Know Your Enemy: Q & A with Indians Writer Lewie Pollis

The Detroit Tigers welcome the Cleveland Indians to Comerica Park for the weekend with first place in the division at stake. The Tribe is the only AL Central club who has outscored their opponents this year, but they sit a game and a half behind Detroit.

Lewie Pollis writes the Indians blog Wahoo Blues and he and I exchanged questions and answers in advance of this important series. Below you’ll find my questions to him, complete with his answers. My responses to his questions can be found on his site.

MCB: The biggest news maybe in all of baseball at the trade deadline was the acquisition of Ubaldo Jimenez. The Tribe gave up their top two pitching prospects in the deal, but managed to hold on to Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall. What are your thoughts on the trade and the pieces involved and what do you expect from Jimenez going forward?

WB: ”At first, I was livid about the deal. Trading two of our four alleged untouchables for a non-superstar player? It seemed exactly like the “mortgaging the future” that we had been promised over and over again wouldn’t happen. It’s grown on me since then, and given that Jimenez is under team control at a team-friendly price through 2013 and the inherent riskiness of even the best pitching prospects I’d say the deal was worth it.

I don’t love the deal (I don’t have any objective reason to think Drew Pomeranz was more of a sure thing than Adam Miller or Jeremy Sowers were), but I now think it makes the organization better. Interestingly, according to a survey I undertook, most other Indians fans had the same sort of initial skepticism followed by gradual acceptance.

As for the players we gave up, Pomeranz is by far the one I’ll miss most. He was our first-round pick last year, and in his first 98 professional innings he’s got a 1.84 ERA, a 1.08 WHIP, and a 10.7 K/9 rate. I was really looking forward to seeing him in an Indians uniform, and it was his inclusion in the deal (as well as the initial reports that Kipnis could be in it too) that really freaked me out.

I think I’m in the minority here, but I wasn’t as worried about losing the other big-name prospect, Alex White. He’s only 22, but he didn’t seem to have the kind of overpowering strikeout stuff that Pomeranz did, and I was afraid he might be the latest in another line of promising Tribe pitching prospects to get to the majors and turn out to be a pitch-to-contact guy. Not to mention he’s already been dealing with injuries—the only thing riskier than a pitching prospect is a pitching prospect with a preexisting condition.

Joe Gardner is a wormburner extraordinaire, but my worries about White apply even more so to Gardner, who struck out only 60 batters in just under 100 innings with Double-A Akron this year, posting a 4.99 ERA in the process. He’s only 23 and he certainly has time to develop, but his future is probably as a swingman, or at best a back-end starter. Finally, Matt McBride is 26 years old and he’s in Double-A. He’s organizational depth.

As for Ubaldo, it’s kind of hard to say. He’s definitely better than he’s looked so far—his 65.3% strand rate is way too low, and his SIERA (3.51) is almost a full run lower than his ERA (4.48). Three games is a small sample size, but so far with the Tribe he has more than a strikeout an inning and his 3.6 K/BB ratio would be the best of his career. Still, he’s definitely not the pitcher he was last year, and as Beyond the Box Score’s Bill Petti explained, he might not be as good as his luck-neutral numbers would suggest—but that doesn’t mean bad luck isn’t part of the problem.”

MCB: Justin Masterson was a train wreck for most of the 2010 season with many fans and pundits alike calling from him to be returned to the bullpen. This year he’s been one of the top right handers in the league all season long. What has made the difference for Masterson and his effectiveness?

WB: ”Before I answer that, I think it’s important to make it clear that while the folks who wanted him demoted were vocal and a lot of people were talking about it, I don’t recall any serious analyst saying he should be moved, and the team gave no indication that they had lost faith in him as a starter. I could have told you a year ago that Masterson had been getting unlucky (his 4.70 ERA was around 80 points higher than his luck-neutral numbers). Some people suggested that his high BABIP was due to an inability to fool lefty hitters, but if you actually look at the numbers, you’d have seen that the argument didn’t hold water since right-handers had a higher hit rate off of him than southpaw hitters.

But even forgetting that, Masterson was only 25 last year, so I’m not sure why people thought he wouldn’t get better as he entered his peak. And even if he didn’t look like a great starter, he was at least a respectable rotation member, and there wasn’t anyone better available to take his rotation spot. That whole thing didn’t make sense.

