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The Indians are the poster child for wild inconsistencies in the young 2006 season. At times they appear as an offensive juggernaut with a talented rotation and bullpen, and at other times they look like they are fielding a low-level minor league team, at least defensively and on the mound. They have had early season struggles before and finished strong–although they missed the playoffs–in 2004 and 2005, so the start this year is not that much of a surprise. What is a surprise is how they have gone about getting to where they are.
Last year, the Indians were one of the top defensive teams in the league, finishing in a tie for second overall in Defensive Efficiency with the World Champion White Sox, behind only Oakland. This year is a different story, as they are ranked 18th overall, .024 defensive efficiency points behind last year’s mark. There was no turnover on the roster defensively except for replacing Coco Crisp with Jason Michaels, and that has made a difference so far this year, although it is not entirely to blame. Let’s take a look at the Rate2 figures for each position in 2005 and 2006.
Position 2005 Rate2 2006 Rate2 C 99 88 1B 98 97 2B 106 87 3B 98 83 SS 108 120 LF 105 97 CF 100 105 RF 103 89
There are drops in production at almost every position, many of them quite significant. At second base, Ron Belliard went from having a rare positive defensive season in 2005 to one below his career averages in 2006. Losing Crisp has hurt defensively thus far in left, and Michaels has not hit as well, either. Aaron Boone looks terrible defensively using both Rate2 and Zone Rating. These defensive issues have plagued a starting rotation that has enough trouble already. Here are the Batting Averages on Balls in Play for the five starters from 2005 and 2006:
2005 BABIP 2006 BABIP Kevin Millwood .286 C.C. Sabathia .267 Cliff Lee .282 Jake Westbrook .292 C.C. Sabathia .294 Paul Byrd .286 Scott Elarton .274 Cliff Lee .327 Jake Westbrook .291 Jason Johnson .354
Although there do not appear to be any pitchers with a great deal of aid from the effects of BABIP on the 2005 squad outside of Scott Elarton, the 2006 version has two pitchers getting pummeled. Jason Johnson has never been an incredible starter, but his Peripheral ERAs are usually around the league average, so it is safe to assume the defense is somewhat responsible. Cliff Lee is an important piece in a rotation that relies on depth, and BABIP seems to be ruining his season as well. To be fair, he has allowed 10 home runs in roughly 70 innings, so it is not entirely the defense’s fault.
The Indians offense is producing at essentially the same rate as last year’s club, with a team EqA of .272 compared to last year’s .269. The lineup may need to step up its production though, as Casey Blake‘s .304 EqA is not going to last and has already fallen immensely from where it stood just two weeks ago.
Jason Michaels is a better hitter and a better defensive player than he has shown himself to be so far this year, so there may be improvement in store in left. Right field is quickly becoming a position of weakness again though, as Blake’s EqA fell 34 points in two weeks’ time. Something needs to be done about Aaron Boone, but Andy Marte may not be the answer everyone was initially seeking. With both the powerfully built White Sox and Tigers in front of them already, the Indians are going to have to surge forward just like last year if they plan on sticking around for October. Considering the defensive problems, inconsistency and sloppy play they have exhibited all too often in 2006, the chances of that happening certainly seem dimmer than usual.
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Did anybody see this happening? Sit down, Dan, it’s just an expression. It’s a good question: which is more surprising, that the Rangers are leading their division, or that they’re doing it as much with pitching (6th in the league in ERA) as with their offense (7th in the league in runs scored)?
Although the Rangers have traditionally been creatures of their home bandbox–from 2002-2005 their home record was 180-144 against 131-193 on the road–this year they have been road warriors. The Rangers have won 17 of 27 games as the visiting team, while playing one game under .500 in Arlington. They have the second-best ERA in the league while on the road, and the third-best OPS. With the rest of the AL West floundering, the Rangers have opened up a four-game lead toward their first postseason appearance since 1999.
All very impressive, but the question is: can they keep it up? We’ve got good news and bad news…
Good News–Ian Kinsler: The Rangers took the lead in the AL West despite starting second baseman Ian Kinsler missing six weeks with a dislocated thumb. Since Kinsler returned to action, the team has won nine of thirteen contests, with Kinsler himself going 10-39 with two walks, a double, and four home runs.
Bad News–Mark DeRosa: One reason that the Rangers didn’t miss Kinsler during his absence was the amazing play of Mark DeRosa. DeRosa has pretty much defined the term “journeyman” in his career, with a .699 OPS entering the 2005 season. Right now, his OPS stands at .940, with a notable 15 doubles in 34 games played this season. This level of hitting isn’t sustainable, although the team is acting like it is, starting DeRosa in right field now that Kinsler’s healthy again.
Good News–Hank Blalock: After a season to forget in 2005, and an off-season of trade rumors, Blalock has sprung back to form, hitting .308/.382/.477. There are some bits of bad news here, though, as Blalock’s defense has regressed (8 errors, 87 Rate) and his prominent home/road split remains in effect (.921 OPS at Ameriquest Field vs. .776 on the road).
Bad News–Gary Matthews Jr.: The last time Notebook checked in with the Rangers, we talked about Brad Wilkerson taking over for the rather unimpressive string of center fielders Texas has deployed over the last ten years, a long list ending with career fourth-outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. It’s now June, and the Rangers’ center fielder is…Gary Matthews Jr. Wilkerson’s been a decent enough left fielder–his .274 EqA is right around his 40th percentile PECOTA projection–but Matthews has been phenomenal with the bat, putting up a .318/.380/.547 line, good for a .302 EqA in 216 PA. Like DeRosa, it’s good that Matthews has performed well, but it could get ugly if and when his bat crashes back to earth.
Good News-The Bullpen: So far, the Texas bullpen as a unit hasn’t looked too good, 11th in the league in WXRL. However, new closer Akinori Otsuka has been impressive–the ninth-best reliever in the league, both by WXRL (1.719) and ARP (8.9). Ron Mahay (1.10 ERA, 6.7 ARP) has been good, and Antonio Alfonseca (4.60 ERA, 2.4 ARP) has been solid. The Rangers’ closer coming into the year, Francisco Cordero, cratered with a horrifying April that left the righthander with an 11.45 ERA. Since then, he’s straightened himself out with a 1.89 ERA since May 1, and his peripherals have remained strong throughout. With Cordero back in the swing of things, the Rangers’ bullpen is far more fearsome than it looks from the overall season data.