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Entries in Cleveland Indians (16)

Wednesday
Feb122014

Opposite Field Struggles Limit Michael Brantley's Ceiling

Michael Brantley got the first legit payday of his career earlier this week, agreeing to sign a four-year, $25 million deal with the Cleveland Indians -- a contract extension that also includes an $11 million team option for a fifth year. In his first two full seasons in Cleveland's outfield, the former seventh-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers has posted a .286/.340/.399 slash line with 110 OPS+ over 300 games. Compared to the league-average .265/.331/.424 slash line over that span, one could certainly argue the extension was a bit premature -- especially considering Brantley would not have hit the free agent market until after the 2016 season.

Showing an ability to hit for a decent average (.277 BA, .304 BABIP since his rookie 2009 campaign), pick bases at a solid rate (70% career stolen base rate compared to the 73.1% league mark since 2009), minimize mistakes in the outfield (.993 career fielding percentage compared to .987 league average), and show an above-average eye at the dish (10.7% strikeout rate, 7.1% walk rate) Brantley is without question a well-rounded player considering everything he brings to the table.

But there is one glaring void to his game, however, which you may have picked up on earlier: Power.

Since entering the league in 2009, Brantley owns an underwhelming .382 career slugging percentage (fourth-lowest among outfielders with 2,000 plate appearnces since 2009) and .107 isolated power (fifth-worst). Looking at his career spray chart, we immediately notice that most (if not close to all) of his power has come from pulling the ball, predominantly in the right-center gap. Our data backs up this observation, as Brantley has posted a career .551 slugging percentage to that portion of the field.

But on the opposite side, it's a different story. Amassing just 14 career opposite-field extra-base hits in 325 plate appearances, Brantley's career slugging percentage to left field sits at .361 -- worst among left-handed batters with at least 300 plate appearances since 2009, and nearly .200 points lower than his career mark to right field. The reason behind this low number may well be the quality of contact he puts behind these hits -- owning a career .131 well-hit average on hits to the opposite field compared to .281 to his pull-side.

Brantley's SLG% heat map to pull-side


 

Brantley's SLG% heat map to opposite field

Why will it become increasingly more important for Brantley to hit for power to all fields, rather than simply pulling the ball? First and foremost, pitchers are already taking advantage of his weakness, pitching 'away' from Brantley more often (54.8% of offerings against him have been located 'away' since 2012, compared to 51.8% from 2009 to 2011), which will make pulling the ball for power more difficult. Secondly, managers could simply adjust their outfielders' positioning to Brantley's power alleys, which may annul any power he had in the first place.

I commend Cleveland's confidence in Brantley -- he may well turn out to be one of the better outfielders in baseball by the end of it. However, his lack of power to all fields is concerning -- and if not addressed will certainly limit his potential at the big league level.

Thursday
Jan302014

Justin Masterson, Strikeout Fiend?

Justin Masterson and the Cleveland Indians don't agree on a whole lot these days.

According to Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com, the two sides remain several dollars apart in terms of perceived value for the 28-year-old righty, who's currently in his second year of arbitration eligibility. Masterson had vouched for a $11.8 million salary for the 2014 season, but the organization countered his offer for $8.05 million -- which is the "biggest difference among any unsigned player who filed for arbitration this winter," as reported by Hoynes. Consequently, the two parties have tucked away the paperwork for what would have been a multi-year contract extension, and instead will meet Feb. 20 in St. Petersburg, Fla. for their arbitration hearing.

Value discrepancies notwithstanding, there is one thing both sides can agree on: Masterson was really good last season. In his eighth season in the majors (and fifth since joining Cleveland in 2009), the former second-round pick posted career-bests in several categories, including (but not limited to): WHIP (1.20), complete games (3), shutouts (3) and strikeout rate (24.3%). The lattermost stat stands out the most when you look back at Masterson's past seasons, especially considering his very average 7.1 K/9 rating from 2008 to 2012. Suddenly, he struck out 9.1 batters per nine in one year's difference? How is this possible?

Improvements with Slider

Results vs. Masterson's slider
AVGSLUGMiss%InPl%Chas%ClStk%K%
1. 2012.197.31738.8%30.2%28.0%31.2%39.2%
2. 2013.108.17641.1%27.0%30.4%37.5%51.6%
 

Masterson's slider made improvements across the board over the past two seasons, both in terms of opponent averages against it and in 'swing-and-miss-ability'. One thing that stands out is batters' slugging percentage against the offering, which was a meger .176 last season -- the lowest among pitchers who threw at least 700 sliders last season. We also notice that opponents expanded the zone a bit more frequently against it (30.4% chase%), missed at a 41.1% clip (fifth-highest among qualified starters in 2013) and put just 27% of such sliders in play (also fifth-lowest among qualified arms).

The one aspect of the pitch that improved most last season, however, was its ability to generate called-strikes, increasing to 37.5% -- second to only Yu Darvish (38%) among righties who threw 800 sliders. How this factors in to Masterson's strikeout increase is simple: With better command of the pitch, more called strikes follow, which equates to more strikeouts.

