Indians

When a Win is more than a Win

Jason GiambiThrough the course of a baseball season, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the ebbs and flows and rants and raves of each marginal win and losses. In one corner, we have The 162-Game Season; it hails from The Early 1960s and is the long-standing pastime through which hardcore baseball fans consume the triumphs and tribulations of their favorite teams. In the other corner, the three-man team of Social Media, its more gregarious brother Sports Talk Radio, and their cousin Instant Reaction. Their origin is unknown, but it’s widely assumed they were all conceived in the back seat of a Pinto after a hot date between Click-happy Editor and Rating-hungry Program Director. Even the cousin.

With all 162 games in the Pinto’s rear view mirror, and two days off before the first pitch of the American League Wild Card game in Cleveland, it’s time to exhale and take a look back at how we got here—how we got to a place of leverage, doing so by the margin of one single game. A win is a win, but find me a fan who reacted to the Jason Giambi walk-off home run from a week ago in the same fashion they did when the Tribe beat the Phillies by six runs in the very middle of May. Sure, the Giambi walk-off is still very fresh in our minds, but one could pinpoint any one of the 11 walk-off wins as crucial—the Jason Kipnis infield single scoring Drew Stubbs, leading to a 2-1 win over the Washington Nationals still sticks out. Or the botched-but-fortunate home run call against the Oakland Athletics. Or Mike Aviles’ ninth-inning grand slam in Detroit. Or the 1-0 hard-fought win over Yu Darvish and the Texas Rangers wherein the only run was scored in the first inning thanks to a lead-off home run from Michael Bourn. Or…

“It’s like the culmination of everything that you’ve gone through, all the ups and downs,” said Terry Francona, the man largely credited with the epic turnaround. “You see guys from different countries, different upbringings, and they’re jumping on the pile and it’s just pure joy.”

For a team to have to win their last 10 games, to win 20 games in the month of September to barely secure a Wild Card birth with 92 wins (one season after losing 94 games) is mind blowing. For a team to actually do it? Forget it. Making things that much more interesting is the fact that both the Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers have also been forced to play this entire month as if it already were already the playoffs. The Rays put future AL Cy Young candidate Matt Moore on the mound on Sunday; reigning Cy Young winner David Price will take to the bump in what will be their 163rd contest. The Rangers used Yu Darvish—a player who would be in this season’s Cy Young discussion if not for Detroit’s Max Scherzer—on Sunday; the 22-year-old Martin Perez will lock horns with Price.

So for all of the Asti Spumante and Bud Light and 400 decibels of Macklemore, just like a handful of their 91 other victories, the Indians won a lot more than a game on Sunday afternoon. Young Danny Salazar will do his best impression of Jaret Wright on Wednesday night in front of a packed Progressive Field. Whomever lasts through the play-in game will be throwing their third option. Alex Cobb and Matt Garza are far from pushovers—it’s tough to imagine that their respective teams would be in the position they are if not for a solid-to-considerably-above-average starting rotation; the Rangers made the largest pre-deadline deal in acquiring Garza for a handful of prospects. But in a win-or-die situation, there is little time to be strategic when multiple games are involved. For the Indians, despite their penchant for streaks of the negative variety, to hold all of the cards at this stage is a point that cannot be overstated.

“This is just a little bit of what’s going to happen,” said Salazar amidst a champagne shower. “This is the beginning of a new era.”

A new era indeed if not for an entirely new chapter of this very season. Players like Salazar and fellow late-season hero Matt Carson were not with the big league squad through the duration of the season. Bourn and Nick Swisher and Jason Giambi and his fellow Good Squad members were not a part of the team which nearly lost 100 games under Manny Acta. Comparisons to previous teams and their respective late-season collapses never held merit. Baseball is a game of runs and streaks; players go cold at the plate and mechanics can falter with fatigue be it physical or mental. Even Francona, a manager who is undeniably in contention for AL Manger of the Year, made a few mistakes through the course of the season—starters left in one pitch too long, Yan Gomes not being in every lineup imaginable. But the beauty of a 162-game season, even if it paves the way to absurdly low attendance totals and can produce some of the worst types of overreaction imaginable, is that the cream ultimately rises to the top.

And the beauty of the this Cleveland Indians squad—in a world where economics aren’t exactly on their side—is that their cream was undoubtedly hard earned. This two-day break couldn’t be more well-deserved. Even the trolls and talk show hosts can’t argue with that.

 

  • Garry_Owen

    Well, that’s not what I meant, but your point is a fair one. Still, MLB is, by definition, full of “extremely talented individuals.” Not all of these individuals play on teams that play like the Indians do. What’s the difference? Even if it’s only 10% (I’d argue it’s more than that; but I’ll concede it for this discussion), that 10% can be THE difference.

    Would you take the Angels over the Indians? I wouldn’t. And their manager is no bargain bin guy.

