Thursday, April 1


Even with the Cavs headed for what we all hope will be a long, successful playoff run, I'm still very much looking forward to the start of the Cleveland Indians' 2010 campaign. It's 60 and sunny outside on a beautiful day to close out the 2010 edition of March, and suddenly days and nights spent at Progressive Field don't seem so far away.

I'm not going to go through the trouble of a whole season preview, since many writers with more insight and time than me have already done so. I will, however, express some optimism about this year that maybe not everyone else shares. For starters, the latest computer projections have the Indians landing somewhere in the vicinity of .500. After last year's 68-94 debacle, doesn't that seem like fun? Plus, when you consider the razor-thin margin between a winning club and a losing club, is it so impossible to think that maybe five games will break our way and we'll wind up 86-76 and sneak into the playoffs? Weirder things have happened.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm aware that the Indians aren't a great team. They should score quite a few runs. They look to have some powerful arms in the bullpen that could make it a team strength, but bullpens are notoriously fickle entities. But the starting pitching rotation is just too riddled with question marks to consider the Tribe as an AL Central frontrunner. Doesn't mean we can't have fun!

I'd like to now respond to a couple of articles I've recently read on The Cleveland Fan about the Indians, which I think are too critical of our Tribe and, more specifically, of 1st baseman Russell Branyan. I know Rusty rubs a lot of people the wrong way. I'm fully aware that he strikes out too much. But you simply can't let that obscure your judgement of him as a player if you want to present yourself as someone who analyzes the game and its players fairly. Branyan is not, and won't ever be, a star, but he can be a valuable presence in a team's lineup.

As weird as it sounds, I think strikeouts are underrated by a lot of the people who blast Branyan. To hear his detractors, you'd think that he strikes out every time up and does nothing of all at value at the plate. These people conveniently ignore his .331 career on-base percentage (essentially league average) and career 113 OPS+. By comparison, league average OPS+ is of course 100; Grady Sizemore is sitting on a career 124 and Derek Jeter is lifetime 121. Still think Branyan doesn't have any value at the plate? There's nothing to suggest that his hitting skills have dropped off either - witness his 31 homers last year and .347 OBP. Not too shabby. I will grant you that he has a history of injury problems; if you make one argument against Rusty's signing, it should be that one, borne out this spring in Goodyear. I'll also agree that he's a bit below average defensively. But it's not good sportswriting to just sit there and rage against his K's and simply discount everything good he does.

This perspective led me to e-mail Brian McPeek, a writer whose work I enjoy and who I have on occasion debated points with, in what I hope is a mutually respectful manner. He didn't hit me back with a response this time (we all get busy, I'm not criticizing!), so I thought I'd just go ahead and use this forum because I like some of the points I made. The first part of my mail was about the Indians in general:

In response to this line in your [McPeek's] Weekend Wrap [he's expressed gloomy Tribe pessimism in like three straight of these]:
"Can anyone reason me (not wishes and ifs now) off my thoughts that we’re looking at anywhere between 90 and 102 losses this summer?"

Well, Paul Cousineau (of the legendary DiaTribe) posted this in his article yesterday: "it should be noted that the new PECOTA projections have the Indians finishing at 79-83, tied for 3rd with the Tigers and 2 games out of 1st place in the Central, and CHONE’s most recent projections have the Indians finishing at 82-80, 2nd in the division, 4 games back in the Central. "

Those projections are based on facts and data (not wishes and ifs!) and tend to be as accurate as one could reasonably expect, so I think 90-102 losses seems overly pessimistic. Mediocrity is well within our grasp. Go Tribe!

Then I took issue with his take on Branyan:

Also, I thought your treatment of Russell Branyan this week was unfair
and not very well-reasoned. A couple of points:

- I would imagine that a "plateaued" rehab is one that has gotten better to some degree and then leveled off in terms of improving [McPeek wrote derisively and incredulously of Branyan's self-description of his "plateaued rehab," which seems somewhat self-explanatory]. Did you really not understand this? I had knee surgery a year ago; it got better up to a point, maybe 90-95% of what it was, and has plateaued and isn't improving further. I can still run on it pretty well.

