The Indians are getting a lot of press these days from numerous
baseball pundits predicting big things for the team in 2007. With
that in mind, I decided it was time to search these guys out and find
One such person was Jeff Sackmann. Jeff is a writer for
The Hardball Times, and recently predicted the Indians would
rebound and put up a 90+ win season.
those unfamiliar with The Hardball Times, the site was co-founded by
Aaron Gleeman and Matthew Namee, who is a former Bill James assistant.
It is a baseball website that generates daily, original baseball
commentary and analysis on a wide range of topics such as baseball
history, statistics, current events and the minor leagues. In addition
to the daily stories, the site also includes a variety of baseball
stats and graphs, and is the only freely available source of
batted-ball and updated win shares data on the internet.
For those that are regular readers of The Hardball Times, you
will recognize Jeff Sackmann as one of the main contributors. A loyal
Brewers fan, Jeff is also the creator of
For avid minor league followers, this site is the only source for
comprehensive splits and situational stats for every active minor
leaguer. Also, Jeff runs the sabermetrics site BeyondTheBoxscore.com and contributes to the fantasy magazine
Heater. And, his newest creation, CollegeSplits.com
, should become a new favorite site for baseball draft geeks.
recently was able to sit down and "chat" with Jeff on variety of topics
pertaining to the Cleveland Indians. Thanks to the help of fellow
colleague Steve Buffum
and a few Indians fans, several very good questions were brought up. A
big thanks goes out from me to Jeff for taking the time to answer the
myriad of Indians questions.
With that, onto the Q&A:
Q: As an avid minor
leaguer follower, your MinorLeagueSplits.com site has been a godsend.
Where did your idea for this site come from, and why has there really
been no one before or after you to do this?
Jeff Sackmann (JS): Last offseason, some folks at
were thinking of forming a group to manually go through the
play-by-play descriptions at the Minor League Baseball official site.
That sounded to me like a process that could be automated, so I did it.
Before then, I really wasn't much of a prospect watcher, but twelve
months of immersion later, I'm hooked.
The play-by-play data necessary for splits wasn't available
until a ways into the 2005 season, so simply having the capacity to do
it is relatively new. (Though I believe some companies--STATS, inc.,
etc.--have limited splits going back quite a bit longer.) What you see
on my site is really just scratching the surface of the data I've
collected; I have complete play-by-play for every game of the 2005 and
2006 seasons, so I can explore everything from minor league
base-running skills to clutch performance.
Q: While on the subject of the farm system, after the research you did on the minors in the book The Graphical Player 2007
it was determined that
the Indians have the second best collection of talent in the minors.
Care to expand on this and explain your methods that resulted in this
JS: I explain my methodology in detail in this article.
Basically, I rate every player in the minor against his peer group:
20-year-olds against 20-year-olds, etc. The Indians had 13 players who
were among the top 10% in their age group, which I believe was tied
with the Dodgers for best in baseball.
One caveat is that it's not a projection system: it rates
systems based on performance in 2006. Those 13 top prospects include
Andy Marte, Kevin Kouzmanoff, and Ryan Goleski, so it doesn't exactly
reflect how strong the organization is today.
What Indians prospects intrigue you? Do you see any sleeper candidates
which are not as well known that your research shows may be in for a
JS: Nobody springs to mind as a breakout
candidate, but I've always been a Franklin Gutierrez fan. I think a lot
of people have written him off now that he's lost some prospect luster,
but he's still only 23, and my numbers suggest he's a solid center
fielder. Based on that, I don't know if his future is with Cleveland,
but he still has the potential to be a very useful player.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Indians this year? Are you
in line with other national sportswriters who are predicting big things
from the Indians this season?
JS: I certainly think they'll
be closer to 90 wins than to 80. Whether that's enough to get into the
postseason is another story.
Q: Pythagorean expectation
said the Indians should have won 89 games last year, what happened? Why
were they 11 games short of this number (isn't this close to a
JS: I don't know if it's a record, but it must be
close. Some of that is luck, and some of it is poor relief pitching.
Like watching a stock price from month to month, it's one of the
frustrating things about baseball analysis: you know that a lot of the
variation is just noise. But it sucks to have to write off an entire
season to noise, especially when there just might be a good reason for
Q: Over the past several years, the Indians have become
known as bargain bin shoppers and routinely sign free agents to one
year deals, as well as several guys coming off of injury looking to
re-establish their market value. What do you think about this approach?
I think it's the way small-market teams have to compete. A friend of
mine joked that the new market inefficiency for the "smart" teams to
exploit is injured players, and I think there's some truth to that. The
best example was signing Keith Foulke and Joe Borowski (before Foulke
called it quits, anyway). The odds are long that both of those guys
would be lights-out. But, sign two guys like that at a discount, and
one of them is bound to be pretty good.
Q: What player not named Sabathia, Sizemore, Hafner or
Martinez has the best chance to become a solid contributor in the
lineup this year?
JS: I think Tribe fans will be pleasantly
surprised by Trot Nixon. He's a solid defender, which often gets
obscured because he's always described as "righty-masher Trot Nixon."
He is that, and he probably shouldn't play every day, but he's better
than your typical platoon player. I wouldn't be surprised to see
something like 290/370/480 from him in 400 ABs.
