Sunday Notes: Cleveland, Taijuan, Coke, more

I was at Progressive Field earlier this week to see the Indians host the Mariners. A stone’s throw away, the Cavaliers were playing Golden State in the NBA finals. The latter series has the city captivated and on the precipice of euphoria. When the basketball game got out on Tuesday night, hordes of fans below my hotel window chanted “Let’s go Cavs!” and blew air horns to celebrate a win. A brass band played somewhere down on the street. It sounded like Mardi Gras, and it was only Game 3.

“They’re going to blow the roof off this place if they win,” Indians outfielder Nick Swisher told me. “People love their sports around here, and it’s been a long, long time since there’s been a championship.”

Fifty-one years, to be exact. The Browns won the NFL title in 1964, and since that time it’s been a multi-sport combination of heartbreak and non-contenders. According to Swisher, who grew up in Ohio, “That’s why you see so many people coming out to support the Cavs.”

Meanwhile, with no basketball game as competition, the official attendance at Progressive Field on Wednesday night was 12,305. The number of fans who actually showed up was probably closer to seven or eight thousand. On the season, the Indians have drawn an average of 16,836, with only the cloudy-future Rays spinning fewer turnstiles. Cleveland was also second from the bottom last year, and in 2013 they ranked just one spot higher despite 92 wins and a Wild Card berth.

A security guard told me he’ll literally cry tears of joy if the Cavaliers go on to win the NBA title, and that others of a certain age will as well. Numerous people I spoke to shared a similar sentiment.

As for the Indians, the support they’ve received in recent seasons is a crying shame. Basketball buzz aside, people simply aren’t coming out to see a competitive team that plays in a gorgeous ballpark and has affordable ticket prices. According to a middle-aged usher I spoke to, the days of packed houses, much like the city’s last championship, are little more than a distant memory.

“This place will fill up if we make the playoffs,” he told me. “Outside of that, and I hate to say this, I’m not sure this is a big baseball town. Not like it used to be, anyway.”

——

The visiting radio booth at Progressive Field is named after legendary Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell. The Indians inaugurated The Ernie Harwell Visiting Radio Booth in 2002, on his final visit to Cleveland.

Harwell’s first game as a Tigers broadcaster came in Cleveland, two days after Detroit dealt defending batting champion Harvey Kuenn to the Indians in exchange for defending home run champion Rocky Colavito. It was opening day, 1960, and Harwell called the action from a table in the upper deck, with the temperature in the mid-30s. There was no visiting radio booth in Cleveland at the time.

——

Sticking with a Cleveland theme, Orioles first base coach Wayne Kirby was a back-up outfielder for the 1995 Indians team that broke a four-decade postseason drought and went to the World Series. They lost, of course, as they did again two years later.

Kirby was a reserve on a talent-laden club that featured a starting outfield of Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton. Ramirez was 23 years old at the time, and in his first season as an every-day player. He was already something special.

“Manny was gifted,” Kirby told me earlier this season. “His hand-eye coordination was unbelievable. He was studious, but at the same time, everything came natural to him. I once saw Manny hit three home runs in a game with three different bats. It happened in spring training. He just picked up bats and hit home runs.”

As for having been a fourth outfielder behind a trio of All-Stars, the former Indian wasn’t complaining. He knew talent when he saw it.

“In baseball, you have to accept your role,” said Kirby. “I was a starting right fielder but then Manny came along. I always tell people that I hit .293 and lost a job. You open your eyes and see what’s happening, and I saw how good that kid was. I tip my hat to him.”

——

Phil Coke has changed more than uniforms. He’s also tweaked his delivery and swapped his signature slider for a combination of cutters and curveballs. He needed to. As the 32-year-old southpaw put it, “I was tired of working so hard on something that didn’t seem to be working so much anymore.”

If you’re a Tigers fan, you probably read those words and thought “No (expletive).” Coke had his moments in Motown, but recent seasons – especially 2013 – were littered with ugly outings. As a result, Detroit bid him adieu in the offseason. After a brief hookup with the Cubs, the refurbished reliever is now a Blue Jay. He joined the north-of-the-border ball club on Friday.

