Monday, 19 June 2017

Exceptional Encarnacion, Back On Track

When the Indians signed slugger Edwin Encarnacion in the off-season, fans got pretty excited. Winter nights were spent dreaming of the Dominican veteran launching 400 ft home runs over the fence at Progressive Field, this time wearing the red, white and navy of Cleveland and not the blue hue of Toronto.

After a winter of anticipation finally gave we to spring, we got our first look at Edwin and his delightful parrot trot as he rounded the bases after a home run in the Arizona sunshine. Opening Day came and went, as did the month of April. And Edwin? Well, he was okay. Actually (lets be honest) he wasn't quite what we expected. He struck out a lot, and he wasn't hitting loads of homers, just 4 actually. By the end of the first month he was batting just .200 with an OPS of .696. Something was definitely amiss and there were quiet rumblings that the Indians had signed a bum.

But Edwin didn't listen to the naysayers and kept plugging away, battling at the plate as he always does, and has done. Since the start of May, Encarnacion's approach has finally started to reap the rewards that fans were craving for. In the last month and half, Edwin has slashed .297/.398/.579 with 12 home runs and 27 RBI, raising his season OPS to a much improved .872. He's been especially hot in the last couple of weeks, slashing .370/.483/.804 over 14 games, with 6 home runs in that span.

And it couldn't have come at a better time. The Indians have been scuffling in recent weeks, their inconsistent play holding them back from making any attempt at leading the AL Central. Then along came Edwin and a trip to Minneapolis, home of the first place Twins. This was an opportunity the Tribe could not afford to pass up, to really put a marker down in the race for the division. And Edwin and the boys did not disappoint. Encarnacion, combining with some stellar pitching and some other contributors on offense, took apart the Twins in a four-game sweep to wrestle back the AL Central lead. “It’s not a surprise that he can literally carry a team,” reliever extraordinaire Andrew Miller said, and Edwin has been doing just that.

This was the kind of performance and the kind of series that clubs look to build upon, to create that wave of momentum that will hopefully carry them to October. Encarnacion has been a huge factor in this resurgence and he'll need to continue this level of performance to keep the Indians ahead in the race for postseason baseball. As a core piece in the heart of the Indians' lineup, you could argue that the Tribe's success in 2017 hinges upon Encarnacion's output. If recent activity is to be believed, then I think we'll be just fine.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Lightning In A Bottle Lonnie

Lonnie Chisenhall has had a remarkable start to 2017. After coming off the disabled list to begin his campaign on April 13, Lonnie has been hitting the absolute crap out of the ball. Want to see what I mean?

That's him crushing his 6th home run on Saturday night in Houston. Crushing to dead center! Chisenhall has 6 homers already this year. He had 8 in total in 2016, and 7 in total in 2015. His career-high is 13 back in 2014, when he had 533 plate appearances. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict Lonnie smashes that number, setting a new career-high in the process. He is currently sporting a .283 ISO (Isolated Power) which is almost double what he has produced in previous years. It's only late May so obviously too early to use that number as a predictive measure of his power output for the rest of 2017. But we'll keep a close eye on him to see if he can maintain this extra-base hit rate into the summer and beyond. I'm quietly confident he can keep this up.

At the time of writing he's slashing .261/.333/.543 (AVG/OBP/SLG) over 33 games, for a .877 OPS and a 130 WRC+. And he's done most of this playing in center field, filling in admirably in the absence of Tyler Naquin, Austin Jackson and Abraham Almonte. Since Bradley Zimmer's promotion I thought Chisenhall would go back to his usual spot in right field, but he featured in center again last night against the Reds. Lonnie's versatility is an added bonus that I think many fans don't fully appreciate. Let's be clear though: he's not winning a gold glove any time soon, but the fact he can at least hold his own in that great expanse between the corners is a blessing for the Indians, especially now the injuries have started to pile up.