Q: Do platoons work? The Indians will employ a lefty/righty
platoon in the lineup of David Dellucci/Jason Michaels in LF, and a
Trot Nixon/Casey Blake/Ryan Garko combo at RF/1B. Will Dellucci help
with the poor production last year in LF by using him and Michaels to
their strengths in the platoon?
JS: In theory, platoons are brilliant. Nearly every player
has a platoon split, and if you're willing to strictly alternate a
couple of guys (and they can handle it), you can take a player like
Dellucci, who wouldn't be very good as an everyday player, and make him
an extremely valuable part of a team.
On the other hand, it goes against the way most managers seem
to want to do things. They want to play the hot hand, or go with an
established vet. I hope Wedge sticks to his guns here: if he
successfully runs two or three platoons all year long, not only will
the Indians benefit from it in the win column, but it will justify the
pleading of some platoon-happy analysts.
Q: What is your favorite combination of defensive metrics? Clay
Davenport's translations on Baseball Prospectus tell me that Jhonny
Peralta is a good defensive shortstop, while my eyes tell me ... well,
what they tell me can't be printed on a family site. Can Peralta play
shortstop, and how can I tell?
JS: I'm not a fan of BP's FRAA and FRAR. The best systems these days are the ones that use specific batted ball data, such as
David Pinto's Probabilistic Model of Range
(PMR). I start with PMR, and often don't bother with anything else. For
what it's worth, Peralta does well in PMR, better than about 3/4 of MLB
Q: Stathead mantra says that batting order makes at most a
very tiny difference to the expected runs scored for an offense.
Intuitively, we'd like to see Grady Sizemore's power being used to
drive in runs out of a lower position (3?). What are your thoughts
about the order, and how much would it really matter if Sizemore were
dropped and someone like Trevor Crowe eventually led off?
JS: I gotta go with the mantra here. Tons of ink and
pixels are wasted on lineup discussions, and yeah, it just doesn't
matter very much. That said, I hear where you're coming from: my team,
the Brewers, are likely to bat Rickie Weeks leadoff this year. That's
not as bad as putting Alfonso Soriano in that spot, but it does seem
like a waste.
I haven't done the math on this, but I do think it's better to
leave a power/speed guy like Sizemore or Weeks in the leadoff hole than
to move them down and put a low-OBP guy (think Juan Pierre, recently)
in the leadoff slot. My biggest beef with managers is their obsession
with using bad veteran hitters in the #2 slot.
What is the best way to evaluate a relief pitcher? With the volatility
of relief pitchers from year to year, is the large-bore buckshot
approach Shapiro seems to be using as good a strategy as any? Which
young Cleveland-system pitcher do you see as a good bet to develop into
JS: Buckshot is the way to go. If I had to pick one, I'd
probably go with Fernando Cabrera, but your guess is probably better
When I'm looking at relief stats, I completely ignore
ERA and look at peripherals like K, BB, and HR rates. If those are
shaky, I look at GB/FB ratios. If a reliever does okay, but does it
with a low K rate and a lot of fly balls, send him to Buffalo.
Q: Is there a measurable quantity that predicts how much a
player will struggle/improve when changing leagues? Was Bronson Arroyo
a fluke or a product of the NL Central? Will Josh Barfield take a long
time to adjust to AL (especially Central) pitching, or will it be too
hard to separate league change from normal youthful development?
JS: It may be measurable, but not very precisely, if only
because of all the noise involved, as you suggest in Barfield's case.
I'm curious how Arroyo does in his second year back in the NL; maybe
hitters will catch up with him. Seems like the adjustment period varies
a lot from player to player, and is tough to separate from everything
else that might be going on (development, park, randomness, etc.).
Q: Should I be concerned about Jeremy Sowers' K-rate?
Westbrook can get away with it as an extreme GB pitcher: Sowers doesn't
have that kind of ratio going for him, but "knows how to pitch."
JS: You probably know more about this than I do, but Sowers is
an interesting case. He struck out more than a batter per inning in his
half season in Kinston in '05, and it's been downhill from there. It
makes me think that someone is coaching him to "pitch to contact" and
he's taking it too seriously.
Sowers's K rate is still in the 4 or 5 per nine innings range after
2007, yeah, you should be concerned. If that happens, though, the rest
of his performance may put him back in the minors.
Q: My eyes
tell me that Ozzie Guillen (and to an extent, Ron Gardenhire) manages
his pitching staff very well, while Eric Wedge does not. Is that simply
frustration, or is there a way to measure this?
JS: You can measure it by looking at a stat called leverage
. It basically analyzes how close the game is for the pitcher's average appearance; you can see the Indians 2006 stats
Note that Rafael Betancourt, Bob Wickman, and Fausto Carmona were the
highest, while Matt Miller and Edward Mujica were really low.
the best results should come from putting your best pitchers in the
highest-leverage situations (tie games, one-run leads, etc.) rather
than less important spots. No manager is great at this, but Wedge
didn't do a very good job of it last year. Some of that isn't his
fault, though: at times, he didn't have a lot of good options or, at
least, nobody knew exactly who the good options were.