Pitch Frequency Comparison

Masterson's strikeout rate against righties escalated from 23.3% in 2012 to 32% in 2013 (compared to increasing from 13.5% in 2012 to 19.4% in 2013 against lefties), and his improved slider had a big say in that boost. Notice the compressed pitch frequency of the offering between the two seasons; he seemed to have much better command of the offering, throwing in the strike zone 44.9% of the time last season compared to 39.3% in 2012.

Evidently, this increase swayed umps into giving him more calls, as his called strike rate escalated to a healthy 39.3% in contrast to his 24.6% mark two seasons ago. We shouldn't be too surprised by this increase, as there is a strong correlation between zone% and called strike% -- the more pitches you throw in the zone, the more called strikes you get with the offering. For example: The major-league average starter threw 46.5% of his sliders in the zone last season and accrued a 30% called-strike rate. But when you decrease that zone% to 39%, your called-strike rate falls to 23%. Throw 53% of your sliders in the zone, and your called-strike rate jumps to 35%. And when your called-strike rate goes, up so too does your strikeout rate.

It seems Masterson's better-commanded slider (especially against right-handed batters) was the key to his strikeout increase last season. Whether or not he can sustain this moving forward may well determine the length and amount of his next contract.

Monday
Jan272014

Sizemore Unlikely to Beat Out Bradley Jr. for CF Job in Boston

By now, Grady Sizemore was supposed to be burnishing his Hall of Fame credentials. Sizemore had it all -- power, speed, strike-zone awareness, Grady's Ladies -- and was about as valuable during his age 22 to 25 seasons (24.6 Wins Above Replacement) as Frank Robinson, Derek Jeter and Ken Griffey Jr. But today, the Indians' erstwhile franchise center fielder is merely a 31-year-old scrapping for a roster spot with the Red Sox following seven surgical procedures that have prevented him from taking the field since September 22, 2011.

What do the defending World Series champions see in Sizemore, whom they signed to a one-year, $750,000 deal that could reach $6 million if he hits performance bonuses? Where could he contribute in 2014? Here are a couple ways that Boston could deploy Sizemore, assuming he makes it through spring training in one piece.

A Jackie Bradley Jr. alternative in center field

This seems to be the angle that's getting the most play in the media. Boston, looking to replace new Yankee Jacoby Ellsbury in center, might be reluctant to give an everyday job to Bradley Jr., given the 23-year-old's wretched showing in the majors last season (.189 AVG/.280 OBP/.337 SLG in 107 plate appearances). It's a sexy story ("broken down star beats out hot shot youngster"), but Sizemore likely won't be trotting out to the middle pasture come opening day.

For one thing, Bradley Jr. is still highly promising. The former South Carolina star has a career .297/.404/.471 line in the minors, blending superb plate patience with mid-range power. He's also a gazelle in center field, with MLB.com's Jim Callis dubbing Bradley the best defensive outfield prospect in the game. Sure, he was terrible in limited playing time in 2013, but it's hardly unprecedented for a top young player to flail initially and then go on to have a great career. Dustin Pedroia, for example, had an even worse showing at the plate than Bradley (.191/.258/.303 in 98 plate appearances back in 2006). When he got off to a .182/.308/.236 start in April of 2007, some were ready to cut bait. Sometimes, it takes prospects a few hundred ABs to get acclimated.

Bradley's main issue last year was contact, as he punched out in 29 percent of his plate appearances. He had a particularly difficult time squaring up high pitches (he swung and missed 27.1 percent of the time, compared to the 20.3 percent MLB average). But there's not much reason to think he'll whiff like Pedro Alvarez or Mark Reynolds moving forward -- Bradley struck out a modest 17.4 percent of the time on the farm. Chances are Bradley gets on base, drives pitches into the gaps and tracks down fly balls like a boss in 2014.

We also have no idea whether Sizemore is actually capable of playing center field at this point. Advanced defensive metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating considered him a plus fielder during his halcyon days in Cleveland (+4.3 runs saved compared to an average player per 150 games), but that was before Sizemore had microfracture surgery on both knees. Maybe he can still fly, or maybe he gimps around like Kirk Gibson in the '88 World Series. We won't know until he takes the field.

Jonny Gomes' platoon partner in left field

This scenario looks more plausible, though Daniel Nava is more deserving as a guy who thumps righties (.303/.401/.459 in 2012-13) and isn't coming off a two-year respite. Gomes obliterates left-handed pitching (.277/.387/.494 over the past three seasons) but gets shut down by righties (.205/.314/.382). He also plays defense like a guy who had microfracture surgery yesterday. Sizemore, meanwhile, still managed to inflict some damage versus right-handers while his body betrayed him (.254/.333/.450 from 2009-11). A Sizemore-Gomes platoon could be productive. Of course, a Nava-Gomes platoon is already productive.

Mike Carp also hits righties pretty well (.258/.333/.449 from 2011-13). He could be swapped, though I wouldn't bet on GM Ben Cherington showing that much faith in Sizemore's durability.

Sizemore's role in Boston is about what you'd expect for a guy who hasn't seen live pitching since beer-and-chicken-gate -- he doesn't really have one right now. He could contribute, and he has far more upside than your typical 30-something scrapheap sign. Still, nobody's counting on him to crack the opening day roster, much less usurp a top prospect like Bradley.