Coke instituted his changes this winter, working with Poway, California-based pitching instructor Dominick Johnson. The repertoire change came with consistency in mind. Coke’s slider was lethal when sharp, but too often was flat and found gaps.

“In years past, I hung a lot of breaking balls,” admitted Coke, who hasn’t thrown a slider all season. “The way my cutter comes out of my hand is just easier to repeat.”

Mechanics were a big reason his slider was erratic. He wasn’t always getting on top of the ball, and his motion was a big reason why. Correcting that was crucial to his remaking.

“I’m not at a 45 (degree angle) and turning my back to the hitter anymore,” said Coke. “What it comes down is creating angles. With sharper angles – being closed off – your body has to repeatedly fight through to get to a consistent release point. I was getting rotational, trying to get out of those angles.

“My arm stroke was also getting too long. As soon as I separated out of my glove, you could see the ball all the way up to the top, and all the way through to my release point. That allowed hitters to track the ball the entire way. Now that I’m in line, my arm is more behind my body, and I’m not out there saying, ‘Here it comes, here it comes. Ready? Here you go. See it? Here it comes.’”

Will a cleaner delivery and no more here-it-comes sliders turn around Coke’s career? He didn’t get much of a chance with the Cubs, with whom he fell victim to a numbers crunch. Time will tell if he can make a difference with the Jays.

——

When I first talked to Taijuan Walker, he was 19 years old and finishing up his first of two seasons at Double-A Jackson. The top prospect in the Mariners system had a ton of talent but a lot to learn. Three years later, he’s in the Seattle starting rotation, still with a lot to learn. How he complements his plus fastball remains a work-in-progress.

In our 2012 conversation, Walker told me he’d only weeks before begun throwing a cutter. He was also beginning to trust his curveball, which hadn’t been the case for most of that summer. An improving changeup was yet another talking point. All three pitches have undergone a makeover since that time.

“I switched from throwing a four-seam circle in 2013,” Walker told me a few days ago. “It’s more like a split change now. I don’t split it all the way, but I spread my fingers a little bit to take some velo off of it. I also get some good sink. It’s my second best pitch now, behind my fastball, and I throw it a lot.”

That was certainly true on Tuesday night. In a strong six-inning performance in Cleveland, Walker threw 24 split-changes, along with 64 fastballs, three cutters, and one curveball. The latter is being thrown with a brand new grip.

“I’m still getting a feel for it, but I’m working on a spike curve,” explained Walker. “I’ve been throwing it for about two weeks. (James) Paxton and Felix (Hernandez) throw one – a lot of guys in MLB do – and I talked to them about it, as well as to (pitching coach) Rick (Waits), because he threw one in his career. It’s about 76-78 (mph), whereas my other curveball was 70-73, topping out at 75.”

His cutter is another evolving offering.

“I’m working on kind of a cutter-slider, “ said Walker. “I used to throw a cutter, but I’m trying to make it a little bigger. I’m trying to make it into more of a slider, and more of strikeout pitch. The cutter was more of a contact pitch, or a foul ball pitch to get back in the count, and I want more swing-and-miss with it.”

His fastball? “That hasn’t changed,” said Walker. “It’s a four-seam that gets some two-seam movement, and it’s what I rely on. Everything works off the fastball.”

——

Julian Tavarez pitched for 11 different teams from 1993-2009. Over that time, he developed a bit of a reputation. He hit 96 batters with pitches, and a few more with his fists. An instigator in multiple brawls, he once broke his non-pitching hand punching a bullpen phone.

Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Tavarez had to fight for food. His family was so poor that he never went to school. Books and pencils were a luxury they couldn’t afford.

“It was a hard life,” Tavarez told me. “We didn’t have money, so I didn’t even have shoes. I didn’t have anything. It was hard to find something to eat. If you flipped a piece of bread in the air, I would fight to eat it.”

What he did have was a love for baseball, and from a young age, he dedicated his life to the game. That wasn’t easy either. Tavarez remembers being 11 years old and “playing buck naked in the street, with burnt feet.” When he was a teenager, the Indians signed him to a professional contract, and three years later he was in the big leagues. Once there, he bought his family a house and brought them to the United States to watch him pitch.

