A summary of the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal

On November 12th, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich released a bombshell piece of reporting (paywall): proof that Houston Astros, during 2017 home games, were stealing signs in real time and relaying them to the batter. Members of the team set up a monitor in the dugout tunnel that displayed a feed from center field in real time, and once they had deciphered the catcher’s signals, banged on a trash can to indicate an off-speed pitch; if a fastball was called, there was no banging. Because the banging was audible on TV broadcasts, and the article mentioned a particular incident, the allegation was easy to confirm by anyone with access to Youtube. In fact, just a couple of hours after the article appeared, Jomboy, a Internet baseball commentator, posted this fantastic breakdown on Twitter:

Before long numerous other examples were found throughout the season, and the pattern (bang for an off-speed pitch, no bang for a fastball) remained consistent throughout all the other incidents. Keep in mind also that the Astros won the 2017 World Series.

Before exploring the immediate fallout from this revelation, let’s take a step back in order to understand why these allegations are so damaging to the Astros in particular and MLB in general.

Sign Stealing: legal versus illegal

From the time signals began to be used in baseball, the other team has tried to decipher them, whether they were from the third base coach (for the batter) or the catcher (for the pitcher). The benefit of knowing for certain the type of pitch that is coming is immense for a major-league hitter. There are very few pitchers with the type of stuff that will miss bats if the batter knows the pitch ahead of time.

With that being said, it is not illegal in MLB for teams to use on-field personnel to decipher signs; for example, if a runner on second who has deciphered the pitch signs signals them to the batter and is discovered, he will not be thrown out by the umpire or even fined by the league. However, if the signals were deciphered by non-human methods or were relayed from someone who isn’t on-field personnel (a player or coach), that is illegal sign stealing. The use of a mechanical device to steal signs has been banned since 1961, and “electronic methods” were specifically banned in 2001.

The Arms Race

As video technology (particularly resolution) has gotten better, it has become much easier to see the catcher’s signs from the traditional center field feed. And so, in recent years teams have become more paranoid about having their signs being stolen, even when there’s no runners on base, or other analysis being done in real-time (such as looking at tiny differences in a pitcher’s glove between pitches to see if there’s any “tells”).

In 2014, MLB instituted the current form of instant replay, in which a manager has the ability to challenge certain calls on the field and have them reviewed by the MLB office. As part of the new process, teams now employ replay assistants whose job it is to phone the manager if he or she thinks the play is worth reviewing. The assistant is provided with real-time video feeds to make the determination to review.

“Ok,” you may be saying, “how the heck does instant replay relate to stealing signs?” The reason is that the first proven instance of electronic sign stealing came because of that replay assistant. In 2017, the New York Yankees filed a complaint against the Boston Red Sox alleging that their replay assistant was texting the pitch calls to an athletic trainer in the dugout, who would relay the calls to the batter. After reviewing the complaint, which was later publicized by the New York Times, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred issued his findings and punishment:

  September 15, 2017 (edit: remember this date!)

Baseball Commissioner Robert D. Manfred, Jr. issued the following statement today: 

"Several weeks ago, the New York Yankees filed a complaint with the Commissioner's Office alleging that the Boston Red Sox violated certain Major League Baseball Regulations by using electronic equipment to aid in the deciphering of signs being given by the Yankees' catcher. The Commissioner's Office has conducted a thorough investigation of the allegation. Today, I am prepared to disclose the results of that investigation.

"At the outset, it is important to understand that the attempt to decode signs being used by an opposing catcher is not a violation of any Major League Baseball Rule or Regulation. Major League Baseball Regulations do, however, prohibit the use of electronic equipment during games and state that no such equipment 'may be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a Club an advantage.' Despite this clear Regulation, the prevalence of technology, especially the technology used in the replay process, has made it increasingly difficult to monitor appropriate and inappropriate uses of electronic equipment. Based on the investigation by my office, I have nonetheless concluded that during the 2017 season the Boston Red Sox violated the Regulation quoted above by sending electronic communications from their video replay room to an athletic trainer in the dugout. 

[snip]

"Taking all of these factors as well as past precedent into account, I have decided to fine the Red Sox an undisclosed amount which in turn will be donated by my office to hurricane relief efforts in Florida. Moreover, all 30 Clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.