Lonnie's Achilles' heel has always been his inability to hit left-handed pitchers (career .240 BA), which lead to his platoon player status in recent years, albeit a very effective one, particularly with Brandon Guyer in 2016. However this season has seen him hit lefties very well, when given the opportunity. In 12 games he's batting .308, and even though this is a super small sample size, it's encouraging, especially given Guyer's absence from the lineup recently. Put it this way: he hasn't been a black hole at the plate against lefties, so there is some comfort to be taken from his performance against them thus far.

I think the odds of Chisenhall fulfilling the expectations that came with his first round pick selection back in 2008 are now very slim. The good news is that he doesn't necessarily have to reach those heights in order to contribute to this Indians team. What he's doing right now is working and as long as he's having a positive impact in the lineup, then as far as I'm concerned he's meeting all of my expectations. This recent power surge is just an added bonus, and a very welcome one. Keep it up Lonnie.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Welcome To The Show Bradley Zimmer

Cleveland's number one prospect and great center-field-hope Bradley Zimmer got the call to join the big club on Tuesday, making his debut at home against the Rays. This move is much sooner than I had expected but has been brought on out of necessity. Since Abraham Almonte hit the disabled list (and Brandon Guyer and Austin Jackson are still unavailable too), Zimmer will replace Abe and slot straight into center field, likely pushing Lonnie Chisenhall back to his customary corner outfield spot. Zimmer has taken the number 4 jersey, formerly worn last year by fellow outfielder Coco Crisp.

Zimmer was the Indians’ first-round pick in 2014 and has developed nicely in the past few years. This season he's gotten off to a particularly fast start at Triple-A Columbus and was hitting .294/.371/.532 with 5 home runs and 9 stolen bases at the time of his promotion. He altered the mechanics in his swing in the Arizona Fall League and so far it's been working wonders for the 24 year-old.

Perhaps the largest issue that has plagued Zimmer's rise through the minor has been strikeouts. His K% (strikeouts per plate appearance) has progressively increased each season and at each level of the minor leagues. It has consistently hovered in the mid twenties but got as high as 37.3% in Columbus last year, albeit in a small sample of just 37 games. It's something that will be worth keeping an eye on during his major league development. For instance, in his debut last night he struck out in all 3 at-bats... Not exactly the best first impression when you take into account his previous history.

However we should shed some light on what he does well, and what he offers this Indians team. Zimmer had a very impressive spring training in Arizona and we finally got to see some of that stellar defense in center field that we had heard so much about. When compared with the Tribe's other center field prospect Tyler Naquin, it's pretty clear Zimmer is the superior defender, in fact he's considered the top defensive outfielder on the roster. His 6-foot-5 frame glides to the ball with zero effort. Francona said, "as he gets to know the league, you're going to see an above-average defender."

It is wise to temper our expectations somewhat with Zimmer; it's unlikely he will provide the same sort of spark that Francisco Lindor did when he first joined the Indians. However, given the Tribe's outfield struggles so far in 2017, Zimmer can really help this club right now, with some solid defense and a good eye at the plate. Even if he's just average with the bat, his defense should help the team enormously.

Welcome to Cleveland Bradley.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Jays Drop Tribe, Take Series

The Indians narrowly lost this recent three game set in Toronto, dropping two games to the Jays. The games the Tribe lost were both close though and Cleveland now sit with a 18-15 record, still atop the AL Central and half a game above Minnesota.

The Trouble With Trevor

I think the vast majority of Indians fans made their peace a long time ago with the fact that Trevor Bauer is unlikely to become the star pitcher we thought he might be when the Tribe acquired him from Arizona many moons ago. Now, in his fifth season in Cleveland, Bauer is scrapping just to hold onto his place in the rotation, let alone reach the heights we once imagined for him.

