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May 6, 2007

Every Given Sunday

Central Obsessions

by John Perrotto

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  • One of the many sabermetric truisms that Bill James uncovered when he was publishing his Baseball Abstracts in the 1980s is that teams who fail to live up to their Pythagorean record in one season tend to be much better the next, and those who overachieve one year tend to underachieve the next. In other words, everything tends to even out over the long haul in baseball.

    Thus, that might be the most logical explanation of why the Cleveland Indians are 17-10 and in a virtual tie for first place with Detroit in the American League Central after the season's first five weeks. After all, no major-league team undershot its Pythagorean record like the Indians did last year by going 78-84 instead of the 89-73 record that their averages of 5.4 runs scored and 4.8 runs allowed per game suggested.

    In contrast, the Indians' simple stats for 2007 certainly don't look like those of a team on top of what is generally considered baseball's toughest division. The Indians went into the weekend ranked in lower half of the 14-team AL in ERA (ninth), batting average (10th), and fielding percentage (14th). However, more tellingly, they were fifth in the league in runs scored, sixth in runs allowed, and currently they rank 19th in defensive efficiency. Those aren't great figures, but they are better ones.

    Individually, none of the Indians are having a monster season. Designated hitter Travis Hafner is the only position player in the top 15 in VORP in the AL, ranking eighth at 13.6. Meanwhile, no starting pitcher is among the top 30 in VORP. While right-handers Fernando Cabrera (fifth, 7.7) and Rafael Betancourt (14th, 5.0) both are in the top 20 in the AL in ARP by relievers, closer Joe Borowski ranks 179th of 197 with a -3.6 mark. Roberto Hernandez, like Borowski signed as a free agent in the offseason, is 187th at -4.8.

    So, just how do you explain the Indians' rise top? Though the Indians are such a statistically savvy organization that they hired Keith Woolner away from Baseball Prospectus this past week, manager Eric Wedge talked more in intangibles than integers when asked for the secret to his club's success. "It's really been about a group of guys playing team baseball," Wedge said. "We don't have anyone having a career year to this point. There hasn't been one specific player or part of the team that has been carrying us. We just have a team full of players who are doing what it takes to win on a night-in and night-out basis. These guys really understand the game. They have a really good sense of the tempo of the game, that's kind of hard to explain in words or numbers. They just have a sense for doing whatever needs to be done at a certain point in a ballgame. ... This is team whose confidence keeps growing with each win. Every night, we go out on the field and expect to win. It's been a great thing to watch to so far this season."

    A choppy early part of the season has certainly represented a challenge. After opening the season with a three-game series against the White Sox in Chicago, the Indians were snowed out of their first three home games against Seattle and were forced to move a three-game series against the Angels from Cleveland to Milwaukee because of the snow. "There's a lot of adversity in this game," said Casey Blake, who has been filling in at third base with Andy Marte on the Disabled List; initially Blake was splitting time between first base and right field. "It wasn't the ideal situation for us in April with the weather but what are you going to do? Pout and not show up? No matter what the temperature is, it's the same for both teams. We battled through it. I think that says a lot about these guys."

  • The Chicago White Sox were also expected to be strong contenders in the AL Central this season, but have struggled as their hitters have had trouble getting into a groove this season. The White Sox are last in the AL in scoring, averaging just 3.9 runs a game. Since losing designated hitter Jim Thome to a strained ribcage muscle, they have scored only 13 runs in six games. "If (the other) guys were hitting the way we think they can hit, we wouldn't miss Thome," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen told the Chicago Tribune. "But we do miss him because we (aren't swinging) the bat well at all. Right now, because we're not hitting, we desperately need him."

    Guillen is hopeful that Thome will return Wednesday, the first day he is eligible to come back off of the DL. Thome is hitting .340/.553/.680 with five home runs and 10 RBI in 19 games this season.

    Speculation has started in Chicago that hitting coach Greg Walker's job may be in jeopardy. White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko, though, thinks General Manager Ken Williams would be making a big mistake if he axes Walker. "If Walk and (computer analyst and hitting assistant) Mike Gellinger weren't here, it would be worse for me," Konerko said. "Anything I've done over the past three or four years is because of Greg Walker and Mike Gellinger. When it flows, it will flow.''

