I know we're all still smarting over last night's loss, but the beautiful and sometimes tough thing about baseball is that it doesn't give you a break. So tonight we're right back in action as the Orioles start a three game set with the Indians, their only trip to Cleveland this season. In the last five years of play the Orioles have a 16-18 record against the Indians, and the teams split last year's series 3-3.
Baseball Prospectus forecast the Indians to go 74-88 and finish the season in fourth place in the AL Central. That hasn't been the case so far, as they lost the first two games of the season, then went on an eight-game win streak (including the sweep of the Red Sox that we all watched delightedly). They've lost their last two but still sit in first place in the AL Central with a shiny 8-4 record.
Lewie Pollis writes about the Indians at Wahoo Blues and he was kind enough to answer a few questions for us regarding the team the Orioles will face beginning tonight. I answered questions for him as well, so check it out.
Click through the jump to see what Lewie has to say about his surprising Cleveland Indians. And thanks again to Lewie for taking the time.
1) Much like the Orioles, the Indians are coming off of a terrible season and have had an impressive start. Are you optimistic for the year or do you think it's a fluke?
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't excited. How could I not be? Baseball Prospectus had the Indians at better than one-in-six odds to make the playoffs earlier this week. That doesn't make them favorites for the division, but it sure is exciting.
Objectively speaking, though, I don't think they can keep it up. The offensive could be for real (some people are playing over their heads, but they've suffered from Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana's struggles and Matt LaPorta's bad luck), but I'm not nearly as confident about the pitching. I really like Masterson and Carrasco and Tomlin could make names for themselves down the road, but this whole everyone-looks-like-an-ace thing isn't going to last.
The only real difference this makes in how I think of the standings is the extra wins they got in their first 12 games. I'm not changing my forecast much for the next 150.
2) What can we expect from Justin Masterson, Mitch Talbot, and Josh Tomlin, the three pitchers who will face the O's this weekend? They have all been impressive so far despite spotty histories. Which, if any, do you think has really figured it out and will be good throughout the season?
I've been high on Justin Masterson for more than a year now. The baseball gods were cruel to him last year (4.70 ERA despite a 3.87 xFIP). This whole 1.35 ERA thing is obviously a product of small sample size, but there's no reason to think his 3.44 xFIP is unsustainable as a target for his ERA if he has indeed finally learned how to get lefties out.
Masterson is essentially a two-pitch guy. He has a low-90's fastball that he uses a lot. His best pitch is his slider, which interestingly enough he used more out of the bullpen than he does now that he's starting. He also has a changeup that he uses very rarely (I think he's used it exactly once this year). He's a groundball pitcher who has a real feast-or-famine approach to strikeouts-he didn't have any in seven otherwise strong innings in his first start, then got nine his last time out.
I'm not sure I'd say Tomlin has a "spotty history" given that he has a 4.26 ERA in 14 career starts. He's not much of a strikeout pitcher (a common problem in this rotation) but he showed great control in the minors (1.9 BB/9). He's got a fastball in the high 80's, which he throws about half the time. He's also got an okay curve and a "meh" changeup. He threw a decent cutter a lot last year, but he's barely used it this year, instead going to his just-added slider, which has looked good so far.
I was Chicken Little with Talbot last year, telling everyone who'd listen that he couldn't sustain success with such poor strikeout and walk rates. Turns out I was right. Interestingly enough, he's been much better about that this year, striking out over 8.0 K/9, up more than three per nine from last year. If this is a true improvement and not small sample size, he'll be a useful starter. But I'm not ready to say that yet.
Talbot normally has a low-90's fastball, but he's averaged 89 mph so far this year. He mixes it in with a slider, cutter, and change, though according to FanGraphs' pitch weights his slider is the only pitch that's been above-average for his career.
3) Is Michael Brantley the real deal?
I don't see why not. His average will drop a little bit once his .350 BABIP normalizes, but a speedy guy who gets lots of grounders and line-drives should be able to maintain an above-average hit rate. Major small sample size caveat here, but his increased plate discipline (9.6% walk rate, up from 6.8% last year) is really encouraging. His complete lack of power (.286 Power Factor) limits his offensive upside, but this is the guy who Baseball America said had was the best contact hitter in the system a year ago. It's not like he came out of nowhere.
4) When will Grady Sizemore return and what happens to Brantley? How does Brantley's defense compare to Sizemore?
I don't think anyone knows when Sizemore will be back. He's rehabbing in Triple-A now so it can't be too far out, but Manny Acta's said Wednesday that there will be some advance notice to give Grady's Ladies time to prepare, so it won't be in the next few days. I'd guess he comes back the last week of April, but I don't really have much basis for saying that.
Brantley will be moved to left field, but I'm not sure that's really the best decision. Sizemore's defense has been slipping over the last few years, and I don't think you can blame that on injury. With his knee problems and weak arm, I think I'd start him off in left.
Then again, Brantley's no defensive whiz either. At the risk of sounding like Joe Morgan, I haven't seen enough of him this year to assess his fielding prowess (one of the problems with an out-of-state college: they don't show Indians games on TV), but his -25.4 career UZR/150 score is hideous. That said, UZR is unreliable with a sample size this small, and Brantley has the raw speed necessary to play good outfield D. I don't think I'd shift him over.
5) What are your predictions for this series?
It's against my principles to bet against Justin Masterson, so I say the Indians will take Game One. Similarly, I'm always skeptical of Talbot, so you guys can have Game Three. That leaves Guthrie/Tomlin in Game Two. I'll go with the Tribe because I have a good feeling about it, and that methodology is infallible.
If the Indians can't take two of three, I'll stop getting my hopes up. Maybe.