 

The punishment meted out to the Red Sox, an undisclosed fine, was in my opinion much too lenient for the severity of the violation. Knowing what pitch is coming is a massive advantage, particularly in a close game. Manfred, did, however, issue a warning that further violations would be met with more severe penalties.

Please note that Manfred’s statement was issued on September 15, 2017. The incident covered by Jomboy above happened a week later on September 22. So the Astros were violating the rule even after Manfred issued his warning.

Fast forward to the 2018 postseason. The Cleveland Indians were swept by the Astros in the ALDS, but after the series, Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports broke this story:

 HOUSTON – The Boston Red Sox were warned that a man credentialed by the Houston Astros might try to steal signs or information from their dugout after the Cleveland Indians caught him taking pictures of their dugout with a cellphone camera during Game 3 of the American League Division Series, sources with knowledge of the situation told Yahoo Sports.

A photograph obtained by Yahoo Sports showed a man named Kyle McLaughlin aiming a cell phone into Cleveland’s dugout during the Indians’ 11-3 loss that ended their season. McLaughlin was the same man caught taking pictures near the Red Sox’s dugout during Game 1 of the AL Championship Series, which was first reported by the Metro Times. McLaughlin was removed by security in Cleveland and Boston, sources said. 

Click through to the article to view the photograph. This incident again prompted an investigation by MLB, and once again there were no real consequences:

  "Before the postseason began, a number of Clubs called the Commissioner's Office about sign stealing and the inappropriate use of video equipment. The concerns expressed related to a number of Clubs, not any one specific Club. In response to these calls, the Commissioner's Office reinforced the existing rules with all playoff Clubs and undertook proactive measures, including instituting a new prohibition on the use of certain in-stadium cameras, increasing the presence of operations and security personnel from Major League Baseball at all Postseason games and instituting a program of monitoring Club video rooms.

"With respect to both incidents regarding a Houston Astros employee, security identified an issue, addressed it and turned the matter over to the Department of Investigations. A thorough investigation concluded that an Astros employee was monitoring the field to ensure that the opposing Club was not violating any rules. All Clubs remaining in the playoffs have been notified to refrain from these types of efforts and to direct complaints about any in-stadium rules violations to MLB staff for investigation and resolution. We consider the matter closed." 

The justification of “we were just seeing of the other guy was cheating” seems laughable on its face, but the commissioner somehow bought it. At least in the immediate aftermath, while the postseason was still ongoing.

After the season, MLB instituted several new rules regarding electronic devices. They included:

  • Banning all non-broadcast cameras from foul pole to foul pole
  • The only live game feed will be provided to the team’s replay booth, and a trained MLB employee will ensure there is no illegal communication between the replay booth and the dugout or field of play. All other game feeds will occur on an eight-second delay
  • No television monitors will be allowed between the clubhouse and the dugout.

In retrospect, these rules were designed to stop exactly the type of scheme the Astros were using in 2017. Houston installed a camera in center field (bullet point one), had installed a TV monitor between the clubhouse and the field (point three) and were giving the batter the signs in real time (point two). So I think MLB had some inkling that this type of cheating was going on: they perhaps just didn’t have any evidence.

Until last week.

Crime and Punishment

That brings us up to the Athletic report. After the article dropped, the Houston Astros announced that were cooperating with MLB on an investigation into the allegations, and would make no other comment (which is an improvement on how they handled the Brandon Taubman incident):

 Regarding the story posted by The Athletic earlier today, the Houston Astros organization has begun an investigation in cooperation with Major League Baseball. It would not be appropriate to comment further on this matter at this time. 

This placed the ball back in Manfred’s court. He had let the Red Sox off with a fine in 2017, then did nothing regarding the Astros employee in the 2018 postseason. This time his rhetoric was different:

 "Any allegations that relate to a rule violation that could affect the outcome of a game or games is the most serious matter," Manfred said. "It relates to the integrity of the sport. In terms of where we are, we have a very active -- what is going to be a really, really thorough investigation ongoing. But beyond that, I can't tell you how close we are to done." 

He also said that the Astros were the only team MLB was currently looking at, but later said:

 “We are going to investigate the Astros situation as thoroughly as humanly possible,” Manfred said after the conclusion of the owners’ meetings. “That investigation is going to encompass not only what we know about ’17, but also ’18 and ’19. We are talking to people all over the industry. Former employees, competitors, whatever. To the extent that we find other leads, we’re going to follow these leads. We will get to the bottom of what we have out there in terms of what went on to the extent that it’s humanly possible. I just can’t speculate beyond that.” 

