Friday, 15 September 2017

History Marches On: The Streak


It feels like only yesterday that I was watching the AL Central standings with some sense of anxiety. The Indians have been top of the division for the vast majority of 2017 but I was cautious of the chasing pack nonetheless. When the Tribe were scuffling before the All Star break I, like most fans, was watching for the results of the Twins and Royals every night, just to see if Cleveland could extend their lead just a little bit more. At the end of July they had a slim two-game lead over Kansas City and things were looking good, but nothing was certain.

Then August happened. Then "The Streak" happened.

If you're reading this then you're surely aware that this Indians team just made history. On Tuesday night Corey Kluber pitched a complete game shutout in a 2-0 win against the Tigers, securing the Tribe's 20th straight victory, matching the AL record previously set by the A's in 2002. The following night they beat the Tigers again, 5-3 this time, to set a new AL record of 21 consecutive wins. Then on Thursday they went and sealed the deal, walking off against the Royals 3-2 thanks to a Jay Bruce 10th inning double. That was win number 22, giving the Tribe sole possession of the longest winning streak in Major League history, surpassing the Cubs's tally of 21 set in 1935. It clinched the Indians' trip to the playoffs as well, so there'll be no more looking over our shoulder at the Twins and Royals anymore.

Let's take a quick look at some of the key factors during this epic run:

Francisco Lindor's Emerging Leadership


The All Star with the best grin in baseball has been nothing short of spectacular in recent weeks. He has truly developed as a leader both on and off the field in 2017, stepping up in big moments and always quick to remind people that he's not alone out there.

This was no more evident than Thursday night's nail biter against the Royals. With the streak at 21 games and Kansas City leading 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth, up stepped Lindor. With two strikes and two outs and the Tribe's historic run perilously close to ending, Lindor hit a line drive to the left field wall that just missed the outstretched glove of Alex Gordon. Erik Gonzalez had the presence of mind to take off once Lindor connected and he scored from first base to tie the game 2-2 and keep the streak alive. Cue absolute scenes in Cleveland.

In the last three weeks Lindor has slashed .360/.427/.767 with 9 homers and 20 RBIs. His overall numbers for the season have seen a healthy boost as a result: his 30 home runs lead the majors for all shortstops and his.842 OPS is good enough for third among shortstops as well. He is only behind the Rangers' Elvis Andrus in RBIs (79), doubles (38), hits (164) and runs (87).

Overall he's put in another incredible season and the Indians rely on his consistency. Thankfully for Indians fans he's hit his stride at just the right time.

Jose Ramirez Is A Legitimate MVP Contender


As far as the national media are concerned, Jose Ramirez has had a breakout season. I'm not inclined to argue with that but I would like to point out that Indians fans have known for some time now what a special player he is. It's only this year that everyone else is paying attention.

Ramirez has been the catalyst behind everything good in Cleveland this season, especially during the streak. He has slashed .423/.474/944 with 8 home runs and 11 doubles over the course of the Indians' consecutive winning run. His overall numbers are ridiculous: a .314/.368/.573 batting line for a .941 OPS, with 26 home runs, 73 RBIs and 15 stolen bases. Ramirez's 50 doubles lead the majors and he has just 64 strikeouts in 541 at-bats! There isn't another third baseman like him in the American League and he rivals the very best in the NL, guys like Nolan Arenado, Justin Turner and Kris Bryant.

He's put himself in a prime position to be considered for the AL MVP and it is definitely justified. His name is being floated around with the likes of Mike Trout, Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge. Altuve recently admitted, “Ramirez is a complete player... He’s an MVP-caliber player.’’ His all-around abilities have catapulted him into the limelight and it hasn't fazed Ramirez one bit. Jonah Keri just called him one of the most exciting players in baseball and now every baseball fan knows it.

Unbeatable Rotation


Cleveland's rotation have been considered the strongest element of their team in recent years and that was largely down to the excellence of Corey Kluber. Nowadays he has support and the entire rotation have been unstoppable, as have the excellent bullpen. You could certainly argue that the entire pitching staff have been the most important factor towards the Tribe's success in 2017.

