Sunday, July 29

More wildness

Apparently, Tribe manager Manny Acta does not like talking about the Wild Card.

What is the Wild Card? I don't know about the Wild Card. I'm trying to win the division.
Deep breath.

OK, Manny Acta. I like Manny Acta. He seems to have some real insight into the game and has thus far kept a club near .500 whose Pythagorean has them 13 games underwater and whose starting staff is sitting on a collective 4.86 ERA. He also seems passionate and likeable and tweets in two languages.

But this is a profoundly wrong thing for a manager to say.

Look, I understand that you want your club to win its division. No question there. But it's not as if one has to declare which postseason entry route one is aiming for. The approach the Indians would take to winning the division, namely: win as many games as possible, is exactly the same approach they would take to claiming one of the Wild Card spots. The two goals are mutually inclusive, and are means to the same end: reaching the postseason.

I don't want to hear about the Wild Card, please guys. Don't talk to me about the Wild Card until I've been eliminated from winning my division. The Wild Card should be a fallback for teams that don't win their division. You can quote me on that. Are you kidding me? Five games out and people want you to change your goals already to the Wild Card.
There it is again, this peculiar notion of changing goals. There is no goal-changing here. The goal is the playoffs and the way in is winning baseball games, although the Tribe's goal in Minny this weekend appeared to be much like an NBA team tanking for draft position. Why adopt this hard-line stance?

And yes, the Wild Card is most definitely a fall-back - no one would argue otherwise. But pretending like it doesn't exist is not a logical approach. Let's say you're Acta, and you've secured a Wild Card spot with one game remaining, that one game being against the team you trail in the AL Central chase. Let's say Justin Masterson is scheduled to start. You're not eliminated from the division, but shouldn't you at least be aware of the WC in case you wanted to save Masterson for the playoff opener? I'm just saying, keep your options open.

I'm dead serious, too. I don't want to hear another Wild Card question until we're eliminated from our division. I'm not even keeping track of that. Wouldn't it be nice if at the end of the season, you're like, 'God, I didn't win my division.' And then somebody wakes you up and says, 'Hey! Guess what? You won the Wild Card!' What? We're going to the playoffs? Champagne all over! That's the way I approach it. I'm not looking at the Wild Card. No way, Jose.
I sincerely hope that he isn't "dead serious" but rather encouraging his players to keep giving their all, not to give the appearance of giving in even the slightest. I suspect that this is indeed his goal.

But if he's really not even aware of the Wild Card standings and where the Tribe stands...well then he's just not doing his job.

Wednesday, July 18

The Indians through the 2000's

Ranking the best teams of the last decade for the Indians was probably a little more depressing than Figgs' OSU decade recap. Seriously, that was a good writeup and you should go read it again. The Indians did have a few good years last decade with 2001, 2005, and 2007 standing out specifically. 2001 and 2007 were, of course, the playoff years, while 2005 was the year where the Indians began competing again. However pretty much everything else was a letdown, with either talent wasting away on a horrible team or not playing to its potential.

The 2000's weren't quite as profitable, as the game's economic realities eventually caught up with Cleveland, and the Tribe became another small-market team trying to scratch out a living. They notched two more Central titles (2001, 2007) and came within a game of the '07 pennant, but it was not to be. Without further ado, let's rank the 10 Indians seasons of the 2000's:

1) 2007
96-66, Finished 1st in AL Central
Scored 811 runs, Allowed 704 runs. Pythagorean W-L: 91-71

