I ask you, reader, which is more frustrating: an anemic offense that rarely crosses home plate or a volatile bullpen’s nuclear meltdown? Cleveland Indians fans had to endure each hardship in consecutive weeks. The offense was a concern last week, getting flummoxed by some mediocre Kansas City pitching; this past Saturday, it was the bullpen’s turn to falter. After an 8-4 victory in Game One of the doubleheader, which squandered closer Brad Hand, Trevor Bauer twirled a Pesach gem, lasting into the seventh inning while striking out ten batters and walking just two. Even after Dan Otero allowed his inherited runner to score on Dansby Swanson’s seventh inning two-run blast, the Indians were still leading 7-3 when the ninth inning began. That’s when Oliver Perez, Adam Cimber, Tyler Olson, and Cody Anderson combined to cede five runs on three hits and four walks; Cleveland would go on to lose Game 2, 8-7, and just like that, a convincing series victory morphed into disappointing defeat.
But, Saturday’s admittedly terrible outing disguises a greater point, which is that the Indians bullpen has actually been sturdy thus far. Even including those six runs, the Cleveland bullpen ranks No. 9 in FIP and No. 8 in fWAR in 2019. By comparison, 2018 saw the Indians’ pen finish No. 26 in FIP and No. 27 in fWAR, despite having Andrew Miller and Cody Allen on the roster. Even more impressive is that the 2019 Indians’ bullpen ranks so highly despite 20.2 miserable innings from Neil Ramirez, Oliver Perez, and Jon Edwards, each of whom has been worth less than replacement level. Still, even though Cleveland’s relief pitching has been strong this season, it still doesn’t feel like a strength. Mainly, this is because the Indians relief pitchers don’t “look” like studs. The only arm with even above-average velocity, Ramirez, looks like the clear favorite to take Josh Tomlin’s place in the Cleveland Dinger Factory. Velocity has been broadly shown to be directly related to run prevention, a trend that teams around the league have naturally responded to by targeting pitchers that throw hard. It’s possible, therefore, that the Indians have successfully zagged while the rest of MLB zigs, and they were able to exploit a market inefficiency to put together a quality bullpen on the cheap; or, it’s possible that everyone else is right, and as the season continues and the sample size increases, the Cleveland faithful have to suffer through more and more bullpen meltdowns.
Offensively, this past week saw Francisco Lindor’s 2019 debut, but the most impactful return was Jose Ramirez’s sweet, sweet swing. Seemingly out of nowhere, the back-to-back AL MVP bronze medalist reached base four times against Miami on Wednesday, including a 107 MPH screamer into the right field seating area. During the 2019 leg of his slump, Ramirez had been dealing with some bad luck, but he also looked as if he had real issues with his approach at the plate. Those issues faded this past week.
Through April 18, Jose Ramirez put balls in play at an average exit velocity of 89.6 MPH. But, over this last week, the ball was flying nearly four ticks harder off the bat. In fact, Statcast estimates that his .286/.444/.476 triple-slash actually underrates how well he’s been hitting the baseball. And, the swing isn’t the only thing that looks improved, either; Ramirez worked the count to ball four six times this past week, more than double his prior season total. It was always a matter of time before the Indians’ best hitter figured out what ailed him. Hopefully, we can now classify his extended slump as a sad memory—when Ramirez is on, Cleveland’s lineup actually has some bite to go along with its bark.
Longball: Tyler Naquin and Swinging at Strikes
For an activity that some credit as the most difficult in sports, the strategy around hitting is remarkably simple. If one were to ask baseball people of all ilks, people from the East Coast to the West, from the nostalgic Brooklyn Dodgers fan to his Gen Z great-granddaughter, from the most statistically-inclined nerds to the eye-test reliant purists, if one were to ask all of these people to condense hitting strategy to its core, the surveyor would likely receive the same mantras from each group. Hit the ball. Wait for your pitch. Swing at strikes. Now that Major League Baseball is so meticulously documented and analytics inform every team’s decisions, many traditional strategies have been re-examined and revised or eliminated. I was curious, therefore, the extent to which pitch selection affects overall offensive performance; after all, it’s possible that the importance of pitch selection has diminished as strikeouts become less taboo. I compiled every qualified season from the years 2009 to 2018, and as a stand-in for pitch selection, I calculated the difference between each hitter’s swing rate at pitches in and out of the strike zone, which is on the x-axis below; a larger number means that hitter was more able to discern strikes from balls. Let’s call this statistic “swing difference.” On the y-axis is weighted on-base average (wOBA), which attempts to quantify overall production.
The R^2 value of .094 means that 9.4% of the variance in wOBA can be attributed to my rudimentary pitch selection stand-in. Frankly, it doesn’t look like an impressive relationship, but when you consider that swing difference doesn’t consider pitch type, detailed pitch location, quality of contact, or batted ball type, it’s fairly impressive that 9.4% of the variation in wOBA can be attributed to it. If you don’t trust wOBA, swing difference also varies with walk rate and on-base percentage at even greater R^2 values. Now that the importance of plate discipline has been established, observe the slightly modified version of the scatterplot below, with one point colored green (the title of this section gives away its identity):
Most hitters exhibit either an aggressive approach at the plate or a patient one. Thus, higher chase rates often go along with greater aggression at pitches in the strike zone. From 2017-2019, no Indians player (min. 250 PAs) chased out of the zone at a greater rate than Tyler Naquin; meanwhile, the Texas A&M product was merely middle-of-the-pack when it came to swinging at strikes. Therefore, his swing difference makes him the least selective hitter on the Indians:
Of course, there are good hitters who make up for a lack of selectiveness with elite contact ability and/or the ability to hit for power consistently (2014 Victor Martinez, for example, is the dot at the northwest end of the scatterplot). Naquin possesses neither of these abilities, as Corey Barnes discussed thoroughly. As far as I can tell, there’s no evidence that he’s particularly valuable in the clubhouse, nor are the Indians wanting for left-handed outfielders. While his arm is considered to be a plus tool, his route efficiency in the outfield and speed sum to a net negative fielder. Therefore, the only mark in Naquin’s favor is a BAbip-buoyed 2016 campaign and a memorable walk-off inside-the-park home run, memories that are becoming more and more distant. The sooner the Indians abandon whatever glimmer of hope they see in Naquin that’s keeping him at the big league level, the sooner Indians fans will be able to cherish those memories again.
Offense: I want to warn everyone, Oscar Mercado is good, but he’s not this good! The former Cardinals farmhand went 2-4 with a double and a homer on Thursday, bringing his 2019 OPS up to a balmy 1.059. The hits were his 13th and 14th times on base in his last 28 plate appearances. I’ve seen many pleas to the Indians front office for Mercado to be promoted to Cleveland. This author does not need convincing that the converted shortstop would be an improvement over some of the depth on the Major League roster (see above). Still, the Indians will likely want to see Oscar Mercado sustain above-average production for a more extended period of time before they are forced to give him regular MLB at bats.
Runner-up: Jodd Carter
Pitching: Eli Morgan pitched six innings on Tuesday, and the one run he allowed elevated his ERA…to 0.78. The change-up specialist has now struck out 11 and walked 1.5 batters per nine innings pitched, which are both improved from his already-impressive 2018 numbers. Look for the 23-year-old to jump to Double-A after another handful of quality starts in Carolina.
Runner-up: Shane McCarthy