One of the difficulties in writing weekly recaps is that gleaning actual, useful information from fragmented weekly chunks isn’t always possible— one week of baseball is just not enough to make reasonable evaluations. I can comment on an interesting occurrence or two, or advise readers to “keep an eye out” for some interesting changes, but most of the time, it isn’t possible to make sweeping claims about entire seasons. But, this was a special week, and I mean that in the worst way possible. The reason it’s special is a sad one for the Cleveland Indians and their likelihood to appear in October, and it’s a painful one for the right ulna of Corey Kluber, the nestor of Cleveland’s pitching staff. Coming into the season, the Tribe appeared to have the strongest starting rotation in the Major Leagues. At the time of writing, even with Mike Clevinger infirmed, the Indians’ pitching staff still ranks second in FanGraphs WAR1 and first when just the rotation is considered. Then, a Brian Anderson line drive sprung a leak in the proverbial dam. A big one. There’s water everywhere.
It’s true that Klubot had been malfunctioning prior to his fateful start in Miami, but a bug can be solved. This was a power surge, and it took out the mainframe.2 With Kluber collecting dust next to Clevinger, Adam Plutko, and Danny Salazar on the shelf, the Indians have few promising long-term options.
This is both the most boring group and also the group from which a Kluber replacement is most likely to be selected (let’s be honest, it’s going to be Cody Anderson, on his 32nd chance). With the exception of Matt Solter, who turns 26 in June, each member of this group has been in the minor leagues since at least 2013, but only Wojciechowski and Anderson have made their MLB debuts, and neither has been particularly successful. The Indians mark Wojciechowski’s seventh franchise, which is never a promising sign, but it’s especially damning when Houston, whose front office is considered to have the most advanced pitching development in MLB, has given up on him twice. Meanwhile, this 2016 Jeff Sullivan article, entitled “Cody Anderson Looks Like Matt Harvey” has taken up new, worse, but still accurate meaning.
The other options are slightly more interesting. To be clear, I wasn’t making a labored Michael Scott/The Office reference above; Peoples legitimately is called Scott on some websites and Michael on others. The lack of nominal clarity regarding Peoples is mirrored by the lack of any written information about him. Indeed, he has no Wikipedia page, nor are there any easily discovered scouting reports on him, and that level of anonymity is somewhat ill-foreboding. It’s not that Peoples can’t be good, simply because no one has bothered to write about him; it’s just that if he were good, someone, somewhere would probably want to tell me. Still, his impressive numbers this season in Triple-A still make him a somewhat intriguing option. Matt Solter, whom the Indians acquired from the St. Paul Saints of the unaffiliated American Association, would certainly be a compelling story, but with a mere four Double-A starts to his name, he probably needs more minor league playing time before being called to MLB action. Equally unlikely are Shao-Ching Chiang and Sean Brady, who have both struggled mightily in Triple-A and seem unlikely to have much present-day or future value for the Indians.
The most intriguing member of the group, at least to me, is former Reds farmhand Jake Paulson. Paulson, a 6’7” strike-throwing sinkerballer, has been somewhat on the national radar since 2016 when he was chosen as “Cistulli’s Guy” in the Fangraphs’s Cincinnati Reds prospect report. As with all sinkerballers, the 2018 Eastern League All-Star’s specialty is inducing grounders—for his entire minor league career, Jake Paulson has forced hitters into 2.5 times as many worm-killers as he has fly balls, largely thanks to the dynamic movement on his sinker and the downward angle afforded to him by a 6’7” frame. While his 2019 numbers aren’t staggeringly great, Paulson best blends a quality minor league track record with interesting stuff of any member of the journeymen group; it’s not difficult to dream on a guy who can make a fastball move like this:
Total Baseball’s instructor Jake Paulson is back for the off-season! He will be available for lessons Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays from 2-8! He is a Walled Lake Central alum and has been a pitcher in the Cincinnati Reds Organization for 4 years. He will be giving lessons at Total Sports in Wixom until he leaves for Spring Training. Call 248-668-0166 to schedule a lesson! Here’s a couple of videos of Jake pitching this year. First one is him pitching against the Chicago Cubs in Las Vegas and second one is him striking out Tim Tebow in the Florida State League. Enjoy! #totalbaseball baseball #totalsports #baseball #reds #tebow #floridastateleague
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…but not today. Both Hu, 25, and Hentges, 22, have pitched poorly this year, and it seems likely that the Indians will want to solve their issues on the smaller stage. Coming into the season, Hu, even more so than fan-favorite Jefry Rodriguez, seemed to me like the pitcher most ready to answer the call, should he get the nod. After all, he’d tasted Triple-A all the way back in 2015, and had real success at the Major League level, although admittedly in a limited capacity. Instead, he’s been battered by Triple-A hitters to the tune of a 5.01 ERA and 5.41 FIP in 23.1 innings pitched. As a guy who relies on an average fastball and a heavy dose of offspeed stuff, it wouldn’t be shocking if Hu is a victim of the elevated offensive environment in Triple-A, which has been present since it began using the MLB rabbit ball. The Indians may be wise to encourage Hu to whittle down his five-pitch repertoire and transition into a relief role, where he won’t have to face hitters multiple times. Almost certainly, if Hu is spotted in a Cleveland uniform this season, it will be jogging toward the mound from beyond the right-centerfield wall.