Kluber (16-4, 2.44 ERA), Carlos Carrasco (15-6, 3.41 ERA), Trevor Bauer (16-8, 4.33 ERA), Mike Clevinger (10-5, 3.21 ERA) and Josh Tomlin (9-9, 5.04 ERA) have all combined to form the most dominant rotation in the majors, and certainly the most effective. Kluber in particular has put together another award-worthy campaign: 243 strikeouts in 184.2 innings of work, restricting opposition hitters to a measly .191 batting average. Boston's Chris Sale is probably still considered by many to be the front-runner for the AL Cy Young but Kluber will undoubtedly push him all the way.

Over the course of this streak Kluber and Carrasco have combined for a miniscule 1.03 ERA and recorded 69 strikeouts between them. They have also granted just 3 walks. That is absolutely insane.

Together with the bullpen, who now have a healthy Andrew Miller back in their ranks, no team will want to face Kluber, Carrasco and co. Altogether they make a seriously scary proposition.

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It's been a magnificent three weeks for every Indians fan and all the record chasing has been a lot of fun. MLB are trying to pass off the 1916 New York Giants' "streak" of 26 wins a row as the official record. But their run of games included an 8 inning 1-1 tie against the Pirates on September 18, called short due to inclement weather. Sorry Charlie but a tie is not a victory, so that's not a 26 game winning streak is it? It's an unbeaten streak for sure, and massive credit must go to the 1916 Giants for that. As an Arsenal I know my fair share about historic unbeaten streaks. However let's be clear;  it is the Indians who should now be recognized as the outright holders of consecutive wins, not just in the AL, but the entire Major Leagues.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Phoenix: Trevor Bauer


I'll be the first to admit it, but midway through this 2017 season I had written Trevor Bauer off. I thought he was done for, stick a fork in him, get him out of here. I honestly didn't expect Terry Francona and the club to put up with Bauer for much longer. By the end of May his ERA was 6.00 and the Californian native was in free fall.

But Bauer has turned his season around. When he left the mound yesterday after the end of the sixth inning at Yankee Stadium, the divisive right-hander was on track for his fourteenth victory of the year, which the bullpen trio of Tyler Olson, Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen helped secure. Bauer stifled the Bronx Bombers' powerful lineup, limiting them to just 4 hits and 1 run, over 6 impressive innings. Since the All Star break the 26 year-old has really found another gear; In the ten games since the midsummer classic he's compiled a 3.08 ERA and hasn't lost a game since July 16th.

As we enter the season's final month Bauer currently sits with a 14-8 record and a 4.46 ERA in 145.1 innings of work. He has 161 strikeouts over that span, giving him a 9.97 K/9 rate, the highest mark of his career so far. His HR/9 rate of 1.24 is slightly above his career average but this season has seen an enormous spike in home runs across the league, so the majority of pitchers will have seen an increase in this category also.


At first glance his overall ERA doesn't look that impressive but consider the journey he's been on. By the middle of May his ERA was hovering dangerously close to the mid seven mark so he's performed a minor miracle to continue bringing that number down. Bauer hasn't been perfect by any means, and he's experienced the odd blip here and there, but to his credit he didn't give up, and the Indians should receive credit for not giving up on him too. Bauer's FIP and xFIP numbers are perhaps a better indicator of the significant improvement he has made; His FIP currently stands at 3.90 and his xFIP even lower at 3.73, both career lows as they stand.

