Heading into this past weekend, Indians fans were already abuzz. Then the Tribe went out and swept the Orioles.
As a result, when baseball fans awoke this morning, only three teams were in the top 11 in both offensive and pitching WAR. Two were preseason contenders, the Philadelphia Phillies (11th among position players, first among pitchers) and Colorado Rockies (third and third). The other was the fightin’ Cleveland Indians. And, for good measure, yesterday’s game also featured the triumphant return of Grady Sizemore.
Back in his heyday in the mid-aught’s, Sizemore was a force to be reckoned with. It’s easy to forget since we’ve spent the past two years discounting him because of various knee and elbow injuries, but from 2005 to 2008 Sizemore was one of the five best position players in the game. Only Albert Pujols, Chase Utley, Alex Rodriguez and David Wright bested his WAR during that time. And only Sizemore and Alfonso Soriano hit 100 or more homers and stole 100 or more bases.
Sizemore often was compared to Curtis Granderson — because the pair frequently struck out and walked — but Sizemore walked more often and struck out fewer times than Granderson, which upped Sizemore’s value from above-average to superstar. Losing that kind of player would be devastating to any lineup, and it certainly was to the Indians. During Sizemore’s two injury plagued seasons, Cleveland finished 15th in offensive WAR in 2009 with a half-season of Sizemore and then 27th last year when he missed almost the entire season.
In the field, Sizemore was always tortured by his noodle arm. But he was dynamite in every other defensive phase. From 2005 to 2008, he was top five in ErrR and RngR among all outfielders; and on the strength of those two scores, his overall UZR was tenth best among outfielders. Fans have more or less agreed, grading Sizemore in the low 20s in arm strength; in the 50s in arm accuracy and release; and in the 70s and the 80s in the other four categories.
Sizemore’s performance yesterday put everyone on red alert — if not at least on watch — that a return to form could be in the making. Now, it would be foolish to pull out our Jump To Conclusions mat after a single outing, but for at least one afternoon, Grady Sizemore looked…. well, like Grady Sizemore. He’s always been a dead-pull hitter, and he pulled the ball in three of his four at-bats. One was a harmless grounder to second, but the other two were a towering homer and a double. The other thing Sizemore’s done at the plate is strike out a lot (four straight seasons with130 or more Ks), and he did that yesterday, too. Same approach, same results?
The Indians would certainly benefit. Sizemore’s return pushes Michael Brantley to left field, where he represents an upgrade over the Travis Buck-Austin Kearns combo. And while it should make the roster smoother on a day-to-day basis, Brantley isn’t a tremendous upgrade in left, either, because his bat doesn’t profile as having the pop of a typical left fielder. On the whole, it’s likely no more than a three-to-four win upgrade.
Excitement over Sizemore’s return also needs to be tempered in part because he’s not going to play every day. The WAR Grid also has an enthusiasm-dampening effect. Looking at every center fielder with career WAR values of 20 or better since 1950, and we see that the only players who put up consecutive seasons of zero (or worse) WAR in their age 26-30 seasons were Jay Johnstone (1972 and 1973) and Terry Puhl (1986 and 1987). Not exactly household names. If you expand the search to players with one season at zero WAR in that same time period, you come up with names like Jim Edmonds (at 29 years old), Fred Lynn (29), Ellis Burks (30), Eric Davis (30) and Ken Henderson (27). Obviously, Indians fans are hoping for an Edmonds-like resurgence. After missing four months of his age 29 season in 1999, Edmonds returned with six consecutive seasons with a WAR of 5.9 or better after his trade to St. Louis. But he’s the extreme outlier. Lynn, Burks, Davis and Henderson never sustained their past performances again. Now, these comps aren’t perfect — they never will be when you’re trying to find someone who is among the cream of the crop. But that’s also precisely the point — Sizemore is in fairly uncharted territory.
The Indians need a healthy and productive Sizemore to compete throughout the summer. Yes, the Indians look terrific right now, but we need only to look at last season to see how brief those winning streaks can be. From June 27 to July 23, the Indians were 15-8, a run that included winning streaks of five and six games. Broken into sections, those wins surrounded a three game losing streak in early July with records of 7-2 and 8-3. Toward the end of the season, Cleveland was 10-5 from September 16 to October 1 — a mark nearly identical to the team’s current 11-4 record. The reason that these periods of winning can be so easily identifiable is because they are surrounded by similar periods of losing. From July 24 to July 30, the Tribe lost six of seven, wiping out any positive impact that their previous play established. In other words, at this point it’s best to heed Brand Nubian’s words and slow down.
With advances in surgery and rehab in the past couple of decades, Sizemore stands a better chance to return to form than other players who have suffered through injury-lost seasons. Yesterday, he gave some hope that he can be as good as he used to be. And if he can, the Indians could be contenders in the AL Central. The upgrade will conservatively be on the order of three to four wins, which means many other things will need to go right. With yesterday’s news that Jeanmar Gomez would replace Mitch Talbot in the rotation, it’s clear the Indians aren’t exactly brimming over in the depth department. You can’t ignore the fact that some of Cleveland’s best pitchers — most notably Josh Tomlin and Justin Masterson — are sporting ridiculously low BABIPs. The Indians hot start and Sizemore’s return are nice stories right now, but let’s give them some room to breathe before declaring that Cleveland is officially back in business.