Short Nerd Chief

Tribe Fans: Time to Panic

Posted by Fred on May 22, 2008

I’ve been holding off pushing the panic button, given that the 2008 season is only 46 games into a 162 game season, but after yet another inept offensive performance that wasted an adequate start from Paul Byrd, it’s time to start thinking about running around in a circle screaming. The offensive statistics for the season to date are really awful. A .234 team batting average (last in the AL). A .313 OBP and .362 slugging percentage (next to last in the AL). Last in hits, 12th in runs, last in triples, 10th in homers, 11th in strikeouts in the 14 team AL. The only offensive category the team leads the league in is times hit by a pitch, which is truly pitiful. In 26 of 46 games, the Tribe has scored 3 runs or fewer, and hasn’t scored more than 4 since a 12 run outburst on May 10th against Toronto. The current 5 game losing streak includes losses of 4-3, 4-2 and 4-1.

So now that we’ve decided to panic, what next. The team has three basic choices: some new blood from the minors, in the hope of providing the same sort of spark that Asdrubal Cabrera did in a similar situation last year, a trade, or something even more major. They’ve tried the first approach already. Michael Aubrey has a couple of homers in his brief, just-until-Borowski-comes-back trip from Buffalo, but his .250 average isn’t a hyge improvement. Ben Francisco is the only hot hitter on the team, and has relegated Franklin Gutierrez to a platoon role for which he is extremely ill-suited (his average against lefties is worse than against righties). Shin-Soo Choo should be ready to come back soon, and has hit .353 in 17 AB over 5 games since May 15, with a 1.009 OPS. Other than that, pickings are sort of bare – Brad Snyder has 10 HR, but do we really need another .211 hitter in this lineup?

A trade is a more promising possibility, although the action won’t really pick up until teams are ready to give up on the season. The most persistent rumor has Aaron Laffey going with Josh Barfield to Colorado for Garrett Atkins. Any trade with Colorado has an element of risk, given the Coors Field Effect, but Atkins actually has a higher OPS on the road (.903) than at home (.822) and has hit 5 of his 7 HR away from Denver. Colorado’s pitching staff is horrid, with a 4.57 ERA that is 14th of the 16 NL teams, so they may be willing to pull the trigger on the trade. I’d do that deal in a heartbeat if Jake Westbrook shows anything close to his pre-injury form.

The best solution, however, may be something more radical. Hitting coach Derek Shelton is a disciple of the Yankees/As-style approach that calls for taking opposing pitchers deep into the count. In theory, this should lead to walks and a higher OBP and elevated pitch counts. Most teams have weak middle relief, so getting the starter out in the 5th or 6th inning should be an advantage. It has worked, to an extent, as the team is 9th in the AL in walks, certainly better than most other offensive categories. Unfortunately, the approach hasn’t led to hits or runs. Whether this is an error in approach by the coaching staff or an error in execution by the players is unclear, but it is clear that something isn’t working. In 479 games under Shelton, the team has struck out 3,484 times (to 1,642 walks). In 539 games under Eddie Murray, the team struck out 3,407 times (to 1,768 walks). This year’s performance looks remarkably similar to the first part of 2005 that led to Shelton’s hiring in the first place:

2005 53 1811 209 437 87 12 57 203 154 336 .241 .307 .397
2008 46 1503 186 351 78 2 37 182 147 321 .234 .313 .362

It also seems fairly clear that Shelton’s approach has led to a power outage in Cleveland. Victor Martinez is still looking for his first homer of 2008. Travis Hafner has hit far more groundballs than he used to over the past couple of years. Grady Sizemore’s HR totals are up, but his statistics would suggest he hasn’t really taken Shelton’s approach to heart, as he remains a free swinger who strikes out too much.

Is firing Shelton the answer? Probably not the entirety of the solution, but this is a team that has been in a year-long funk, not just a few games in 2008. Over the past 162 games, the Indians have hit just .258 as a team, putting them squarely in the middle of the pack in the AL. In 2004, Cleveland was fourth in the AL at .276; in 2005, they were 5th at .271. After peaking at .280 in Shelton’s first full year, it has been all downhill.


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