Where It Went Wrong for the Tribe (Part 2)

Last week I started my examination as to what went wrong with the 2006 Cleveland Indians. A detailed answer to that question would be large enough to a compile a book titled How To Make a Whole Bunch Of Ugly. Put a picture of the love child of Ann Coulter and Bill Maher on the cover, and the book could crack the New York Times bestseller list because America loves to rubberneck.

In particular, one article can’t completely cover the Indians’ bullpen woes, so I am returning to the scene of the crime this week to summarize just how bad the pen has been this year and to examine how it could have been avoided.

In the previous article, I used David Gassko’s Pitching Runs Created (PRC) to illustrate just how bad the bullpen has been. PRC is a relatively new metric that not everyone is familiar with, and some people had questions about this metric such as “Why do we need a new measuring stick to tell us what we already know? The pen is awful; we don’t need a new set of numbers to tell us that!”

The answer is that PRC gives us a very quick method of comparing players at all positions. Yes, we could go through the conventional ways of examining pitchers, but to properly do that, we must examine many different indicators, and in the end, some might be still scratching their heads, saying, “Well, just what value does a reliever with a 4.00 ERA over 50 innings have to a team?” PRC answers that question very quickly and accurately. For instance, in terms of value to the Indians, most of the relievers have not contributed as much as Todd Hollandsworth with his .237/.253/.442 line over 160 plate appearances. That speaks volumes.

Let’s use another metric, Win Shares Over Bench, to reinforce PRC. In the case of pitchers, WSAB is a player’s production beyond what you could expect from a normal bench (replacement level) player if he were to take the mound and throw the same amount as the player in question has.

Pitcher       WSAB              
Betancourt      1
Davis           1
Mastny          0 
Brown           0
Wickman         0
Graves          0
Mujica          0
Cabrera         0
Lara            0
Miller          0
Perez           0
Sikorski        0
Slocum         -1
Guthire        -1
Sauerbeck      -1
Mota           -2
Carmona        -3

Total          -6

When Win Shares are small numbers, there are some problems due to rounding and Win Shares’ tendency to “compress” small values. Obviously, all of those zeros aren’t exactly “equal”. However, we can determine that the Indians pen as a whole has been about 20 runs below what a group of replacement pitchers would be, while its best relievers have only been about three runs above bench. Here is another way to look at it—the Indians’ top three relievers are a total of +2 WSAB (about 6.5 runs); the Twins’ top three relievers are 21 WSAB (about 70 runs). That is quite a difference.

Now that we have defined just how bad the Indians pen has been in 2006, let’s move forward and examine how the construction of this year’s pen was a recipe for some very bad witch’s brew. Prior to this year, the Indians pen had been a weakness for some years, but the 2005 Indians’ relief cadre was very good. Here are the Indians’ five primary relievers last year:

              IP         PRC
Wickman      62.0         40
Howry        73.0         42
Betancourt   67.7         41
Riske        72.7         35
Rhodes       43.3         28
Total       317.7        186

General manager Mark Shapiro elected not keep that group together, which was a smart decision. However, his plan to re-tool, similar to his bullpen plans prior to 2005, was off the mark. His first mistake was to go after a big name closer, which he never actually signed, while neglecting to secure a setup man. In essence, he created two holes on the above list because trying to sign a name closer meant that Bob Wickman wouldn’t come back. While Shapiro tried to sign a closer, the middle relievers on the free agent market, including Bobby Howry, were being snapped up at rather high prices.

From the early stages of the free agent “season,” it was evident that the market for middle relievers had changed, a fact that Shapiro failed to realize or ignored. Shapiro has said that he only had the money to go after either a closer or middle relief. That is suspect, since he opened the season about $5 million under his budget ceiling, but let’s run with it for now.

If a general manager is in an either/or situation, he better darn well finish the path he starts down. Shapiro didn’t because he vastly underrated the market for closers and found himself unable to close any sort of deal. By the time he realized he was in trouble, most of the middle relievers were snatched from the market.

Most importantly, his plan to go after a closer while neglecting middle relief would not have significantly improved the team. Yes, there were glaring signs that Wickman needed replacing. He was a rolling time bomb that never quite detonated last year. He continuously scraped through self-induced jams, as he was allowing too many runners on base and his strikeout rate wasn’t anything to get misty over. His LOB% was a completely unsustainable 93% (anything above 80% is usually unsustainable, except for very dominant strikeout guys).

Let’s examine how the Indians pen would have done had Shapiro signed the closer he was closest to signing, Trevor Hoffman, and assume Hoffman finishes with 50 PRC (he has 44 now. Let’s also assume the other Indians relievers met last year’s performance.

              IP        PRC
Hoffman      70.0        50
Betancourt   67.7        41
Riske        72.7        35
Rhodes       43.3        28
Miller       29.7        24
Total       283.4       178 

We could substitute Fausto Carmona for Matt Miller, and even if we bump up the fifth reliever’s innings, the pen would have been the same, assuming last year’s performances were met—a very big assumption. Having a pen as good as last year’s would have been a good thing, but suddenly the price for that performance would be much higher.

