The series: Visited Texas (win, loss, win, loss) and Detroit (win, loss, loss, win), hosted Minnesota (win, loss, win) and San Diego (win, loss, win).
But first, an editorial note: This piece and the two that will follow pick up the threads of the Week In Review series that ran here for the first nine weeks of the season. Since the last installment on June 2, the season has changed dramatically. I never lost interest in keeping up with Week In Review, but I had to put it on hold because of other significant demands on my time. I love this format, but it is frankly a bit time-consuming to put these together Going back to do piecemeal recaps at this point may seem like an odd idea, but it's something I've decided to do for all the same reasons I started doing the Week In Review — to give the season a little more clarity and structure, to put it into chapters.
At any given moment, we tend to be viewing the season mostly in two timeframes — the first being the last 48 hours, today's game and maybe yesterday's, and the whole season cumulatively from the beginning. The most accessible stats we look at reinforce this point of view — all the main stat pages are showing season-to-date, and we check out the box score to see what happened. In doing so, we miss a lot of the ebb and flow of the season for the team, and especially for individual players. We patch together vague narratives later on, much of it from inaccurate memories — "Peralta was blocked by Cora," "Francisco was amazing last year" — only occasionally making note of anything in a context larger than a day or two, and missing many in-season developments entirely.
I starting writing these Reviews to see better the season that was developing for each individual player, and I'm as interested as ever in doing that. The first nine installments focused not so much on an exact week as on two series, or six to eight days. This installment and the next will each focus on a two-week, four-series period. The one after that will cover three series, ending at the All-Star break, today. I believe I will go with the three-series format for the second half of the season; in general, the format has seemed still a little too micro to really see trends well. We'll see how it develops — and I apologize in advance if the dissection is depressing.
The big story: The Indians' injury problems went from bad to worse, led by the startling news on June 2 that Jake Westbrook would be returning to the DL just days after making a solid return to the rotation. By June 7, the news got much worse — Westbrook would undergo Tommy John surgery, missing not only the rest of the 2008 season but as much as half of the 2009 season as well. Westbrook had signed a three-year contract extension in March 2007, at $33 million the largest contract ever awarded by the Indians at the time. He ran into injury problems almost immediately but returned last July with a huge flourish, finishing with the fifth-most innings pitched and seventh-lowest ERA in the league in the second half. Coming into 2008, we were regaled with reports of a new pitch and improved velocity, and scouts wondered aloud if the sinkerballer might take his game to a higher level at age 30. Westbrook did pitch well in April, but his injury dashed completely all those raised expectations, and the Indians have now lost his services for solidly half of that new contract's three years.
In other news: Asdrubal Cabrera mercifully and belatedly was demoted to Triple-A, where he probably should have started the season, and where he almost certainly would have started the season had he not gone an improbable tear after being promoted into the heat of the 2007 pennant race. His demotion created an opportunity for Josh Barfield — our erstwhile and bored/untalented second baseman, who certainly had not been forcing the club's hand with his Triple-A performance (.255/.297/.382, 4.7% walk rate). Barfield responded by going 0-for-6 — he put the ball in play all six times, so you could argue he was just unlucky — before breaking his finger, giving him a very well-paid trip to the big-league DL.
That same day, Victor Martinez was also put on the DL — also mercifully and also belatedly, in that he'd been hitting terribly for nearly six weeks and (let's all say it together) hadn't hit a home run all season. Three role players emerged and not only filled the shoes of the injured players, but far exceeded the production we'd been getting from those players before they went on the DL. Shoppach, Carroll and the newly healthy Shin-Soo Choo — essentially taking over playing time from Martinez, Cabrera/Barfield and Hafner — each posted an OPS of 1000 or better over these 14 games. Reliever Rick Bauer, catcher Yamid Haad and infielder Jorge Velandia, previously known to Indians fans as guys they'd never heard of, joined the big-league roster to play dominoes with Marte.
We drafted some guys with really interesting names — Chisenhall and Cord, "Jeremie Tice" and "David Roberts" — and though our first three picks were age 19, 17 and 20 on draft day, some people still screamed that the Indians were being "too safe" or "wrong" or "not adhering to Baseball America rankings" — or something or other. Experts, experts everywhere, whatever are we to make of all of this expertise?
Back in the majors, in general, the pitching slumped and was uncharacteristically carried by the offense in these series. So while the pitchers posted a 5.68 ERA, including a few critical late-inning blowups by the bullpen, the hitters amazingly posted the feel-good, Garko-in-a-good-year line of .294/.364/.468. That 1,088-run pace allowed the team to tread water over a period in which the rest of the AL Central was essentially doing the same — Minnesota and KC dropped a few games but held their places in the standings, while the other three clubs each won eight. The AL Central was still very winnable, and if you squinted enough, you could still see a bruised-but-not-beaten Indians club actually winning it.
(Who fed it and Who ate it are after the jump.)
