Found April 13, 2012 on Waiting For Next Year:

A lot has happened in the eight days since I found myself downtown on Opening Day, but perhaps most importantly, the Indians have opened the season with a decidedly Wedgian record of 1-4.

As we prepare fo our weekend tilt with the Royals, let’s quick hit some stories.

Is it too early to panic?  Of course it is.  Don’t be silly.  But we also shouldn’t fool ourselves about the losses either.  I reminded us all last season that wins in April count just as much as wins in September, so it would be inconsistent not to remind you of the same when it comes to losses.  We shouldn’t panic about anybody’s batting average or ERA, but I think it’s just fine to worry a bit about a team that’s won, including Spring Training games, exactly once since mid-March.

Speaking of panic, so, Johnny Damon, huh?  Much was made of how panicked the Indians must be so early in the season to go sign Johnny Damon after only five games, especially considering the team’s awful batting average on the young season.  But couldn’t it just as easily be Damon’s panic on display?  He’s about 300 hits away from 3,000, and he was staring down the possibility of losing an entire season—when he probably doesn’t have too many left.  And let’s not pretend that the Indians haven’t been trying to give left field to anyone not named Shelley Duncan for the better part of three months now.  Or that they didn’t already try to sign Damon earlier in the off-season; this wasn’t a split second decision.  Maybe it looks like front office panic from a distance, but how much better is it to have Damon now for $1.25 million than two months ago for $4 million?  What you call panic, I might actually call patience.  And a nice outcome.

Is Chris Perez broken?  Perez has thrown 69 pitches so far this year. Can you guess how many of those the opposing batter has swung and missed at? Four.  Now far be it from me to get concerned about a sample size this small, so let’s look for some trends.  In 2008 and 2009, Perez induced swinging strikes on over 9% of pitches.  In 2010, the figure dipped to 7.6%.  Last season it was down again all the way to 5.6%.  So far this year, he’s at 5.8%.  For comparison sake, Jonathan  Papelbon has never had a swinging-strike rate below 11%; John Axford averages around 10%.  Closers in general are expected to have high swinging strike rates, because even though K’s drive pitch counts up more quickly than inducing contact, they’re also a lot more effective in keep runners off base.  And if you’re only pitching one inning at a time, who cares about slightly higher pitch counts anyway?  Go for the K.  That’s not been Perez’s style, and not for some time.

And if that drop in swinging strike rate didn’t so closely correlate with a year-over-year decrease in Perez’s fastball velocity, maybe I wouldn’t be concerned.  But it does.  In 2008, Perez’s fastball averaged 95.5 mph.  By last season it had dropped to 93.3 mph.  For a guy who always seemed to rely on an overpowering fastball to generate whiffs, Perez just ain’t that guy anymore, and in reality, he probably never was.  In other words, I’m afraid he’s more Borowski than Mesa, and if it weren’t for his mullet and larger-than-life persona, I’m not sure we’d ever have thought to consider him a fireballer in the first place.  Which probably says more about us than it does him, but I digress.

Pretty, pretty, PRETTY, PREEEETAY GOOD. The Tigers’ offense is scary good, right?  And now there’s even the possibility that Victor could come back this season, giving them an incredible 3-4-5 for the playoff push (if there’s even a division race to be had after July).  So far they’re averaging almost seven runs a game.

But this shouldn’t really surprise us, right?  We knew Detriot’s offense would be one of the best in the league.  Their weaknesses are more subtle than that.  First, their starting pitching—beyond Verlander—is questionable.  And so far this season that’s been borne out: not one starting pitcher on Detroit has recorded a pitcher-win this year.  Leaving aside Verlander, the rotation has made four starts and thrown a total of 17.1 innings with an ERA 5.19.  A lot of these guys might be chumps, and we have some reason to believe they are.

Which really just feeds the larger point: a team whose talent is solely concentrated in 3-4 players is subject to a lot more random variation than a team that has talent more evenly distributed.  What if Verlander regresses from last season (which he almost certainly will)?  What if Prince Fielder requires coronary artery bypass surgery?  What if Miguel Cabrera starts drinking again?

And let me remind you one more time: when you have almost 600 lbs and only four ACLs to support it….Well, lots of things can happen.

But for right now?  Yeah.  They’re really good.

Enough Panic.  How About Those Royals? The Indians open a weekend series with Kansas City this afternoon, and there’s reason to think this might be exactly what they need to get their bats going.  First, hitting in 40-degree weather with whipping winds can’t be easy.  But second, while the Royals have impressively made over their roster in the last few years, one of the things they still don’t have is top-end starting pitching, which means the Indians will get to feast on the likes of Luke Hochevar (5.26 career ERA), Jonathan Sanchez (4.25), and Luis Mendoza (7.05).  Here are the things I’ll be watching for most closely this weekend:

  • I believe in Derek Lowe.  Or maybe I believe in the idea of Derek Lowe: a sinker ball starter who can effectively eat innings, post a below-league average ERA and save our bullpen some stress.  He gets the start this afternoon, and after an impressive debut, I’m curious to see what he can do against KC’s lineup.
  • The Indians have only five players with an OBP above .300—Santana, Duncan, Choo, Hafner and Hannahan.  But of those five, FOUR have struck out in more than 20% of their plate appearances, Choo being the lone exception.  That can’t continue, and I’m hoping I see these five put a bit more wood on the ball this weekend.
  • Speaking of things that can’t continue, it’s exceptionally unlikely the team will continue have such poor luck when they put the ball in play.  The Indians are batting .177 on batted balls so far this season, by far the worst in baseball.  A little luck never hurt anyone, and I’ll be waiting to see it this weekend is harbinger of better times to come in that department.
  • Ubaldo pitches on Sunday.  Let’s just say he’s going to need to be better than he was last time out, even though last time out he carried a no-hitter into the seventh.  His peripherals weren’t great—as many walks as strikeouts the most glaring—he just happened to have the ball hit right at his defenders.  Just as the Indians’ offense isn’t going to do that all season long, neither can Jimenez count on the baseball fairies to keep directing his batted balls toward our infielders.  Specifically, I want to see if he can command his changeup against left handed batters.  And of course, I’d like to see that fastball velo keep climbing: he averaged 91.7 mph in his last start.  He’s gotta be 95 to be the ace he used to be, but I’d be happy with small steps from him, this early in the season.

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