So although this investigation may start with the Astros, it may not end there, which is as it should be. Even if it turns out that the Astros had the most sophisticated method, any team that utilized electronics should be punished. It is critical that fans have faith that the game they are watching is being played within the rules, and that one team does not have an unfair advantage over the other.

That takes us to the topic of punishment. Twice now (in the 2017 Red Sox statement and the pre-season rules in 2019) teams have warned that violation of the sign stealing rules could result in the loss of draft picks or similar punishment. Craig Edwards of Fangraphs looked at Manfred’s history of punishments for organizational violations and came away with these broad criteria:

  • Is this the first time a team has been penalized for breaking the rules?
  • Was the organization cooperative with MLB’s investigation?
  • How high up the organizational chain does the knowledge and activity go?

As an example, he examines MLB’s investigations into international signing violations. In 2016, the Red Sox were punished for violating the signing rules by not being able to sign any international free agents for a year and by having those players that were signed illegally declared free agents. A year later, the Atlanta Braves broke those same rules, and not only were they punished with a greater loss of international signing caps, but Braves general manager John Coppollela was banned for life and another member of the front office was suspended for a year.

So if it is found that the Astros front office participated in, or at least knew about the illegal sign stealing, I would expect a similar type of punishment that the Braves received, with the team losing multiple draft picks, and suspensions of front office personnel, coaches, and players involved in the scheme. If there is evidence that the Astros used this scheme (or something similar to it) in the 2017/2018/2019 playoffs, the punishments would escalate even further.

One of Manfred’s roles as commissioner is to protect the institution, and that means he should come down hard on any individual or organization that places the existence of the sport in any kind of danger. This sign stealing scandal does in my opinion rise to that level.

A Storybook Ending

Today Jim Thome takes his well-deserved place among baseball’s immortals, and most appropriately, his plaque that will hang in the Hall of Fame will feature him as a Cleveland Indian.

If you follow the Cleveland sports media, or sports media in general, you’ll by this time have read, heard, or seen just about every one of Thome’s career highlights and retrospectives, so I don’t want to duplicate those. Although I will recommend, if you missed it the first time, Jason Lukehart’s Top 100 Indians profile on Thome, as it captures his professional and personal greatness (the two are intertwined) in an understated way, the profile a reflection of the player and person.

Instead I’m going to indulge into some personal history regarding a rather painful time as an Indians fan. For there to be a storybook ending, there has to be a story, and a story without a conflict just isn’t a story.


Let’s go back to the winter of 2002. I was away at college, but baseball and particularly Jim Thome had as much of a hold on me as well as any of my courses, as this was the winter of his free agency. It was a rather protracted negotiation, which led to no small number of rumors, speculation, and an increasingly drawing out of emotions. After all, not only was Thome one of the best players in team history (he had just clinched the franchise home run record that season), but represented the last chance for the Indians to actually keep one of their homegrown stars for life.

By this time the rebuilding had begun, so I was under no allusion that keeping Thome would suddenly vault the team back into contention, but at least there would be some piece of those past teams that would carry forward, some continuity between the great teams of the 90s and the hopefully the next great team. I’d seen Albert Belle leave after 1996 and Manny Ramirez after 2000, and now hoped that this time, this player would decide to stay for good. Thome, unlike Belle or Ramirez, had signed a extension that kept him in Cleveland past his initial free agent year, but even so, hadn’t yet been a free agent. Now the large market teams were circling, ready to pick off the last of the homegrown stars.

I don’t remember exactly where I was when the news came down that Thome had signed with the Phillies. I had spent the last several days furiously refreshing the various sports news sites between classes, arguing on the ESPN Indians board at night with various characters about whether ownership would pony up the money to at least get close to what the Phillies had been offering. I distinctly remember that the Indians’ final offer included a statue, as though they hoped that immortality, that most tantalizing of intangibles, could somehow offset what we later learned to be a most tangible difference in salary. I also remember not believing the news at first, having read and heard many false stories masquerading as truth over the previous month. But as the confirmations came from other, more trustworthy sources, slowly, then quickly, stark reality hit. I closed the browser before the inevitable trolls would make the news hurt any worse.