Meanwhile, Sam Hentges is the furthest along in development among the cavalcade of minor-league pitchers in the Indians organization with big bodies and live arms. Ranked the number ten prospect in the organization by both FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline, the southpaw RubberDuck sits at 91-95 MPH, maxing at 96; both his fastball and curveball project as average-plus pitches, and his unorthodox arm slot should give fits to left-handed swingers (FG lists him at 6’6″, MLB Pipeline, 6’8″). The blemish on Hentges’s prognostication, which was consistent between sources, was his command, and his performance this year solidifies that while raising other concerns. Both Hentges’s walk and strikeout numbers have trended in the wrong directions in 2019, and batters have punished the ball when they have made contact. Honestly, the only positive to Hentges’s 2019 overture is that it’s just the overture. He has plenty of time to play better. There’s no cause for concern regarding his prospect status, at least not yet, but his lousy start to the season disqualifies him for a chance at a Big League debut anytime soon.
Coming into the season, FanGraphs lead prospect analysts Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen listed Plesac, 24, in their “change-up artists” tier of pitching prospects and noted that he possessed the most velocity, but least command, of anyone in the group (Chih-Wei Hu, for what it’s worth, was also in the group). At that time, McLongenhagen (as they call themselves) suggested that he sat between 90-94. However, when they saw him pitch on April 30, Plesac averaged 94 MPH on the fastball, and he topped out at 97*. And, whatever helped him gain this velocity also helped him harness his iffy command; indeed, Plesac has walked a mere three batters in 31.1 Double-A innings. It should be noted that Dan’s nephew is not on the Indians’ 40-man roster, meaning his promotion would involve a slightly more complicated roster move. Still, a 97 MPH fastball, a plus change-up, and quickly improving command? Sign me up.
Kluber’s freak injury miserably capped what was another puzzling and inconsistent week for the Cleveland Indians, during which they recorded a 3-3 record. Of course, the injury jeopardizes the rotation and really, the whole season, but it’s especially frustrating because it appeared Kluber may have actually figured out the mechanical flaw that had caused his erratic pitching from earlier in the season. A .455 batting average on balls in play over his last two starts disguised an improved command and elevated groundball rate. Then, he got hit with a baseball, so we shall never know whether or not he fixed himself.
To make matters worse, Trevor Bauer continues to be incapable of reaching his 2018 highs. This past week, he walked ten batters in his fifteen innings, a protraction of a 2019 theme. Bauer’s walk rate is a sky-high 12.2%, a total he hadn’t reached since his dismal first two MLB seasons. A closer look reveals that Bauer has thrown first-pitch strikes five percentage points less frequently in 2019, and batters have absolutely punished him when he fails to get ahead:
It should be noted that 2019 is but a month old, and those same splits have been far less drastic over the course of Bauer’s entire career. Nonetheless, that difference in K% and BB% is appalling. When he’s ahead in the count, his opponents hit worse than pitchers; when he’s behind, hitters have gotten on base at the same clip as George Springer did in 2018. Needless to say, a regression back to the mean should take care of some of the problem, and Trevor Bauer is too cerebral of a pitcher to allow this trend to continue—I fully expect him to figure it out. Still, with 40% of the starting rotation on the IL for an extended period of time, the Indians surely hope Bauer can figure it out sooner, rather than later.
On the other side of the ball, the Indians bats have yet to wake from their winter hibernation. The signs of life to which I alluded two weeks ago remain more Martian than Earth-like: maybe someday we’ll have conclusive evidence that it exists, but for now, we just have to have faith in the peripheral signs. For instance, this past week saw improved strikeout and power numbers for Indians hitters, but their collective .244 BAbip weighted their wRC+ down to 76. It should be noted that this total is both eclipsing the season total of 70, but also not even approaching respectability, let alone the league average. That aforementioned power surge was provided nearly exclusively by Carlos Santana, who quadrupled his home run total (from one to four) on the season. Aside from Slamtana, no qualified Indians player has recorded a batting line above league average this year, and the Indians rank in the bottom five teams in production from second basemen, shortstops, third basemen and outfielders. Again, it is April, the single month with the least correlation (courtesy of Rob Mains) to total season numbers, and it’s still more likely than not that Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor will finish the season among the most valuable position players. Still, if Kluber and/or Clevinger don’t recover at the most optimistic rate, the Indians will have to find offense, either by trade, by call-up, or by old-fashioned coaching; otherwise, the 2019 season could be a lost one.
Minor Leaguers of the Week
Batting: Alexis Pantoja wasn’t just bad in 2018—he was downright terrible. His High-A batting line was .205/.243/.243 in 281 plate appearances. This somehow merited a promotion to Double-A, where he hit an even worse .190/.220/.215. Well, as of this week, he’s eclipsed his 2018 Double-A PA total with an improvement of miraculous proportions: he’s up to .303/.384/.421. I have no factual evidence that Pantoja is the most improved minor league player of the year, but how could he not be???
Runner-up: Eric Haase, who put up a .450 OBP and hit two dingers this past week.
Pitching: What more can I say about Zach Plesac? Over this past week, he made two starts, striking out 16, walking one, and allowing one run in 13.2 IP. He went 0 and 1.
Runner-up: Eli Morgan, who struck out nine and walked none in his five-inning start, though he did allow one homer.
The Indians return home today to begin a three-game set with the Seattle Mariners, before a four-game face-off with Tim Anderson and the Chicago White Sox. With seven games in seven days, the Indians have no time to waste to find a fifth starter, and I can’t wait to discuss it with you next week. Until then, go Tribe.