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Second Thoughts Game #69: Cleveland 3, Boston 2

Second Thoughts Game #69: Cleveland 3, Boston 2
Michael Bourn beats a throw home in the third inning. (Photo: AP)
June 15, 2014
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After losing 6 out of 7 games to Boston in 2013, it's some consolation that Cleveland guaranteed a season series win for 2014 on Saturday, in a 3-2 victory that saw the Indians win the season series against the Red Sox for the first time since 2011. Incidentally, 2011 was the last time T.J. House, pitcher for Cleveland on Saturday, was listed as a top prospect for Cleveland by Baseball Prospectus - and even then, he was listed as the 20th-best prospect in the system.

Still, the 3-2 score suggests that the game was fairly close, and the base runner count bears out that Cleveland held a fairly asymmetrical net advantage in the game - net advantage in the sense that Cleveland had 16 men on base compared to Boston's 12, asymmetrical in the sense that Cleveland pitchers struck out only 7 to Boston's 10. The Indians (predominantly Kipnis's 3 hits and two each from Cabrera and Brantley) benefited from good hitting and a .385 BABIP; fortunately, they managed to translate that into a victory - even if the winning run was an RBI walk.

House's Perfectly Serviceable Outing

T.J. House did nothing spectacular on Saturday; House's line on Saturday was 5.1 IP, 2 R/ER, 7 H, 1 BB, 3 K, 95 pitches, 58 strikes, 62% Strike, 8.4% Swinging Strike. Unspectacular got the job done inoffensively, but it remains quite obvious that House's prime ability - his capacity to induce ground balls, which he did on an impressive 50% of balls put in play on Saturday, compared to yet more impressive 62% on the year - is lost on the Cleveland infield, in much the same sense as Masterson, minus a great many walks and minus a greater many strikeouts. Ground ball pitchers might run higher BABIPs than fly ball pitchers; however, the .389 BABIP on the day and .344 on the season, compared to a league average around .300, are each flagrantly outside the bounds of league norms, and indicate singularly disappointing play from the Indians infield.

House receiving little help from the defense is particularly unfortunate in the context of House's inability to strikeout batters. Strikeouts are not a necessity, by any stretch of the imagination, and House's ability to limit walks has been an asset. Pitchers with House's strikeout, walk, and ground ball profile might be regarded as decent, if possibly volatile, back-end option on teams with a good infield defense; the Braves, for instance, would likely have warmly welcomed T.J. House into their rotation before the 2014 season, in part because their infield defense is excellent and in part because most of their rotation needed to visit a rather different TJ house to have reconstructive elbow surgery.

While it's true that all Cleveland pitchers would fare better with better fielders, high strikeout and/or walk rates mitigate the use of defenders - whereas Kluber might strikeout seven and have three grounders, House might strikeout three and have seven grounders - the latter gives the defense more work, making the defense that much more important. In a sense, House gives defenders a chance to make plays - in Cleveland, that's the last thing one wants.

Still, it's not as though House has performed poorly. His outing in Boston showcased a league average swinging strike rate - and when only two of a team's original rotation members (Kluber, Masterson) haven't missed substantial time due to injuries or palace intrigue, 'league average' is high praise, particularly when coupled with a better-than-average walk rate. T.J. House pitched like a real back-end of the rotation type, rather than a pitcher eighth on the depth charts.

But when a pitcher is forced to exit in the sixth inning, on the hook for the loss and, in the face of his seven hits allowed over 5.1 IP, lucky that more runs didn't score, it's quite unfortunate.

That said, of course, the Indians did win and they got 5.1 IP of 2 ER baseball from a pitcher who was eighth on the depth charts.

RBI Walks: A Carlos Santana Story

Saturday delivered perhaps the most poetic way for Carlos Santana to drive in a run - by means of the RBI walk. The argument in favor of Carlos Santana, it is said, is that Santana's value is premised upon his ability to get on base frequently. This argument more or less captures the gist of Santana's offensive profile, but the bizarre nature of Santana merits nuance more than one-liners.

To say that Santana 'gets on base' frequently, if not universally, conveys three things: that Carlos Santana's (predominantly pull) power is good but not elite, that Carlos Santana's BABIP will trend worse than league average due to pull tendencies and speed, and that his walk rate more than compensated for his approximately league-average batting average before 2014. Prior to 2014, the positives of the first and last substantially outweighed the second; in 2014, the second column has substantially evened out the risk-and-reward tradeoff, though there's little reason to believe that Santana will be affected more than the many other dead-pull left-handed hitters.

Regardless, to say that Santana has a high walk rate ignores that in 2014, Santana's walk rate is both the highest in the league by a fairly substantial margin as well as the highest of his career.

Correlating with this walk rate - and if not directly causing, at least shaping - is Santana's swing rate. In 2013, his 39.6% swing rate was 9th-lowest among qualified batters; in 2014, his swing rate has dropped even further, to 35.5%, second-lowest in the league and tied for 13th-lowest since 2007.

Low swing rates aren't inherently bad, certainly - 2013's five lowest swing rates included Matt CarpenterJoe MauerMike Trout, and Jason Kipnis. One can absolutely attain offensive success by swinging only infrequently. But given that Santana's strikeout rate has likewise ticked up from 2013 - from 17.1% to 20.6% - the danger of called third strikes remain, helping on-base percentage at the expense of batting average. Almost certainly, Santana's not going to continue hitting under .200, and it was not the uptick in strikeouts that pushed Santana below the Mendoza line; it's possible, however, that Santana's reluctance to swing - a reluctance that has resulted in 13 looking strikeouts already -  may yet prevent him from getting his batting average above the

Yet poetic justice was delivered on Saturday, from Horace's mouth to Santana's ears. Dulce et decorum est ad Primum ambulare - it is sweet and fitting to walk to first.

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

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