MLB

The Indians Can Pitch. The Indians Can Hit. Yet, the Indians Are Only Mediocre. Why?

Soon, the eyeballs of the Cleveland sports faithful will transition over from LeBron and the Cavaliers to the underwhelming Indians. The struggle out of gate has been real for the Tribe. Here's some clues as to why.

We’re approaching the two-month mark of the 2018 Major League Baseball season and while that initial “overreaction” phase may have subsided, there are still some unexpected abnormalities taking place around the diamonds that garner a closer look. One of those is that of the Cleveland Indians and their sluggish (to be generous) start. This is a team that essentially kept their 102-win roster intact, made minimal changes in the offseason and were expected to completely run away with the American League Central division. Deservedly, baseball enthusiasts have this poor 20-21 start to the season as a blip on their radars.

Given the AL Central’s predetermined “Quadruple-A” status, this start by the Indians is especially puzzling. Technically and ironically, the division is so bad that the Indians still “lead” the division by a minuscule 0.5 games over the equally disappointing Twins (18-20) and only 1.0 games over the lowly Tigers (19-22). As you can probably imagine, the bottom of the standings occupied by the Royals and White Sox is pretty grim.

So then, what gives?

First, it’s easy to conclude that starting pitching is NOT the problem. The rotation has primarily functioned with just four main guys that have amassed 25 quality starts in 34 attempts (a very impressive 73.5% rate). At his current pace, Corey Kluber might be the favorite to capture his THIRD American League Cy Young Award, while the other three have posted numbers that with a slight uptick, that might be worth of at least a conversation at the end of the season. Unfortunately, the rotation’s original fifth wheel, Josh Tomlin (0-4, 7.84 ERA), has lost approximately 20% of the team’s games and has essentially pitched himself out of starting duties.

Here is a quick glance at the numbers posted by said four-man rotation:

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Pitcher Record ERA WHIP WAR
Corey Kluber 6-2 2.34 0.84 1.8
Trevor Bauer 3-3 2.59 1.12 1.5
Mike Clevinger 3-0 2.70 1.07 1.7
Carlos Carrasco 5-2 3.66 1.05 0.8
Total / Average 17-7 2.82 1.02 5.8

So if the starting pitching isn’t the issue, perhaps it’s a volatile bullpen? Wait, we could be on to something here.

Here’s are a few “elements” that have plagued the 2018 Cleveland Indians. These aren’t solutions or recommendations, but rather, just… clues. If there’s a couple of things that manager Terry Francona has proved with this team already is that a slow start means almost nothing and that this particular squad has the talent to rip off a month-long win streak at the drop of a hat.

The Bullpen

As eluded to above, not all pitching is created equal. With the (four) starters enjoying much success early on, the Cleveland bullpen production (and the use of that term is very loose) have been absolutely atrocious in 2018. As expected, Andrew Miller (1-2, 3.06 ERA, 4 holds, 16.20 K/9 ratio) has been the most steady, but not his typical dominant self yet. Closer Cody Allen (2-1, 3.38 ERA, 5/6 save opportunities) has been mediocre, but not as sharp as seasons past.

Sadly, that’s where the weak “compliments” end for this group.

The other primary bullpen guys (who have pitched at least 11.2 innings or appeared in at least 12 games) sport ERA digits that look closer to full 9-inning Over/Under Run Totals than anything pitching related. Look how ugly it’s been:

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Pitcher IP / Record ERA WHIP WAR
Nick Goody 11.2 / 0-2 6.94 1.71 -0.3
Zach McAllister 15.2 / 0-2 7.47 1.53 0.0
Tyler Olson 13.0 / 0-1 6.23 1.15 -0.2
Dan Otero 15.2 / 0-1 7.47 1.28 -0.7
Total / Average 56.0 / 0-6 7.03 1.42 -1.2

Clearly, giving up the lead late in ball games has been a major problem so far in the young season. The Indians record in extra innings (0-4) and in 1-run games (5-10) further support the complete malfunctioning of the bullpen arms. Though Cleveland likely still walk away with division honors when the end of September rolls around, if they expect to be competitive during October Baseball, they’ll need to scout some reliable arms at the trade deadline, as the current group isn’t cutting it.

An Erratic Lineup

The bullpen alone doesn’t explain the entire story of the team’s disappointing start. If you assumed the offense was also struggling in spots (especially compared to 2017), you’d be correct. The intriguing thing about the lineup is that that results have been quite scattered. Certain players are knocking the cover off the ball, while others are seeing their averages in the tank and haven’t found their stroke yet. To date, the unit just hasn’t collectively produced numbers that compare to last season at the team level.

lindor
Photo File

Take Francisco Lindor for example. The kid struggled out of the gate this season (just ask impatient and incredulous fantasy owners), especially with his strikeout rate and ended April with an underwhelming slash line of .245/.331/.409. Even though he’s still only 24 years old, but that’s a substandard line for him in comparison to his overall career numbers. However, fast forward to the current month of May, and he’s absolutely scorching the earth on a nightly basis. Check out his April/May splits (a 1.468 OPS!?!) and realize that he’s passed most totals for the previous month and we still have over a week left in May! An incredibly quick turnaround and suddenly Lindor is starting at a potential career year ahead of him.