Ultimately, all of this hard work will count for nothing unless he can erase his postseason demons of 2016. Obviously the Indians need to get there first but given their recent run of form, it's looking like a good bet. Bauer's reputation and public persona definitely divides opinion. All of that drama with his drone last year made things worse and his first half performance added fuel to the fire, making him even less popular with the Tribe faithful. However his remarkable turnaround has started to win people over, me included (oh, the fickleness of professional sports.) If he can carry this form into October he'll go a long way to securing a new deal, which is massive when you consider that just a short time ago he could have been off the team. Bauer has turned things around to comfortably become one of the Indians' top performers in the second half of 2017, and has been one of the major contributors to their turnaround in performance. Now let's hope he can keep this up for a little while longer.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, 11 August 2017

My First Major League Game


Just over two weeks ago I got married and for our honeymoon we journeyed to New York City. Despite my love for American sports, TV, movies, food and so much more, I had never been to the country before. So this was very much a once-in-a-lifetime trip for us, and naturally I had to fit in a ballgame. I gave my wife the options: Yankees or Mets (I wanted both but marriage is all about compromise). She's not much of a baseball fan so, understandably, she didn't really know who the Mets were, so she opted for the Yankees, "The Evil Empire." In my mind it was the preferred choice, so I was more than happy to book tickets to visit the Bronx.

I know what you're saying but hear me out first; as an Indians fan I'm supposed to hate the Yankees, but as a UK fan who never grew up around their apparently insufferable fanbase, I just don't have that hate for them like I'm supposed to. I'm also a big history nut, and the Yanks have perhaps the most storied history in all of sports, so I knew I was going to enjoy that aspect of our visit.

As we were going to be in the city for the first week of August, the only games the Yankees were playing at home were against the Tigers. We flew into JFK on 31 July, the first game of the series against Detroit, so I booked tickets for the Tuesday night game on 1 August. I had been tempted to get tickets for Wednesday's game, a 1pm contest, but I was very aware that, as pale English honeymooners unaccustomed to the New York City heat in August, we would be better off enjoying the cooler temperatures at night.

On the morning of the game we left our hotel and ventured into town for breakfast and to get familiar with our new surroundings. First pitch wasn't until 7pm but I wanted to get to the stadium early, as I often like to do when I see live sporting events. I like to soak in all the atmosphere, especially if it's my first time visiting a new stadium.

We caught the subway heading north and arrived in the Bronx on the D train around 4pm, and the gates didn't open for another hour. It was absolutely roasting in the sunshine so we hid in the shade, admiring the impressive exterior of Yankee Stadium.


We did a quick lap of the stadium and I paused for a photo outside of Gate 4. Before long we saw the lines start forming to get in at 5pm, so we got in the queue. The unrelenting sun cooked the crowd for close to 45 minutes, so once we got into the stadium the first thing we did was seek out water! We then took a few minutes to cool down before exploring. We also picked up free t-shirts upon entry, XXL white Yankees t-shirts with a giant green Vantelin sponsor on the back. They are so big I could pin them to a mast and sail back to America.


This was the view we were greeted to when we entered through Gate 6. Within minutes of the stadium being open, the right field porch was full of fans hoping to grab a toss-up or batting practice homer. For my first time in a baseball stadium it was quite a sight, that unbelievable green expanse filling my eyes, spreading everywhere I looked. And lots of Aaron Judge jerseys.

One of the things I looked forward to seeing most at Yankee Stadium was Monument Park, home of the most distinguished Yankees in history, so we headed there as soon as we could before it filled up quickly.


We got there pretty fast and it wasn't too busy, which was a bonus. Monument Park was everything I wanted it to be, home to some of the most legendary names in the game. I could have spent hours there.


One of the first plaques I saw that really caught my eye didn't actually belong to a Yankee. Jackie Robinson, the Dodgers legend, had a plaque on the wall that I didn't expect to see so I had to get a photo with it. I wrote my final year university dissertation on the man and his life has been an inspiration to me. I wasn't going to miss out on getting a pic!


We spent as long as possible in Monument Park, soaking in all of that history. We saw and read all of the plaques, including Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. I paid extra attention to the Joe DiMaggio monument. Of all the Yankee legends, DiMaggio is my favourite, and I have read nearly every book published on him. Its hard to explain my fandom for Joe, especially as he was reportedly a bit of an asshole, but of all the hall of famers from that era, he has resonated with me the most. Maybe it's his 1941 record-setting 56 game hitting streak, or maybe it's because he read Superman comics on roadtrips, I just like the dude so we spent a bit longer with his plaque. After we left Monument Park there is a small little store dedicated to the legends nearby, so I picked up a DiMaggio t-shirt.

