Thanks for reading the first edition of ‘Just-inside Baseball,’ an idea I had for a new column including thoughts on Cleveland baseball mostly, but will occasionally venture into other parts […]
Thanks for reading the first edition of ‘Just-inside Baseball,’ an idea I had for a new column including thoughts on Cleveland baseball mostly, but will occasionally venture into other parts of baseball. Until the minor league season starts, this column will not be behind a paywall, but when I am able to offer consistent reporting and thoughts from Cleveland’s minor league system, this column, or possibly that particular part of the column, will go behind the paywall. Or I’ll try to do two of them, one for the MLB club, and one for the system.
- First of all, thanks to anyone who is reading this. I know content has been slow over at IBI since the season started, which is weird.
- A few reasons why:
- I’m personally experiencing some burnout for the first time in my life as far as writing goes. There were a lot of late, jam-packed nights for me writing, and editing-wise that went into putting together this year’s prospect scouting reports. That all came after my day job of 10 hours a day, on top of doing a house search currently. It has just sapped me of a lot of drive and creativity to write for a little bit. So I would like to apologize to any readers, and especially subscribers who had been wondering about content recently.
- Had the minor league season started in April, we of course would have had content. That was also part of it.
- Additionally, at the moment, IBI doesn’t have a writer dedicated to writing about the big league club. So if anyone reading this is interested in writing regularly about Cleveland and has any sort of baseball writing experience, feel free to pitch me. We can’t offer much other than a platform to write on with a little credibility to our name, but if you’re at least interested, send me a tweet @JL_Baseball
- This will be a more regular column once the minor league season is in full swing. As I noted in the intro, I may do Cleveland coverage for free in the column, and put the minor league portion behind the paywall. Or I may try to do two columns with one on Cleveland for free, and one on the minor league system for subscribers only.
Now, onto the baseball portion:
Another reason I wasn’t writing as much, is because just two weeks’ worth of games into the season there’s no much room for real analysis, but now we have some.
- Cleveland seems very fortunate to still be floating around the .500 mark so far. There have been games where the offense looks like it’s going to be the worst in the league, but other days they hit homers and usually that helps them win. They just don’t score runs enough without homers to score consistently.
- There are going to be a lot of frustrating nights with this team. It might be hard not to be frustrated watching them some nights. One night you should always tune in for, if you’re a fan, is whenever Shane Bieber is pitching. His starts are can’t miss. How he dominates is fun and different because he doesn’t throw 95-96, but we knew that already. What makes him more fun to watch is the adjustments he makes. In spring training he said he wanted to get back to making his slider a better out pitch after leaning heavily on his knuckle curve last year. In 2020, Bieber had a 61.2% whiff rate on his slider. In 2021 through four starts, he’s already thrown nearly as many sliders as he did in all of 2020 (112 in 2021 so far, 144 in 2020 total) and the whiff rate has *only* improved to 61.5%. He’s also added about 2,000 RPM on the slider, (2500 to 2700) which is really good, even spin rate alone on breaking balls doesn’t tell us much. Hitters have just two singles off off the 112 slider’s he’s thrown in 2021. So far so good.
- Another strange note on Bieber – his cutter is pretty much gone. He threw it 16.2% of the time last year and has unleashed just one cutter in 2021. Who knows why? It doesn’t matter, because the guy just makes other adjustments and keeps striking out batters.
- Speaking of adjustments, Aaron Civale made a really weird adjustment. We learned about his new arm path.
