw a walk. With two on, Westbrook starts nibbling, working Ruben Sierra away, away, away and running the count full in the process. Westbrook's full-count fastball misses, and suddenly what looked like another easy inning has become a big problem. First pitch to the next hitter John Flaherty is an absolute gift, a get-me-over fastball right down the middle. Flaherty hits it pretty well, but only manages a sacrifice fly to center. The overmatched Melky Cabrera then taps a groundout to first to end the threat (it's early, but it looks like the Yanks will have to trade for an outfielder, because Cabrera's either not ready, not good enough, or both). What could have been a huge inning quickly dissolves due to the Yankees offering no threats at the bottom of the order.

Potpourri time:

  • Westbrook at the All-Star break: 19 starts, 115.2 IP, 108 H, 11 HR, 34 BB, 69 K, .267 BABIP, 6-11 W-L, 4.51 ERA. Compare that to last year, when Westbrook put up nearly identical peripherals plus a higher BABIP of .277, but went 14-9 with a 3.38 ERA. Aside from showing the unreliability of both won-lost record and even ERA as a predictor of future performance, Westbrook's results also underscore how tough it is to thrive consistently as a sinkerballer in the bigs. Brandon Webb went from being one of the best pitchers in baseball in his rookie year to leading the league in walks because people stopped swinging at the sinker. Derek Lowe's ERA jumped nearly two runs from 2002 to 2003; though his home-run and walk rates swelled somewhat from one year to the next, the 50 more hits allowed in 16 fewer innings did him in, following Lowe's rabbit-foot .238 BABIP showing in '02. Performances rise and fall based on the smallest events, like a hitter barely laying off at the last second, or a few more balls scoot through the infield for hits.

    Steven Goldman interviewed Tommy John (one of the best sinkerball pitchers of all-time and an accomplished pitching coach) recently at Old-Timers Day at Yankee Stadium and asked him why, in this era of high home-run totals, more pitchers don't throw sinkers. John interrupted Goldman and said that's what it's all about: "Sink, sink, sink, sink, sink."

    When healthy, Kevin Brown has shown an extended run of dominance with the pitch. But he's the exception, not the rule. Webb, Lowe and Westbrook, perennially the top three GB/FB pitchers in the majors, go into every season hoping karma intervenes and keeps those four-hoppers in the infield. Bottom line: It's hard to throw a hard, sinking fastball with control and succeed with it every year. Really hard.

  • Though the Indians trail four teams in the AL Wild Card standings, BP's Postseason Odds Report gives the Tribe the best shot at winning it, at 25.6% (the Twins are second at 13.3%, the Yankees fourth at 8.1%). A big part of that projection owes to the Indians' schedule, the easiest of all the contenders as they face the weak underbelly of the AL Central numerous times down the stretch. Meanwhile check out the Yankees' assignment right out of the All-Star break: four at Boston, three at Texas, four at the Angels. Ouch.
Crisp opens the third inning with another first-pitch, ringing double, a blast to left-center that would have gone out in almost any other park, but instead bounced against the 399 sign at Yankee Stadium. The Indians trail only the Green Monster-aided Red Sox in AL doubles. Hafner taps an inside slider to Giambi for the first out, moving Crisp to third. Wait for it...there, Justice is ready: "That's a nice job by Travis Hafner. You're only going to get so many opportunities to score off Randy Johnson. You've gotta try to put as much pressure on..." ...as possible, yes, we know, Dave...wait, what's that? "But so far in this outing Randy's not as sharp as he was in his last outing against Baltimore. Many more pitches out over the plate." When ex-players become broadcasters, are they sent to the Ned Flanders School of Re-Neducation to have mindless mantras pounded into their heads? It's like Justice is watching the game, deep down he knows Johnson is being crushed, but some great cosmic force is compelling him to play the productive outs card. Martinez grounds to third with Crisp forced to hold, and Blake pops out. No doubt the Indians should have squeezed with their cleanup hitter.

No scoring in the bottom of the third. Hernandez makes a great diving play, then later runs his streak to seven straight hits off Johnson.

Top of the fourth, Hernandez draws a leadoff walk, then Belliard picks on another flaccid fastball for a single to right to put men on first and second with no outs. The Indians then either miss a hit-and-run sign or Hernandez is confused, as he takes off for third and gets gunned down by Flaherty by a mile. With two outs, Belliard tries to steal second, only to see Flaherty gun him down to end the inning. The Indians do execute a hit-and-run to perfection later in the game. Justice must be loving the effort, right?

Not quite. Starting the bottom of the fourth, Justice notes how Westbrook has frequently given up two or three runs in a game this season, so why not try to get him four or five runs to take some pressure off. "Why wouldn't you try to manufacture runs with a team like the Yankees against you?" Actually they are trying to manufacture runs, and it's failing miserably.

Matsui reaches on a leadoff error. Then Giambi, who's turned what looked like a disastrous season into a great .322 EqA campaign, blasts a two-run shot to right, giving the Yankees the lead. Somehow this qualifies as an I-told-you-so for Justice, because he's harping on run manufacturing even more. Please, YES, put Goldman in the booth, or Jim Bouton, Don Zimmer, Big Daddy Kane...anyone but Justice.

The Indians tie it up in the top of the fifth, reaching base for the fifth straight inning as Boone slams another first-pitch fastball for a hard single, goes to third on a hit-and-run knock and scores on a Hafner sac fly. Johnson squirms out of the inning when Martinez's deep drive to right backs Sheffield up to the wall, where he makes the catch for the final out.

Westbrook quickly comes undone, though, through a familiar pattern. Jeter and Cano tap out harmlessly for the first two outs of the fifth. Two nibbling walks to Sheffield and Rodriguez open the door for Matsui, who puts the Yankees ahead for good with an RBI double. After a Giambi walk loads the bases, Westbrook again works Sierra away, away, away. After four straight pitches that either nip or miss the outside corner, Westbrook goes back to the well. Knowing the outside pitch is coming, Sierra leans over the plate and dumps a single to left--6-3 Yankees. The Bombers tack on three more, Wayne Franklin becomes the latest Yankee reliever to fail and draw Gotham boos, and Mariano Rivera buzzes through six straight Indians hitters for a perfect two-inning save.

This game taught us that a few things have changed. Johnson's no longer the dominant force he once was, now forced to rely more on his slider and guile. Sizemore, Crisp and other young players are maturing into strong complementary parts to help the Indians make a run at the playoffs.

But some things apparently never change. The Yankees can still mash, but have no center fielder. Rivera's still untouchable. Sinkerballers still walk a daily tightrope. And Dave Justice is an injustice to broadcasters everywhere.

--

The next Prospectus Game of the Week will see the Angels take on the Twins, Sunday July 17, 2 p.m. ET (Channel 738 for DirecTV subscribers). Joe Mays battles Steve Undecided as the Halos play Rotation Roulette at the break.

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

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