Oh 2007. I’ve never experienced such a revelation about baseball as I did watching the 2007 Indians play. This team just knew how to win and did it with a balanced attack and the help of two pitchers who had very good years. C.C. and Carmona both had flat out ridiculous years. C.C. finished with a 19-7 record and 141 ERA+ and won the AL Cy Young, while Carmona posted a 19-8 record and a slightly better ERA+ of 148. Rafael Perez and Betancourt were amazing out of the 'pen, posting sub-two ERAs and 254 and 306 ERA+ respectively. Even the beginning of the Travis Hafner decline couldn’t derail pitching like that. The Tribe's "one through nine" approach to offense showed in that only Hafner (100) and Victor (114) had over 100 RBI for the season. A lot of credit is given to a 21 year-old Asdrubal Cabrera taking over second base for Josh Barfield, who was coming off a pretty good season for the San Diego Padres but struggled in a Tribe uniform. The Indians’ series against the Yankees in the playoffs might be one of my favorite baseball memories ever. Good thing I was too busy traveling for work to watch the series that followed that one.

2) 2001
91-71, Finished 1st in AL Central
Scored 897 runs, Allowed 821 runs. Pythagorean W-L: 88-74

AL Central champs. Now that’s more like it. At two games over the Pythagorean you can’t complain too much about Charlie Manuel and how his team "did good" this season. I often refer to this year as the year the Indians 90’s successes bought one more AL Central victory. Sandy Alomar: gone. Manny Ramirez: gone. Richie Sexson: gone. OK, that last one was a joke, but the Indians did pay Juan Gonzalez $10 million for a single season of service (but I have a feeling he might show up again.) Did Juan deliver? You bet he did, to the tune of 140 OPS+ and 140 RBI. Of course Jim Thome had a 170 OPS+ and Robby Alomar wasn’t too shabby either at 150 OPS+. Pitching-wise, a guy named C.C. Sabathia had a 17-5 rookie year, but after him and Colon the team of Burba, Finely and Charles Nagy might sound good but this is 2001 Nagy we are talking about. Not that you were concerned, but 2001 saw the Indians season end with a 3-2 loss to the Mariners in the AL Division Series.

3) 2005
93-69, Finished 2nd in AL Central
Scored 790 runs, Allowed 642 runs. Pythagorean W-L: 96-66

2005 was the real target contending date following the 2002 sell-off. Three years isn’t so bad, and look: the Indians finished 93-69. However, they still landed three games short of their Pythagorean expectation, which isn’t good. Two highlights on the offensive side of the ball marked the '06 campaign. Remember when Juan Gonzalez, at age 35, was slated as a starter? Yeahm one at-bat later and Grady Sizemore is our man in center field, where he still resides. The other big surprise was Jhonny Peralta’s career-high 137 OPS+. Sure, Victor and Hafner did well too, but 2005 is the year of Peralta and Sizemore. Pitching-wise, Cliff Lee’s 18-5 was pretty much the only good pitching story, until you remember that this was also that one year Kevin Millwood pitched for the Indians. Yes, Kevin Millwood had a 145 ERA+ and led the league with a 2.86 ERA. Unfortunately, the Indians weren’t helping him out much, and so he was left with a 9-11 record. Kevin must have liked not winning since he signed with the Rangers. Not too bad a year if you forgot the White Sox won 99 games this year and won the World Series which is forever immortalized on the back of my wife’s car.

4) 2000
90-72, Finished 2nd in AL Central
Scored 950 runs, Allowed 816 runs. Pythagorean W-L: 92-70

Despite finishing nine games above a .500 finish, the Indians were still a solid five games behind the evil Chicago black socks in 2000. The top two OPS+ guys that year were Jim Thome with a 132 and Manny Ramirez with a staggering 186. So what went wrong? Well, with a Pythagorean record that would only boost the club's record by two wins, not much really. Having Jolbert Cabrera appear in a hundred games probably didn’t help but he only had 187 AB. This is 2000 so if my nineties history serves me well maybe we should examine pitching. It appears that Steve Woodard had to start 11 games - that’s probably not good. This is a team that helped Dave Burba to a 16-6 record, despite a 4.47 ERA but a 110 ERA+. I think the problem was probably a) a very good Chicago team and b) after Chuck Finley, Burba, and Bartolo Colon the Indians didn’t have a number four or five starter to carry them past 90 wins.

