Really, it's hard to argue that the Indians should focus any of their attention on anything other than pitching. The pitching was atrocious last season. The starters (non-Cliff Lee Department) may have been awful, but at least they didn't throw enough innings to save the dismal bullpen. Think about this: of all the pitchers on the roster who weren't traded away for a bag of chicken livers, Aaron Laffey's 10.9 VORP was the highest. Really, this isn't bad for Laffey: he's still very young, missed some time with an injury, and posted a solid (if a bit lucky) 4.44 ERA. If you need 5 pitchers in your rotation, Aaron Laffey can absolutely be one of them. This isn't about Laffey: it's about the fact that Laffey is the most valuable pitcher on the team. That simply won't do.
Here's what else won't do: the next two leaders by VORP are Tony Sipp (10.1) and Kerry Wood (10.0). It's one thing for two relievers to be so high on the team: hey, the Twins have three relievers in their top five. But first of all, those three guys aren't just pretty good, they're f*&$ing GREAT: Joe Nathan (29.2), Matt Guerrier (27.3), and Jose Mijares (23.6) were three of the best at their roles in 2009, although Nathan is the only one of the three I would absolutely call a safe bet to quadruplicate his performance. Still, Guerrier's 2.36 ERA is the highest of the three. But for two guys to be up there in the 10 range ... in the 2 and 3 slots ... after one of them has what was widely considered a Fail Season and the other was hurt, jerked around, and once posted a month with 7 walks and 3 Ks in 3 1/3 innings ... well, golly, that's just no good at all.
But I digress. I'm not here to talk about Wood and Sipp, two players who I think are likely to have good, solid performances (at least until Wood is traded ... please tell me they're going to trade Kerry Wood before July 31 ...). I'm here to make fun of the starting pitching. No, wait, not so much make fun of the starters as to ridicule them. No, I don't mean ridicule, I mean ... wait, this isn't really about pitchers at all. Well, I mean, not so much not about pitchers as it is that I can't believe this isn't about pitchers.
And really, in my gut, I truly believe that Fausto Carmona is the one player from whom significant improvement would mean more than any other. Not only was he so, so, so very bad, but he also wasn't any good. And I don't mean that in a snarky sense: what I mean is, not only did he pitch poorly, resulting in losses and bullpen exposure and general malaise, but he also did not pitch WELL, which would result in wins and bullpen conservation and rotation alignment. See, it's one thing to eliminate the badness and replace it with The Tomo Ohka Experience: Ohka is the very definition of a Replacement Player, grabbed for free and dropped into the rotation and performing very much at Replacement Level (-0.4 VORP, virtually perfectly RP). Shoot, you're still going to lose a bunch of those games. Tomo Ohka isn't any good. But it's quite another to eliminate the badness and replace it with Actual Goodness, and you have something else altogether. I really think this would have more effect on the team than anything else, considering cascade effects (fewer innings of bad relief pitching, less wear and tear on the good relievers, an absence of Zach Jackson).
However, the methodology I've chosen is simply to look at increases in VORP, and the largest plausible increase comes from Grady Sizemore.
It's worth pointing out that even in a terrible "off" year, playing through pain and injury and prolonged slumps, Grady Sizemore was our fifth-most productive offensive player with a VORP of 18.4. His .248/.343/.445 line really isn't terrible for a center fielder ... well, okay, actually, that's not very good. Nyjer Morgan posted a higher VORP in his time in Washington ... in 212 PA. It's nice that Sizemore gets on base in more ways than just AVG, but that's because his AVG is actually pretty bad.
Still, the germs of Sizemore are still hiding in there: his OBP-AVG is .095, indiciative of a patient hitter, and his ISO of .197 is quite good for a CF. He wasn't a complete schmoe out there, although I'd argue he was out there quite a bit longer than was truly valuable to him or the Indians. But really, now: Grady Sizemore has been a pretty consistent player to this point:
2006: .290/.375/.533 53 2B 28 HR 78 BB 153 K 22 SB 6 CS 67.9 VORP
2007: .277/.390/.462 34 2B 24 HR 101 BB 155 K 33 SB 10 CS 46.9 VORP
2008: .268/.374/.502 39 2B 33 HR 98 BB 130 K 38 SB 5 CS 60.7 VORP
Career average: .275/.367/.485 39 2B 27 HR 83 BB 143 K 27 SB 8 CS
So look: his OBP-AVG is in line with his career path. His ISO is in line. The only things that are different are:
This is obviously very significant, but also very easily explained: he was hurt. And by all accounts, he was hurt in a way that was straightforwardly fixed, and is an age and body type (not to mention work ethic, from all reports available) that should bode well for a complete recovery.
Well, this is terrible. This is out of character, and at first glance, you have to think this is injury-related.
Look at the batting averages: .290, .277, .268, .248. Is that number REALLY so out of line with the path of the numbers? Yeah, it's almost certainly affected by the injuries, but ... is it completely due to the injuries?
Here's where I have to beg off: I don't know how much the injuries affected Sizemore's swing, his footwork at the plate, or his ability to beat out hits. I will say that his .216/.309/.403 line against lefties is his worst since 2006, when he could not hit lefties in any way whatsoever. But I think it is reasonable to think of Sizemore as a .270/.375/.475 hitter: I mean, his career average is in that range, his discipline and power numbers were consistent, and I see no reason to think Grady Sizemore at age 27 is clearly over the hill.
13 SB, 8 CS
Okay, now we're talking about something significant. That's AWFUL. It got so bad, I kept begging Eric Wedge to stop allowing Sizemore to run. Did you ever expect to be weeping silently whenever Grady Sizemore would try to steal a base? Look at those success rates again:
2008: 88.4% (!)
I mean, he's never going to be Tim Raines, but 35 steals at an 80-plus clip isn't an unreasonable expectation for a healthy Grady Sizemore. 13 steals at a 61.9% clip is no help at all: in fact, it's below the magic "break-even" line and I wish he hadn't kept trying to do it.
Now, I'm not so much bringing up the steal numbers to suggest that this is where a lot of his VORP is going to come from: really, I think it's more indicative as to how much the injury was really affecting his play. You can point to the AVG, but that's a questionable exercise. What if he just had a bad year? But the steals ... that's one part of his game that was clearly trending upwards: he was getting better at it, and learning to do it better, and in 2009, simply could not get his body to take advantage of what his experience had taught. My interpretation of what I saw was that he literally COULDN'T steal, and I highly doubt that this is a permanent, irreversible deterioration of Sizemore's core skill set. He was hurt. He'll do better. QED.
Is this guaranteed? Of course not. Life doesn't work that way. But remember, all we're looking for is PLAUSIBLE improvement. And I think the stolen base numbers suggest that the primary cause of Sizemore's diminshed performance was injuries.
This is hardly earth-shattering analysis. But let's say this is accurate, and Sizemore, a diligent worker, gets himself into the shape to get his timing down and ends up putting up a career-average year, or maybe the three-year average from 2006-2008. I'm not even asking for a big improvement here: I'm just asking for what I know Sizemore is capable of, not at the HIGH end, but closer to the MEAN. This makes him, ballpark, a 60 VORP player. Sure, he could go nuts and post an 80, but let's temper expectations with reality: he could just as easily post a 40 and this wouldn't be a big shocker.
From 18.4 to 60.4 (for ease of calculation) makes Grady Sizemore a reasonable bet for +42 VORP. Yeah, that's a lot. That would help.
Now, does he HAVE to LEAD OFF?