  • Garry_Owen

    Hired by Francona. Ergo, credit to Francona (particularly given that he doesn’t “mess with the pitchers” and needed to hire the right guy who would).

    http://www.ohio.com/sports/indians/indians-notebook-terry-francona-happy-with-offseason-decision-to-hire-mickey-callaway-1.429437

  • Steve

    Not exactly. Callaway wasn’t one of Francona’s guys, but Antonetti’s guys. Callaway knocking his interview out of the park was what got Francona on board. I think he would have been the pitching coach no matter who was the manager.

  • nj0

    I guess we’re getting into semantics here. I think the most important part of a manager’s job is developing talent and keeping guys happy.

    On the development front, most of that heavy lifting has been done in the years spent in the minors. Yes, there’s some that needs to be done, but the more serious stuff falls on the position coaches (as Steve pointed out).

    Keeping guys happy is tough though and I guess we can never really know how valuable it really is. I will say that hearing Kipnis’ comments about Franoca after yesterday’s game made me think of Manny Acta. Kipnis has played under two managers in the majors so any praise of Tito is, in essence, also a critique of Manny.

    Anyways, I agree that Franconca deserves credit. I just think if there was a magic button that would change one part of this organization – front office, roster, manager – I’d change manager.

  • Steve

    I’m not sure the Angels fit the “talent” part of “troubled talent”. Hamilton and Pujols have the name recognition, but aren’t the same guys they used to be, and that staff has serious holes from day one.

  • Garry_Owen

    Francona did hire him, though. Antonetti didn’t force it and ultimately didn’t make the call. Callaway may have been the guy, irrespective, by nature of his own merit, but someone still had to pull the trigger. That guy was Francona. To say that anyone else would have done the same thing is neither factually correct nor sufficient to detract from Francona.

  • Garry_Owen

    Take out “Hamilton” and “Pujols,” replace them with “Swisher” and, oh, “Jimenez,” and that sentence describes perfectly what we were all saying about the Indians before this season (with Francona at the helm). And we were, at best, fishing for a “Trout.”

  • Garry_Owen

    But to your other point, I’m not sure I can think of a team that fits the bill of “troubled talent.” Maybe the Yankees? If trouble means “old and scandel-ridden.”

  • Steve

    Antonetti didn’t make any call because he was on board with Callaway from the beginning. All that had to be done was to convince Francona to get on board too. Both Francona and Antonetti made it clear that the hiring of Callaway was a “collaboration”, and there is no reason to believe that Antonetti wouldn’t have pushed for Callaway just as hard if someone else was the manager, and that Callaway wouldn’t have shone through in the interview, just like Antonetti expected.

  • Garry_Owen

    Yeah, the Francona vs. Acta comparsons are inevitable and unfortunate. Here is where the FO definitely deserves great acknowledgment. Acta just didn’t have the roster.

  • Steve

    The Yankees were lucky to break .500 with the rosters they were running out there.

  • Garry_Owen

    I think we’re just saying the same thing with different conclusions.

  • Garry_Owen

    Credit to Girardi?

  • Steve

    Sure, but that excludes 23 guys on the roster. Take out Hamilton, Pujols, Swisher and Jimenez before the season, and people would have said the Indians had a better roster than the Angels.

  • WFNY_DP

    It’s crazy: if they win on Wednesday, they have to go 11-8. That’s it. After going 15-2 to end the season.

  • WFNY_DP

    You mean the one that got no-hit by MIAMI?

  • Garry_Owen

    You really think so? Fine if you do; but I’m not so sure. Would be an interesting exercise, anyway, to stack the rosters against each other in terms of name/talent ranking.

  • Garry_Owen

    Also, if you take out those 4 guys, you take out a big part of what made the Angels roster far better, in comparison, than the Indians’ roster. No way Swisher and Jimenez = Hamilton and Pujols.

  • Steve

    Didn’t pay close enough attention to make much of an educated guess as to how to divvy up the credit, but on the surface, it looks like the classic pythagorean overachieve thanks to a top heavy bullpen that led to the best record in one run games.

  • Garry_Owen

    It was largely rhetorical, tying the conversation back to the original question of how much credit a manager deserves; but you’re probably right. The counter, though, would be that managers are probably more active in 1-run games than otherwise; thus, the manager gets more than a fair amount of credit for that 1-run game record.

  • Steve

    Record in one run games fluctuates a lot, see the 2012 Orioles compared to the 2013 Orioles. A great bullpen can really boost that record, but bullpens are so unpredictable year to year anyway that its a fruitless effort to make projections on that front.

  • Carol Grayshock

    Great post here, thanks for the reminders of this season, I’m so pumped with this team and thankful for Tito’s hand in the team’s spot, exciting to be playing in October, and I BELIEVE.

  • WFNY_DP

    I think another guy promoted-from-within that may have some impact is a guy like Mike Sarbaugh. The guy has been a winner at every level, and he worked with a lot of these guys in various levels of the minors (some of them probably played parts on two straight championships in AAA). I know his role isn’t huge, necessarily, but he has always been known for getting the most out of his rosters when he’s managed in the minors. Building a staff with those kinds of guys is a HUGE asset, no matter who’s responsible for hiring him as the 1B coach.

