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May 17, 2009

On the Beat

Dark Clouds in Cleveland

by John Perrotto

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It's not easy to get sports fans in Cleveland upset right now. The Cavaliers have gone 8-0 in the NBA playoffs, and the city's first major professional sports championship since the Browns won the 1964 NFL title game seems to be within reach. Throw in the fact that LeBron James, the megastar from just down Interstate 77 in Akron is leading the way, and a story for the ages is in the making.

Unfortunately, the Indians provided a diversion to all of the Cavaliers talk earlier this week, and not in a good way. The talk shows and chat rooms were buzzing with angry Indians fans demanding that Eric Wedge be fired after his team was held to a total of four runs while being swept at home in a three-game series with the Tigers last weekend. The venom was so bitter that it's surprising that the domain fireericwedge.com is still available for purchase.

The Indians are 14-24 and in last place in what has been a very weak American League Central, a division that has allowed them to stay within 6 games of the first-place Tigers. Trading turns with the Nationals for the worst record in the major leagues isn't exactly what the Indians expected when the season began, however, and many prognosticators had picked them to win the division after going 34-21 in the final two months of 2008. "I don't think anyone saw this coming out of spring training," said Indians third baseman Mark DeRosa. "We felt we had a really good team that was ready to compete with anybody. We still feel that way, but it's been kind of hard to believe we've played this poorly."

The Indians' primary problem has been run prevention. They are 27th in the major in runs allowed with an average of 5.8, and their .673 defensive efficiency ranks 26th. Left-hander Cliff Lee, last year's surprise AL Cy Young winner after having spent part of the 2007 season at Triple-A Buffalo, is proving that last season was not a fluke; he has 2.1 SNLVAR. Lefty Aaron Laffey is second on the team with 0.8, but the bullpen has been so bad that the Indians moved him out of the rotation two weeks ago to lend some stability to the relief corps. It's a rare occurrence for a successful starting pitcher to be moved to the bullpen during the course of a season, particularly this early, but the move has worked. Laffey, with just a 0.199 WXRL, is already the Indians' best reliever, just ahead of closer Kerry Wood (0.196). The venerable Matt Herges, who was summoned from Triple-A Columbus, is the only other reliever with a positive WXRL at 0.130.

As has been the case since they ended their four-decade march through the wilderness of non-competitiveness and won six AL Central titles in seven years from 1995-2001, the Indians can still mash. Their 5.3 runs scored per game stands 10th in the majors, and catcher Victor Martinez, who lost much of last season after having surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow, is second in the AL with a .371 EqA, while right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, who has continued to hit following his breakout second half of 2008, has a .326 mark.

The hitting hasn't been enough to placate the fans, though. The Indians came within one game of getting to the World Series in 2007 before losing to the Red Sox in Game Seven of the American League Championship Series, but that now seems long ago to those who have been waiting for a World Series title since 1948.

The calls for Wedge's head have started, which is not a surprise, but what did raise a few eyebrows was general manager Mark Shapiro, long a staunch supporter of Wedge, stopping short of a full-fledged endorsement of the skipper. "What I can tell you is no one cares about these players and this organization more than Eric Wedge," said Shapiro. "I feel strongly he's making every effort to move this in a positive direction."

The Indians have a history of slow starts under Wedge; only once in his seven seasons have they been above .500 after games of May 31, going 33-19 in 2007. "What's troubling is it seems to happen here in April, early in the season every year," Shapiro said. "There are things we need to address, and things Eric is looking into individually, that I will look into with the front office. We do have some things we need to do differently in spring training, obviously. I'm not going to say what they are, but we need to address that and ensure that we don't dig ourselves this hole every year."

Despite having the second-worst record in the majors and the worst in the AL , the Indians are not facing an insurmountable deficit. "If we had to dig out and win 95 games to win our division, then we might have dug a hole that's impossible to get out of," Shapiro said. "We're just one good stretch from getting back into it, though I know it's easier said than done."

