Tribe Talk: Are The Indians a Better Team When The Pressure Is Off?

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Tribe Talk: Are The Indians a Better Team When The Pressure Is Off?
(Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Welcome toTribe Talk, where Bleacher Report's Tribe fans weigh in on the ups and downs of the Indians each week throughout the season.

This week we attempt to figure out why the Indians play better when the pressure is off, point fingers at who we think is to blame for the organization’s financial situation, and predict how the playoff picture will shape up.

I would like to thank this week's participants, Nino Colla, Scott Miles, and Jeff Poore for their contributions.

This discussion is open to all, so please feel free to comment below and pitch in your thoughts on the questions we're addressing this week.

Go Tribe!

1. The Indians, a veritable catastrophe for most of the season, have now won nine of their last 16 (as of Sunday) and are 16-12 since the All-Star break, seeming to come on in the second half after the season has been written off.

This is the second year in a row we have seen the Tribe play far better baseball than they had all season once they had nothing to lose. What do you see as the cause of these apparent late season turnarounds? Is the Tribe really improving and solving problems, or do they just perform better when the pressure is off?

Samantha Bunten: For more than a few years, the Indians have been a second-half team. Even though they’ve struggled mightily this season, that fact hasn’t changed. They start off slowly every April, and finish strong every September. They will probably finish just under .500, and the record books will show this team as about average and not as the disaster we think of it as now.

High expectations led to high pressure this past April, so I can’t help but wonder if that contributed heavily to the Indians' implosion in the spring, especially given that now, when the pressure is off, they are actually playing pretty respectable baseball.

I don’t have an easy solution for fixing this problem, but I do think it starts with coaching. If the talent is there, then it’s on the coach to figure out how to get his team to keep it together under pressure and start off the season well despite the weight of expectations. Until this gets fixed, the team will never be any better than the very average product that results from the combination of a horrendous start and a strong finish.

The bottom line is that no matter what, this team simply has to learn to perform under pressure. If they can’t handle the pressure of April, how on earth could they ever handle the pressure of the playoffs? If they ever make it there again, someone is going to have to teach this team how to deliver when the heat is on.

Nino Colla: I shrugged off the idea last year, because of what they did in 2007, but I'm starting to get a little skeptical. I really don't know what to make out of this to be quite honest. Maybe it is because the pressure is off. Who knows?

What I do know is that this team can't continue to start out slow. Even next year, if there is no pressure (what would it tell you if the Indians got off to a blazing start because there is no pressure?), the Indians need to get off to a better start. Not record wise, but consistency wise. Better fundamental baseball. Not the crap that we saw earlier this year.

Scott Miles: I think that what it shows is that the Indians are simply an average team.

The offense is better than the MLB average (eighth in runs scored, ninth OPS, sixth OBP). The pitching is worse than the MLB average (29th ERA, 28th OBP, 29th save percentage). That translates to a team that should slightly finish below .500, which is where the Wahoos will be at the end of the year. (Baseball-reference.com's Pythagorean winning percentage, which estimates a team's won-loss record based on runs scored versus runs allowed, has the Indians at four games under .500).

Over a 162-game season, these things all balance out, and it might not be more than a coincidence that the team is awful to start and good at the end. However you shake them, when you look at the numbers, the team is destined to be...mediocre.

Jeff Poore: Sadly the latter. This team for some reason, when the pressure is on, is wound tighter than I can cleanly describe without being banned from the internet. When all hope is lost they just "play baseball" and perform up to their potential.

This is a reflection of how they are developed in the minors and by the major league coaching staff. A good hierarchy would be able to harness the talent on a night-to-night basis regardless of the situation.

2. With yet another setback for Jake Westbrook in his rehabilitation and Justin Masterson's implosion last Friday, next season's starting rotation looks more and more uncertain all the time.

