Friday, July 3, 2015

Next Up: The Cleveland Indians

Interleague play continues, with the Pirates hosting the Cleveland Indians for a three-game holiday weekend series at PNC Park. I noted this in my preview of the team's series against the Tigers:
Well, the Pirates' strategy is pretty obvious. Score runs against the Tigers pitching. The problem is, over the last 30 days, the Pirates have scored the third-fewest runs in the National League, with the fewest home runs and the lowest slugging percentage. It's time for the Pirates to start hitting.
I'd say sweeping the three games in Detroit while scoring 22 runs counts fills the bill.

It won't be as easy to score against Cleveland, as I'll discuss below. But let's talk for a minute about the American League Central, whom the Pirates (and the other NL Central teams) play in interleague games. So far, the Pirates have played six games against the Tigers (going 4-2), four against the White Sox (4-0), and two against the Twins (0-2). After this series with the Indians, the Bucs have three games in Kansas City and two in Minnesota later this month, wrapping up their interleague games. Earlier this year, Jeff Sullivan wrote a piece at FanGraphs entitled, "The American League Has Gone Completely Bananas." He looked at the performance of the American Leagues compared to their projections, noting:
Of the eight teams projected to finish over .500, just three are currently over .500, and the overall average winning percentage is .475. Of the seven teams projected to finish under .500, just two are currently under .500, and the overall average winning percentage is .539.
Sullivan wrote this on June 5. As of this morning, there are still just three teams AL that FanGraphs projected to play over .500 ball that are, in fact, over .500: The Angels, Blue Jays, and Yankees. And now only one team projected below .500 is currently below .500: the White Sox. It's been an amazingly topsy-turvy year in the American League. If the season were to end today, the playoff teams would be Baltimore (projected by FanGraphs to finish 79-83), Houston (79-83), Kansas City (78-84), Minnesota (74-88), and New York (82-80). And FanGraphs wasn't a weird outlier; every prediction I track (mine, FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and ESPN) projected losing seasons for the Orioles, Astros, Royals, and Twins. For good measure, Baseball Prospectus expected the Yankees to be a losing team (79-83) as well. Pretty crazy.

No division illustrates this better than the American League Central. The Tigers, who've won the division four years in a row, were heavily favored to run the streak to five. They're at .500. The Indians, after two straight winning seasons under manager Terry Francona, were seen by some as likely to challenge Detroit. They're 37-41. The White Sox, after a flurry of winter trades, were positioned for a big improvement. They have a the worst record in the American League. The Royals, despite coming within a game of being World Champions, seemed likely to slide back. They lead the division and have the third-best record in the majors. The Twins, declared by me as a lock for last place, are in second and presently hold the second wild card. The division, it seems, consists of three big disappointments and two big surprises.

That's all a very long-winded way of saying that now the Pirates face the expected-to-be-good-but-aren't-so-far Cleveland Indians.

How Are They Doing Lately? Over the last 30 days, the Indians are 12-15, tied with the Mariners for the fifth-worst record in the American League. They've scored 3.3 runs per game, the fourth fewest in the league, and allowed 4.30, the fourth most. Their pitchers have struck out 24% of the batters they've faced, which is a good idea, as the Indians' defense, probably the worst in baseball last season, has improved all the way to "bad" this year, so all those strikeouts keep the ball out of the fielder's hands.

What's Going Right? As noted, their pitchers strike out a lot of batters. Their 24% strikeout rate over the past 30 days is the best in the league. That's good. 

What's Going Wrong? Despite the gaudy K numbers, Indians starters have an ERA of 4.14 over the last 30 days, sixth highest in the league. The relievers' ERA of 3.13 is better, sixth in the league. The problem's been that 30% of the baserunners Indians pitchers allow come around to score, the most in the league. Maybe that's bad luck in terms of when hits fall in, but the team's 70% strand rate, as it's called, has led to a lot of runs allowed. Indians relievers get ground balls on only 39% of balls in play, the second lowest amount in the league over the last 30 days, and the starters' 41% rate is third lowest. The starters combine a lower-than-average rate of ground balls with a higher-than-average rate of fly balls going over the fence, resulting in the fourth-highest rate of homers per game (1.07) in the American League. So to summarize: The Indians don't generate a lot of ground balls, and when opponents hit the ball in the air, it goes over the fence a lot for the starters. That, combined with the lowest proportion of baserunners left stranded on base in the league, has resulted in too many runs scored.

On offense, nothing really stands out as being bad; they're just across-the-board mediocre: Eighth in the league in batting average and on base percentage and twelfth in slugging percentage, tied with the Mariners for the fewest home runs in the league over the last 30 days. 

Who's Hot? Second baseman Jason Kipnis has been the Indians' star all year. The league's Player of the Month for May, he's batting .376 with a .453 on base percentage and .505 slugging percentage over the last 30 days. He leads the American League in batting and hits and is second in on base percentage. Outfielder-DH David Murphy's recovered from a slow start and has a .345/.387/.564 slash line over the past 30 days. Right fielder Brandon Moss has been the team's main source of power during the period, with four homers, but he's batting just .194 with a .282 on base percentage.

The Pirates will avoid two of the Tigers' best starting pitchers: Defending Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, who came within an out of a no-hitter in his last start. Saturday's starter, rookie Cody Anderson, has allowed just one run over 15.2 innings in his first two major league starts, though his lack of strikeouts (six to date) indicate he may not be as good as his 0.57 ERA might indicate. The Indian's top three relievers have been super over the last 30 days. Bryan Shaw has a 0.87 ERA, Zach McAllister's is 2.61, and closer Cody Allen has been pretty untouchable: five hits, two walks, no runs, and an are-you-kidding-me 21 strikeouts over his last 10.2 innings. Batters have swung and missed at 23% of the curveballs he's thrown this season, though his primary pitch is a somewhat more hitable fastball.

Who's Not? Tonight's Indians starter, Trevor Bauer, has a 6.26 ERA over his last five starts. In the bullpen, Francona has a couple lefties whom he uses mostly in platoon situations, and both have been shaky over the last 30 days: Nick Hagadone (ten games, 6.1 innings) has a 5.68 ERA and Mark Rzepczynski (aka "Scrabble," 10 games, 3.1 innings) has a 5.40 ERA. Rookie shortstop Francisco Lindor, just 21, was called up in June, and wowed with his glove but is hitting only .226/.269/.290. First baseman Carlos Santana's been barely better, .182/.283/.333, and shortstop/third baseman/outfielder Mike Aviles rounds out a pretty weak-hitting infield (other than Kipnis) at .232/.274/.290. But the biggest problem on offense has been free agent bust/center fielder Michael Bourn, who's hitting .190/.239/.206--eleven singles, one double, four walks and 21 strikeouts over 63 at bats. The Indians are on the hook with him for $14 million next year, and, if he gets 550 plate appearances in 2016, another $12 million in 2017.

What's the Outlook? The Pirates are probably going to swing and miss against the Indians' pitching staff, but they should fare OK if they keep the Indians off the board and build up a lead. If they're trailing in the late innings, they're in trouble given the strength of the back end of the Tribe's bullpen.

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