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Some of the more hardcore members of the sabermetrically inclined set consider Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak with the 1941 Yankees to be a random statistical occurrence, but don't try selling that line of thinking to Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

Zimmerman had a 30-game hitting streak end on Wednesday against the Giants in San Francisco, putting him just past the halfway point to Joltin' Joe's major league record. "To get a hit every single game, there has to be some luck involved, obviously," Zimmerman said. "But it's not wasting at-bats. It's not swinging at bad pitches. It's hard to put together four good at-bats every game, especially with the talent you've got on the mound. For him to do that for 56 games in a row is pretty unbelievable."

He became the 26th player since DiMaggio to have a streak of at least 30 games, and posted the longest streak by a third baseman since George Brett hit in 30 in a row for the 1980 Royals, coming within one game of the Expos/Nationals franchise record of 31 set by Vladimir Guerrero in 1999. The all-time Washington record is 33 by Heinie Manush for the 1933 Senators.

Zimmerman went 0-for-3 with two walks in the game that ended the streak. The second walk was intentional, and came in the seventh inning with the Nationals leading 2-0 after Barry Zito threw a wild pitch that put runners on second and third with one out. Zimmerman was the first player to have a streak of 30 or more games snapped during a game in which he had at least two walks since the Tigers' Goose Goslin had a 30-gamer end by going 0-for-2 with two walks against the Indians on June 6, 1934.

Zimmerman did have one more plate appearance after the intentional walk, grounding into a fielder's choice in the ninth, and he and Nationals manager Manny Acta had no problem with the strategy of Giants manager Bruce Bochy. "They're trying to win the game," said Zimmerman. "They're not trying to cater to my hitting streak. I got another chance. I got five chances to do it, in all. I missed some pitches. That's what cost me, not the intentional walk."

"You have to do it in that situation," Acta said of the intentional walk. "There was nothing bad intended. I would have done it myself."

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The Cardinals have fallen one game off of the Brewers' pace in the tight National League Central race after having held a four-game lead through games of May 2. Injuries have helped bring the Cardinals back to the pack, the latest coming this past Tuesday, when outfielder Ryan Ludwick strained a hamstring while trying to make a diving catch.

Center fielder Rick Ankiel is also on the disabled list, and right-hander Chris Carpenter has been out since straining a groin muscle on April 14, though he could return next weekend. Carpenter has made just seven starts since the beginning of the 2007 season because of injuries.

After Ludwick went down, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa called a meeting to make sure that his players weren't feeling sorry for themselves. "This is the lineup we've got, and we can win with this lineup," La Russa said. "What you do is take care of your own business. You can stop and think our chance to compete is lessened. We've got some key guys who aren't in there, but we can still compete. That's the message."

First baseman Albert Pujols has been around La Russa for nine seasons since breaking into the major leagues in 2001, and he has heard that message before. Pujols said that the Cardinals have had to overcome injuries so many times in this decade that they no longer think twice about losing players. "You keep playing baseball the way you know how to play, and win as many games as you can before those guys get back," Pujols said. "We can't concentrate on the guys who are hurt. We need to concentrate on the guys we have, and know they are going to do the best they can."

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The Pirates' Brian Bixler is a shortstop, not a pitcher. He had just swung the bat like a pitcher in his latest major league stint, which ended this past Tuesday when he was optioned back to Triple-A Indianapolis as shortstop Jack Wilson was activated from the disabled list. Bixler had 26 plate appearances during Wilson's absence, and struck out in 18 of them. According to research by BP's Bil Burke, no non-pitcher has struck out that many times in a span of 26 plate appearances in a single season since at least 1954, when records are first available.

Monty Farris whiffed 18 times in 26 trips to the plate, though his at-bats spanned the end of the 1992 season with the Rangers and the beginning of 1993 with the expansion Marlins. Bixler, who made his major league debut last season, has struck out 54 times in 146 career plate appearances. The only non-pitcher who has struck out more in a career of 150 plate appearances or less is Jackie Warner, who fanned 55 times in 133 trips for the 1966 Angels and was never seen in the major leagues again. "That's pretty hard to do," Pirates manager John Russell said of Bixler striking out in 69 percent of his plate appearances this season.

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Some interesting facts:

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Three series to watch this week:

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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