We then began making our way to our seats, up, up and up. When I bought the tickets on StubHub months beforehand, it showed you what the view of the field is like, but I still wasn't entirely sure what to expect in reality. I had purchased 2 seats in the first row of section 425, in the infield grandstand overlooking third base. And when we got to our seats, I could not have been happier with the view.


Come on, that's what you call great seats! No obstructions in front of us at all, and for $15 a ticket!


It's safe to say we were pretty happy at this point. A quick comment on the caps of choice: of course I was going to rep the Indians! I saw nearly every team's cap represented at Yankee Stadium that day but I didn't see any other Tribe caps but my own. The wife had previously picked up a Yankees cap the night before, and it was a large part of the baseball experience she had been looking forward to the most, buying a cap for the ballgame and eating hot dogs. If I was forcing her to watch a baseball game on her honeymoon then she wanted the entire American pastime tradition.


Speaking of hot dogs, we decided to grab them before the game started. I didn't want to miss any of the action on the field waiting in line for food. I understand it's a bit of a contentious issue putting ketchup on your hot dog but I'm English, and I'll put ketchup on everything. So yeah, I probably ruined this hot dog in your opinion, but I loved it so whatever.

Soon enough the game got underway. The pitching match-up featured CC Sabathia taking on Anibal Sanchez. It was interesting getting to see Sabathia pitch, as he was one of the first Indians pitchers I learned about when I discovered baseball ten years ago, so it was fun to watch the 2007 AL Cy Young winner. Early in the game the jumbotron highlighted the famous people in the crowd and former New York Knick Amar'e Stoudemire was present. As was Oklahoma City Thunder's Paul George, who funnily enough attended the same showing of The Lion King on Broadway we went to the next day. Paul, if you're reading this (of course you are), we weren't stalking you, I promise.


I'm not going to recap every detail of the game, as it happened over a week ago and despite being an entertaining and closely contested game, a play-by-play list doesn't make for fun reading. Instead I've attached some videos below of moments during the game that really stood out to us:


Sabathia started the game well but ran into trouble in the second inning, getting tagged for a 3-run homer by Detroit's John Hicks. Down 3-0, this amazing play by second baseman Tyler Wade stopped the Tigers from putting together another rally. Dixon Machado hits it straight up the middle and Wade, playing the shift, somehow managed to contort himself in the air to make the play. The wife knew a great play when she saw one and clapped in appreciation with the rest of the stadium.



By this stage Sabathia had given up another home run, a solo-shot to Justin Upton, and things were starting to look bleak for the home side, down 4-0 now. Just prior to Didi Gregorius coming to the plate in the bottom of the fourth, I was telling the wife all about Yankee Stadium's famous short right field porch and how lefty batters can hook home runs into that corner. Up steps Didi who proceeded to do just that! I was really hoping we would get to see a home run in our first game (we saw three) but I was especially hoping we'd see a home run by the Yankees. It's a bit more special when the home team hits one out.



In the next inning Detroit were threatening again but third baseman Todd Frazier channeled his inner Brooks Robinson and made this incredible diving stop on a sharp Justin Upton groundball. The home fans around us were especially sweet on Frazier, a Jersey boy, and all rose in applause and recognition for an outstanding play.


As the game neared its end, the Yankees kept things interesting. The inning before saw Didi collect another RBI, his third of the night, to bring the Yanks within one run but reliever David Robertson had put Tigers on first and second in the top of the ninth. When Detroit right fielder Andrew Romine blooped a single into shallow center field, I thought for sure the game was over and the Yankees would not be able to come back from a multiple run deficit. But Brett Gardner charged in from center field, collected the ball on a single bounce and fired home, nailing the runner at home plate to end the inning. It was an awesome moment to see in person and really energized the crowd. 