Who fed it: Though he only started half of these games, Shoppach should be recognized for giving the kind of performance that can save a season. With the Indians losing one of its best hitters from an already unsteady lineup, and having struggled himself of late in a part-time role (he slugged .097 over the prior four weeks), Shoppach responded by giving the club huge production out of the catcher's spot, slugging .741 — and he basically kept the barrage going for another three weeks after these games. Sabathia was the only starter not to put up at least one truly awful start, struggling a bit in a difficult game in Texas, then throwing a complete game shutout against the Twins, and finally a ten-K eight-inning effort against the Padres; cumulatively, he allowed 7 ER in 23 IP, with 23 K, 4 BB and zero HR.
Choo jumped right from the DL into regular playing time, and he rewarded the club with a stunning .342/.435/.658 output, one of many young hitters to explode upon hitting the 25-man roster this season. Carroll rode a 16-for-36 streak to an even 1000 OPS, Sizemore (1091) hit five home runs against the Twins and Padres, and Blake (935) started to put up his best month of the season. Kobayashi gave up a slim 8th-inning lead in Detroit but otherwise was excellent, giving up just one run (and only two line drives!) in his other nine innings of work. Elarton was very effective in long relief, facing 24 batters over three games and allowing just two singles and three walks. Absolute Best: Shoppach. Relative Best: Choo.
Who fed it breakdown: Craig Breslow turned in the month's most stellar run of relief performances, pitching six scoreless innings with five strikeouts, allowing just three singles and a walk — only he did this for the Twins, not for the Indians. Never given much opportunity to do anything right or wrong for the Indians, Breslow was designated for assignment and lost on waivers at the end of May, one of more 15 roster moves related to Indians relievers over a two-week period. Breslow retired 33 batters for the Twins before allowing a single run, yielding only three singles and two walks over his first eleven games — and he stranded all six baserunners that he inherited in those games, too. But hey, at least we made room for Rick Bauer, which obviously was important.
Who ate it: This stretch of games included six full-on trainwrecks in terms of starting pitching, but only Jeremy Sowers was uniformly bad. In two starts, he only allowed two walks and two home runs, but he barely lasted four innings each time, and he got hit at a .390 clip for a 1091 OPS-allowed, giving up 9 ER in just 8.1 IP. Peralta decided to stop hitting home runs (0) or drawing walks (2), which left him with a 484 OPS over the two weeks. Betancourt gave up 7 ER in two of his more impressive late-inning disasters in Texas and Detroit, but he seemed to steady himself with four scoreless outings after that. Mujica memorably loaded the bases to set up an RBI walk and a grand slam in the 10th inning of a tie game; he allowed four doubles and three home runs over 8 IP for a 10.13 ERA. Not to be outdone, Tom Mastny barely made it to the second inning and allowed five runs in an emergency spot start, his only appearance in the majors over a two-month stretch.
Garko flourished in Texas with a .550 average but had no extra base hits, then went 3-for-12 with two home runs in Detroit, then hit .217 with no extra-base hits against the Twins and Padres; he walked exactly once in each series. Victor exited weakly with a 557 OPS over this stretch, and after hitting .366 through April, he hit .216 in May and June with a 552 OPS; his secondary numbers were weak throughout. Asdrubal's numbers in his last week before being demoted (.154/.313/.231) were essentially the same as they'd been since April 27 (.146/.255/.202) — but you have to hand it to the kid, how he continues to draw so many walks (better than 11%) while hitting a buck-fifty is beyond me. Absolute Worst: Mujica. Relative Worst: Mastny.
Who ate it breakdown: Lots of things have gone wrong this season, but even though it was only one game, few things fit the phrase EPIC FAIL better than the start given to Tom Mastny on June 3. Westbrook returned to the DL and made a solid start on May 28, and it was later reported that he'd felt some pain the following day. Club officials were concerned, and all they had to do as an insurance policy was hold Sowers out from his June 1 start, so that he'd be available in a pinch. But they let Sowers go ahead with that June 1 start, and so when Westbrook went on the DL on June 2, the team had no real starting pitcher to ready to go his place on June 3.
The Indians gave the "start" to reliever Tom Mastny, who despite an inconsistent track record in the majors had a few notable clutch performances on his resume — a particularly impressive extra-innings performance in the ALCS, and taking over short-term as the team's closer in August 2006 — and consistently impressive numbers in Buffalo. Starting a reliever isn't unprecedented, and the job is easily defined: First and foremost, last as many innings as you can so as not to overwork the rest of the bullpen — and if possible, don't give up too many runs. Teams have won games with dumber plans than this, but the point of the relief-start isn't entirely to win, it's to make sure the team isn't handicapped with a trashed bullpen for the half-dozen games.
Charged with this critical but not incredibly challenging task, Mastny delivered the worst performance of his career — allowing five runs on six hits, three walks and two home runs, all while retiring only four batters for an OPS-allowed of 1992. Worse yet, he left seven innings to be pitched by his fellow relievers — eight innings if the Indians were to be in a position to win, not that was an issue as it turned out. One could argue that Mujica's five-run, 10th inning blowout was worse than this — and Mujica was worse in a strict ERA sense, and Mujica did directly lose that game. The difference is that Mujica was given a tough job — keep a good offense from scoring at all — while Mastny's task should have been easier. Had he allowed three runs over four innings — or even four runs over three innings — we wouldn't have had anything to be upset about. All he had to do was be kind of crappy but not too brief — and he failed completely.