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Second Thoughts Game #92: White Sox 4, Indians 7

Second Thoughts Game #92: White Sox 4, Indians 7
Yan Gomes and Cody Allen celebrate an Indians victory. (Photo: AP)
July 12, 2014
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Contrary to the oft-cited sources of the past week’s Twitter, Cleveland does have a baseball team. While the city erupted in the momentous aftermath of its most talented basketball player announcing his return, the Cleveland offense likewise erupted with a scoring outburst in the vein of Wednesday’s victory, and Cleveland defeated the White Sox 7-3 in the opening game of their three-game series.

Kluber’s Outing, Cut Down

Corey Kluber’s line on the game (6 IP, 4 R/ER, 8 H, 1 BB, 5 K, 106 P, 68 Strikes, 9 Swinging Strikes) was one of his less impressive games on the season – in terms of run prevention, K/BB ratio, FIP, xFIP, or zero-degree outcomes, Kluber’s outing was his more mediocre performances in 2014. On one hand, this reflects well – a single-game ERA of 6.00 in only one game indicates that it was merely a poor outing, which every non-Kershaw pitcher in the league has from time to time. Moreover, this is a player that Cleveland received for half a season of Jake Westbrook. That a 6 IP, 4 ER performance is a bad performance for such a player is indicative of precisely how lopsided the then-insignificant - far more insignificant than an Asdrubal or Masterson trade now would be - Westbrook trade was.

Context and qualifications aside, the performance was poor by every account. His 8.4% Swinging Strike rate on the game – intuitively, the biggest driver in strikeouts and hence success – was below the starting pitcher average, his walk-rate was fairly mediocre, and he allowed a Home Run. In FIP terms as well as ERA terms, Friday’s outing was poor.

The point is not to shout to the heavens that all-star candidate Kluber should be shamed for his poor outing, but why it was that an all-star-level pitcher did fare so poorly; it is the inefficacy of his cutter, in large part, that fueled Kluber’s ineffectiveness. Kluber’s cutter has been a decisive net positive for the pitcher to date – per FanGraphs’s value page, Kluber’s cutter has been the 11th-most effective slider in terms of run prevention in the majors. In large part, this effectiveness has been fueled by a whiff rate on the pitch of 18.52% - which given that it is more than merely an out pitch, is an extremely high rate.

Kluber’s fortunes on Friday died with the pitch’s ineffectiveness. 33 times Kluber threw the pitch, 16 times Chicago batters swung, and 3 times did Kluber induce a whiff. A 9.1% whiff rate is not terrible, but given that Kluber’s sinker and change are not the weapon of a 2011/2013 Justin Masterson or 1999 Pedro Martinez, he needs the cutter and curve to induce whiffs to be effective. That didn’t happen at the rate it needed to, and Kluber was punished for it.

The good news, of course, is that the velocity appeared entirely normal throughout the game. Kluber was not rendered ineffective because of decreased velocity, and there was nothing in either his release charts or velocity charts to indicate injury; his horizontal and vertical movement charts for the pitch, likewise, appear quite close to his average movement. Given no serious changes in the physics of the pitch, its velocity, or Kluber’s own release points, the lack of effectiveness is likely due either to sequencing or to the credit of opposing batters. While one would have liked Kluber to have put up a performance that proved the worth of the all-star campaign mounted in his honor, the end result was a victory for Cleveland and a Pitcher Win for Kluber.

And as long as he’s collecting pitcher wins, future all-star nominations are all but assured.

Ohio’s Prodigal Bro

In the aftermath of a previous Cleveland athlete’s return, Nick Swisher has, behind Josh Gordon, become the player with the most name rehabilitation required of him.

One week ago, Swisher was at the very nadir of his season – with a batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage line of .194/.284/.318 on the season after the July 4th game against Kansas City, affairs were looking quite grim. With only 73% of the offensive production of a league-average offensive player (as indicated by his, intuitively, 73 wRC+), Swisher was at the lowest of lows without – again – being LeBron James circa July 2010 or Josh Gordon circa now.

The past week has helped reverse the tide. Swisher is hitting .310 with 3 home runs in the past week, hitting 9-for-29 in these past seven games. While his power – again, three home runs in seven games – has been the primary driver of his offensive success, the renaissance has taken on an altogether un-Swisher-like ethos.

Swisher strikes out; this has always been the case, but over his career, this rate has been only slightly above-average, striking out in 21.7% of his career plate appearances over his career. In the past week, Swisher has struck out in 30.0% of his plate appearances. In an opposite current, Swisher’s walk proclivity has been one of his stronger traits, with a career BB% of 13.1%; in the past week, Swisher has walked only once for a BB% of 3.3% for the week.

It is in equal part surprising that Swisher’s BABIP – north of .330 relative to the league average of .295 – that has helped drive his offensive surge of the past week. Swisher’s BABIP, due to speed and an extremely aggressive pull tendency from the left side of the plate, has been one of the weaker aspects of his offensive profile throughout his career. While his .310 batting average in spite of his 30.0% strikeout rate has been fueled more by his 3 home runs than his BABIP, it’s an unusual departure indeed for Swisher’s fortunes to be buoyed by his balls-in-play profile. Given that his 24.6% Line Drive rate, substantially above league average 20.5%, suggests his season BABIP should be, if not necessarily well above league average, at least far higher than its current shockingly low .260 mark, some positive regression in this category was to be expected.

Weekly stats are ephemeral as the wind, and Nick Swisher will still be worth negative WAR after his exploits in Friday’s game have been added. Swisher has a long way to go to demonstrate his own value as worth the $15 million he will earn in 2014. The past week has shown uncharacteristic signs, but the signs have been – on the whole – indicative that the Prodigal Bro will return to, if not the clockwork consistency that defined his pre-Cleveland career, at least better performance than Cleveland has seen in 2014.

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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