The series: Hosted the Athletics (win, win, win) and visited the Reds (loss, loss, loss). It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The Indians rode an absurd run of exceptional pitching to the division lead, devastating the A's to cap off an 8-2 run, only then to get swept by the not-really-even-kind-of-good Reds. How many weeks see a team move from 1.5 behind one team, to 1.5 ahead of everybody, to 1.5 behind a different team?
The big story: The team's most senior and best pedigreed relievers continued to fail in the 9th inning, raising the question, why are we picking our closers this way, anyway? A week ago, Betancourt followed nine innings of shutout pitching from Cliff Lee with a three-run, game-losing 10th against Toronto. A few days later, he appeared ready to repeat the performance against Oakland, loading the bases while attempting to close the door on a three-run victory. Incredibly, Wedge then pulled his closer — something he refrained from doing in well over a dozen similar situations with Joe Borowski on the mound — in favor of Kobayashi, who had "backed into" his first career save two nights earlier. Kobayashi loosed a run-scoring wild pitch but slammed the door with two strikeouts — and the controversy was on. Wedge said several guys might share the closer role until Borowski returns. Kobayashi was inserted into the next save situation a few nights later and promptly blew the game — bloop single to left, hit-by-pitch, and a three-run walkoff homer to Adam Dunn, who should have been wearing a giant cape with the words "Don't Give This Guy Anything Good To Hit" emblazoned on the back.
Many stupid things have already been written about this, and many more will be written in the coming weeks. We've already heard the brainless drumbeat starting against closer-by-committee, and no doubt much more will follow. You will hear that Bill James invented closer-by-committee (not true) and thinks it's a great idea (not true), that the Red Sox tried closer-by-committee a few years back (true) at James' urging (not true), and that that Red Sox bullpen failed (true) because closer-by-committee is such a terrible idea (not true, it was because they didn't have any good relievers).
Mind you, I don't really care for closer-by-committee much myself, but I like dumb, superstitious baseball commentary even less, and for some reason, the Holy Role Of The Closer seems to bring out the village idiots like little else. As you suffer through it, try to hold firm these simple facts:
- Betancourt has not been steady all season. When Borowski went on the DL, Betancourt had given up two home runs in his last four games. In fact, Betancourt's best stretch of the season came in the two weeks immediately following his being annointed the closer — allowing just one single (and that was the only line drive) and one walk over four games.
- Kobayashi, despite a very impressive career in Japan, is an older pitcher who has never established any level of performance, good or bad, in the U.S. And similar to Betancourt, he had given up two home runs in the five games preceding his first career Save in the U.S.
So there's no reason to think any of this has anything to do with the 9th inning being "different." We've got two veteran relievers struggling, getting inconsistent results in any inning — but we also have a number of younger relievers thriving within limited opportunities. And for whatever it's worth, Betancourt looks to have been extremely unlucky on balls in play (.380 BABIP, compared with .287 career and .240 last season) and is still not giving up any walks (only two unintentional in 72 PA).
In other news: The starters ended a historic run of more than 44 scoreless innings when Aaron Laffey threw a ball into right field while attempting to field a lame squib in front of the mound — even that it was only an unearned run — leading to the curious ESPN headline, "Indians starter gives up run". The streak spanned seven days in seven games, and over that span, the Indians entire pitching staff gave up just six runs — aside from Betancourt, only two runs over 62.2 IP, one unearned, with nine pitchers combining for an insane ERA of 0.14. Over that span, Sabathia and Laffey gave up two runs in 30 innings, and Carmona and Lee pitched 18 scoreless innings in a single day. Byrd contributed another 7+ scoreless innings, and four relievers contributed six scoreless appearances as well.
Cliff Lee ended his own historic run with his first poor start of the season, allowing more runs in that one start (5) than in his first seven combined (4) and nearly as many extra bases. Lee's historically good launch to the season got heavy press coverage, and he still leads the AL by a significant margin in both ERA and FIP.
The offense continued to struggle to stop continuing to struggle, but the problem shifted as some hitters showed some at least signs of recovering (Hafner, Garko), others showed at least an up-and-down tendency (Peralta, Dellucci), while still others displayed an increasingly chornic-looking awfulness (Cabrera, Gutierrez). Jason Tyner was ditched out of a need to summon Jeremy Sowers for a spot start. Sowers was demoted and replaced the next day by Michael Aubrey, a highly touted prospect around 2004 who has been chronically injured ever since. Aubrey made contact in every plate appearance and sent his first major league hit over the Cincinnati fence, and to nobody's particular surprise got more playing time than Andy Marte.
Post of the week: Should we talk about it?
Who fed it: Despite disappointing results, many Indians had a great week, none moreso than Ben Francisco, who piled up five singles, three doubles and a home run in just 18 at-bats, good for a 1359 OPS. Sabathia delivered the club's best start of the week and arguably the whole season, a complete-game shutout in which he faced 32 batters, only two of whom even reached second base, in both cases with two outs. Carmona, Byrd and Laffey each contributed a seven-inning gem, combining to allow only one run, one walk, one HBP and one extra-base hit (a double). Rafael Perez added four more scoreless appearances and hasn't allowed a run in more than three weeks, spanning 11 games. Jorge Julio continued his march on the Circle of Trust, retiring all four batters he faced, two on strikeouts; he's now retired 21 of his last 25 batters, allowing just two singles and two walks. Peralta chose feast over famine with a 1038 OPS, including two doubles and two home runs. Jason Tyner exceeded our wildest expectations, getting released before he could make our wretched offense any worse. Absolute Best: Francisco. Relative Best: Tyner.
Who fed it breakdown: What if Travis Hafner rebuilt his swing and nobody noticed? With half the week's games in the NL, Hafner had a limited role but still produced a home run and three walks — and in fact, he has a very healthy .318/.483/.545 — that's 1028 — over his ten games, which included seven starts and three pinch-hitting shots. It's far too soon to announce that he's back, or even to have any real optimism, but considering his OPS was well under 600 for a month of games before that, it's at least an encouraging sign. Garko, meanwhile, slugged 700 this week with two doubles and two home runs but drew no walks, and he's drawn only two walks in 75 PA over the past four weeks.
Who ate it: Gutierrez is playing himself out of a job completely, or at least into a significantly reduced role, and this week, he failed to reach base even once in ten trips to the plate, which included five strikeouts and a GIDP. His OPS for May is 328, and it's just 545 for April and May combined (that is, the whole season except for his heroic Opening Day act on March 31). Dellucci was also terrible this week, managing just a single in 16 at-bats; he's also having a terrible May (444 OPS) but at least had a good April (871). Cabrera managed just two singles in 17 at-bats (285 OPS) and is carrying a 492 OPS all the way back to April 6. Betancourt retired just one batter out of four and ominously did not appear in any other game. Absolute Worst: Dellucci. Relative Worst: Gutierrez.
Who ate it breakdown: As noted above, the weakness of our offensive attack was nowhere near as widespread this week as it was at the start of the month — the team hit just .232 and slugged .423, but if you exclude AbaCab, Gutierrez and Dellucci, the other 11 position players hit .278 and slugged .523 — more than respectable. This is not to prescribe just leaving those three out of the lineup, as this is just a tiny slice of the season. But it is nice to know that based on this past week's numbers at least, it is possible for us to field a lineup that can produce good numbers.
The other guys. false alarms and open questions: Will be posted later.