From one angle, defining a team’s success is simple. Never mind the details. The team with the greater tally of runs after nine innings earns a win, and the lesser scoring team is saddled with a loss. It’s binary; Cleveland’s 5-3 victory on Wednesday, in the eye of the standings, is ostensibly the same result as that time the Texas Rangers put up a 30-spot back in 2007. According to some traditionally-minded fans, a win is a win is a win, and nothing else matters. By that logic, the Cleveland Indians’ week, composed of four victories against three defeats, was a successful one, context be damned. Perhaps in 2007, that outlook would be shared by most Cleveland followers, had they been faced with an identical situation. Patrons of Brick And Barrel Brewery would be muttering over a Noble Saison: “wow, they’ve won more than they’ve lost, and they’re not even playing well.” “Imagine what this team will look like when they figure it out.” What a time to be alive. Left to their own defenses, 2007 fans would be perfectly happy accepting this past week for what it was: a winning one.
Alas, this is 2019, a season in which the fanbase is so jaded by a stingy offseason and soured by a poor start, and rightfully so, that it isn’t necessary to argue that this was a bad week. Everyone already knows it. In their seven games against the lowly Chicago White Sox and overachieving Seattle Mariners, the Indians were outscored by eleven runs, averaging just 2.5 per game. So anemic were the Tribe bats that, from Sunday to Tuesday, they secured one meager run, total, in games started by pitchers with ERAs of 4.94, 7.04, and 4.06. Note that those ERAs are up-to-date; as in, they include the combined 20.1 innings of one-run ball that they twirled in Cleveland last weekend. Carlos Santana and Leonys Martin’s molten-hot starts have frosted, as they’ve recorded .143/.250/.286 and .200/.200/.267 batting lines, respectively, over their last seven games. Carlos Gonzalez has looked even worse—not only did he record a .182 batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage (i.e. four singles and 18 outs in 22 plate appearances), but he also offered at over half of would-be balls. Half!
It wasn’t just the floundering offense that doomed the Tribe, either. Cody Anderson, whom I bitterly predicted would be the choice to replace Corey Kluber in the rotation, did his best impression of…well…his past self. On Sunday, Anderson was only able to record two outs, while allowing three walks and two hits, including a freaking grand slam. Not to be outdone, Trevor Bauer also performed a first-rate Cody Anderson impression, having ceded a career-high eight runs in the process. Most troubling of all, the Indians lackluster start and serious injury problems have shaved several wins off of their projected total. At the same time, the Minnesota Twins’ burgeoning offense has forced their way into the playoff picture, having won 23 of their first 35 games. Combined, the AL Central rivals seem to have switched positions in regard to their playoff hopes; indeed, as FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski wrote on Thursday, Cleveland is now the underdog.
Still, should this week have taken place in 2007, sentiment surrounding the team was so high that the laundry list of brutalities cataloged above would likely have been handwaved away. In 2019, however, to belabor what the Indians didn’t do, it’s preaching to the choir. Morale is so low at the moment that it behooves this author to look at the positive and remind you, dear reader, what they did do. Thursday’s abridged victory did clinch a winning record over the week and did bring their record to 20-16 for the year. Jose Ramirez did have a 141 wRC+ week and did crush this theatrical walk-off blast. Jordan Luplow did have a two–homer game. Carlos Carrasco did look amazing in his Thursday start. Sure, this week was a disaster, but at least it was a mitigated one. It could be far worse.
Longshot: Jake Bauers Has Been A Left Field Debacle
Back in the day, when Cleveland was still the AL Central favorite, before the injuries to Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger, the Indians opened the season in Minnesota’s Target Field. Engaged in a scoreless battle, Twins’ catcher Jason Castro hit a foul pop-up in the third inning that appeared out of range for the Cleveland defenders. It was far too deep for Jose Ramirez at third base, and there was no way their new left fielder, a converted first baseman, would have the speed to make the catch. And yet…
This was, literally, Jake Bauers’s first impression to Cleveland fans. Since that moment, there’s been some significant jabber commending the former Ray’s glove. “He’s actually not bad out there,” I’ve both heard and said myself.1 Indeed, Bauers has at times looked good as an outfielder. He’s since made other catches worthy of the highlight reel. He’s deceptively athletic for a converted first-baseman, too; at 27.9 feet per second, his Statcast sprint speed is the second fastest on the Indians’ active roster. Indeed, one month into the season, Jake Bauers has officially passed the Eye Test as a quality defensive left fielder.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, though, the human eye is not a particularly reliable evaluator of talent (further reading). Also, please note that we are dealing with extremely small sample sizes and statistics should be treated with several grains of salt.
Pick a stat, any stat, and Jake Bauers has been below average. But he looks worst in Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA), which also happens to be the fielding metric that makes the most intuitive sense to me. By OAA, Bauers has already cost the Indians four runs compared to the average defender, tied for the third worst in MLB. This has almost no predictive value—we can’t possibly evaluate his future based on one month of batted balls. Still, it does say that Bauers has made some bad plays thus far, and there’s probably something to be learned by watching them. It should be said that MLB is extremely opaque regarding Statcast metrics for specific plays, and while I believe I have found a way to piecemeal the information together, in the name of fair analysis, I’m only 95% confident that the Statcast statistics are associated with the appropriate play (i.e. catch probability, opportunity time, distance needed).
