Cleveland and the Collapse

Is it possible for every team in a division to be disappointing? Probably not — somebody has to win, after all, and it is sort of hard to say that a division winner is disappointing (although I’m sure the New York and Boston medias can correct me on that). The 2012 American League Central is coming close to being completely disappointing, though, which is saying something, given the division’s normally low standards. The amazing White Sox are obviously excepted, given that no one really saw them leading the division this late in the year.

As for the rest of the division, the Tigers could still take it (and could get into the playoffs without winning the division), but prior to the season everyone thought they would run away with the division title. The Royals were not expected to win the division given their lack of starting pitching, but the young talent has been very disappointing this year — Danny Duffy got hurt, Mike Moustakas has flatlining for two months, and Eric Hosmer is engaged in a “Who Sucks Worse” contest with Jeff Francoeur that makes one nostalgic for the legendary Mike JacobsJose Guillen battle of 2009. (This would be a good time for everyone to hail my genius). In the meantime, the Twins… oh, who am I kidding, everyone knew the Twins were going to be horrible this year. Speaking of which, where is Posnanski’s annual “Gardy Time!” post?

And then there is Cleveland, who were supposed to have a puncher’s chance to challenge Detroit. What happened there?

Cleveland entered the season poised to at least make a run at the Tigers this year. The Tigers were the obvious pre-season favorites, but Cleveland made some moves that seemed to put them in the picture. They started the year well, and lead the division through much of the spring. Yet, here we are, and not only is Cleveland not in contention, but after getting swept in Oakland this past weekend, they have fallen to fourth place behind the Royals. Run differential tends to be overused as a predictive tool, but even early in the season Cleveland’s run differential was poor. Pythagorean chickens have come home to roost. In fact, while the Indians may be ahead of Minnesota in the standings, their Pythagorean record is even worse than the pathetic Twins.

Many things have gone wrong for Cleveland this year, and each of them can be analyzed in minute detail at a later date. Some problem areas have been more obvious than others, and while I will get to the obvious, it has not all been Ubaldo.

On offense, there have actually been some nice developments. Asdrubal Cabrera has been almost as good with the bat as he was in his surprising 2011. Shin-Soo Choo has mostly bounced back from his poor 2011 season. Michael Brantley has been surprisingly decent with that stick.

Still, the offense has not been as good as expected. Grady Sizemore missing most of the season was hardly a surprise, but his replacements (with Brantley moving to center) have been terrible. Shelley Duncan has shown decent power now and then, but has been mostly bad. Letting Duncan play through his slumps might have been a better idea than giving Zombie Johnny Damon get more than 200 plate appearances, though.

The infield has had its own issues. Jason Kipnis started the year strong, but has been slumping badly lately. Still, a second baseman with a league-average bat is not going to kill the team. Third base has been a different story. Lonnie Chisenhall was supposed to come up and be another injection of youth alongside Kipnis, but last only 74 plate appearances before getting hurt. His replacement, Jack Hannahan, has not been able to repeat his glorious 2011 adequacy with the bat, returning to his utterly no-hit self. Speaking of 2011-princes-turned-to-frogs, free agent signing Casey Kotchman has started 96 games at first base, and hit .230//289.353. While Carlos Santana‘s relatively disappointing hitting this year has been frustrating (and troubling for the future), it pales in comparison to the fiascoes at first and third.

As problematic as the offense has been, the starting pitching has arguably been even worse. While there were understandable pre-season concerns about Cleveland’s combination of ground ball pitchers and poor infield defenders, the team’s BABIP against is not especially high (.300). The main problems the starters have been having as a group is that the have not struck out that many batters (the second-worst strikeout percentage in the AL) while also walking far too many (the second-worst walk percentage in the league). Maybe it is better to say the starting pitchers have had just one problem: they have been terrible.

Basically, the only individual starter who has pitched well for Cleveland for an extended period of time is Zach McAllister. Not much was expected (other than “innings eating”) from Josh Tomlin and the departed Derek Lowe, and one could say that they lived “up” to expectations (although that is probably being generous to Lowe). Given the weakness of the middle and bottom of the rotation, it was imperative that Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson deliver the goods. They did not.

Masterson had a “breakout” season in 2011, and managed to get both right- and left-handed hitters out despite not having a what most would consider an out pitch against lefties. While (at least relative to the rest of the Cleveland rotation) he has not been a complete disaster this year, the Indians needed him to a be a top-of-the-rotation starters, and he has given them something like decent #4 production this season. While is strikeouts are actually up, his walk rate is, too, and, perhaps most telling, his platoon issues have returned with a vengeance.

Finally, we come to Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez’ specific problems are just so glaring that specific details are not only obvious, but in a general post like this are superfluous. While Masterson has at least provided some value, Jimenez has been a replacement-level disaster. While last year one could at least point out that his peripherals were still good, this year his walk rate has gone through the roof. Again, this would be bad enough, but given how Cleveland had set up their rotation, they absolutely had to get above-average production from Jimenez and Masterson, and Jimenez has been horrible.

At the time of the trade, some wise observers opined that the Rockies might feel as if something not evident in the numbers was wrong with Jimenez, and that that the Rockies were selling on him while they could still get value. Obviously, we do not know what the Rockies’ (or Indians’) scouts, coaches and trainers did and did not think of Jimenez’ issues at the time of the trade. It is not as if Drew Pomeranz and Alex White are exactly tearing it up for Colorado, either. And it is not as if Jimenez is necessarily finished as as effective starter, either. But given the relative cost and upside of the talent involved in the trade, given how the season has turned out, Cleveland probably wishes they could have that one back.

It is, of course, unfair to judge how the trade turned out (to date, at least) long after the fact with Cleveland languishing in the standings. As noted above, Cleveland obviously had their reasons for thinking Jimenez could still bring it. hey had their reasons for thinking that Grady Sizemore could stay healthy long enough to provide value in the outfield, that Lonnie Chisenhall wouuld be a boost at third base, that Casey Kotchman could still hit well enough to be an asset at first base, that Johnny Damon was still alive, that Justin Masterson could make it as a starter with just two pitches, and so on. To think that all of this and more would go wrong prior to it actually happening would put one on the extremely pessimistic end of things.

Part of me wants to deliver a firm “judgment” here: the plan was either faulty from the start, or that the “process” was good and Cleveland just got incredibly unlucky. On one hand, I do not like the idea of a team on a budget trading young talent for a projected short-term boost. On the other hand, I love it when teams actually go for it — they do not give out pennants for “most efficient payroll” (insert pre-2012 Loria Marlins joke here). That is not to say such evaluations canot be made by bloggers. I am simply not going to do it here. Cleveland took some risks in their go for it season, and if they had made it, we would all be applauding them. Instead, they are something of a laughing stock, and are probably embarking on another depressing round of rebuilding. Whether the “gambles” were wise at the time or not, the team now has to pay up.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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2009 Nationals
2009 Nationals

All the points listed above are way more important than the one I am about to raise, but it should be said anyway: players give up on Manny Acta. That guy just doesn’t seem to know how to hold a clubhouse together in the face of adversity. I watched it firsthand with the Nats in 2009. If Jim Riggleman does a better job of managing than you, you shouldn’t be leading a team at the major league level.