Sadly the Yankees were unable to come back in the bottom of the ninth. They made it close, getting runners on second and third, but with two outs Clint Frazier could only pop up and the Tigers emerged victorious, running out 4-3 winners on the night.

The result did nothing to spoil our night however (I'm not a Yankees fan after all, even though I do dislike the Tigers). For my first ever game in the flesh, I enjoyed every minute of it, and saw some absolutely brilliant moments. I was actually surprised how fast the game went by, despite clocking in at 2 hours and 59 minutes. On TV the game feels a lot slower but in person I had no issues with the pace at all, in fact it flew by quite quickly. Even the wife had no issues, and I had previously warned her about it being a slow game. In 2012 I went to one of the Wembley NFL games in person and thought that to be much slower, and was quite bored by the end. Not so with baseball and thankfully the whole experience lived up to my expectations.


With my first live game in the books, I'm eager now to see more and hope I can get back to the States in the future to see another game soon. It'd be especially nice to see my Indians next time...

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Sonny Days Or Gray Clouds Ahead?


Sonny Gray is a quality pitcher. At the time of writing, everyone wants a piece of Sonny Gray. He's the hottest girl in school, and guys are lining up to ask him to prom.

He had a rough go of it in 2016, thanks to injuries and inconsistency, but so far this season he looks close to the Sonny Gray of old, the All Star pitcher from 2015. The 27 year-old is probably the most fawned over player on the trade block this month and the Oakland A's have a bevy of suitors willing to part with some golden nuggets in exchange for his services. Contending clubs left and right are putting together prospect packages for Gray, and the Indians are rumored to be one of those clubs. Whoever snags him will have to pay a heavy price however, as demand for starting pitchers this summer is high. A lot of clubs are in the market to upgrade their rotation, and the A's ace represents a significant upgrade for many.

Today I thought I'd run through some potential trade ideas the Tribe could fashion together to entice Oakland to part with their ace pitcher. It's no secret that Cleveland's rotation has been out of sorts this season, with only Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco performing well (although Mike Clevinger is developing nicely). The addition of an arm like Gray's would certainly boost the Indian's chances of success in the postseason.

On paper he looks to be a good match for the Tribe; he's under club control until 2020 and is having a strong season: a 3.72 ERA in 84.2 innings of work, with 79 strikeouts, all for a 113 ERA+ and a 5-4 record. He's been improving as the season has progressed, and his last 3 weeks have been superb, including a 6 inning, 2 hit shutout victory against the Indians on July 14th.

I'll rank the following potential deals with different grades, ranging from "In A Heartbeat" to "Over My Dead Body." Simple enough? Let's begin:

Trade Scenario 1


Oakland trade RHP Sonny Gray
Cleveland trade C Francisco Mejia

How about a straight up trade of Oakland's best pitcher for Cleveland's best prospect? I really like Sonny Gray, and have for a few years now, but I am firmly against giving up Mejia for him. I consider Gray a top of the rotation kind of guy but he's not elite enough to surrender a prospect who could become a marquee catcher for the next decade. With Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez struggling to prove themselves as long-term solutions (their sublime defense aside), Mejia's value is currently much higher to the Indians than it would be for the A's. In the very near future, catcher is looking like a position of real need for the Tribe so it doesn't make sense to jettison the one man already under control who could solve the problem. Catchers that can hit like Mejia don't come around very often; at Double-A Akron, the young backstop is slashing .336/.385/.552 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 10 home runs, 35 RBI and 5 stolen bases. Scouts and experts absolutely rave about the kid's hitting skills, and grade him high defensively too.

Mejia is the sole trade chip the Indians can dangle in front of Oakland that could persuade the A's to ignore the treasures offered by other interested clubs, but if I were Indians Team President Chris Antonetti, I would not be willing to risk losing a future star like Mejia. Even for an admittedly great pitcher like Gray.