  • Garry_Owen

    Against a much harder schedule than our last 17 games . . .
    Shut up, Garry. Shut up!!!

  • WFNY_DP

    SSSSSHHHHHHH!!!!

  • nj0

    I’m just amazed at how many great parts the f.o. added this offseason. As I said from day one, the way they transformed the bottom third of the roster, making it strength instead of our biggest obstacle, was amazing. Again, they just don’t get enough credit.

  • Steve

    I was very skeptical that it would work, and am very glad to have been proven wrong. I’m still not sure if it can be counted on going forward though.

  • bupalos

    >>>But the reason they’re playing well is arguably Francona.>>>

    Yeah, that’s where the whole question lies I guess, and having played at least a little organized baseball I just don’t feel like a manager can appreciably affect individual performance in baseball– I would especially think not at that level, where incredible scouting and coaching is available to everyone. Even Callaway– I’m sure he has been competent plus, but I’m equally sure a couple years down the line when 7 of the 10 significant pitchers under him have a down year instead of an up year he’ll be just another bum.

    To me the reason for the overperformance in general is more likely structural. What do most of those players have in common? They are young (and cheap), and have been on a general upward trajectory. This is where your “nice surprises” (and great values) are most likely to come from.

  • bupalos

    That’s a biiiig stretch to me. This was a guy already in the organization, already the lead candidate, and Tito gets significant credit for him?

    I mean, kudos to him for not making waves and trying to bring in his own guy, but this really was the organization’s guy. And that’s entirely apart from the point about whether Callaway really is that big a reason why the particular guys that are succeeding are succeeding.

  • nj0

    We are on the same page on this one. Also worth pointing out- Jimenez has said that he was battling an injury (finger?) last year that caused him to do all kinds of crazy things with his delivery. Not saying Callaway didn’t help, but how much is debatable.

  • Garry_Owen

    Hey, if a president can get credit for killing a terrorist, Francona easily gets the credit for hiring the lead pitching coach candidate.

  • nj0

    No, it can’t. You can’t rely, year in and year out, on guys having career years while you’re also striking gold on minor-league deals.

    I think in baseball you’ve got to keep moving to survive. I like Gomes and Raburn, but I don’t expect either to post OPS+’s of 130 or 150 next year. And Kazmir and Ubaldo will (most likely) be gone. And we won’t have a lot of money for free agents.

    Any sustained success is going to require the consistent influx of young talent from the minors. Salazar and Kluber were nice this year, but we’re going to need to see more of that if we want to win consistently.

  • nj0

    Politics in a sports comment section. This will end well.

  • Garry_Owen

    Nah, it’s just an analogy. No politics. Besides, I left it open to chief executives from both sides of the aisle. No matter who they are, the LOVE to take credit for what soldiers do.

  • mgbode

    because it IS fun to have rivalries, but those rivalries mean NOTHING if there isn’t a payoff.

    this isn’t teeball, it doesn’t have to be all about fairness and equality. the payroll structure isn’t fair, the divisions aren’t fair, but you deal with what you have, gameplan accordingly and do what you need to do.

  • mgbode

    it is definitely debateable. but, when every single SP carried over improves measurably (and near historically as a staff for the Tribe as some of Jacob’s articles point out), then either the last pitching coach was horrid (Radinsky!!!), the current pitching coach is helping (Callaway) or an extreme amount of coincidence was mixing with luck (doubtful).

    it could be more the former than the latter, but it’s more pleasant to think Mickey is helping.

  • nj0

    Radinsky is a great case study. In 2007 to early 2009, he was a genius thanks to Sabathia, Carmona, and Lee. He got some of that mojo back thanks to good years by Masterson and surprises like Talbot and Tomlin. By 2012, he was terrible again thanks to some of those very guys.

    Pitching coaches obviously do something for players, but how much is such a gray area that I don’t think it’s worth spending time/effort caring.

    Way I score it: either a guy is an overall plus or an overall minus to an organization. Callaway is a plus and I thought Radinksy was too. Thankful, he was savy enough to realize a change was needed and moved to another place in the organization.

  • mgbode

    Radinsky was a minor league pitching coach for the Tribe until 2010. He was then the bullpen coach only in 2010 & 2011.

    He was only the official pitching coach for 2012 (Belcher was the previous) and every single starting pitcher did worse than the previous year (yes, harbinger for rebound).

  • nj0

    I am combining Radinsky with Carl Willis. Yes, Radinsky had a shorter, less statistically productive tenure with the Tribe. Which is why I should always google this stuff instead of trusting my memory. Score one for mgbode.

  • Steve

    Eh, I guess this is about fairness, but if you are MLB, you want your postseason to showcase your best teams. I think the WC ensures that you get a very good team into the postseason much more frequently than you reluctantly take in a non-deserving team. Division winners with 81-86 wins happen more frequently than WC teams getting in with a record in that range.

  • Steve

    Huge fan of Sarbaugh’s work. Highly underrated coach.