Old Mood: Scared Turtle
New Mood: Ambitious Intern
Chicago: Lost 15-10, Lost 8-3, Won 7-1
Boston: Won 3-1, Won 8-4, Won 1-0
Seattle: Won 12-3, Won 2-1, Today at 4:05 EST
I'm playing with reviving a format that Jay tried out two seasons ago—we'll see how it goes and what kind of timing ultimately makes the most sense for it. I like Jay's premise of writing this sort of piece every two weeks. However, I had time this morning and figured I should give it a try. Think of it as a prelude for Jay's Balls In Play piece tomorrow.
THE BIG STORY: The Indians are suddenly awesome. They've reeled off six straight wins, including a sweep of the supposedly terrific Boston Red Sox. The offense has been extremely impressive in the early going—Cleveland is fourth in the leage in aggregate run scoring (46 runs) and runs per game (5.75). The Indians .327 team BABIP is fourth in baseball entering today's game but, plate discipline gives reason for optimism: the Indians 9.9 BB% is sixth in all of baseball. Power has been lacking but should be on the way: neither Choo nor Santana has really found a groove, with Choo's .258 SLG the most obvious "Buy low!" spot on the team. In the meantime, Asdrubal Cabrera has placed two in the seats, meaning his 66% of the way to his 2010 total.
The pitching can't be overlooked. The starters have posted quality starts in 5 of the 8 matchups and Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin have combined for 20.1 dominant innings over three starts. Indians pitchers have recorded the fourth most K's in the AL, but control remains an issue with the staff's 3.5 BB/9 exceeding the league average of 3.2. Masterson's been the stopper, with two great starts and an ERA of 1.35. His splits have been bearable, with his OPS vs LHB falling to 723 after last night's shredding of Wedge's army of lefties who can't hit anyone, regardless of handedness. On the flip side, righties have posted an OPS of 349 against 'The Big Nasty', as Acta calls him.
The back end of the bullpen has been magnificent: Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, and Chris Perez, the Indians three most important relievers, are sporting a collective 0.00 ERA with only two hits allowed in 11.2 innings of work.
THE BEST THING GOING: The aforementioned Justin Masterson worked hard to try to win this title and, in nearly any other week, it'd probably be his. This week, though, featured the reemergence of Travis Hafner as a powerful and intimidating offensive force. Call it nostalgia, but 'Pronk' is the word on the the tip of most Cleveland fans' tongues.
Hafner's post-shoulder surgery career has often been maligned more than it deserves. He has, in fact, been a relatively effective offensive player when on the field—with the exception of 2008, when the injury limited him to only 57 games, Hafner has posted an OPS+ of at least 120 every year since his shoulder went pop. The problems with that are limited but major:
1. It'd be nice to have a DH who had an OPS+ higher than 120.
2. If you can't play more than 110 games, your OPS+ of 120 is of limited utility.
Hafner has started the season well in the recent past, notably in 2009 when he had a home run in three straight games in the first week and inspired Jay to write a cautiously optimistic take on a return to Pronk form. Perhaps I've lost perspective on how optimistic Hafner's past hot streaks made me but something appears different to me this year as opposed to the recent past. Hafner looks more in control at the plate than he has in years, laying off close pitches, taking pitches on the outer half to left center (see his one single last night), and absolutely punishing anything on the inner half. I watched Hafner's titanic blast on Friday with my one baseball friend—he's a former college player who grew up in San Diego playing with guys like Cole Hamels—and he immediately noted how short Hafner was to the ball and yet how much power he still generated.
Just as encouraging, Hafner has played in seven of eight games and, as some commenters have noted, he doesn't seem to be doing the constant calisthenics between every swing—he's not constantly rotating his shoulder or trying to stretch his chest out. Plus, he's doing that thing where he wears his shirt the way Don Johnson would, so that's awesome.