However, Aaron Laffey's recent performance has been a pleasant surprise that has indicated he might be a candidate for one of the top rotation spots next year. Laffey won't be our next Cy Young winner, certainly, but he has posted very respectable numbers (4-1, 2.03ERA) in his last 5 starts.

What do you think about Laffey's recent performance? Is this a sign he's turning into a better pitcher than most folks once thought, or do you see this as a short-lived spell of success?

If 2010 opening day was tomorrow, where do you see Laffey fitting into the rotation?

Samantha Bunten: I like Laffey a lot as a middle of the rotation starter on any team, and probably as the number one guy in the Indians’ sub-par rotation. I have some concerns that his success is somewhat of an illusion because major league hitters just haven’t seen enough of him to figure him out just yet, but it may be unfair to Laffey to say that.

After all, his average against actually is far better after his 30th pitch in a game than it is for his first 30 offerings, indicating that he’s the one making the adjustments and “figuring out” the hitters rather than the other way around.

He has limited lefties to a very respectable .211 average against and rarely serves up a long ball, unlike his fellow lefty cohort Jeremy Sowers, who has fared worse against lefties that righties and implodes right around the third inning of every game like clockwork.

I see Laffey fitting nicely into the top half of the Indians’ 2010 rotation. In fact, he may be the only possible component of next year’s rotation that doesn’t absolutely terrify me.

Nino Colla: Hey, Laffey has always been pitching well. He had a little dip there after his injury and people sort of just wrote him off. I've always had him in my rotation and for next year, I put him right into the number three spot behind Fausto Carmona and Jake Westbrook, provided Westbrook is healthy.

Laffey had a lot of success last year before he got injured. A big reason for his drop off in production was that injury he suffered. He was sent down, and then it became apparent that he was hurt. So really, I trust Laffey, a hell of a lot more than I do Sowers. Laffey has stuff and relies on it. Sowers needs to rely on command and he doesn't always do it.

Scott Miles: I'll answer the last question first: Aaron Laffey will be the Indians' number one pitcher next year. Yes, Jake Westbrook may get the Opening Day nod if he doesn't suffer a 900th setback in his Tommy John rehab (he's currently at 659, for those tracking at home), but Laffey will be the team's best pitcher next season.

I think that Laffey has the capability to be like Cliff Lee, circa 2005-06, in that he can win 12-15 games and have an ERA in the high threes to low fours. He's starting to show some consistency, keep his pitch count down and get into the sixth and seventh inning.

He's pitched in 17 games and only had two poor performances—a start against the Tigers May 2 (5 ER in 3.1 IP) and recently against the Angels, who have arguably the best offense in baseball, in which he gave up seven runs (four earned) in four innings.

So yes, I think Laffey is definitely an above average pitcher who in an ideal situation should be a team's second or third starter. Still, his re-emergence in the rotation has been pleasant this summer.

Jeff Poore: I think Laffey is a good middle of the rotation starter on the high side and a late inning bullpen arm, worst case scenario. His stuff is above average but he is one the the few players on this team that can focus his talents on a nightly basis. He will be an asset for this team. It's up to the organization to determine where in the pitching rotation he fits best.

3. The Indians have a tremendous amount of talent at the catcher's position in their system. Whether any of it is truly major-league ready is a different story.

Now that Martinez is gone and Shoppach has failed to live up to expectations, who do you see as the Indians starting catcher to open next season? Do you see Shoppach and Marson splitting time behind the plate almost equally, or will one of the two have enough to truly claim the starting job?

And what of blue chip prospect Carlos Santana? His bat is rumored to be major league ready, but how long do you think he'll need to hone his skills behind the plate before we will see him catching full time for the Indians?

Samantha Bunten: I like Shoppach, so it pains me to say that I don’t think he’ll be part of the equation at catcher next year. I don’t even think he’ll be part of the Indians at all by the time the 2010 season starts. The Indians likely won’t offer him arbitration because they won’t want to pay what the proceedings will say he’s worth.

Marson should get the starting job with Toregas as backup. I don’t really see the Indians carrying a third catcher, but Gimenez can fill in behind the plate if need be.

