A conversation with Lewie Pollis of Wahoo Blues

 

Just before the start of last night’s game with the Cleveland Indians, Gethin Coolbaugh and I had a little Q&A with Lewie Pollis of Wahoo Blues. Lewie gave us some insights on the best team in baseball and we did what we do best, talked about the Sox. You can read our answers over at his site. Check out Lewie’s answers to our questions below and get a better sense of this surprising team After all, we just might have to contend come October.

First and foremost, what in the world has gotten into the Indians? They’re 29-15 (best record in baseball) and are in first place in the AL Central in later May. What’s been the root of their impressive start?

At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, there are three real causes of the Tribe's outburst. First: maturing hitters. Matt LaPorta was declared all but a bust after a year-and-a-half of struggling at the big-league level. Now he has an .821 OPS. Meanwhile, Asdrubal Cabrera is showing power that he'd never displayed before and Michael Brantley is becoming a great player thanks to improved plate discipline. Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore have been getting lucky, but that's cancelled out by Carlos Santana and Shin-Soo Choo's bad luck.

Second, the Tribe's pitching has been over-performing. The Indians have the seventh-best staff ERA in baseball (3.41) but they're 20th in xFIP (3.88). Finally, add in much-improved defense (2.7 UZR/150, up from -5.2 last year) and you've got a winner.

Now, much like the TampaBayRays in 2008, people are questioning whether or not the Indians can keep up their hot streak. Do you see Cleveland outlasting their critics or falling back into the pack?

Obviously the Indians aren't going to play .659 ball all year, but with a seven-game lead in the division, even if they suffer a heavy regression, it will be hard for any other team to catch up. If the Indians play .500 ball the rest of the way, their closest competitor (the Tigerswould need to play .569 ball to surpass them in the standings. Even if the Indians go .459 the rest of the season and finish with just 83 wins, based on the other four AL Central teams' current records, they'd still be in first place.

How much of the Indians’ success this season is attributed to their strong play compared to the extremely poor play of the ChicagoWhite Sox and MinnesotaTwins?

The Indians are 1-6 against the White Sox and Twins so far. That means the Indians are 28-9 against the rest of the league. I don't think they have anything to do with it

We hear a lot about your young catcher, Carlos Santana. He has six home runs on the season, but is batting in the low .200s. What’s been causing his struggles at the dish?

Make some chicken noises and you'll see what Santana's problem is: luck, luck, luck, luck, luck (I'll be here all week!). First of all, I reject the notion that he's "struggl[ing] at the dish." He's a catcher with a .720 OPS and 1.2 WAR. He might not look like an All-Star right now, but he's clearly producing like an above-average catcher.

The problem is his .222 BABIP. He's not hitting as many line drives as he did last year, but don't tell me a guy with his power and plate discipline deserves a hit rate that low. Last week, I plugged his xBABIP in for his BABIP and calculated an expected-OPS of .909. Them's MVP numbers for a catcher.

This guy is the real deal at the plate. He's got an .800 Power Factor and a ridiculous 17.5% walk rate. This kid is 25 years old and has yet to play a full MLB season. Have I mentioned he's a great defender? And that he's a catcher? As long as his body holds up, he'll be one of the best players in baseball for years to come.

Lastly, former Red Sox and now Indians starter Justin Masterson leads the club in strikeouts (48), is second in wins (5) and has an ERA of 2.52. Do you see him sustaining that pace for the rest of the season? 

No, I don't. Masterson's is a great story because he got super unlucky last year and has ben really fortunate in 2011—his ERA has dropped 218 points from 2010, but his xFIP is down by only 56. His 2.67 FIP is misleading because of his 2.2% HR/FB rate. That said, a 3.31 xFIP is pretty darn good, even if he's not really a Cy Young.

Will Shin-Soo Choo ever get the recognition he deserves as an elite pleyer?

That's not up to me. It's regrettable that he's off to a slow start this year, though it's largely BABIP-related (and yet he still has 1.6 WAR? he's incredible). If he was hitting as well as he did last year in the midst of the national attention the Indians are getting, he might finally get the appreciation he deserves. Bad timing there.

When he can stay healthy Grady Sizemore is a tremendous force in CF. How much do the Indians depend on Grady staying healthy to keep the offense going?

Obviously losing a guy of Grady's caliber is always tough, and Travis Buck's heroics this weekend notwithstanding the Indians don't really have a fourth outfielder who can take his place. Luckily, the loss of Sizemore could be completely cancelled out if Choo and Santana's luck turns around.

There's no question losing Grady is a big blow, but the Indians won't have trouble scoring runs without him.

Could you give us a Series Pitcher Preview?

Justin Masterson [had] some bad luck last year (4.70 ERA, 3.87 xFIP) led to some people calling for him to be moved to the bullpen, but we who believed in him have had our faith rewarded with a 2.52 ERA (2.67 FIP, 3.31 xFIP). Expect a low-to-mid-90's sinker complimented by a wicked slider (you guys say "wicked," right?) and a whole lotta ground balls. 

Fausto Carmona [has] been the opposite of Masterson: he got lucky last year (3.77 ERA, 4.25 FIP), but he's gotten the short end of the stick in 2011 (4.76 ERA, 3.79 xFIP). Interestingly, his peripherals are almost exactly the same—he had a 4.11 FIP last year, against a 4.10 mark now. He’s another groundballer with good heat—like Masterson but with fewer strikeouts.

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