But I digress. He’s added about 1.5 mph to his fastball and he’s using it more (84% of his pitches, according to FanGraphs). But at the risk of sounding cliché, I think the bigger difference is that he’s more confident against lefty hitters. He’s walking southpaw hitters at half the rate he did last year (5.2%, down from 10.4%) while his strikeout numbers have remained basically steady. Rather than pitch around them he’s letting them hit it, and it seems to be working.”

MCB: Grady Sizemore is said to be coming back in September. He’s been riddled with injuries for most of the last three years. There has been speculation that the club will part ways with the fan favorite after the season. Are we seeing the end of Sizemore’s Cleveland career?

WB: ”Not a chance. What do the Indians stand to gain by dealing him now? Because he’s a fan favorite he’s more valuable to the Tribe than he is to anyone else, and right now his trade value would be at an all-time low. He’s affordable for 2012, the Indians are looking to keep contending, they wouldn’t be able to get much in return for him, and with apologies to Chad Huffman there’s no obvious permanent replacement waiting in the wings. He’s staying put.”

MCB: In Detroit these days, there is talk of Justin Verlander for MVP, make your case for Asdrubal Cabrera to win the award instead.

WB: ”Verlander has had a fantastic season and he deserves the Cy Young for sure, but he’s not the MVP (I’m not biased against pitchers—I’d go with Roy Halladay for NL MVP). But while I would love to see Cabrera get it (almost as much as I’d love to see Carlos Santana or Omar Vizquel win), he’s not the MVP either. Not even close.

The true AL MVP has to be Jose Bautista. Dude has 35 homers, a 1.090 OPS, and wRC+ has him at 93% better than the average hitter. He’s sixth in the league in pitches per plate appearance, so he helps his teammates see what the guy on the mound has and helps to tire him out. Best of all, he leads all of baseball with 7.3 wins above replacement (FanGraphs model). Clutch ability? His 6.57 WPA is also tops in the league. With apologies to Verlander (he definitely deserves to be among the top finishers) and Dustin Pedroia, Joey Bats is the only real choice.

But, if you’re interested in the case for Cabrera: best hitter on a surprise contender, plays a premium position, big clutch moments, carried the team on his back, yada yada yada. Great player, fun to watch, makes the Indians a much better team. But he’s not the MVP.”

MCB: By the time the Indians dumped Jhonny Peralta on the Tigers, he had more than fallen out of favor with Indians fans, he had become to town whipping boy. How have Cleveland fans reacted to seeing Peralta’s career resurrection?

WB: ”There’s a wide spectrum. Anger, frustration, surprise, apathy—I was in the bleachers at one of the games the last time the Tigers came to town and a couple drunk guys wouldn’t shut up about his allegedly overly aggressive style of play—but I don’t think I’ve heard anyone sound genuinely happy for him. Peralta had the unenviable task of replacing fan favorite and future Hall of Famer Omar Vizquel, so when he played poorly (as he did pretty much every year with the Indians, save for ’05 and ’08) he was a natural scapegoat for everything that was wrong with Cleveland baseball. Fair or not, that feeling is so deeply ingrained in most fans that they’re not interested in seeing him succeed. People aren’t rooting for him the way they do for Omar or Jim Thome.”

MCB: What do the Indians need to do to win the series this weekend? Series prediction?

WB: ”Earth-shattering though it may sound, Cleveland needs to score some runs (I apologize if I just blew your mind). The Indians are really a good-pitching team, but after an early-season hot streak the offense has had trouble staying in drive for more than a couple games at a time. Game one possibly excepted (Max Scherzer is the only Tigers starter I’m really worried about) we should have the chance to tee off this series as long as the lineup isn’t stuck in neutral.

I say the Indians take two of three. Looking at the pitching match-ups I think the Indians could actually be favorites to win each individual game, but predicting a sweep would be greedy.”

I’d like to thank Lewie for jumping in here to give us a better look at the Indians. From my interactions with him, I think I can safely say that he’s the most level-headed Indians fan I’ve encountered.

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Topics: Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers, Drew Pomeranz, Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta, Jose Bautista, Justin Masterson, Justin Verlander, Ubaldo Jimenez

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