As spring training neared, Shapiro was forced to re-sign Wickman, and just about all the quality middle relief was off the market. Even if that bullpen had matched last year’s performance, it was without a Howry-type pitcher and worse for it. Then the opportunity to land Andy Marte presented itself, and Shapiro struck what should be a deal that helps Cleveland at third base for a long time. However, he put the final touches on decimating the bullpen in the process and had no options. When the dust had settled from the acquisitions that brought Marte to Cleveland, the pen looked like this using last year’s numbers:

               IP        PRC
Wickman       62.0        40
Betancourt    67.7        41
Mota          72.7        35
Sauerbeck     43.3        28
Miller        29.7        24
Total        275.4       168 

Getting rid of David Riske and Arthur Rhodes wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; getting squat for the bullpen in return was. Guillermo Mota had an outstanding 2003 season. However, it was a season in which he was overworked, pitching 105 innings in 76 games.

Research by Ron Shandler illustrates that any reliever who throws over 100 innings in a season while average fewer than two innings per outing is a prime candidate for future arm problems, and that is exactly what happened to Mota. The Dodgers dumped him in 2004, he faded quickly and was bothered with elbow and shoulder problems in 2005. Those health concerns lingered into the offseason, and the deal was almost nixed because of those concerns. Betting on a 32-year-old reliever with a career ERA+ 116 with health issues was a bad move, especially since the reliever only had three seasons in his career in which his ERA+ was above average, one of those being his rookie year.

The other thing these trades did was bump Scott Sauerbeck from a left-handed specialist role to a primary reliever. Overall, Sauerbeck had a decent year in a superficial sense in 2005 for the Tribe, but when Rhodes left the team for family reasons and Sauerbeck’s role was elevated, the results were messy. He posted a 5.91 ERA in 24 appearances, finishing the season 0 WSAB. He hasn’t had a really good season since 2002, yet Shapiro was calling on him to shoulder a much larger responsibility. That is like the pig who built his house with straw.

The negative chaining effect continued as Danny Graves made the Opening Day roster. Let’s look at the pen that opened the season for the Indians, with 2005 numbers:

             WSAB      PRC
Wickman       3         40
Betancourt    3         41
Miller        2         24
Cabrera       2         24
Sauerbeck     0         28
Mota          0         22
Graves       -2          3
Total         8        182

That isn’t the pen of a contender; it is a pen about 12 runs over replacement over the amount of innings an average bullpen would throw. Last year, the Indians pen compiled 267 PRC; these guys compiled 182. Compound April injuries to Miller and Betancourt, who were temporarily replaced with replacement relievers, plus C.C. Sabathia going down which put more stress on the pen. Add the fact the starting pitching and middle relievers often couldn’t even get to the ninth inning with a lead despite a potent offense, and it should be no surprise things were very ugly before the Indy 500.

But what about Betancourt, Miller, and Fernando Cabrera? Shapiro was obviously expecting them to pick up the slack. Was he foolish to think that? Let’s look at the individual pitchers to see if there were any red flags, starting with Betancourt.

There were no warning signs of collapse from Rafael Betancourt’s performance last year, other than a slight second half drop. However, he was nailed for a “banned performance-enhancing drug” last year. Getting caught doesn’t immediately erase all the benefits of PEDs. Who knows how long he has been on them, but he didn’t make the majors until he was 28 years old (yes, he started as a position player, so he wasn’t pitching in the minors right away).

We also don’t know how much of Betancourt’s past success was PED aided. I don’t think it is fair to put the onus of blame on Shapiro not recognizing that Betancourt would have such a dismal year (Betancourt has pitched much better in the second half). Entrusting him with a setup job might have been a bit much with the specter of PEDs, but Betancourt’s injury probably had a much bigger impact on his struggles early in the year.

Matt Miller‘s career has been an injury lurking around the corner, and while he pitched brilliantly last year, he didn’t pitch after July 15. Counting on him to be healthy enough to contribute greatly to the pen was a long shot, and bullpen’s stretched thin by their design can’t afford those type of bets. Granted, Shapiro had Cabrera as the third or fourth man in the pen, but when Danny Graves is your last safety net in a seven-man bullpen, chances are the trapeze artist is going to go splat.

Cabrera has been a mystery this year. His LOB% was 90%, but his strikeout-rate was high (9.0/9 innings), so there should not have been too much reverting to the norm. His walk-rate increased dramatically this year (4.8/ 9 innings from 3.4 9 innings last year), and his home run-rate jumped. This sounds like a pitcher who gets himself behind the count due to control problems, then overthrows to get himself out of jams. The result is a flat pitch that major league hitters put out of the park. However, his breaking stuff has been hit hard this year. Shapiro can’t really be faulted for not seeing this in advance; Cabrera looked to be a young pitcher ready to have a breakout type season.

In the end, what Shapiro can be faulted for is trying to build a bullpen from the top down while ignoring the foundation below. Completely underestimating the closer market undermined his strategy since he staked his entire bullpen reconstruction on a top closer, then failed to finish the deal. While a closer is important into today’s game, a great closer can’t carry a pen of pitchers at or just above the replacement level.

At best Shapiro entered the season with a couple of relievers suited for the middle of the pen, maybe a guy who could handle the set up role, an old, potential gas can for a closer, and a few replacement level pitchers. At worst, he received what he has now.

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