- and swapping out his normal changeup for this new split-change
- but he’s also ditched his sinker for his four-seam fasbtall. Which is interesting, because in 2019 and 2020, it was his least used pitch. Now, it’s his most used pitch! (29.6% usage rate). He still only throws 90-92 with it, so what gives? Well, for one, Civale’s sinker was a stinker last year (.294 avg/.470 slg against). His new arm motion in his delivery might have aided the ‘ride’ on his four-seamer, or, how much less it drops heading to home plate. In 2020, his four-steam dropped 17 inches, about -0.6 below the average four-seamer. In 2021, it’s getting just 14.7 inches of “drop” so it’s staying a little higher longer. That little extra carry helps him get swings and misses and better action at the top of the zone vs. hitters. And when he can use that to make hitters protect against a ‘rising’ fastball at the top of the zone, next to his new split-change and his big breaking ball, that’s a lot of vertical area to have hitters account for. Not to mention Civale is great at sequencing and has a kitchen-sink arsenal, plus good command, so hitters have to expect any pitch to be a strike at any time. Very fun, unique change in approach.
- It looks like Plesac is just battling command right now. In his start last week against Chicago, he didn’t command anything and had to be taken out early. He had one swing and miss. At least his second outing against the White Sox in a week he had 12 swinging strikes. He wasn’t great, but he went from one to 12 against the same team for the second time in five days. Usually, unless you are Bieber or another pitching deity, your second outing against a team in five days should probably be tougher, not better. If the struggles continue, it won’t be good for this team.
- Command has also been a bit of a struggle for Logan Allen in the minors. It has come and gone for him. He had the “best” command in spring training of all Tribe starters. But coming into the season now, he’s struggling to throw anything but the slider for strikes. He’s never had a great fastball. It lacks spin and movement. He needs fastball command to succeed at 92-93. Allen is 23 and had 50 innings pitched in the majors. This will just have to play out. It’s just going to make for some tough nights for the team and the bullpen if he can’t get deep into games. But that might be why it makes sense to try a piggyback, especially early in the year and with another arm that might need it.
- And the second half of that piggyback should be Triston McKenzie. Like he did throughout his 2018 season in Double-A Akron, McKenzie would have outings where his fastball sat 92-94 and touched 95. Then he’d have two or three starts where his fastball would be 89-91. The good news is, based on his start against the Reds, one of the hottest hitting teams in baseball, is that his fastball at 90-92 can be good enough to compete and get through five innings effectively. It’s not always ideal, but we see some evidence that it works. Getting McKenzie to add strength/weight is always going to be something to watch and talk about, but it’s still important to remember he missed all of 2019, only pitched half of 2018 and only had a few starts in 2020 and is still 23. This may be how it goes for McKenzie in his career, but he’s also working on routines and trying to get his arm and body into the right recovery to be his best every fifth day. The bigger issue with McKenzie isn’t his velocity. It’s his command. He never walked more than 7% of batters in the minors. You can expect that to go up some in the majors, because hitters have more patience and won’t swing through as many pitches or offer at pitches that are close balls. But that should be at most, 10% for someone with his command. He’s at 18 BB%. That’s more alarming than his velocity and should be the thing to watch the next few times out.
- That’s why it’s important that with an off day, Cleveland now puts Bieber between Allen and McKenzie. If Allen and McKenzie both only make it through four or five innings two days in a row, the bullpen is going to be taxed and that takes time to recover from. With Bieber between them, he can help alleviate that issue on both ends. He can pick up a tired bullpen from one start and have them rested for the next. If Allen and McKenzie are the “light” spots in the rotation due to inexperience, it’s also likely they’re going to struggle with inconsistency from start to start more than the other three starters. That also allows Bieber to come in and maybe put a stop to the start of a losing streak, like he put an end to it Sunday vs. the Reds. It’s what true aces do.
- While the pitching is a lot more of a rosier spot, the hitting is feckless some nights. Other nights, they feast. Coming into Tuesday’s game, which only accentuated this more. Cleveland was scoring 68.5% of its runs on homers, the most in the majors. That’s good some nights. Bad a lot of others.