- I fully agree with you that his injury history is a reason to be concerned about this signing. [I grant points when they're well-made]

- Calling him "The Human Windmill" and writing "I hope the kool-aid drinkers enjoy Branyan’s 10-12 tape measure home runs this season. Chicks dig the long ball. The Indians just consistently overpay for it" is entirely misleading. Yes, he strikes out a lot, but it's irresponsible not to mention the value he brings. Why write "10-12" tape-measure home runs when he had 31 last year? That's not fair, nor is characterizing people as "kool-aid drinkers" who can find value in Branyan's performance. Last season in 116 games, he on-based .347, well over the league average of .336, and had an OPS+ of 128, which would have placed him 2nd on last year's Tribe behind only Choo. Lots of K's for sure, but he gets on base and hits for considerable power. Kool-aid drinkers like me would enjoy such production.

- Writing that "This was as dumb a move as this front office has made in years" is the sort of thing one should wait to do AFTER his time with the club, or at least maybe after he's played a game. Consider: we're only on the hook for one year at $2 million for a player who would have been one of the team's top hitters a year ago - doesn't
seem such a bad deal to me at the moment. Even if he never plays a game it's better than the Kerry Wood signing

Cheer up! Go Tribe!

Then we have TCF stalwart Gary Benz, another writer whose work I respect but sometimes disagree with. Take, for example, our discussion this past Browns season about his ridiculous claim, after the Browns lost to the Lions by one point on the road on a crazy play, that the game established the Browns as the NFL's worst team "in a walk" and somehow settled a debate about the two teams' merits...from the previous season (in favor of Detroit, who went 0-16). My point, that the Browns-Lions contest in no way established any separation between the clubs, would have been valid even if the Browns hadn't finished the year with 5 wins to Detroit's 2 and a -130 point differential to the Lions' -232. Anyway, Benz has also weighed in harshly and unfairly against Branyan.

The Indians’ lone free agent acquisition of note this past off season was Russell Branyan. The only reason it’s even of note is not because Branyan has anything approaching a credible major league career but because his signing marks the return of sorts of a prodigal son.

But even that signing has been nothing short of a disaster thus far. Branyan will start the season on the disabled list with a bad back that he’s trying to rehab instead of fix through surgery. Even if/when he comes back, his contributions will be minimal at best.

The "anything approaching a credible career" is just flatly wrong, for reasons I've explained before. He's not a Hall of Famer, but not even approaching "credible"? 164 home runs, 113 OPS+, .331 OBP, in a career spanning 12 seasons and 882 games? Come on, that's a credible career by any reasonable standard. Just because you don't like the guy striking out, don't compromise your objectivity.

Second, "his contribution will be minimal at best." will be minimal at worst. that's what "minimal" means. "At best" would be something like, I don't know, the 31 home runs he put up last year, which were certainly not minimal. One might even call them...credible.

Come on fellows, let's have some optimism about our club and it's players! Go Tribe!


Nick said...

I don't understand all the pessimism on the Tribe. With the way MLB is set up, we can't expect them to compete every year, so all I really ask is that they aren't embarrassing, and that I have a reason to watch all year long. Even if things head south in a hurry this season, at least we'll be seeing young players develop who will hopefully build the new core of a team that can contend for several years starting in 2011 or 2012.

I have to wonder if all this Tribe hate is just hangover from the disappointments of the last two seasons. Shapiro has taken a ton of heat this year, some of it deserved. Still, the guy had us within a game of winning the Series just over two years ago (yes, the Tribe would have dispatched the Rockies), so calling for his head and trashing his regime is really bush league. Many things haven't panned out exactly as Shapiro had hoped, but I think he's developed a pretty good model for the Tribe to compete as a small market team.

I like to judge sports decisions based on whether or not I'd make the same decision over again given the information available at the time, and most of Shapiro's moves make sense. I don't agree with all of them, but at least I can see a process at work that I agree with on a big picture level. People need to be careful what they wish for, because we could do a lot worse than Shapiro/Antonetti. Just ask those who root for the Royals, or the Pirates for that matter.

Ernest said...

Yeah, I don't get the obsession with strikeouts as some ultimate negative trait for a hitter.

Hitting into a double play is always twice as bad as any strikeout.