Second Thoughts Game #104: Cleveland 5, Kansas City 7
Cleveland is now two games under .500 on the post-All-Star road trip at 4-6. While Cleveland cannot finish the road trip over .500, Cleveland nevertheless has a positive run differential on the road trip. This road trip has seen Cleveland outscore its AL Central opponents by 7 runs, and yet Cleveland’s record on the trip remains two games under .500. Run differential is a better predictor of future win-loss than win-loss itself, but ‘baseball happens’ is a rationale as apt as it is bothersome – which is the best way to explain Billy Butler hitting 40% of his season home within the span of two games in shockingly clutch fashion.
Granted, using lefty specialist pitchers against right-handed hitters might play a part in that.
The Back-End Carousel
There are, at this point, two permanent rotation members. Beyond Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, and (soon) Justin Masterson, there are three pitchers (or, loosely, five) contending for the last two spots in the rotation. Josh Tomlin was optioned to AAA after his two home run performance and within the greater context of the highest home run rates, keeping him out of the rotation for at least one more start.
Zach McAllister’s performance on Saturday, in allowing 5 ER in 4 IP, makes his rotation status far from certain, even if FIP and xFIP judge the performance closer to merely mediocre than abysmal. In allowing two walks, three strikeouts, and zero home runs, it was a net beneficial outing from a fielding-independent perspective, and the .471 BABIP by Kansas City batters was excessively and unsustainably high, indicating far less that Zach McAllister was abysmal on the night than that Kansas City batters were anomalously successful. That said, given that McAllister garnered only three swings and misses on his 81 pitches, his performance foreshadowed no imminent breakout.
Likewise, Danny Salazar starts Sunday’s game, so he is guaranteed at least one more start. So long as he restrains either his walks or home runs, Salazar’s strikeout rate is too potent to get him removed from the rotation; nevertheless, both BB% and HR% had been problems with Salazar in the past, and while Cleveland called him up because they believed at least one of the issues had been solved, walks flowed freely in Salazar’s July 22nd start against Minnesota. He’s likely to hold a spot for now, but there is no guarantee of permanence.
Finally, T.J. House and Carlos Carrasco remain marginalized names in the conversation. The former has posted exactly replacement-level performance with a 4.50 ERA and 4.70 FIP, so until such a time as Cleveland has given up on two of Salazar, McAllister, and Tomlin, or until injury strikes, T.J. House remains on the edges of the conversation. Carrasco is unlikely to regain the rotation spot that he had lost, but if McAllister, Tomlin, and House continue to struggle, it would be surprising to hear that Carrasco would be definitively ruled out.
For now, it appears that the rotation will consist of Kluber, Bauer, Masterson, McAllister, and Salazar. If 2014 has taught anything, it’s that what appears now to be the case is unlikely to remain so.
Santana’s Return to Grace
Nick Swisher started the season poorly. His offensive game lingered in Mendoza’s grisly territory for months, but given his streak of consistent seasons, a bounceback surely was inevitable.
For Nick Swisher, that bounceback has not arrived. Yet the other Indians starter who spent a third of the season under .200, Carlos Santana, has made an emphatic resurgence. While the fact that one of Cleveland’s premier offensive players is hitting .226 is as much a statement about how low-offense the 2014 game has become, Santana’s offensive ability is, once more, entirely solid. Buoyed by the highest walk rate in the majors and an unquestionable power profile, Santana’s .363 on-base percentage and .433 slugging percentage combine for a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .357; adjusting for league and park effects, this wOBA indicates Santana is a 30% more productive hitter than the average major-leaguer.
By far the most intriguing facet of Santana’s game has been his split between his left-handed and right-handed offensive profiles. Left-handed, Santana’s batting average suffers tremendously – this is due to Santana’s inexorable pull tendency while batting from the left side, meaning that teams can heavily shift Santana without serious fear of consequence. While this pull tendency greatly hampers Santana’s ability to hit for average, his left-handed power far outstrips his right-handed swing; of his 18 home runs on the season, 14 have come from the left side of the plate. As a consequence, before Santana’s Saturday plate appearances, Santana had the remarkable trait of having a wOBA of .352 from the right side and .351 from the left. In other words, despite widely divergent plate approaches for each stance, the end result has been effectively identical from each side of the plate.
Pull tendencies are not inherently harmful. Edwin Encarnacion’s resurgence is almost entirely due to his pull power, and Yan Gomes’s offensive profile likewise is defined by its pull. While Santana’s left-handed profile can be exploited with the shift far more than either of those two right-handed batters, it nevertheless serves as a reminder that hitting is not a one-size-fits-all prescription.
John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimm. He can also be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.