Trade rating: Over My Dead Body

Trade Scenario 2


Oakland trade RHP Sonny Gray
Cleveland trade CF Tyler Naquin and RHP Triston McKenzie

This is more like it. Naquin narrowly missed out on winning the AL Rookie of the Year award last season and McKenzie is widely ranked as the Indians' number 2 prospect overall, and their top pitching prospect. The real jewel in this deal would be McKenzie but Naquin is a nice bonus. He's not had the best 2017 campaign so far, spending most of his time at Triple-A Columbus, but he's still young enough to retain some of his former value.  The potential is still there. Would the A's go for someone like Naquin? Given their history of taking guys seemingly off the scrapheap and getting production from them, I think they'd be more open to the idea than perhaps you might think.

Many fans consider McKenzie a 'hands-off' prospect in the same category as Mejia but I have other feelings. My thinking is this: McKenzie could be a superstar, but trading him for a pitcher already established as above-average when the rest of your team is so agonizingly close to competing for a championship, it's a no-brainer. Yes, there's some risk involved with Gray's injury history, so the Indians need to be absolutely sure he's back to full health. If the A's were willing, the Indians could trade McKenzie for Gray in a straight swap, but considering the young pitcher hasn't even reached Double-A yet, Oakland would almost certainly need a sweetener. Naquin could be that guy.

Trade rating: In A Heartbeat

Trade Scenario 3


Oakland trade RHP Sonny Gray
Cleveland trade CF Greg Allen, LHP Brady Aiken and SS Erik Gonzalez

Despite Brady Aiken being ranked above Greg Allen on most prospect boards, I actually think the loss of Allen is more significant in this trade. I absolutely love Allen. If Zimmer wasn't blocking his direct path to the majors, he'd be on track to contribute for the Indians within the next two years. As it currently stands, he still could, but Zimmer has started his career in the majors so well that it looks like Allen will have great difficulty forcing his way onto the big club roster. As a result, the young outfielder has become a pretty good trade chip, one that could come in very handy to acquire a player of Gray's caliber.

Aiken and Gonzalez aren't exactly throw-ins either. Aiken, despite his struggles this year (a 4.10 ERA and 14.1% strikeout percentage at A-ball Lake County), is still considered a top prospect and the former first round draft pick has time on his side to redeem himself.

Gonzalez has featured in 25 major league games this season and has performed well, and is likely to see an increase in playing time until Jason Kipnis returns from the disabled list. This is his opportunity to put himself in the shop window, as the Tribe's infield is already crowded with talent. Similar to Allen, it will be difficult to break into an established group of All Stars, so Gonzalez's future as a major league infielder could lie elsewhere.

The major difficulty with this trade is it's attractiveness. You just know that clubs like the Yankees and Astros have more frills to woo Oakland with, so I don't expect a deal like this would be tempting enough. However it's a win-win for the Indians if they could pull it off and persuade the A's to embrace it more than the other offers out there.

Trade rating: In A Heartbeat

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As I've mentioned, the competition for Gray's services is steep. The Yankees in particular are desperate to give their fans October baseball and they need starting pitching, and have a deep collection of prospects they could throw at the A's. The Astros rightfully think this could be their year and have a top 5 farm system to seduce Oakland with, including monstrous prospect Derek Fisher. Even the upstart Brewers are reportedly going all-in to acquire Gray, and could pull off a July trade deal similar to the CC Sabathia acquisition back in 2008.

I always enjoy the hot stove season and the race for Sonny Gray will keep things extra interesting this year. Do I expect the Indians to land him? I honestly think that the other interested teams have flashier prospects, and could be more willing to chuck everything at Oakland to make a deal. Cleveland has some tempting players on offer but I just don't see them risking all of that future talent on one 27 year-old pitcher, still recovering from a bad 2016 campaign. I would love to add Gray to the rotation, don't get me wrong, but there's definitely a limit, and it looks like a 5'10, 180lb switch-hitting 21 year-old Dominican catcher who absolutely rakes.

Thanks for reading.