It's too early to know anything about what Hafner's future looks like and all historical evidence tells us to stifle our enthusiasm. Still, it's impossible to not play 'What if...?' when you see flashes of the talent that made Hafner the best hitter in the AL. Ryan nailed it in the Game Seven recap:
Most of our preseason prognostications downplayed Travis Hafner's potential contributions. The assumption was that Hafner would be just a decent hitter, not a focal point of the offensive production. What if we're seeing Hafner as he was in 2006? What if that means pitchers have to pitch to Carlos Santana? The longer Hafner mashes the ball, the less ludicrous these hopes become.
NOT AS GOOD AS IT LOOKS: As mentioned above, the Indians offense has been fueled by the simple act of getting on-base, and Michael Brantley and Orlando Cabrera are right behind Travis Hafner on Cleveland's OBP leaderboard. All three players have BABIPs over .375, unsustainably high. With Hafner, at least you can talk yourself into a fall to the .330 range, as that's where he sat in the days of his halcyon slaughtering, probably as a function of his ability to literally hit a ball through a human being.
Orlando and Michael, on the other hand, have been living off well placed singles that scoot around defenders like remote control cars. OC's major league BABIP level is well established around .290, meaning he isn't likely to continue performing at his current level.
Brantley's a more interesting case, with his supposedly extreme speed (although, honestly, does anyone ever think he plays all that fast?) making him the sort of player who's supposed to have a shot at beating back the BABIP regression monster. He's had some exceptional results doing so, like his .342 mark at Columbus last year. What will happen with Michael's balls in play isn't something we can guess, but if he keeps his plate discipline intact (4:5 BB:K this season), he should have a shot at success.
NOT AS BAD AS IT LOOKS: Choo and Santana are both elite talents who have a combined OPS of 1246 right now. That number's going to end up in the 1700 range—those two will hit, period. Similarly, Carrasco and Carmona both gained momentum in their second starts after horrendous first turns. It's likely they'll both see their season lines continue to improve.
DON'T KNOW HOW IT LOOKS: Matt LaPorta has looked out of sync nearly every time we've seen him in the majors—his body parts don't appear to be working in concert on many of his swings. However, his results thus far have been good: a 144 OPS+ and a 4:4 BB:K. Add in the home runs that he's just pulled foul (I think that number's at four), and suddenly he starts to look like a key cog. Still, he's only got two extra-base hits, and his only home run was off of a floundering knuckleballer. Defensively, LaPorta has made several nice plays and a real clunker during the ninth inning of Saturday's blowout.
THE RISKY PLAY: If you really want to come off like a water cooler genius, talk up Lou Marson, who looked like a competent batter in his one start this year, is still just 24 years old, and has a track record that suggests he can hit at least a little in the majors. If you prefer your leaps of faith to be on the pitching mound, Vinnie Pestano has been a dominant minor league reliever over the last two seasons and has a chance to seize a RHP setup job if Durbin continues to struggle and Joe Smith doesn't arrive in time to take the job for himself.
OTHER THINGS TO KNOW:
- Manny Acta is posting a photo of his victory cigar after every win. Seems like both a terrific marketing opportunity and a way to upset parent groups.
- Some Cleveland fans are still miserable, even in the midst of a six game winning streak, so keep your wits about you.
- Chris Perez is left-handed for everything but pitching. If he threw lefty, he figures he could "throw 150 [MPH]."
- From the same Bastian piece, Jason Donald will begin his rehab assignment with Akron today. It's unclear how, or if, he'll fit onto the major league roster once he's ready.
- The minor leagues have started and top Indians prospect Drew Pomeranz came out of the gate fast, striking out nine in his professional debut with Kinston. The player everyone began lusting after this spring, Lonnie Chisenhall, has also impressed early, showing off what's apparently the best hit tool in the Cleveland system.
- Grady Sizemore is still rehabbing, playing CF and leading off for Akron yesterday. His AA results indicate he's better than AA, which is reassuring. Joe Smith is there with him, carving up AA batters who are probably freaked out by Smith's delivery.