Santana should really spend the whole year in Triple-A. There’s no need for him to join the ballclub earlier than that with Marson on the roster, and he can only benefit from more time in Columbus improving his ability to call a game and field his position. He could use some work in both areas but should be able to get it down by the end of next season. His bat will be ready any time.

He should join the Indians in September 2010 when the rosters are expanded so he can get a taste of major league ball, and so we can all get a glimpse of our backstop for 2011 and beyond.

Nino Colla: I see the catching position working out this way: Lou Marson was obviously acquired to be a part of this team next year, since they didn't flip him and Carlos Santana is on the verge. Marson is going to be the starter with Wyatt Toregas as the primary backup and Chris Gimenez as a utility slash catcher player for this team.

Carlos Santana will start the year in Columbus and I figure he'll be in the MLB by the end of the year and the starter by 2011. Marson at that point would be traded if he garners enough value and if not, he'd be the backup.

Shoppach will not be an Indian next year. I'm pretty convinced of that. He's going to make too much money for his production. He'll be shipped off somewhere else.

Scott Miles: I'd be surprised to see Shoppach on the roster next year. He is eligible for arbitration after the season, and I don't think the Indians will want to pay him what the arbitrator thinks he's worth.

I think it will be Marson and Toregas on the Opening Day roster, until it is determined that Carlos Santana's defense and pitch-calling is "major league ready." That might be a mistake, in my eyes.

After all, I'd rather have Santana learn on the job in 2010 when there's nothing on the line, as opposed to 2011 or 2012 when the team might be ready to make a run. Until then, Toregas will get first crack at being the starter, though if he falters, Marson will be right there.

Jeff Poore: Shoppach will be shopped to a team that thinks they can fix the giant hole in his swing. He will make too much money next year to justify his remaining on the Indians.

Marson will get a look with Torregas backing up with Gimenez being the new Jamey Carroll with the ability to be a third catcher. Santana will be up by the All Star break in 2010 unless he is injured or derails next year.

4. Last week Paul Dolan came out and said the Indians were looking at a $16 million loss for the season. During the discussion, he mentioned that ticket sales falling far short of the projected totals contributed significantly to this loss.

Do you have any sympathy for the Dolans? Do you see the mention of poor ticket sales as a passive-aggressive attempt to tell fans it was "their fault" that their favorite players may have been traded, as a justifiable statement from an organization that is struggling financially, or just simply one more excuse to avoid spending money on the team?

Samantha Bunten: I’m not sure I truly think Dolan was trying to imply that the fans should share in the blame because they weren’t buying tickets, but the problem is that it sure SOUNDED like that was what he was saying. I don’t care if only three people show up to a game—you do not do anything to further alienate your fan base by laying blame on them when the product you put on the field isn’t good enough to make people want to buy tickets at all.

That said, fans should be supporting the team anyway. You’ll all be back when the team is good again, and you owe it to the team to stick around even when the going gets tough.

Overall though, Mr. Dolan should keep his financial woes to himself. In this economy, no one wants to hear someone whining about losing $16 million dollars when at the end of the day that person still owns a baseball team. When all the people who are out of work find jobs and can afford to buy even a single game ticket again, we can all be in this together. Until then, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw baseballs.

Nino Colla: Well it's the truth. That's the thing. I'd rather the Indians flat out tell me what's going on rather than sugar coat things.

I don't think the Dolans are saying it's the fans fault. I think they are merely saying, "Look...We cannot financially compete with other teams, not only because of this economy, but because of market, and one of the reasons for that is the ticket sales. We simply aren't getting as many fans as we thought we would. A lot of that has to do with the product we've put out on the field, which is our fault when it boils down to it."

This ownership spends money on the team. Their payroll is average. It isn't abnormally low like the Marlins or Rays, and it isn't astronomically high like the Yankees or Red Sox. People want to complain, but in reality, the Indians are just like a vast majority of the teams in the entire game. Most of the teams in the MLB spend around where the Indians spend.