Over 15 years later, it’s clear that nobody was the villain in this story. Thome clearly had wanted to stay, and the Indians tried to keep him. But the talk all during that long, dark winter was who was at fault more: Indians owner Larry Dolan, or Jim Thome. It got rather heated, to say the least. The ESPN board archives aren’t available any more, and I don’t remember every argument that I made back then, but I do know that I was more willing to believe that the offers were closer than they ultimately were, and therefore, blamed Thome more. I blamed Thome quite a bit, in many different ways. Rationality in this issue had been shoved way out of the picture, and wouldn’t return for quite a while. I think this was the case for a lot of Cleveland fans.

Meanwhile Thome handled the signing and its emotional baggage as well as he possibly could. Initially it helped that he was in the National League, and so wouldn’t face the Indians very often. But in a cruel twist of fate he would be traded back to the American League in 2006, and to a team in the AL Central. And not only that, it was to the Chicago White Sox, the year after they had won the World Series. The White Sox, whose manager (Ozzie Guillen) had given a choke signal at Jacobs Field at the end of the 2005 season. And Thome was still a great player, capable of making a difference in the division race. Needless to say, the cards were stacked against the fans of Cleveland giving Thome any sort of appreciation for all the years he’d spent captivating them as an Indian. I note all this to prepare you for the next paragraph.

By this time I was running Let’s Go Tribe, and so was spending even more time poring over the various reactions and commentary from the media on the Indians. The usual national media response to the chorus of boos Thome received while in Cleveland was indignation. “How could those fans boo a player who was so great for so long?” was a typical formulation you’d see in print, online, or on TV or radio. Indignation always makes for great audience engagement, so any time Thome appeared in Cleveland from then on (and because he was a member of the White Sox, it was quite often), that formulation became de rigueur and I became used to responding to it. But at the heart of that moral preening was a compelling argument: that Tribe fans were letting their emotions overwhelm them and holding a grudge that should have long faded away. As the years went by, and as the rawness of the events of 2002 faded, this became more and more apparent. I also understood where that emotion was coming from, because I had felt it as well (heck, still felt it somewhat), and you can’t just ignore that without being deeply dishonest with yourself.


I dredge up all these memories, the worst memories I could possibly have of Thome’s great career, for a reason. It makes today’s ceremony all the more poignant to me. Throughout the years of acrimony, of boos and other unpleasant banter, Thome handled it all with grace and magnanimity. And so, when the opportunity arose to bring him back in 2011, the ground had long been prepared for Indians fans to finally reciprocate that goodwill. Unpleasant history shouldn’t be forgotten, but neither should a Hall of Fame career be overshadowed by it. So in the twilight of his career, Jim Thome returned to Cleveland, and it was as if he had never left. The statue that had been promised back in 2002 as a condition was now given freely. The adulation withheld over the years was returned all at once. And it was not just because Thome was in an Indians uniform. The following year, Thome returned to Cleveland as a Baltimore Oriole, and was cheered just as loudly. There was no rebuilding that grudge now.

This story has its hero perform great feats, only to leave his home to jeers and curses by those who once adored him. But years later, the hero returns home, and the memories of those past glories softens the hearts of all, and once more they count him as one of their own.

And so he will be today in Cooperstown.

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Back Off the Mat

The Indians, in a bizarre game, beat Detroit 9-6 last night. The game featured two instances of starting pitchers self-destructing after a run of pretty good pitching. Fortunately for the Indians, Nate Robertson’s implosion resulted in nine runs being scored, which was enough to overcome Sabathia’s five-run seventh inning. CC had looked pretty good up to that point, only allowing one run on one hit through six innings. The win was encouraging because it came in the wake of probably the most devastating loss of the season.

Some transactions:

Reinstated 1B Travis Hafner from the Disabled List

Optioned OF Jason Dubois to Buffalo (AAA)

So the Indians, instead of trying out Dubois at the very least against left-handers (note how Coco Crisp and Grady Sizemore do against southpaws), the Indians keep Jeff Liefer around, who has the same defensive ability as Dubois, plays the same positions, and who is five years older than Jason. How exactly does Liefer fit in the lineup, except as a replacement to Casey Blake? I don’t get this move; yes, Liefer is out of options, but who’s going to claim him now when they could have had him for a song when he was with Buffalo? I wrote when the Gerut-Dubois deal was made that the Indians owe it to themselves to see what Dubois can do. And that hasn’t really happened yet. Dubois will probably put up some great numbers for the Bisons in the interim, but that wouldn’t be anything unexpected.