“It meant a lot to them,” said Tavarez. “It gave them a better life.”

——

After Brandon Moss hit his 100th career home run earlier this month, it was held ransom by the members of the Indians’ bullpen. The shenanigans made for a good story, and the dinger itself was meaningful, as the Tribe went on to beat the Royals by a count of 2-1.

His first career home run was even more meaningful. It came on March 25, 2008 as a member of the Red Sox. The season-opening game was played in the Tokyo Dome, with Boston besting the A’s 6-5, in 10 frames. Moss’s blast came off of Huston Street and tied the game in the ninth inning.

“He had me 1-2 and I just happened to feel that he was going to throw a changeup, so I kind of sat back on it,” reminisced Moss. “It wasn’t even a bad pitch – it was actually a ball — and I kind of reached out and hooked it. The ballpark was small, and the ball just barely got out.”

What did it feel like to homer in Japan?

“It was awesome,” said Moss.”The crowd was really into the game, and they were rooting for the Red Sox. It was absolutely awesome.”

——

In case you missed the news, Erik Bedard announced his retirement on Thursday. The Ontario-born southpaw pitched for six teams over 11 big league seasons and was credited with 71 wins and 82 losses. In 2008, the Orioles traded him to Seattle for a package that included Adam Jones and Chris Tillman.

Injuries bedeviled Bedard following the swap, so just how ill-advised the move was for the Mariners requires at least a cursory “What if?” Prior to heading west he was one of the best pitchers in the junior circuit. Even so, the best case scenario wasn’t worth mortgaging the future – Seattle was a pretend contender – and a questionable decision ended up being disastrous. That wasn’t Bedard’s fault, of course. He wasn’t the one who made the trade.

——

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Oakland rookie Billy Burns had two home runs in 1,513 minor league at bats. This year he has two home runs – one from each side – in 158 at bats with the A’s.

Yesterday, Tampa Bays Chris Archer walked a batter for the first time since May 22. Over his last four games, the emerging ace has issued one free pass and fanned 43 over 30 innings.

Randy Johnson had 36 games with 10-or-more strikeouts and no walks, the most ever. Curt Schilling (27) and Roger Clemens (21) are next on the list. In case you were wondering, Greg Maddux had five.

Fifty years ago today, Jim Maloney of the Cincinnati Reds no-hit the New York Mets for 10 inning, then gave up a home run in the 11th inning and lost 1-0. He struck out 18 batters along the way.

Prior to the 1980 season, Nolan Ryan became the highest-paid player in history when he signed a four-year contract with the Astros worth $4 million.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Cleveland, Taijuan, Coke, more by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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fjtorres
Guest
fjtorres

The Cleveland attendance issue isn’t that the city is not a baseball town. Rather that the team has no credibility with fans.

Part of it is the Dolan ownership that very quickly frittered away the loyalty and credibility of the Jacobs era by letting it be known that team payroll would be determined solely by paid attendance (notably TV money) and that all other revenue was off-limits and destined for Dolan pockets. This during a decade where the team farm system specialized in producing 4th outfielders, utility infielders, and middle relief.

Part of it is the “choker” image the team developed under Eric Wedge, where the team performs at its best when they are buried in the standings and at its worst (even against poor teams) in high value/high visibility games (check their record on national TV: Sunday night on ESPN and the like.) and both early and late in the season if they are anywhere close to the playoffs. Not totally deserved under Francona but bad starts and endings are more typical than fights to the finish. Getting buried year after year by the Tigers and more recently the Royals doesn’t exactly inspire turnout either.

And, finally, for long-term fans the onfield product brings back more memories of the mediocre teams of the 80’s that alternated between good hitting and good pitching–often trading one for the other–but never both at the same time, and less memories of the Jacobs era teams with their memorable players and personalities and committed ownership. Recent teams have all had clearly visible gaping holes (typically high handed power, even when it was plentiful) that have gone unaddressed year after year even when rolling out a presumed contender.

