Sunday, September 7, 2014

Flyover: Cleveland Indians

This continues a series of looks at each team over the past month.

Here are two things that you may have forgotten or not known: The Cleveland Indians made the postseason last year (like the other Ohio team, the Reds, they were eliminated in the one-game wild card coin flip game), and are only 4.5 games out of the wild card this year. At this point in the year, maybe I shouldn't be saying "only," but they have to get past only one team to catch the Mariners. This even though their best hitter last year, Carlos Santana, was batting .159 with a .301 slugging percentage at the end of May (.258 and .493 since); last year's ace, Justin Masterson, was terrible (5.51 ERA, 56 walks in 98 innings) before he got traded to St. Louis at the trade deadline (where he's been even worse); and slugger/spokesman/mascot Nick Swisher was having a terrible year (.208/.278/.331) when he was shut down last month for surgery on both knees. Starter Corey Kluber (14-9, 2.47 ERA, 223 strikeouts in 204.3 innings) and left fielder Michael Brantley (.315/.372/.496 slash line, top 10 in the league in all three categories, 19-1 as a basestealer) have emerged as stars, and manager Terry Francona probably deserves credit as well.  

How Are They Doing Lately? Over the past 30 days, they're 16-9. They and the 18-9 Royals are the only teams in the Central division over .500. They've allowed 3.24 runs per game, the fourth fewest in the league, but they've scored only 3.60 runs per game, also the fourth fewest. 

What's Going Right? You can guess from the runs per game breakdown that the pitching's been pretty good. The starters have a sparkling 2.07 ERA over the past 30 days, best in the league, and they're striking out 26% of the batters they face, also the best. The bullpen's 3.26 ERA is more middle-of-the-pack, but still better than the league average of 3.47. Nothing screams out "good luck." Two of the things I always check are batting average on balls in play (that is, all batted balls except over-the-fence home runs) and percentage of fly balls that are home runs. In both stats, numbers well above league averages may indicate bad luck, and numbers well below league averages may indicate good luck--large variations from the norm just don't persist. Well, the Indians, over the past 30 days, have a batting average on balls in play of .292 and have allowed home runs on 9.0% of fly balls. The former's right at the league average and the latter's somewhat above. Not a lot to suggest that the Indians aren't, in fact, a good team on the mound. They also exemplify the On The Field Of Play mantra, It's good to throw strikes, but it's better to get strikes. Over the past 30 days, only 48% of Indians' pitchers strikes have been in the strike zone, the second-lowest percentage in the league, but they've been successful because they've induced swings on 33% of pitches outside the strike zone, the second highest total of the year. 

What's Going Wrong? It's hard to point to any factors behind the team's inability to score runs. Nothing jumps out a lot concerning luck. They haven't hit a lot of home runs, going deep on just 1.8% of plate appearances, fourth fewest in the league. It's not that their offensive numbers are good--they're eighth in batting average and on base percentage, eleventh in slugging percentage over the past 30 days--but those components don't add up to being twelfth in runs per game. There are a couple advanced metrics that suggest the Indians hitters haven't been particularly clutch, and I'm inclined to think that's been the case. This isn't an offensive juggernaut, but the team should score more runs than they have lately. 

Who's Hot? Jose Ramirez took over at shortstop from Asdrubal Cabrera after the Indians traded the pending free agent to the Nationals at the trade deadline. Over the past 30 days, Ramirez has led the team in batting (.315) and on base percentage (.358) and is second in slugging (.449). It's tempting to look at a 21-year-old rookie middle infielder putting up good offensive numbers and think, "fluke," but Ramirez hit .306 with a .355 on base percentage in 291 minor league games. Brantley's cooled down but still was among team leaders in most offensive categories over the past 30 days, and Santana's flashed power, leading the team with five homers and 19 RBI. He's also an on-base machine, drawing walks in 16% of plate appearances. 

Over the past 30 days, Kluber has a 2.09 ERA--and that's only third best on the staff. Carlos Carrasco is 3-0 over five starts, 0.90 ERA, 34 strikeouts and four walks over 30 innings. Danny Salazar, who was so lost this year (5.53 ERA through May) that he was sent down to AAA until after the All-Star Break, is 2-1, 1.08 ERA, 24 baserunners and 23 strikeouts over 25 innings. Middle relievers Brian Shaw and Scott Atchison have combined for a 0.55 ERA in 33 innings spread over 32 appearances. 

Who's Not? Second baseman Jason Kipnis has had a tough past 30 days, batting just .240 with only five extra base hits, all doubles. That's a .288 slugging percentage. DH Zach Walters, who came over in the Cabrera trade, leads the team with six homers but that's about all he's done: he has only seven other base hits, good for a .171 batting average and .232 on base percentage. 

What's the Outlook? The Indians are a decent team with a promising young pitching staff. Atchison's the only hurler in his 30s. I have an affinity for small-market, low-payroll (their $83 million estimated payroll is fifth lowest in the league) clubs, and there is no announcer more animated than their radio play-by-play man, Tom Hamilton. The Indians appear to be too far back to make a run for the postseason this year, but it's good to see them still in contention.

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