Placed LHP Arthur Rhodes on the Bereavement List

Recalled RHP Fernando Cabrera from Buffalo (AAA)

Rhodes, who is attending to a sickness in his family, will be gone a minimum of three days, which puts even more of a strain on the Indian bullpen, especially the back-end folks. Bob Wickman was not available last night, and Scott Sauerbeck has been used a lot lately. The Indians could have a used a blowout on Friday, but thanks to the five-run seventh inning, the Indians had to use Bob Howry to save the game. Cabrera hasn’t been inserted into any high-leverage situation, but he has the stuff to handle a seventh inning assignment right now. Of course Brian Tallet is still in the bullpen, and yes, he hasn’t been used yet; that can be looked at as a good thing, because no starter has been taken out early since CC Sabathia’s blow-up in Oakland. But like it or not, the Indians will have to use a relatively inexperienced pitcher sooner or later, and Cabrera is the best young relief arm in the system right now.

MLB Suspended RHP Kevin Millwood for five games, RHP David Riske for four games, and Eric Wedge and Robbie Thompson for one game apiece

What really got me is the guy who started the whole mess, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, only received a fine. Obviously the umpire that night believed that Hasegawa threw at Sizemore intentionally, so why does MLB not believe so? Take for example Cliff Lee’s suspension last year: he was thrown out of a game for throwing behind Ken Griffey, Jr, and he was suspended for six games (one start). How are the circumstances different here (besides the fact that Hasegawa actually hit Sizemore)? Is it because Grady Sizemore isn’t the superstar Griffey was? To me, this smacks of a double standard. Here’s what Millwood had to say about it:

“[Hasegawa’s] the one that started the whole mess,” Millwood said. “If he doesn’t get suspended, then it’s pretty much a joke.”

Millwood, who will make his next start on Thursday in Kansas City, gleaned a message from the discipline dispensed after Cleveland’s 10-5 victory.

“I guess it’s OK to throw right in the middle of somebody’s back when you’re getting your [backside] whooped,” Millwood said. “But it’s not OK to [stick] up for your teammate.”

Amen.

Boone’s Option Picked Up

Exercised (and restructured) the 2006 Option of 3B Aaron Boone; Added a 2007 Mutual Option

Press Release

I guess you could call this an extension, although Boone probably would have reached the plate appearance threshold where the option would have vested anyway. No dollars have been released, but Mark Shapiro said that Boone gave back a bit for 2006, and the Indians added the mutual option for 2007. Not really an earth-shattering move, but the Indians save some money next season.

If you believe that Boone’s level of play is closer to what he’s done in June and July than in April and May, then Boone’s probably worth the option. If you think he’s the player that hit at or under the Mendoza line the first two months of the season, then he isn’t. I think the future level of production lies somewhere between the two extremes, probably he’s good for a .260/.320/.430 line next year. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA player projection system pegged Boone’s 50 percentile forecast at .263/.322/.429. His defense has been pretty good, probably better than I expected it to be.

Scott Elarton, Again

Boy am I glad when I’m wrong.

Elarton made his second start against the Yankees, and for the second time he pitched as well as you could hope for. His line:

6.0 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 4 SO, 0 BB

I’ll take it. But to look long-term, is Elarton, who is eligible for free agency after the season, worth bringing back? After all, the Indians do have a couple pitchers that they could plug into the rotation in 2006.

The standard pitching numbers look pretty good. Elarton has given up 120 hits in 117 innings of work, which is pretty decent. He’s struck out 68 hitters this year, which translates to 5.0/9IP. One reason why Elarton has been successful has been his low walk totals: he’s only walked 30 this season, which is especially important given his penchant for giving up homers (all the runs scored off him tonight were via the long ball). My view is that you’re looking at a guy who has marginal stuff, but can survive if he can spot his offspeed pitches. If he can’t throw his curve or change for strikes, then he’s in trouble. But you could say that for a lot of successful MLB pitches. What I want to know, then, is if this season’s numbers are a product of luck, or whether they are indicative of what Scott could do for the next couple of years. To do that, let’s look at some of the numbers I used to evaluate Jake Westbrook’s 2004 season.

xFIP ERA: 4.70

This statistic normalizes fielding independent pitching to the pitchers’ home park, which is especially useful when considering that we’re looking at a flyball pitcher. FIP itself is a statistic used to take out all the externalities (mainly fielding) that can affect a pitcher’s regular ERA. In this case Elarton’s xFIP ERA is a bit higher than his regular ERA, but not by a large amount. So you can say that Elarton’s current ERA is pretty good measure of how he’s pitching.