5) 2008
81-81, Finished 3rd in AL Central
Scored 805 runs, Allowed 761 runs. Pythagorean W-L: 85-77

Coming off the highly successful 2007 season, I don’t think hopes could have been higher for the 2008 club. Offensively, this year was lowlighted by the complete collapse of Travis Hafner (.194 average) and Victor only playing 74 games. Grady was as good as he ever was with a career high 33 home runs, but even he can’t make up for what the Indians lost. Shin-Soo Choo and Kelly Shoppach did their best and the Indians did pull off a pretty good second half. However pitching-wise we’ve got another story to tell. C.C. got off to a slow start and was eventually traded to Milwaukee where he was as impressive as ever. Somehow Cliff Lee become the 2008 AL Cy Young winner with an amazing 22-3 record and a 2.54 ERA. Unfortunately Cliff represents too large a percentage of the Indians’ overall wins. Only Scott Lewis (4-0), Anthony Reyes (2-1), and Carmona (8-7) posted winning records other than Lee. Hell even Bryan Bullington was allowed to start two games for this team. The bullpen was a mess and I think I’m going to leave it at that.

6) 2004
80-82, Finished 3rd in AL Central
Scored 858 runs, Allowed 857 runs. Pythagorean W-L: 81-81

We have reached the middle years which can only mean one thing. Good Travis Hafner equals bad Indians team. To be fair, two games under five hundred is not too bad for a team that allows Scott Elarton to start 21 games. The offense was solid with names that evoke such Indians memories like Belliard (always playing a shallow right field position), Broussard (streaky but good), and Lawton (hey he finally had an OK year). Cliff Lee had a breakout season going 14-8 and Jake Westbrook went 14-9. Overall it was a nice year to feel good about. If memory serves me right this was the target year that “the Indians were going to start contending again” after the rebuilding phase.

7) 2002
74-88, Finished 3rd in AL Central
Scored 739 runs, Allowed 837 runs. Pythagorean W-L: 72-90

Hey we’re rebuilding! 2002 saw the famous Colon for Lee Stevens trade that had a few other guys attached. The good news is that trade eventually turned out well. We also get two mangers this year: Charlie Manuel (39-47) and Joel Skinner (35-41). Jim Thome put up a club-best 197 OPS+ (can someone say contract year), with Ellis Burks second best at 139. John McDonald saw action in 93 games. The real highlight probably was Karim Garcia registering 52 RBI in only 51 games. Pitching-wise, C.C. did OK with a 13-11 record. Paul Shuey pretty much was this team’s bullpen going 3-0 with a 2.41 ERA and a 182 ERA+ and that’s why we traded him to the Dodgers for Francisco Cruceta, Terry Mulholland and Ricardo Rodriguez. I always liked Ryan Drese despite his 67 ERA+ for 2002. Finally, Chris Magruder getting 258 AB is too many for any team above AAA.

8) 2006
78-84, Finished 4th in AL Central
Scored 870 runs, Allowed 782 runs. Pythagorean W-L: 89-73

One step forward and two back. After posting a 93-69 record in '05 you had to be expecting good things from the Tribe in '06. Unfortunately, the Indians decided to end the year in 4th in the AL - thank god for those hapless Royals. A 29 year-old Travis Hafner put up a 181 ERA+, Grady played all 162 games, and Aaron Boone decided to suck. Fausto Carmona finishing with a 1-10 record for the year might be an indicator of some of what went wrong in '06. The '06 Tribe was simply too thin in pitching, particularly out of the bullpen, though four out of the five starters posted winning records, barely. Westbrook 15-10, C.C. 12-11, Lee 14-11, The Cobra 10-9 and actually in 14 games started Sowers posted a 7-4 and 125 ERA+. You might be wondering why 2006 is so low on my list. Eleven games under Pythagorean should be all I have to say.

