Last year, Terry Francona could do no wrong in October. Injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar prompted the Indians skipper to lean heavily upon Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. Injecting Andrew Miller into the fifth inning was a novel concept which appeased the analytics crowd. At the time, the question was whether the concept was borne as a result of necessity due to injuries or if it was just forward thinking. The overwhelming result was a general “Trust in Tito” sentiment that has carried its way into this season.
Francona’s track record is without much blemish. In his first year at the helm in Boston, 2004, he managed the Red Sox to a World Series title, erasing a drought of the centennial variety. Three years later, he added another ring. As the Indians manager, circa 2013, Francona’s teams have not had a losing record. He managed a hobbling, overachieving Indians team to Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, which was a feat within itself.
Success like this does not go unnoticed, nor should it, but we should not let it cloud judgment to the point of blind faith. The Indians are a much deeper team in 2017, which has prompted many more complex roster decisions. Injuries to prominent players have created some less than ideal situations, which have forced Francona’s hand in the art of patchwork.
Kipnis in Center Field
Yes, Jason Kipnis was an outfielder at Arizona State – a decade ago. Indians brass, though, made the wise decision to transform him into a second baseman. Beyond general inexperience with the outfield at the major league level, other concerns are present.
Statcast has a wonderful new metric which tracks sprint speed. Naturally, center fielders tend to be found in the upper echelons of this metric, for good reason. There is more ground to cover than in any other position on the baseball field. Kipnis’ mark in sprint speed is 27.2 feet per second, which ranks in the bottom tenth percentile among the 58 qualified center fielders. Additionally, sprint speed does not take into account acceleration (yet) or route efficiency, which presumably will not favor an outfield newbie.
Route efficiency is an area of great concern. In the first inning of last night’s game against the Minnesota Twins, Eduardo Escobar got into a ball that went into the deepest part of center field. Kipnis’ route to this ball was, well… interesting.
This is not intended to pick on Kipnis but merely point out an ever-present risk in the decision to trot him out to center field after a decade long hiatus. This is a play that needs to be made, especially in a variance-heavy playoff setting. One poor outcome on a batted ball of this variety could cost a team a playoff game, potentially even a series.
There are more layers to the Kipnis decision, however. Francona is going to find a way to get his bat back in the lineup, and to do so will be difficult given the second base position is locked in with Jose Ramirez. If Kipnis is hitting at a 2015-2016 clip rather than 2017; there needs to be a spot for him- especially against right-handed pitching. If we’re getting the 2017 Kipnis at the dish, Greg Allen needs to be manning center field.
Tomlin over Clevinger?
Josh Tomlin was a wizard in last year’s playoffs. There’s no denying that without him, the outcomes could have been much different. Sentimentality is lost on me, however. When chasing October glory, it is most important to minimize weaknesses by putting your best players in position to be successful.
Mike Clevinger has 118 innings of work, with a strikeout rate of 27.4% to pair next to an ERA of 3.13. Of American League pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2017, only five players can boast a lower ERA and higher strikeout rate. Of course, the inflated walk rate is a legitimate concern, which raises questions about the viability of him being a bullpen weapon. Francona alluded to him as such when announcing the decision to start Tomlin in Game 4.
Bullpenning is the way of the future, and it stands to reason that we might see even more dependence on relievers in the upcoming postseason, but the Indians are already quite deep there. The Tribe bullpen averaged approximately five innings per game in the 2016 postseason with many starters on the disabled list. WFNY’s Mike Hattery indicated that he believes, given a healthy Kluber, Carrasco, and Bauer, the Indians could bank on approximately four innings per game from the bullpen. If that is the case, there are several more enticing options for medium to high leverage spots than Mike Clevinger.
There is no debate that Clevinger has been more effective than Tomlin. If this ploy is somehow able to net more Clevinger usage in high leverage situations, it is not without merit. Considering the depth and effectiveness of the Tribe bullpen, this seems like a stretch.
Trust in Tito
Finding fault in decisions made by baseball managers is easy – there are thousands of minor decisions made throughout the course of the season, the vast majority of which have extremely minor implications for being wrong. Radical moves like shifting a second baseman into unfamiliar territory in the field or tabbing a pitcher to start a playoff game based on old data points have much bigger implications. Trusting in Tito is fine, but it is fair to question and track decisions that carry such weight.