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Second Thoughts Game #36: Indians 6, Rays 3

Second Thoughts Game #36: Indians 6, Rays 3
Mike Aviles is congratulated after he pounds out a key three-run homer. (Photo - AP)
May 10, 2014
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The lead-up to the 7 PM contest between Cleveland and Tampa Bay saw the Cleveland sports Twitter cosmos was astir regarding a rather different team. In the aftermath of drafting a certain Mr. John Paul (a pope, possibly, or a papal candidate) as well as the news of a possible suspension to a star wide receiver, frantic emotions defined the zeitgeist - the roller-coaster trajectory to the Indians 6-3 win was no less viscerally gripping.

Corey Kluber, the winning pitcher on Friday, was no exception to this same feverish emotionscape. He almost smiled.

Yet whereas certain facets of Cleveland sports life are taken for granted - a Cleveland star being potentially sidelined, starting pitching doing well - other facets are entirely new, a departure from our norm - drafting, for interest, an extremely glamorous footballer.

Friday's game also signaled departures from many of the team's seasonal norms and  narratives on offense - good and bad.

The Ascent of the Whiff

The usefulness of statistics, of course, stems from their disregard for context. Statistics challenge our frequently emotion-driven fan evaluations. According to these same statistics, before Friday's game, Cleveland was one of the best teams in terms of their plate discipline by nearly any metric chosen. 

Category Rate ML Rank
Swinging Strike 7.40% 29th
Out-of-Zone Swing% 26.70% 25th
Contact Rate 82.10% 5th
Walk Rate 9.70% 5th
Strikeout Rate 17.60% 26th

Source: FanGraphs

According to nearly any metric used, and entirely contrary to all Twitter posts during the team's losing streak, the Indians had actually been quite good through Friday, ranking high in positive plate discipline statistics, and ranking low in negative plate discipline statistics. The team does have it's high-strikeout players - Yan GomesNick SwisherRyan Raburn, and Michael Bourn - but those four, going into Friday's game, were the only ones on the team with a strikeout rate above the league average. Barring Lonnie Chisenhall, whose K% was exactly league average, all other Indians' position players still on the roster had strikeout rates below the MLB league average. This directly countermands the narrative that the team was not playing with solid fundamentals at the plate, whereas it is decisively the case that the Indians' plate discipline is well above average.

Yet on Friday, the lingering narrative cropped up once more - not merely in perception, but in dismal, strikeout-filled reality. On a night wherein every Indians hitter appeared to be Mark Reynolds, Tampa Bay starter Jake Odorizzientered the game with an above-average 8.46 K/9 IP but a well-below-average 4.55 BB/9 IP; nevertheless, Odorizzi fanned eleven Cleveland batters in 5 innings, racking up 16 swinging strikes over 101 pitches - a 15.8% Swinging Strike rate, double the Indians' total up until today.

Odorizzi's 5 innings and 13 strikeouts illustrated two critical points for Cleveland.

First, Friday demonstrated what this offensive squad isn't. This squad doesn't strikeout at an above-average rate and doesn't swing at bad pitches. By striking out 13 times and walking only three, this team presented a distinct foil to its typically very disciplined plate approach, demonstrating - to all those who had any doubts - what a team with bad plate discipline does look like. The Indians are not that team.

Second - is this what squaring off against Salazar feels like?

Falling into Place

If the Indians' plate discipline, then, was not responsible for its offensive failures, its batting average - that is, its ability to convert its barrel-to-ball contact to actual hits - and by extension, its Batting Average on Balls in Play. Hitherto, Cleveland's offense had been below-average on the aggregate - a .274 team BABIP typically results in offensive stagnation. While this is a gross oversimplification of BABIP, it's typically true that a substantial team deviation from league-average BABIP (.298 thus far in 2014) is indicative of some intervention of luck - substantially higher means good luck, substantially lower means bad luck. Given that the Indians' line drive rate has been approximately league average through Thursday's game, by far the most parsimonious explanation is that the Indians have hit the ball fine - just directly at defenders.

Friday's game was in every way a departure - an entirely pleasant departure - from this trend. Given that the Indians struck out 13 times, they had far fewer chances to get hits on the balls they did put in play, meaning that a high BABIP was necessary for the Indians to succeed - and a BABIP of .364, well-above league average, was their total for the game. Asdrubal, even when shifted, managed to eke out a ground-ball hit, his line drives fell - things that should typically happen with some frequency over the course of any given season but which simply has been absent from the Indians' 2014 campaign.

Of course, BABIP only includes balls in play; as one might keenly point out, Home Runs are, typically, not within the field of play. While the author had pointed out the incipient power of Michael Brantley, the recent power surge by the Indians - in particular, Asdrubal Cabrera and Michael Brantley - has been quite compelling: they have each hit two in the last two games.

The Indians came into the season with very clear offensive expectations, expectations that the team has clearly failed to meet thus far. But when confronted with the team's .274 BABIP, its solid batted ball profile, and its plate discipline, it becomes clear that the pieces necessary to assemble offensive success have been there all along - the only question is when the puzzle would be solved.