Statcast stats—catch probability: 99%; opportunity time: 5.8 secs; distance needed: 78 ft
At first, it’s surprising that Statcast designated this Hunter Dozier weak fly ball to be an easy catch. Bauers appears to run a marathon to get to this ball, and even with a maximum effort dive, he falls just short of making the grab. The main indicator that the ball should have been caught is that it soared through the air for 5.8 seconds. That should have been plenty of time for the speedy Bauers. However, the young left fielder read the ball slowly off the bat—see how his momentum initially carries him backward toward the fence? By stepping back first, he wasted precious seconds and also oriented his momentum in the wrong direction, meaning it took him longer than normal to reach top speed. Finally, his route to the ball also leaves much to be desired. The mowed pattern in the outfield makes it easy to see that Bauers’ path was banana-shaped—although the ball landed a mere 78 feet from his initial position, he certainly ran much further than that.
Statcast stats—catch probability: 95%, opportunity time: 4.5 secs; distance needed: 69 ft
This is another ball that Bauers plainly misread, and another play that must be made. Unlike the Hunter Dozier single, Bauers actually did get a quality jump off the bat. He put himself in a good position to make the catch, but his mistake was that he misjudged how far the ball was traveling. He slowed down to play the carom off the wall, a fine strategy if the ball makes it there on the fly. However, in this case, the ball landed in the middle of the warning track, extending the inning and allowing a run to score. This play is especially concerning because the high wall in front of the Crawford boxes in Houston parallels the Mini Monster in front of the Home Run Porch in Progressive Field. More broadly, a lack of comfort in retrieving balls hit over his head will be a common theme here.
Statcast stats—catch probability: 90%; opportunity time: 3.4 secs; distance needed: 30 ft.
They say a scorcher directly at the outfielder is among the most difficult balls to read in the game. That qualifier does not make this play any less ugly, although it does make it easy to explain. Were Bauers to simply stay in his initial position, he likely would barely have had to move to corral Cron’s line-drive. And yet, once he darted in, he had no chance. This type of play almost certainly gets easier with experience.
Statcast stats—catch probability: 55%; opportunity time: 3.8 secs; distance needed: 58 ft.
This fourth and final play is clearly a more difficult one than the previous three. Statcast gives Bauers just a 55% chance of making the play, and Abreu did smoke this ball 100 MPH over Bauers’s head. This play is noteworthy, though, because Bauers does everything correctly to put himself in a great position to make a play. The ball, if you can’t find it, is just below the yellow line and immediately above the NL Central sign. Bauers appears to have the ball tracked, and could have sprinted to make the catch. Instead of aggressively finishing the play, he slows to play the carom, much like the Brantley double from above.
It, again, should be noted that this is an extremely small sample size. Nonetheless, all four batted balls absolutely could have been caught, and three of them should have been. Furthermore, there are several more examples of catchable balls that Bauers hasn’t been able to glove; I simply chose the most glaring examples. Given that Bauers has above-average wheels, he has the tools to be a quality outfielder. However, it’s difficult to suss out whether these kinks will be ironed out with experience, or if he just does not possess the skill to play in the outfield. Hopefully, as Bauers becomes more comfortable as an outfielder, he’ll also be less apprehensive when tracking balls on the warning track.
The evaluative process has only begun; only time will tell if Bauers can learn to read the ball more accurately off the bat and take more efficient routes to the ball. No matter what, though, we’ll have to use more than the Eye Test to evaluate his growth.
Minor Leaguers Of The Week
Batting: Bobby Bradley, 22, got 12 hits in 22 plate appearances last week for the Columbus Clippers. He struck out eight times without walking, meaning that Bradley put the ball in play 14 times, and 12 of them were hits. What?!? Oh yeah, seven of his 12 hits went for extra bases, including four homers.
Runner-up: Tyler Freeman, 19, Lake County Captains, 10.5 BB%, 5.5 K%, .375/.474/.750
Pitching: My man James Karinchak, 23, got called up to Triple-A this past week and announced his presence in emphatic fashion. He’s faced eight Triple-A hitters: one got a single, one a walk, and the rest of them struck out. Karinchak’s faced 44 batters this season. He’s struck out 30.
Runner-up: Zack Plesac, 24, Akron RubberDucks, 6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 0 HR, 6 K, 3 BB
Coming Up Next
The Indians will begin a three-game set with the Oakland Athletics this evening. Then, they’ll travel to the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago, home of Maria’s Packaged Goods and Community Bar, to face the White Sox on Monday and Tuesday. Finally, after an R&R day on Wednesday, they travel to Baltimore to face Chris Davis, who’s currently running a hitless streak of one at-bat. Let’s see if they can keep it going, but until then, have a good weekend.