LD%: 20.6%

This is expected given how most of Elarton’s outs are recorded. I will say that I believe Elarton has been helped very much by the Indian outfielders, specifically in center and left, and that if a an inferior outfielder is playing behind Elarton, some of those line drives may start to fall in for singles and doubles. Just a word of warning.

One other thing that should shed some light on Elarton: a trend analysis. I’ve broken down Elarton’s perforance by month, noting innings, hits, and walks (the strikeouts seem to have remained constant):

April: 19.0 IP, 27 H, 9 BB
May: 29.1 IP, 33 H, 9 BB
June: 31.0 IP, 29 H, 5 BB
July: 37.2 IP, 31 H, 7 BB

Note that Elarton has gotten better during every month. To my untrained eye, he seems to have more control over his pitches, and more hitters are making “weak outs” than before. In summary, everything looks good, and the Indians should entertain bringing Scott back on a one- or two-year deal if they can’t retain Kevin Millwood. If they keep Millwood, Elarton is probably redundant. Notice I haven’t mentioned the cost; because I underestimated last season what pitchers would be getting on the free agent market, so rather than by suggesting numbers that might look comical four months from now, I’ll say Elarton should be retained with “fourth starter money.”

Jim Ingraham has figured out why the Indians are trailing the White Sox by umpteen games:

Despite the fact that they are 10th in the American League in hitting, and have lower slugging and on-base percentages than the Indians, the White Sox are running away with American League’s Central Division race.

Why?

They play the game the right way. They move base runners, they hit with runners in scoring position, they catch the ball. The Indians do none of that. At least not consistently.

Of course, he failed to mention that the White Sox lead the AL in pitching. And hitting with RISP is not a “fundamental;” it’s hitting (and it involves some luck). “Catching the ball” is called fielding; it is not (by my definition) a fundamental. And while the White Sox are second in the league in Defensive Efficiency, the Indians are right behind them.

I’ve come to believe that “fundamentals” are just a catch phrase sportswriters use to criticize teams that aren’t playing “the right way, according to me.” If a team like the Indians doesn’t bunt all that much, they get criticized because somehow bunting has come to be indicative of a “true team.” Nevermind in most cases that giving up an out in order to slightly increase the probability of scoring one run in that inning decreases drastically thel posibility of scoring multiple runs in that inning. ESPN stopped tracking “productive outs” (to my knowledge) this season, and for good reason; there seems to be no correlation between productive outs and scoring runs.

Ingraham, later in the article, admits that a definition of “fundamentals” is very hard to pin down:

Fundamentals are hard to quantify statistically, except for one very obvious statistic: Wins. The teams that win the most tend to be the teams that play the game the right way the most.

Why don’t we then concentrate on what we can quantify, then? Baseball does not lack for statistics by which we can evaluate players or teams, which makes relying on a such a subjective concept so silly.

Transactions

Reinstated LHP Jason Stanford from the 60-day Disabled List; Optioned him to Akron (AA)

Stanford has made a couple starts (an inning apiece) in Mahoning Valley, but he’s a ways away from pitching in the majors. Stanford had Tommy John surgery just about a year ago (7-29-04). He should be in the pitching mix for the Indians next season.

Transferred OF Juan Gonzalez to the 60-day Disabled List (hamstring)

Juan is probably going to miss the rest of the season, barring something miraculous happening.

Optioned IF Brandon Phillips to Buffalo (AAA)

Phillips played sparingly (although you can’t blame Wedge, given how well Peralta and Belliard were playing), but the main reason he was up in Cleveland seemed to be Derek Shelton, the team’s pitching coach and former minor-league hitting instructor. Phillips is good enough defensively to be on a major-league roster right now, but his swing still has too many holes in it. Getting Phillips to take outside fastballs to right field is probably a major hurdle to clear, from what I’ve seen.

