Originally written on Waiting For Next Year  |  Last updated 10/4/14
I didn’t get to watch the Indians sweep the White Sox on Thursday afternoon.  In fact, I only got to hear a little bit of it between meetings, so rather than give you a traditional blow-by-blow, I thought we’d talk about a few big takeaways as the Indians extend their win streak to eight games and come roaring into August with sole possession of a playoff spot. Justin Masterson is looking pretty ace-y. I’ve written on more than one occasion that our rotation is somewhat unique in that it has a lot of good pitchers, but no great ones.  Most teams have a descending rotation wherein, perhaps, the second best guy is 10% worse than the ace and so on.  I’ve argued that the Indians effectively have five (or six or seven) starters who are all completely capable, above average pitchers, but none of whom can dominate.  In other words, I’ve argued they are “aceless”. But I may be changing my mind, because Justin Masterson is slowly reinventing himself this season, and you’d have to be willfully blind not to see it.  Let’s start with the strikeouts.  From 2010 through the end of last season (his three years as a starter), Masterson struck out 6.8 batters per nine innings pitched, which translated to a K% of about 17%.  This season, he’s striking out 9.2 batters per nine, or 25% of all batters he faces.  That’s a 47% increase in strikeout rate, which is pretty phenomenal if he can sustain it.  On Thursday, Masterson continued the trend, striking out seven in 6.2 innings pitched. What’s somewhat fascinating is that the strikeouts have increased without any loss of control.  Masterson’s current BB/9 of 3.3 sits below his career average of 3.5, and results in a perfectly nice K/BB ratio of 2.78. The reason for this improvement, I might suggest, could be Masterson’s slider.  Last season, his slider was almost exactly average (0.8 runs better than average, to be precise, over the course of the season).  So far this year, it’s already 17 runs better than average, which means with his slider alone he’s won the Indians nearly two additional games.  This tends to jibe with what I’m seeing: righties and lefties alike are swinging and missing at his slider more now, as he’s learned to get two-plane break on it while keeping it down in the zone.  Worst case scenario, it’s a ball, but more often than not he’s inducing swings and misses.  Which, for a guy who historically struggled against lefties, was kind of a key development. Regardless of the cause, Masterson has maintained a ridiculously high groundball rate (58%) while dramatically improving his strikeouts and continuing to limit walks.  It’s not surprising then that you see his name eighth in the AL in Wins Above Replacement, sixth in FIP, first in groundball-rate, and first in innings pitched.  That’s an ace, even if we’re not used to thinking of him that way. Yan Gomes should be our starting catcher. I’m not sure when I finally lowered the Carlos-Santana-must-be-our-starting-catcher flag, but I’m guessing it was right around the time I decided that Santana is never going to put the required work in to become even a competent Big League backstop.  Either then, or when I realized that Yan Gomes’ bat is not reminiscent of Laser Lou Marson’s. After two hits in Thursday’s win, Gomes is now hitting .298/.335/.523 on the season, good for an .858 OPS.  I don’t think he’s going to do that well going forward, but he’s proven that he can hit with some power and more than make up for any deficiencies with his glove and arm. There are 39 MLB catchers who have caught at least 250 innings this season, a group that both Santana and Gomes belong.  Here are their ranks in a few categories: Gomes Santana Caught Stealing % 1st 36th Passed Balls per Inning 18th 29th Wild Pitches per Inning 34th 39th Fielding Percentage 10th 25th   Santana’s best ranking there is 25th out of 39, and that’s probably the least reliable, as catcher errors aren’t always clear-cut calls for the scorekeeper.  In every other category he’s in the bottom quartile of all big league catchers defensively. The good news is that getting Gomes into the lineup everyday really shouldn’t be too hard.  Santana can share DH and 1B duties with Nick Swisher, who can share RF duties with Drew Stubbs.  The only one left out in the rain on a regular basis is Mark Reynolds, and I don’t think anyone is going to lose too much sleep over benching an impending free agent who’s batting .212 on the season with a slugging percentage lower than Michael Bourn’s. Everybody loves Raburn. Anthony Castrovince wrote a great piece earlier in the week about the Indians minor move at the deadline, and how in some ways, minor moves are what have made this team a contender to begin with.  The contributions from guys like Gomes and Aviles and Kazmir and Giambi—smirked at all spring long—have been every bit as important to this group’s success as guys like Mark Reynolds and Brett Myers. The point is that the team is getting great contributions up and down the roster, and perhaps the most apparent example of this is Ryan Raburn, who homered twice more on Thursday to give him 13 on the season, in only 199 plate appearances.  You’re certainly tempted to extrapolate that number over a 600 plate appearance season and wonder if Raburn could hit 40+ home runs if given an everyday spot. Of course, he wouldn’t do that at all, and a good deal of his success this season is likely due to Terry Francona’s understanding of his limitations as a player.  Against left-handed pitching Raburn’s career OPS is 100 points higher than against right handed pitching.  Last season, when miscast as an everyday player, Raburn was arguably the worst hitter in the Major Leagues, posting a .171/.226/.254 line over 222 merciless plate appearances.  He is a part-time player, who can excel in the role, when deployed wisely, as we’ve seen so far this year.  In some ways, the transformation of the bench is the real story of the off-season.  The Indians went from 4A types who were all fungible fodder on the I-71 expressway to real role-players who have a meaningful (to them and the team) spot on the roster.  Perhaps no one typifies this better than Ryan Raburn. The Indians now head down to Miami for the weekend to face the Marlins in a three-game series before coming home for a big four-game series against the Tigers.  Their schedule is remarkably easy the rest of the way, but that doesn’t guarantee them anything.  Like I said yesterday, it feels great to have meaningful baseball to watch again, but I forgot how nerve-wracking it can get.
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