I have sympathy for them because of the unnecessary abuse they take for being what most people call "cheap" because they don't re-sign CC Sabathia. This is millions and millions of dollars we are talking about. Nothing about it is cheap.

Scott Miles: This is a "chicken or the egg" type deal. The team can't spend to get competitive if the fans don't show up, buy tickets and spend money in the park. The fans don't want to show up if the team isn't competitive. Who's right and who's wrong? Answer—neither.

I can understand where the fans are coming from, especially with the way the economy is and so many Clevelanders in tough financial times. I also understand where the Dolans come from—this is a business, and any business that loses $16 million has to make changes. For the Tribe, that means trading away high-priced veterans.

I will say this—most fans are ignoring the fact that the Indians HAVE spent money this year. They brought in veterans Mark DeRosa and Kerry Wood, which were deemed good moves. The team's payroll of $81.63 million was 15th in the league, right in the middle (http://www.cbssports.com/mlb/salaries). So the Dolans were no cheaper (or less so) than any other owners in baseball.

Jeff Poore: No. No sympathy at all. Dick Jacobs, RIP, bought low and sold high. The Dolans bought high and are paying the price. Jacobs had the perfect storm of a thriving economy, no Browns, an irrelevant Cavs team and a brand new ballpark.

The Dolans did not realize what they were getting in to. They have a good "plan" but have failed to hire people to implement it properly. Now they are paying the price, literally.

They also fail to realize that you need to spend money to make money. Their mantra of "if the fans come out and we raise attendance we can raise payroll" is ass backwards. I say again, they didn't know what they were getting into and have failed to explain themselves effectively, and it has turned the fan base off big time.

5. Fun Question of the Week: Last week we discussed how we saw the race for the AL Central title shaking out. How do you see the rest of the playoff picture shaping up?

Please list your picks for the rest of MLB's division winners (AL and NL), as well as your picks for the Wild Card in both leagues.

Samantha Bunten: AL: Yankees, Tigers, Angels, Rangers (Wild Card). NL: Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers, Giants (Wild Card).

Only three of these are consistent with what I picked before the season started. Clearly I do not have a future as an oracle.

Nino Colla: AL: Yankees, White Sox, Angels, Red Sox. NL: Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers, Giants.

So my picks earlier this year were rather silly and out of the box. I wish I had fully committed to the Cardinals, but didn't go bold. I did pick the Marlins, but that is looking sketchy. I'm not losing faith in the Red Sox despite the recent play, I think they are very much in it, but my wild card pick of the Rays is no longer looking very good.

Scott Miles: AL East—The Yankees are scorching everyone right now, finally playing up to the payroll and talent.

AL Central—Detroit's rotation is too good to blow their lead over the Sox, no matter how slim it is.

AL West—The Angels know how to do one thing: win AL West titles. This year is no different.

AL Wild Card—My heart is pulling for either Texas or Tampa. My head tells me it’s the Red Sox. 2005's wild card race sways me: Boston.

NL East—Florida is making it interesting, but the Phillies are just too good.

NL Central—St. Louis has been and continues to be the class of this division.

NL West—The Rockies are making another surge and the Dodgers seem disinterested. Still, LA won't completely fold.

NL Wild Card—Like the AL Wild Card, this will probably come down to the final day or two. The Rockies squeak by and squeak in to the playoffs again.

Jeff Poore: AL East: Yankees, AL Central: Tigers, AL West: Angels, AL Wildcard:Red Sox.

NL East: Phillies, NL Central: Cardinals, NL West: Dodgers, NL Wildcard: Rockies.

Because of stupid wildcard rules we're looking at a NYY/DET and LAA/BOS playoff matchup.  New York owns Detroit and the Red Sox own the Angels, so it's armageddon once again. Unless the rest of the NL contenders find more pitching, no one is beating the Phillies in the NL.

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