Cleveland fans will pay to watch good baseball teams but not boring ones.
And the current team, while not devoid of talent is, frankly, boring.

Especially at home.
(Look at the splits.)

fjtorres
Guest
fjtorres

Correction: notably, TV money was offlimits for roster funding.
Shapiro admitted it fairly early in his tenure.

Jon
Guest
Jon

Care to produce any evidence that specific revenues are to directly go to Dolan’s pockets? A quote maybe?
Cleveland fans will only support a baseball team that is guaranteed to go to the World Series.

Free_fjtorres
Guest
Free_fjtorres

Who needs evidence when you have jail time?

Robert Hombre
Guest
Robert Hombre

The Jacobs would not have signed Thome. They would not have signed Ramirez. They did not sign Belle.

But you’re operating under the assumption that the Jacobs or any other ownership group would have acted differently. The Dolans made one critical mistake, and that was buying the team as the contention window was closing. Imagine Ilitch selling the Tigers now. Anyone who bought it would be compared to the desperate spending of a dying pizza mogul, and keyboards in Michigan would be lamenting how these owners just didn’t want it as much as Ilitch. In reality, DET’s (probable) decline is completely forseeable, just as Cleveland’s decline was forseeable after losing club control of two of the best hitters in the last 30 years.

The drafting thing is correct. That’s it. The rest is nebulous moralizing of TV markets and unprovable assertions.

fjtorres
Guest
fjtorres

Note that what I am listing is fan perceptions.

The TV money thing comes from a comment from Shapiro who was asked why the team budget had not increased with the new Cable contract, when the Dolans set up Sportstime Ohio. His answer was that that money went elsewhere and he had no say on it.
Read that as you will.

Again, the fans simply aren’t invested in the team because ownership has shown no great interest in investing *their* money in a winner for 10 years. In Detroit Illych put money into the team by explaining that you have to spend money to make money. The Dolans public statements amount to saying they’ll spend money when the fans give them money.

Shawn
Guest
Shawn

That pitching staff is ‘boring’?
Michael Brantley is boring? Kipnis? Santana?

Steven
Guest
Steven

Boring? The Indians starting rotation is on pace to easily break the all-time season strikeout record thrown by a starting pitching staff. The offense has some great hitters and are in the top 25% of the offenses in MLB.

Combine those two things with the comical way Cleveland plays on defense and I think most would agree in saying that you probably have the ‘least boring team’ in all of baseball.

Grant
Guest
Grant

They’ve made the postseason and have one of the better young rosters in baseball. The fans are just crap if they can’t see that. This town is too negative.

senorpogo
Guest
senorpogo

I’ve heard these and dozens and dozens of other reasons for why Clevelanders don’t support the Indians. When there’s that many excuses keeping people from the ballpark, it probably means that they’re just not baseball fans.

Clevelanders love football and a winner. No shame in that.

Cornflake5000
Guest
Cornflake5000

Cleveland fans sound a lot like White Sox fans. I’ve never heard a fan base make more excuses on why they don’t go to the game. It doesn’t matter how much money they put into park renovations or the product on the field… that lame fanbase just doesn’t show up. The team plays in a big market, but their revenue is mid-market because companies know the ROI is lacking.

Ben
Guest
Ben

I wonder if the economy and Cleveland’s rustbelt location play a factor…

Scott
Guest
Scott

As a rational Cleveland fan, these excuses are so incredibly tiresome. They could win 100 games and “fans” like you would come back with more similarly lame excuses. What’s that you say? The Dolans don’t want to spend money on a franchise that draws 10k a night in the middle of a playoff chase? Most would call that smart business. If the Dolans financial strategy wasn’t vindicated before, it sure was after the summer of 2013.

People need to get over the fact that the days of Belle/Ramirez/Thome in the heart of the lineup are long gone, never to return. And frankly, most Indians fans today don’t deserve that. You want that? Pay $10 a few times and go sit in some of the best bleacher seats baseball has to offer. Oakland plays in a decrepit cavern, in Oakland, and has no trouble drawing more fans than the Indians. That’s all you need to know really.

So enough of the excuses. Just say you’re a fair weather baseball fan, it’s ok.