    The stats might support Konerko's assertion. So far, the White Sox are hitting in an awfully lot of tough luck, as their BAPIP this season is a weak .240, easily the worst mark in the major leagues, and 24 points lower than St. Louis, another notably disappointing team.

  • There comes a point in some players' careers when it just makes sense to give up on the idea of switch-hitting. Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Wilson Betemit seemingly has reached that point. Betemit has hit .275/.350/.447 in 626 career plate appearances against right-handed pitchers in his career. Against lefties, those numbers drop off the cliff to .216/263/.324 in 192 plate appearances.

    While Betemit has hardly hit anything from either side of the plate this season, his futility swinging from the right side has reached new lows-in 16 plate appearances against lefties he's at .067/.125/.067. In 59 plate appearances against right-handers, he is hitting a less-disappointing .167/.356/.286.

    Yet, Betemit refuses to concede that maybe he should become a full-time left-handed hitter. "I know I can hit against righties and lefties," Betemit said told the Los Angeles Daily News. "But if you don't see lefties, how are you going to hit lefties? But I can't control the situation. I'm just trying to do whatever I can to help the team win."

    Ultimately, Betemit might best help the team win by taking a seat on the bench if his bat doesn't warm up, as he has been losing playing time to Ramon Martinez and Wilson Valdez recently. "Eventually, we're going to need a little bit more from him," Dodgers manager Grady Little conceded.

  • Juan Castro certainly isn't ever going to threaten Craig Biggio's record for most times hit by a pitch in the modern era. The Cincinnati utility infielder has stepped to the plate 2,327 times in his 13-year career and has yet to get hit by a pitch. That is the most plate appearances by any active player without being hit. Only five other players in history have had more plate appearances without getting beaned: Mark Lemke (3,664), Joe Start (3,583), Bill Bergen (3,228), Davy Force (3,081), and Bob Ferguson (2,419).

    Castro doesn't like to think about his streak, though. "As soon as I talk about it, I'll get drilled," he told the Dayton Daily News.

From the rumor mill: New York Yankees manager Joe Torre got a vote of confidence from owner George Steinbrenner this past week, but it still seems he is just another losing streak away from being fired. Don Mattingly shifted from hitting coach to bench coach this season, and is almost universally considered next in the line, although there is some thought that Joe Girardi could wind up as manger if Torre is fired during the season. Girardi won the National League Manager of the Year award in his rookie season with Florida in 2006 before being fired and winding up in the Fox and Yankees' broadcasting booths this season. And if the Yankees choose to go for a famously aggressive alternative, Yankees third base coach Larry Bowa enters the picture. Bowa previously managed in San Diego and Philadelphia, and was nothing if not controversial. ... The New York Mets are exploring their options at second base now that Jose Valentin is on the Disabled List for what looks to be an extended period with a knee injury. One possibility is Jose Castillo, who has fallen far out of favor in Pittsburgh and is now a seldom-used utility man after spending the previous three seasons as the club's starting second baseman. ... Speculation is mounting that Seattle is ready to swallow hard and release right-hander Jeff Weaver after his going 0-5 with a 15.35 ERA after five starts. ... Right-hander Brian Lawrence is drawing plenty of interest on the free-agent market despite being released by Colorado after his going 0-2 with an 8.69 ERA in three starts with Triple-A Colorado Springs on an injury rehabilitation assignment. Detroit is reportedly at the head of the list of suitors. ... Kansas City is willing to trade outfielder Emil Brown, who led the Royals in RBI each of the past two seasons, now that top prospect Billy Butler has been added to the major-league roster. ... Boston could be in a position to trade a pitcher once the Red Sox deem left-hander Jon Lester ready to be promoted from Triple-A Pawtucket. Nearly all of the Red Sox's potential excess pitchers are out of minor-league options, which means that one of left-hander J.C. Romero and right-handers Joel Pineiro, Kyle Snyder, and Julian Tavarez might be dealt. ... Contrary to some speculation, Oakland is not looking to trade oft-injured pitcher Rich Harden. ... Tampa Bay's idea to move the three-game series with Texas from May 15-17 to Disney World isn't looking too good-only about 3,000 tickets have been sold for each game so far.

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

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