That might even draw a smile from Mr. Kluber.

John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimmHe can also be reached by e-mail at john.h.grimm@hotmail.com.

User Comments

Seth
May 10, 2014 - 4:19 PM EDT
Yeah Ortiz thinks the shift is stupid, it's swallowing up his hits. A guy pulling the ball isn't really the hitter being stupid, it's his swing mechanics. If it were easy for pull hitters to just go the opposite way, shifts wouldn't work.
shy
May 10, 2014 - 12:41 PM EDT
Interesting comments from Big Papi on MLB Network last night re the shift. He was one of the first guys I recall to get the automatic shift every time he came up. He said it's stupid, and that his 9th inning 2 out hit that killed Darvish's no-no last night would have been an out if the infielders were in their normal positions. Then Mitch Williams made the point that the defensive position alignment evolved over a hundred years ago and has remained the same since for a reason- it works most of the time. Now you have managers trying to time the shift- kind of like me trying to time the stock market- over the long term it doesn't work. But as long as you have batters, not mentioning any names here or am I, that are Stuck on Stupid and can't use the whole field to hit, even in situations that beg for the ball to be hit the other way, the shifts will continue to be utilized. I think every batting practice program at the collegiate and minor league level should include opposite field hitting training like they do in Japan. That way when players get to the show, the situational hitting skills will be accessible up and down the lineup and the shifts will diminish.
Walter
May 10, 2014 - 11:19 AM EDT
Good to see Cabrera get hot at the plate. Hope he can stay consistent in which he could become a trade option for the Indians.
John Grimm
May 10, 2014 - 10:48 AM EDT
Jeff Sullivan addresses what appear to be widespread myths regarding the bunt in the following article: namely, it's not just a matter of pride - Santana's laid down 6 bunt attempts against the shift this year - but also that putting your bat in the way of the ball, when the pitcher is in the majors because he's one of the best in the world at missing bats - is hard.

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-truth-about-bunting/
Rob
May 10, 2014 - 10:15 AM EDT
Want to know how you stop these shifts? Guys have to swallow their pride and put down the bunt everytime its on. Every other sport, teams make adjustments to what the defense throws at you. Load the box in football, check off to a pass. Triple team someone in basketball, other guys are open and have easier shots. Now I know this probably breaks some stupid unwritten rule, but we are not talking about asking Lou Gehrig to bunt . Teams are basically giving these guys first base each time. If you can't get a push bunt down in that big of a triangle where you don't even have to worry about deadening it..you have major bat control issues. The threat/execution of this each time will cause teams to readout. Guys on base everytime. Its hard headed and stubborn to just keep ignoring the opportunity to basically take a free baserunner.
richard cikra
May 10, 2014 - 9:59 AM EDT
Axford was a mistake as a closer,time for a change.
John
May 10, 2014 - 9:57 AM EDT
The shift is a leaguewide phenomenon now. Every team is employing it, and I'd venture to say that every team has extreme pull hitters. So I don't think that explains a 24-point departure from league average.

Additionally, I've noted in the past that Santana is only a pull hitter from the left side. From the right side, his batted ball profile is essentially Kipnis.
LeaguePark
May 10, 2014 - 9:17 AM EDT
Axford is an arsonist. He's totally unreliable. Why does Francona keep using Axford and Carlos Santana? I thought the objective was to win games!
Rich
May 10, 2014 - 5:48 AM EDT
Axford has gone in the tank. He actually had to be removed after imploding with two outs in the 9th, bases empty, and a four-run lead.

You never know when he'll suddenly be unable to throw a strike, for no apparent reason.

In his last four appearances he's walked 6 batters in 3 innngs. His ERA has gone from 2.31 to 4.91. I couldn't help but think, when Cody Allen entered the game, "Here comes our new closer".

Santana still unable to hit the ball hard, even when he gets fastballs in the center of the plate. When he does manage to put it in play, he hits it right into the shift. Our cleanup hitter is on pace for 49.5 RBI's this year.

Michael Brantley, at his current pace, will hit 32 HR's and 135 RBI's. Considering we've been playing in cold weather where the ball doesn't carry, these numbers are shocking, even for 36 games. If he keeps this up he could be making his first All-Star appearance.

Lonnie Chisenhall, on the other hand, is on pace for 9 RBI. And he's hitting well over .300.

I'm really sure Chiz will end up with more than 9 ribs and Brantley less than 135.
Rich
May 10, 2014 - 5:32 AM EDT
The team BABIP is 24 points below league average because Swisher and Santana keep pulling the ball in to the shift, which means even when they hit hard ground balls or line drives to right field that would ordinarily be hits, they make outs.

Another factor is playing cold weather games turns home runs and doubles off the wall into fly outs to the warning track. Although every team in the league is affected by this, the northern teams that play more April games in cold weather are affected more.

So the BABIP should go up somewhat now that the weather is warming up, but it would help if Swish and Santana would try to hit up the middle more.

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