Most major league ballclubs are content with their fifth starter to deliver over 150 innings and average an ERA between four and five runs over the course of a season; this is an acceptable output for the man you send out there every fifth day. If this guy can last between 5-6 innings a game and give up just a handful of runs, keeping his team within striking distance, then he's doing good work. For the most part, Bauer does this, and in reality he's actually the Indians' fourth starter (as most would consider Tomlin the fifth guy, despite pitching out of order.) As a full-time starter the past three years, he's never pitched less than 150 innings in a season, and even managed a career high 190 in 2016. His season ERA during that span also never surpassed 4.55. So why is it that Bauer in particular seems to receive so much more criticism from his fans than your average fifth starter?

For one thing, it could be the expectations. If your fifth guy is a bit of an unknown, a lucky-just-to-be-on-the-roster type, then whatever he can give you is wonderful. But for former star prospects like Bauer, things become a little more tricky. We expect excellence and when these guys don't reach that, the rot begins to set in, until finally we accept them for what they are, a back of the rotation starter at best. Maybe this is the stage we are at with Bauer. Perhaps we need to finally accept this is as good as he can be, and stop holding onto the slim chance he'll suddenly develop into an All Star.

And of course the other reason Bauer probably receives more grief than your average fifth starter: the controversy. Trevor doesn't shy away from being the center of attention. Whether it be rapping about ex-catchers or tweeting his support for Donald Trump, the 26 year-old Californian can't avoid the spotlight. Don't even get me started on the whole drone thing...

After Monday night's loss, Bauer sits with a 2-4 record and a 7.36 ERA, with 37 strikeouts and 15 walks in 33 innings of work. It's not been an ideal start for the right-hander but looking at the numbers, it's about right for what we should now expect from him. That bloated ERA will decrease as the season wears on and likely settle somewhere between 4 and 5. We must give credit where it is due as well; despite giving up 4 runs before the third inning was over on Monday night, he kept battling out there, and managed to last 6 full innings. This helped save the bullpen for the rest of the series, as only Zach McAllister (2 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 4 K) was used in relief of Bauer.

Time will tell how long Francona and the front office are willing to put up with Bauer's level or performance. Behind the scenes they could be perfectly content with what he's done so far. Bauer himself seems to think so: "The results are what they are, but if you just look at the quality of the pitches and where I'm locating... I'm executing really well." But if Mike Clevinger sticks around once Corey Kluber returns from the DL, he will certainly have his eye on Bauer's rotation place. This could push Trevor into a long relief role out of the bullpen, but Tito already has McAllister for that job, and he's been doing it very well thus far. Does that then make Bauer an expendable asset and a potential trade chip? Whatever happens, his progress this year will be worth watching, even if it's not always as pretty and efficient as we might have once liked.


Here are some other notes from the series:
  • In Kluber's absence, Carlos Carrasco has taken over as the definitive ace of this pitching staff. Dare I say it, Cookie might still be the ace even once Kluber returns. His game two performance on Tuesday was sublime: 7 shutout innings of absolute dominance, allowing just 3 hits (all of them singles), and striking out 7 Jays. He's had a great start to 2017 and now lowered his season ERA to 1.86.
  • Remember just the other day when I said Yan Gomes could be back? Well he's still swinging that lumber better than ever. In Tuesday's game Gomes went 2-for-3 with a mammoth 3-run homer in the top of the eighth inning that buried the Blue Jays, putting the game beyond their reach. Wednesday's game saw Gomes pick up another hit before he had to withdraw from the game in the third inning due to illness. Hopefully it's nothing serious.
  • Cody Allen has been playing with fire all season long and finally got burned, taking the loss in Wednesday's rubber game. With the score tied in the bottom of the ninth, Toronto drew 2 walks and 2 hits from Allen to force home the winning run. It was inevitable he was going to get caught out at some stage.
The Indians have today off before opening a three-game set with the Twins on Friday. Josh Tomlin is set to take the bump and he's coming off a strong outing against Kansas City. He'll face Ervin Santana, and the right-hander is off to an impressive start in 2017, although he did have his worst start of the year last time out (4 homers surrendered against the Red Sox.) 

Thanks for reading.