9) 2003
68-94, Finished 4th in AL Central
Scored 699 runs, Allowed 778 runs. Pythagorean W-L: 73-89

2003 was the first season of recently-departed manager Eric Wedge. Five games under Pythagorean might be what should be expected from a rookie skipper. Some dude named Milton Bradley lead the team with a 147 OPS+ and some guy named Brandon Phillips had a 48 OPS+ after 370 at bats. Ellis Burks was still on the team? David Riske had a ERA+ of 192, wow. Anyway 2003 is a lost year forget about it, never happened.

65-97, 4th place in AL Central
Scored 773 runs, Allowed 865 runs. Pythagorean W-L: 73-89

In 2009 the Indians became part of baseball trivia when the two pitchers who had won the previous two AL Cy Young awards faced off in the first game for the World Series. Obviously not with the team with which they won those awards. If you thought pitching was tough to come by in 2008, the 2009 squad gave up over a 100 more runs and scored 32 fewer runs. So yeah a worse record was in order. Cliff Lee was traded because, well, we didn’t need him to finish third or fourth in the AL Central. Offensively Hafner made a comeback but still only played 94 games. Victor also didn’t make it above 100 games because . . . he too was traded. Hell this is pretty much the dregs. I fully expect the Indians to be better in 2010. . . I have to.

Monday, July 16

Wild-card wouldas

As you may know, Major League Baseball has added a second Wild Card for both the AL and NL this year, expanding the post-season field from 8 to 10 teams. Like any such change, the move has its proponents and its detractors. Some like the challenge of qualifying for the postseason in a sport where fewer teams make it; others like the notion of keeping more teams in a pennant chase deep into the summer.

I don't have a strong opinion either way on this matter. The first Wild Card was and remains a smashing success for the game - anyone who argues otherwise now is delusional. But I think maybe it was an appropriate place to stop - few baseball fans want the game to turn into basketball or hockey, where half (or more) of the clubs qualify for the playoffs. I'm not saying those models don't work for those games - the NHL and NBA playoffs are tremendous - just that there's a reason why baseball has a 162-game schedule. On the other hand, as a fan of the small-market Cleveland Indians, I recognize that the change is much more likely to benefit my club as an underdog sneaking in than it is to hurt them as a titan being upended by the fifth AL team sneaking in.

Some have suggested that the rich teams are more likely to snap up the extra postseason berths, and that may be true, but I thought hey, just for fun, let's see who would have grabbed the second extra slot in each league since the 1994 realignment.

Editor's note: I have the leagues backwards in 1996 and don't feel like going back and revising it.

It's actually not a bad variety of teams, not dominated too heavily by any one club. In the AL, over these 17 seasons, 11 teams (of the AL's 14) would have qualified in years they otherwise did not (yes, I know things might have played out differently had the second Wild Card actually been in place). Only the Royals, Rays, and Orioles wouldn't have been helped out. Mariners fans might have seen postseason baseball in as many as four additional seasons, and our Tribe would have qualified in both 2000 and 2005.

Recently, though, the economics of the AL have started to shine through, as the huge-spending Yankees, Red Socks, and Rangers would have gobbled up the past four extra slots in addition to the tournament spots they already monopolized during that time. Prior to that, though, three straight AL Central teams laid claim to the bonus Wild Card.

Although the AL is regarded as more of a financial and on-field hegemony than the Senior Circuit, only 9 of the NL's 16 teams would have benefitted from this year's rules change. The Cardinals, Pirates, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Cubs, Marlins, and Brewers would have all failed to slip in that final spot, though all of them (except of course the Pirates) have appeared in postseason play over the past decade.

I'm sure the game will be fine either way - the second Wild Card isn't necessary and is a pretty obvious TV grab, but perhaps it will make for some additional compelling hardball. Looking back on past data, it seems that the extra playoff slot was well-distributed in each league, but unfortunately also shows that the rule would lately have been a rich-get-richer scenario and robbed decent fans of the joy of the years when Boston and New York stayed home for October.