May 21, 2014By Todd VanderLoop of SPASH Softball
Cleveland builds around 'Moneyball' logic
May 21, 2014 3:10 PM |
Michael Brantley hits a walk-off home run in the 10th inning against the Tigers. / Ken Blaze, USA TODAY Sports
A stroll through the Cleveland Indians front office, if we're to believe the liberties taken by the scriptwriters of Moneyball, is what set off the Oakland Athletics' magical season chronicled in the book and movie.
Now, more than a decade after A's general manager Billy Beane found the character known as Peter Brand and changed the way we look at baseball numbers, from salary figures to on-base percentages, the Indians are cultivating their own brand of cost-efficient offense.
"We continue to understand the value of getting on base," Indians GM Chris Antonetti says of a team that has swung at the lowest percentage of pitches out of the strike zone since the beginning of the 2012 season.
The Indians have five of the top 50 players in the majors at not chasing bad pitches over that period, one of the hallmarks of an updated formula that's combining discipline and aggression at the plate with cost efficiency for the front office.
"We're building a deep lineup where most of our players ... have the collective mind-set that they can be successful in this approach," Antonetti says. "We want to build a team that has depth and versatility."
If it works, the Indians will have bought - at relatively bargain prices - success in an era of waning offense.
Cleveland is even getting help from one of the key figures in Moneyball: Jason Giambi. The veteran was developed in the get-on-base curriculum of the A's farm system, and his free agent departure after 2001 led to the roster machinations chronicled in the book and movie.
Now 43, Giambi watches from his spot as pinch-hitter and clubhouse mentor, marveling at where the theories he grew up with are being taken by the likes of second baseman Jason Kipnis, first baseman Nick Swisher, catcher-third baseman Carlos Santana and outfielders Michael Brantley and Michael Bourn - the quintet from that top-50 list.
Only Oakland's hitters have a better walk-to-strikeout ratio than Cleveland's.
"That's what we all want to do," Brantley says. "It just takes a lot of preparation, a lot of hard work, a lot of discipline."
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The A's teams more than a decade ago made it famous, then the powerful Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees teams took it to another level.
"I get asked a lot - 'Do you want guys walking?' That's really not the idea," says Indians manager Terry Francona, who oversaw Red Sox championship teams that were famous for turning games into marathons with their plate patience. "We feel that if you swing at good pitches, you're going to be a better hitter, and, more often than not, the deeper you get into counts, you're going to get a good pitch to hit.
"You want to make sure you're taking a nice, healthy hack. But really it's a byproduct of swinging at good pitches."
The Indians have borrowed from the A's model to build their own. Not only did Giambi play there, but Cleveland hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo also held the same position with the A's in 2007-08.
"You have to really be aggressive to that location," Van Burkleo says. "(Aggressive) is important to me. Major league pitchers aren't going to walk people in consistently. A walk is just a byproduct of making a pitcher throw strikes. It is important, and it always has been. But sometimes, some organizations' philosophies get stressed so much, you end up getting passive hitters."
If a hitter can combine patience and aggressiveness, he can carve out a long career, as has Giambi, who in his 20th season.
"The value of learning the strike zone, that's why I'm still playing this game," Giambi says. "These guys are still going to get better because they know the strike zone. They'll learn how to hit more homers. Brantley one year is going to hit 30. He's going to be that guy, drive in 110."
How about this year?
Brantley, 27, hit a 10th-inning walk-off homer Monday that gave the Indians a dramatic victory against the American League Central-rival Detroit Tigers. Brantley worked a full count before hitting his ninth homer of the season, one short of his career high from last year.
The son of former major leaguer Mickey Brantley, Michael had more walks than strikeouts and a .311 batting average over four minor league seasons - and six homers in 1,633 plate appearances - when the Indians got him in a 2008 trade with the Milwaukee Brewers.
It has taken steady improvement over six major league seasons for the man they call "Dr. Smooth" to reach the 1-to-1 walks-to-strikeouts ratio.
"Pitchers are better at this level," Brantley says. "When you get behind 1-2 or 0-2, they have devastating wipeout pitches. It was an adjustment period. I had to learn to lay off them and to not get to two strikes all the time."
Francona and Van Burkleo agree finding disciplined hitters might be easier than creating them.
"I think you can pound it into guys and try to remind them," Francona says. "But I don't know if you can actually teach it. The guys who are good enough, who are able to recognize strikes and still get the bat to the ball, that's why they're good."
And, Antonetti reminds, "It's not an absolute for us. We have some good players who don't exactly fit that mold."
But he collects the ones who do and tries to keep them.
Kipnis, an All-Star last season, is homegrown, but Brantley and Santana were acquired from other organizations as minor leaguers. Swisher, Bourn and right fielder David Murphy came as free agents.
Not coincidentally, those six are the only Indians on multiyear deals beyond this season, including some contracts that could become bargains:
"If we try to acquire that kind of talent at the market rate, we'll often lose that battle," Antonetti says of his franchise's smaller-market status.
Right now, the Indians are a middle-of-the-pack team in most offensive categories. Last year they were top five in the AL in runs, on-base percentage and the power-speed component - a measure of teams that combines home runs and stolen bases.
Antonetti is hardly professing that they're somehow re-inventing the game, saying they're merely trying to stay ahead of the curve.
"As a game," he says, "we continue to improve our understanding of many things, continue to evolve."
White reported for this story in Toronto