- Does a no-hitter really change anything about the offense? Yes, Carlos Rodon looked absolutely dialed in and as good as he’s ever looked in that no-hitter. You can tip your cap to him and take nothing away from how good he was. But saying Cleveland’s offense is bad because they got no hit makes little sense. It’s like taking your car to the mechanic saying you need the battery replaced and they tell you “your car won’t start.” Well, no freaking kidding. Cleveland could have gotten no-hit, one-hit, shutout, or even scored a run that night and the offense would still be considered bad. The no-hitter gets the headlines and people are going to remember it more than if they had had two hits. But those two hits don’t mean the offense is any better. It just reaffirms the point.
- Jordan Luplow is largely responsible for Cleveland living and dying offensively on the home run because he has six (should be seven). But two of them are against right handed pitching! The side of the platoon people say Luplow can’t hit. In 2018 in Triple-A, Luplow had an .890 OPS against left handers and .803 against right handers. In 2017 at Double-A and Triple-A, his OPS’ vs. RHP were .864 and .869, respectively. He’s hit right handers in the minors. Will he always be better against left handed pitching? Possibly. But he also seems to be playable against right handed pitching and that time should be coming.
- That time should be coming now that Ben Game is off the roster. For not being able to get a clear picture on much this early in the year, it became evident quick that Gamel made this roster because of Amed Rosario’s transition to center field. He was there for defense and to buy time for Rosario to get acclimated to the position. Now they feel comfortable with Rosario there and Gamel is off the roster. He has options. He could be back. But if Luplow plays more, Rosario is playing most days, there just isn’t room for Gamel. It wasn’t a good experiment and just bought time for Rosario and some defense.
- The Oakland Athletics designated OF Ka’ai Tom for assignment this week after 16 plate appearances. They’ve been hit with a lot of injuries, so it’s been a mess for them already. Still that seems early to end that experiment (he had one hit). If nobody claims him, Cleveland can take him back without adding him to the 40 man roster. I wouldn’t be shocked if they don’t add him back, honestly. With Oscar Mercado, Bradley Zimmer, and Daniel Johnson in Triple-A, along with others like Gamel, Harold Ramirez and also maybe getting Nolan Jones playing time in the outfield, it doesnt seem like there’s room. Clearly Cleveland never thought enough of Tom to make room for him on the 40 to begin with.
- Some have suggested taking Tom back because he’s younger and better than Gamel. Both could be true. Tom is just two years younger than Gamel (Tom is 26, Gamel is 28) but not enough to be a big deal, considering Gamel has had ML playing time and Tom has had virtually none. Gamel is the better defender in centerfield of the two, so if it was judged strictly on centerfield defense, Gamel wins. I’ve always been a big fan of Tom as a prospect. But his likely role is a fourth or fifth outfielder. That is not what this team needs another of.
- What they need is to do it continue to stick with young players. Josh Naylor has made two noticeable gaffes this week. He Bill Buckner’d a ball (yes, I just made up a verb) and it went on to cost the team the game. Then he ran through a stop sign at third on an infield hit and was thrown out. By a lot. He’s a young player. Young players make mistakes. This isn’t to make excuses for mistakes, but just pointing out they happen. There have been calls to send Naylor to the alternate site for Bobby Bradley (for his glove, apparently, which isn’t better than Naylor’s) and Daniel Johnson. Naylor is 23 and has a little over 400 plate appearances in the majors. He’s playing out of position in right field (yes, he’s a natural first basemen most of his career, not the other way around). Johnson and Bradley are 25 and have under 100 plate appearances between them. If you think they’re going to come up and play mistake-free baseball, then you’ve never watched baseball before. Young players make mistakes. Naylor is younger and has been a more highly touted prospect than both Johnson and Bradley throughout his young career, for what that is worth. Replacing a young player after 50 plate appearances is silly. Replacing them with an older player who still has next to zero experience is even sillier. Johnson might even be more prone to base running mistakes because he’s fast, and he knows it’ He might take more chances with his speed because of that.