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LINDOR Games/ABs Runs HR/RBI Slash Line
April 2018 27 / 110 17 4 / 11 .245/.331/.409
May 2018 13 / 60 17 8 / 15 .450/.484/1.468

Lindor isn’t the only one swinging a mighty stick in this inconsistent order. Michael Brantley, who finally appears healthy, currently ranks 8th overall in the Majors with a .328 average. Jose Ramirez, who came out of nowhere last season to finish 3rd in AL MVP voting, is actually on pace for a better season in 2018. Seems damn near impossible, but it’s happening.

However, with the ’18 version of this Indians lineup, for the few obvious bright spots, there are is the equivalent on the other end of the spectrum, with guys that are producing far below their career averages and certainly below the bar set in 2017. While Edwin Encarnacion (notorious for his slow starts) and Yonder Alonso have solid home run totals (9 each), as regular everyday players, their collective Average/OPS is in the tank and causing damage to the middle of the lineup. Specifically, Encarnacion’s strikeout total (45 Ks in 162 plate appearances) is borderline alarming and inching toward the Top 10 in the American League. Sure, he’s the definition of a “slugger,” but that many swing and misses is clearly not ideal.

Then there is the uphill battle that is Jason Kipnis. I mean, what the hell is going on here!? Always a solid contact hitter, it’s like he hit the reset button on how to swing a piece of lumber. And because he’s spent such little time on base this season, he’s been completely ineffective on the base paths, which has always been a major strength (dude averages almost 20 stolen bases per season), especially at the top of the order.

Below is a comparison of Kipnis’ 2018 season to that of his career 162-game average:

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KIPNIS Hits HR/RBI/SB Tot. Bases Slash Line
162 Avg. 166 16 / 73 / 22 260 .260/.340/.750
2018 (totals) 27 1 / 13 / 0 39 .172/.260/.508
2018 (pace) 109 4 / 53 / 0 158 .172/.260/.508

While Kipnis is having an uncharacteristically down season, he hasn’t been the only detriment to the offense. Aside from Brantley in the outfield, the inconsistent platoon for the other two spots (made up of Tyler Naquin, Bradley Zimmer, Rajai Davis and Brandon Guyer) hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire. And the team might want to consider looking into an offensive upgrade at catcher at the deadline, as the Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez combination has yielded very little up to this point.

Defensive Regression

After 2017’s stellar play in the field, where the Indians committed the second fewest errors in the entire league and sported a .987% Fielding Percentage (T-2nd), the team has dropped off significantly up to this point in the season. They rank in the bottom third of the league in both Errors (28, T-24th) and Fielding Percentage (.982, T-20th).

And not to make this article too Lindor-focused, but where he’s caught fire with the bat, he’s been mistake-prone with the glove. After committing only 10 errors in 158 games last season, he’s already committed 8 errors in just 40 games to yield a .953 fielding percentage, which happens to place second LAST in the entire league. As the captain of the infield… yikes!

Record Against Above .500 Teams

Cleveland has been glaringly guilty of doing that thing too, where, they beat up on the bad teams and fail to show up against those potential postseason matchups. They have a 14-7 record against teams below .500 and only 6-14 record against those above .500.

Further, against those teams that are “expected” to be in serious contention for a playoff spot, namely the Yankees (0-3), Angels (1-2) and Mariners (2-5) (they have yet to play the Astros or Red Sox), they’ve posted only a 3-10 record. Ouch. And half of those losses were 1-run games, including three of them being walk-offs. To bring it full circle, those bullpen issues are taking center stage once again!

Surely the Tigers aren’t going to sustain relevance in the division hunt, but the Twins could (and should), despite a slow start of their own, swoop in and steal the division from the penciled-in Indians. Baseball fans know that the American League Central is the weakest in baseball, a real joke. And surprisingly, the Indians have played right down to that same  level of futility. Even with a significant number of games to be played between now and the trade deadline in July, in which the Indians will most certainly be buyers, Terry Francona needs to clean up this sloppy start if they hope to compete deep into the postseason once again.

With the Ohio eyeballs set to drop off LeBron in the very near future (perhaps sooner than we would have thought), the Indians will be lone Cleveland franchise in focus and that blip on the radar could be an ugly one. 

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