Recalled IF Ramon Vazquez from Buffalo (AAA)

Because Travis Hafner isn’t ready to go yet, the Indians called up a middle infielder, although he probably would have been called up anyway. Vazquez is a left-handed middle infielder, and can hit right-handed pitching (career .715 OPS). I’d expect Belliard and Peralta to get some days off now, especially if Hafner comes back. For now, Jeff Liefer is still with the club, and will probably hit against right-handers until Pronk comes back.

*Yawn*

I did find it amusing that Buster Olney and Steve Phillips spent two hours on Sunday breaking down the trades that weren’t made. Although I do have to say I enjoyed watching the Sunday night broadcast sans Joe Morgan, although I know it’s only a one week reprieve. Jon Miller and Steve Stone would be a great pairing, but I know it’ll never happen. For those unfamiliar with Stone, he used to do Cub games for WGN, and now he’s doing ESPN broadcasts, usually for daygames. Hopefully he’ll get better assignments in the future, for I think he’s the best there is among color analysts.

When Matt Lawton is the biggest name dealt near the trading deadline, you know it’s been a boring deadline. Interestingly enough, the Cubs dealt Jody Gerut to the Pirates in exchange for Lawton, forming a sort of three-way deal that’s taken place over eight months (VORP in parenthesis):

Cleveland Gets:
LHP Arthur Rhodes (14.3)
OF Jason Dubois (4.4)*

Pittsburgh Gets:
Jody Gerut (2.6)*

Chicago Gets:
Matt Lawton (24.5)

*Combined between Cleveland and Chicago

Given that the Indians have Rhodes under contract for 2006, there’s good chance they come out on the winning end of this deal. The opportunity cost remains though, as the Indians essentially replaced Lawton with Casey Blake (he of the -3.8 VORP). I guess it would have been funny if the Indians had dealt Dubois to Pittsburgh for Lawton, closing the cycle once and for all.

The Rangers did not deal Alfonso Soriano (much to Adam’s chagrin), Manny Ramirez decided once and for all that he was a Boston “gangster,” and the Devil Rays decided to sit on Julio Lugo and Danys Baez rather than get something for them. Hal Lebovitz reported that the Royals had demanded Fausto Carmona for Matt Stairs; if this “offer” is representative of the deliberations last week, then there’s no wonder why almost nothing got done. I’m a bit disappointed that the Indians couldn’t deal one of their relievers for an outfielder, but given what actually got traded, that disappointment is tempered somewhat.

VORP report as of August 1st (AL rank):

C Victor Martinez: 23.2 (4th)
1B Ben Broussard: 7.5 (13th)
2B Ron Belliard: 16.2 (8th)
3B Aaron Boone: -3.1 (24th)
CF Grady Sizemore: 26.7 (3rd)
DH Travis Hafner: 43.9 (2nd)
LF Coco Crisp: 17.6 (6th)
RF Casy Blake: -3.8 (24th)
SS Jhonny Peralta: 32.3 (5th)

As you can see, the Indians have great offensive numbers up the middle, but are getting little production from traditional offensive positions. Victor Martinez has carried the team since Travis Hafner went on the disabled list, and although Boone’s numbers still look horrific, he’s hit well in both June (.272/.341/.506) and July (.314/.362/.430). Coco Crisp continues to be a pleasant surprise in left, and Jhonny Peralta is 5th only because he’s behind a stellar group of shortstops (and because he sat early in the season). You know the drill on the underachievers.

Next up: the Yankees. The Indians offense has to put the hurt on the Yankee starters, because New York’s offense will get their six runs a game.

Friday Night Fights (Sort of)

Alright, no punches were thrown in last night’s victory, but give it time; there’s two games left in the series.

First of all, Hasegawa hit Grady Sizemore on purpose for no real good reason. Yeah, he just gave up a home run to Jason Dubois on the previous pitch, but come on. The umpire absolutely made the correct call in tossing him, given where the pitch was thrown (right behind Sizemore, so Grady would back into the pitch). The next inning, Millwood stuck up for his teammate by plunking Yunieski Betancourt, the first batter of the next inning. The benches cleared, Millwood and manager Eric Wedge were tossed, but nothing else happend. But David Riske set the stage for future histrionics by hitting Ichiro in the ninth inning; of course he was ejected, and acting manager Robbie Thompson was as well. Stay tuned, for the next two games may get interesting.

