Earlier in the season Stacey had a little parley with Lewie Pollis, who writes for the Cleveland Indians-centric blog Wahoo Blues, in advance of the big Indians-Orioles showdown in mid-April. We thought that was all pretty swell, so here we are to do it again, as the Orioles try to turn over a new leaf in the second half of the season.
The Indians are actually a pretty interesting team. In some ways they are the yang to the Orioles' ying. Neither team was supposed to really be in the thick of it in 2011, but both got off to pretty hot starts led by surprisingly good starting pitching. But where the Orioles have slipped to the bottom of baseball, the Indians have (so far) prevailed. Today they sit just half a game behind the Tigers for first place in the AL Central. This is, however, despite a 10-17 June which sounds pretty similar to the struggles we've watched here in Baltimore.
When the Orioles were in Cleveland in April, they were reeling a little bit, slipping back to just a game over .500 after the first of a series of sweeps at the hands of the Yankees. Cleveland then swept the Birds in convincing fashion, outscoring Baltimore 20-7 over three games. The Orioles have not since seen the world above .500. But, as I'm sure a dozen dime-store baseball writers have said, one of the great things about baseball is that it is a continuous opportunity for cold-blooded revenge against the Cleveland Indians.
After the jump, see what Lewie Pollis thinks about the state of the Indians and our long series with them this weekend. Big thanks to Lewie for giving us some of his time, and you can see my cohort-in-arms, Eat More Esskay, give some of his own answers to Wahoo Blues over there.
1) What's the news out of Cleveland these days?
Well we called up our top prospect, Lonnie Chisenhall, a couple weeks ago, that's exciting. Mitch Talbot just went back on the DL, that's...something. I guess there's not a whole lot going on Clevelandtown right now.
More broadly, the magic of the Indians' hot start has mostly worn off (except for Travis Hafner
's walk-off grand slam last week, of course), as has the traditional panic that occurs every time a Cleveland sports team loses multiple games in a row (we're not very jaded). For us, seeing the Indians play is like watching Punxsutawney Phil look for his shadow every night—when they win we're the Believeland Windians, and when they lose it means six more years of rebuilding.
2) The Indians were looking pretty fantastic through the end of May, but since then they haven't looked very sharp, losing their last three before the break to the Blue Jays. How do you guys account for the cooling off of the Indians?
There are a lot of factors in play here. First is just regression to the mean—a lot of guys were really overperforming at the start of the year. Jack Hannahan
isn't an All-Star caliber player (except maybe as a defensive replacement), Michael Brantley
is suffering growing pains, and cliché as it may sound, Matt LaPorta
is streaky. We weren't going to play .600-plus ball all year.
Then you've got injuries—Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore
, Shin-Soo Choo
(who was underperforming and said was distracted by his May DUI arrest even before he got injured), to name a few. Beyond that, Fausto Carmona's been incredibly unlucky (I'm not saying the 179-point disparity between his ERA and xFIP is all luck, but big chunk of it sure is), Orlando Cabrera has been below-replacement level at second base, Sizemore's plate discipline has been MIA for two years, and the Indians' staff of contact pitchers isn't very effective in front of an infield that's fairly mediocre defensively.
3) Cleveland is unexpectedly in a pennant race, and how are you hoping the Indians balance what was thought to be a long-term rebuild with their new short-term goals? And how do you expect the Cleveland front office to handle it?
The front office has said that they won't mortgage the future for a single pennant race, and I'm with them on that. Carlos Santana
, Asdrubal Cabrera
, Justin Masterson
, Michael Brantley, Shin-Soo Choo, Lonnie Chisenhall—this is the kind of core we can build around for years to come. I'd rather stand pat and miss the playoffs this year than win the division by giving up players who we would've used for multiple pennant races down the road. Or worse, to trade promising prospects at the deadline and end up missing the playoffs. That would be terrible.
But even if a premier trade target is out of the question, I'd like to see them bring in someone
. We could definitely use another starting pitcher—a good-not-great innings-eating veteran would be nice, someone to fill the role Jake Westbrook held for 10 years. We've got internal options who could help out in right field while Choo is out (Jerad Head
, anyone?) and second base (just play Cord Phelps
Last week, I proposed David DeJesus
as a good target for the Tribe. Acquiring a bargain-priced player with decent upside is (or of a right ought to be) well within the Indians' capabilities.
4) Justin Masterson, who the Orioles will face on Thursday night, has been really phenomenal this year, seemingly out of nowhere. He's always been death to righties, but how do think he's figured out how to get left-handed hitters out in 2011?
At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, I think it's confidence. The most startling difference between his vs.-lefty splits from this year and last year is that he's cut his walk rate in half. He walked 4.3 BB/9 against southpaw hitters in 2010, and that's down to 2.1 in 2011. To me, that says he's feeling more comfortable pitching to them—he'd rather let them swing than give them a free pass. His K/BB ratio is actually higher now against lefties than righties.
(A note from Andrew: This is what the baseball men mean when they say "pitching to contact". They don't actually mean to avoid strikeouts, but rather to simply throw strikes as if unafraid of contact. The more you know!)
He's also upped his fastball velocity by 1.3 mph and he's barely using his change-up at all. But I don't know that that's relevant to the lefty split question as much as his general improvement.
5) How do you think this weekend series breaks down?
I never bet against Justin Masterson, so the Indians take the opener. Games two and three, Josh Tomlin
beats Jake Arrieta
in ERA, FIP, and xFIP, and I'll take Carlos Carrasco
over Alfredo Simon. I'm not too confident about Jeanmar Gomez
, but since the Orioles don't even have a probable starter for Sunday, I'll take my chances on that one too.
All in all, I think the Indians have better than even odds at winning each individual game, but I'll say they take three of four overall. Sorry, guys.