- Naylor is having a peculiar season so far at the plate, too. His expected stats have taken a dive lately. He’s still averaging 90mph in exit velo, which is good. And his launch angle is 11.2 so far. Which is just OK (power hitters and high exit-velo hitters want to be somewhere in the high teens to high 20’s and even 30s), but better than his past (single digits). Still, the 11.2 is just the average. He’s hit seven balls with a launch angle over 40, which isn’t ideal. He has hit eight in the 18-36 degree range, which is good. So he’s had some bad luck there. But the knock on Naylor getting to his above average raw power was needing to hit the ball in the air more. The 11.2 average launch angle so far in 2021 is deceiving due to so many pop ups early. But it’s something to monitor.
- On the subject of sticking with young players, despite saying they’re not platooning him, Andres Gimenez has sat against left handers more often than he’s played against them. Rosario continues to move to short against them. That is still strange for Rosario and it’s strange for Gimenez, considering Cleveland opted to move Rosario to centerfield to keep Gimenez at short (and because they were underwhelmed with its other centerfield options). But they continue to suggest it’s not a platoon situation.
- As taxed as it’s been, Cleveland is largely floating around the .500 mark thanks to its bullpen and mostly Bieber. They’ve been worked harder lately, but coming into Tuesday, their 2.87 ERA was fifth best in baseball.
- James Karinchak and Emmanuel Clase have both yet to give up an earned run in 2021. Both have had bouts with control early, but have largely been as devastating a duo as hoped. It looks like some roles are starting to get defined out there. Karinchak has been used in the Andrew Miller, fireman role. He’s had just one save chance. Clase has been out there for five of them, and has four saves.
- That has also pushed Nick Wittgren back to a setup role. It seemed like Clase and Karinchak would take the highest leverage innings between the sixth through ninth and Wittgren would get the third highest leverage spot. But now Witrgren has just one save and three holds. He’ll probably have more save chances considering it’s only April. But it seemed as though that Clase and Karinchak would come in as needed before the ninth and let Wittgren start a clean inning in the ninth, with a lead, for saves. As long as he’s not facing the heart of the order in the ninth, Wittgren should be able to handle that if the other two need to get critical outs earlier in the game with runners on. But right now Karinchak and Wittgren look like options one and two before the ninth, and Clase is the closer.
- Clase so far is missing more bats than he ever has. As nasty and fun as he is, throwing 101 mph cutters, he didn’t strike out batters at an elite rate for a reliever before (22.3 K% in 2019) but is up to 30% now. His cutter stayed on the bat paths of hitters before, creating a lot of weak grounders, which he’s still doing (71.1%) but as you saw against the Reds, a lot of grounders sometimes have errors made or find holes. That leaves him susceptible to some bad BABIP luck occasionally. But if he holds his newfound strikeout rate, then he can mitigate that and become even more fun.
- While Bryan Shaw’s resurgence has been a fun story (1.50 ERA, 31.8 K%, 95.9 mph FB average), Phil Maton and Cal Quantrill have been tough to watch. Maton looked like he was on the witness protection program for a while, pitching 1/3 of an inning the season’s first two weeks. But so far he’s missed less bats and his xERA is 5.86. He and Oliver Perez have been used sparingly, so maybe it’s a rust issue. Maton still has really good stuff. Meanwhile, Quantrill’s sinker has been blitzed (.431 wOBA allowed) and has five walks in eight innings. He also had command issues in spring training, which was strange for him.
- Francisco Lindor’s OPS coming into Tuesday was .557 with two RBI. He’s walked eight times compared to three strikeouts. It’s fluky but interesting he’s having a cold start. Rosario and Gimenez aren’t exactly powering Cleveland’s offense, but they’ve somehow been better than Lindor thus far.
- Tyler Naquin has also had a hot start. Of his six homers, three have come off changeups, a pitch Naquin has also feasted on in Cleveland in his past. Three are off fastballs (one sinker, one cutter). Of his six homers, he’d only have all six in six ballparks. In the others, it would be between three-five. Five would have been homers in Cleveland. Teams will figure out Naquin’s weaknesses. Cleveland dominated him over the weekend with high fastballs because they knew the report.