Nine Innings: Kazmir, scoring runs and other stuff

You might be surprised where the Indians rank in baseball in runs scored

1) A 2-4 start out of the All Star Break was not in the Indians feel-good script for this feel-good season. It’s times like this that it seems this team might be a year or two away. But then they go thump Seattle pretty good in the finale, Detroit does not pull away and Cleveland heads home where they have won six-of-their-last-eight and 30-of-49 this season. This team refuses to slip away, and even when they’re frustrating they do enough to keep themselves still, in the words of their manager, playing games that matter.

2) What is frustrating is the Indians gave away games with poor baserunning and poor play in the field, which led to four one-run losses. Now, a poor baserunning play is just that; it doesn’t mean the players are poor, it means they made a poor play. But it does highlight something about the 2013 team: This is a good team, but when it beats itself it’s not good enough to overcome those gaffes. The Indians can play with anyone when they play well, but when they don’t they make it double tough.

3) What makes it double frustrating is that in the six games since the break the Indians gave up 14 runs, 2.3 per game. The most runs the pitching staff gave up in any of those games was four in (naturally) a 4-3 loss to Seattle. And the starters were even better. In six games, the starters pitched 36 2/3 innings and gave up six earned runs -- an ERA of 1.47. Yet the team went 2-4. The starters actually are on a pretty good run. Since Jason Giambi held his come-to-Jason meeting following two ugly losses to Detroit, the starting pitchers have thrown 85 1/3 innings and given up 19 runs -- an ERA of 2.00. Problem is because the Indians scored four runs or fewer in nine of those games, the Indians went just 8-6.

4) Point of view is interesting. It’s legitimate and fair to lament the fact the Indians went 2-4 with good starting pitching. Because it is frustrating. But the flip-side -- the Terry Francona side if you will -- states that as long as the starting pitching stays like it has been the past 14 games the Indians will hang around. Because any team that gets starting pitching like that should be in a lot of games.

5) What has become more and more evident is that the Indians should be burning a lot of sage in hopes that that the Tigers do not go on one of their “it’s time to play” streaks as the season finishes. If the Tigers flip the switch the way they have the last two seasons, it will be tough for Cleveland to keep up. It may well be impossible. Too, winning their division seems like Cleveland’s best chance to reach the playoffs. With four winning teams in the AL East -- Boston, Tampa Bay, Baltimore and the Yankees -- a wild card spot is quite challenging. Cleveland is tied for fourth in the wild card standings with the Yankees, and to get to the second spot the Indians would have to beat some combination of Tampa, New York, Baltimore and Texas. Yes, these three games at Progressive Field this weekend are important. 

6) It’s well past time to start taking note of Scott Kazmir. The guy really is an amazing story, and could be pushing to win the Comeback Player of the Year Award. A year ago Kazmir was reinventing himself for the Sugarland Skeeters. He hadn’t won a game in the major leagues since 2010, and hadn’t pitched in the majors leagues since 2011, when he gave up five runs in an inning and one-third on April 3 for the Angels. Somehow Kazmir has brought himself back. He’s gone from a guy who could blow the fastball by anyone at any point in time to a pitcher who locates better, pitches in and out yet still has it in him to fire one at 96 mph when it’s needed -- or when something has made him angry. As he said, he feels “like more of a complete pitcher now.” Fangraphs.com shows in these charts that he had nothing in his one start in 2011, but that his velocity and change of speeds are both dramatically better this season than 2010. [ http://www.fangraphs.com/pitchfxo.aspx?playerid=4897&position=P&pitch=FA ] In his last seven starts, Kazmir has given up eight earned runs in 45 innings -- a 1.60 ERA. It’s a pretty remarkable story. “I feel like I found what I was looking for the past couple starts,” Kazmir told the assembled media on Wednesday. “Still a lot of room for improvement but everything’s looking good out there.”

7) Kazmir was signed to a one-year minor league contract last winter. He’s earning $1 million this season, with a possible $1.75 million more in incentives. The $1 million is the same as Ryan Raburn, Rich Hill and Lou Marson and less than Mike Aviles, Drew Stubbs and Brett Myers. The Indians have to be wondering about re-signing Kazmir. At this point, he’s shown he’s worthy of consideration for a three-year deal. Yes, there is a risk, he wrote, well aware the same issue was being discussed about Mark Reynolds earlier this season. But Kazmir is a left-handed starter who can throw 96 mph. The development of Corey Kluber and the re-emergence of Kazmir and the stunning debut of Danny Salazar may prompt the Indians to lean more toward retaining Kazmir than Ubaldo Jimenez (another guy who will be a free agent). Mix in the potential of Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco (OK, that one may be a stretch) and the Indians may be able to re-sign Kazmir and let Jimenez go. However, if either or both are willing to give the Indians a financial break, the possibility of keeping both remains -- even if it is slim. It will be interesting to see what Kazmir does. It was the Indians who took a chance on him and brought him back. At 29, he seems a risk worth taking.

8) Which of course leads to the trading deadline, because of course all roads (and numbered paragraphs) lead to the trade deadline. Matt Garza has gone to Texas, and the Indians are left to ponder the best way to improve their team at the deadline, if they can. Is it a starting pitcher? A hitter? Or in the bullpen? (Which pretty much covers all possibilities.) The numbers would indicate the Indians can win the way the starters have pitched. The offense has had its down moments, but its 479 runs rank fifth in all of baseball. That’s right, the Indians have the fifth highest total of runs scored in Major League Baseball, and that is the one statistic that is the most important in this age of analytics. Too, the ranking does not change when it’s figured as runs per game as opposed to total runs. The Indians are scoring 4.74 runs per game, which ranks behind only Detroit, Boston, St. Louis and Baltimore in all of baseball. Which leads to the bullpen, which was supposed to be a given when the season started. Cleveland’s bullpen ERA is 4.01, 24th in baseball. And it has blown 18 saves. Given that it’s probably easier and less costly to find relief help than a big bat or a starting pitcher, it would seem likely that if the Indians do anything to improve before the deadline, it would be to help the bullpen.

9) Nick Swisher’s an easy target. He signed a $54 million contract in the offseason, he’s the highest paid Indian at $11 million and he’s hitting .242 with 10 home runs and 32 RBI. That puts him on pace to hit 16 home runs and finish with 51 RBI, which would be the lowest for Swisher since he became a regular in 2005 (Swisher has hit at least 21 home runs in each of the last eight seasons). It’s easy to say Swisher can’t handle the heat of being “the guy” rather than a supporter of players like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, but Swisher is in that no-man’s land caused by injury. He’s playing hurt. And he’s never had an injury like this before. Swisher has missed 16 games this season -- the most he missed in any season from 2006-2012 was 14. He averaged 149 games per season from 2005-2012. Now he’s fighting through an injury that he has to deal with the rest of the season. Neither the Indians or Swisher have specified what is wrong, but it sure seems like there is some structural problem that is serious enough that it might need postseason attention (surgery?) but is something he can play with by strengthening the muscles around the area. This is no way to swing a bat, and Swisher is in limbo; he wants to keep playing because he truly enjoys his teammates, and believes in the team, and he also wants to justify the big contract he was given. He cares. But he clearly is not his complete self.