Of course, there was a lot of good that happened during the course of the game; the Indians pounded (soon to be ex?) Seattle pitcher Aaron Sele for nine runs. Victor Martinez, who seems to be hitting now like he did a year ago, hit another three-run homer to effectively put the game out of reach. He finished a triple short of the cycle. Grady Sizemore lead off the game with homer to deep center, and ended a double short of the cycle. Jason Dubois, who loves fastballs out on the outer half of the plate, scorched a home run to right center. When Travis Hafner comes back, Jason needs to be playing right field; although there are some holes in his swing (like a lot of power hitters), you’ll take the strikeouts if you can get some power out of him.

The trading deadline is approaching (Sunday at 4pm), and there’s some talk that Mark Shapiro might deal either Bob Wickman or Kevin Millwood for some offensive help. Now I’d deal Wickman before Millwood, but I understand that Kevin at this point has a lot more value. With the proposed three-way deal involving Manny Ramirez held up, I’d look to see if I could get Mike Cameron or Aubrey Huff. Obviously the Devil Rays would want prospects (and are supposedly asking the moon and the stars), but the Mets might be interested in Wickman or some other bullpen arm. The Rangers might be a possible destination as well; Kevin Mench would be a great fit. And the Marlins might move Juan Encarnacion. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of classic veteren-for-prospect deals this year because of all the teams that are still in races. However, I think you might see a lot of veteren-for-veteren deals where two clubs might trade strengths for weaknesses.

Karma….and Casey Blake

I guess this is karma coming back on Wickman (and me) because of all those saves he almost blew, but it was an awful time to receive it. Again, there’s a lot of season left, but with virtually everyone in the AL still in the race, merely keeping pace with the peloton isn’t good enough. What makes the loss even more frustrating is that the Indians collected 14 hits, and had but 4 runs to show for it. Whether it’s due to the lack of getting hits at the right time or just plain idiotic baserunning, wasting opportunities just grates on me. But if you look at the stats, Oakland left just as many runners on base (11), and had as many hits (14). That’s baseball, I guess.

Let me once and for all enunciate my thoughts on Casey Blake, which dovetails with a bit of my philosophy. Blake is disliked right now not because of who he is, but how he’s being used. I think if Blake was a platoon partner for Ben Broussard or played in the outfield once a week and still hit .223/.296/.388, some people would complain, but it wouldn’t cause much of a kerfluffle. It’s because he’s trotted out to right field every day, and his offensive struggles are there in front of you every day that it begins to gnaw at your insides. And I don’t care where he’s hitting in the order, because it really doesn’t matter all too much, but I do care that he’s in the lineup to begin with. A parallel is the animosity towards Matt Lawton during his stint with the Indians; it wasn’t Matt Lawton per se, it was the fact that the Indians gave him a huge contract after trading for him. Heck, at this point I’d take Lawton’s cement-shoed range in right field right now, because he’s still a pretty decent hitter. But I guess that’s besides the point right now. It wasn’t that the Indians should have kept Matt Lawton, it’s that they replaced him (essentially) with Casey Blake.

And it goes a bit farther than just saying the Indians made a bad move signing Blake to a two-year deal last winter, because there are instances where a team made the absolute correct decision and the player bombs despite everything. No, the Indians signed Blake to a two-year deal, knowing they’d be moving him to outfield, knowing that even at 2004 levels he’d be an average right fielder, knowing that he was 31 and didn’t have much of a track record. The good news is that Blake can play the outfield, and he probably can make out a career as a fourth outfielder/utility man. The bad news is that he’s not hitting enough to be a backup catcher right now, and as a result, the Indians have a gigantic hole in the outfield. I’m just glad Grady Sizemore has played as well as he has this season; if not, the outfield would have been Coco Crisp, Jody Gerut (assuming they wouldn’t have traded him), and ????.

How do you make the best of this situation? Well, I think you go to Jason Dubois, tell him that he’s the right fielder, and see what happens. Or Jeff Liefer. Or Ernie Young. Or Andy Abad. Whoever they decide to pick. Obviously besides possibly Dubois, none of these guys are much of a long-term solution, but they don’t need to be. All you want is a .250/.350/.450 line for two months.

I guess my point is that good organizations get the most out of the players they have, and they find the right roles for them. For two years, the Indians did exactly that with Casey Blake, a minor-league free agent who gave them two good years at third base. Then they gave him a two-year deal to play right field, effectively canceling out the great return they received in 2003 and 2004. Hopefully he serves as a warning, so whenever the next Casey Blake appears, they know what to do with him.