“People find some reason to believe”
On Twitter: @Castrovince
NOTE: This is an expanded version of the feature running on Indians.com and MLB.com today.
Almost certainly, there were some optimistic souls east of Clyde and west of Conneaut who saw this coming. Perhaps there was a clueless kid in Caledonia who thought CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee were still around.
But if we may speak in generalities here, then we can say that nobody without an affiliation or agenda was reasonably forecasting what we’ve seen to this point from the Cleveland Indians.
And if we may speak in specifics, nobody was predicting a 19-8 start that had the Tribe resting Monday with the best record in baseball, fresh off setting a club record for April victories (18) and safely at the forefront of the standings of a surprisingly winnable American League Central.
Even now, you’re much more likely to come across scouts, execs and analysts forecasting a fallback for Manny Acta’s club than you are of finding bona fide Tribe fever believers.
The Indians know this. They know there are skeptics who will label their showing, to date, as an April aberration that will prove to be a mirage by midseason.
“Did you ever notice that people don’t want to be wrong?” outfielder Shelley Duncan said. “I think sometimes there might be something that’s in their head that they want to believe. But since the general consensus doesn’t want to believe it, they don’t want to put their neck on the line.”
There might be some truth to that remark. But another truth is that only 16.7 percent of the season has elapsed, and the Indians, who field the second-youngest roster (average age: 27.8) in the Majors, still have a long, long way to go to prove they are fact and not fluke.
Here’s one sabermetric analysis to sum up the situation. Before the season began, Baseball Prospectus’ oft-cited PECOTA system had the Indians winning just 74 games this year. Now, the organization’s Playoff Odds Report gives the Tribe a 39.3 percent chance of making the playoffs, projecting the Tribe to go 63-72 the rest of the way for a final record of 82-80.
So the computers, much like many humans, still aren’t convinced the Tribe can keep up this pace, or anything near it.
Fan support has increased, most tellingly in the Tribe’s improved TV ratings. But it wasn’t until this past weekend, when the Northeast Ohio weather finally began to cooperate, that the Indians, who ranked last in the Majors in attendance last season, began to see more support at the turnstiles.
Still, the local enthusiasm has been somewhat tempered by the perils of the past. The Indians’ 2007 team, of course, came within a win of the World Series was beaten up by injuries and unmet expectations, then torn up by one blockbuster trade after another. Fans have been slow to embrace the rebuilding effort.
“People don’t want to get heartbroken again,” Duncan said. “You don’t want to put all your belief into something and not have it come true. So we’re just trying to create excitement.”
The Indians have certainly done that in these early weeks of 2011. In absence of much firm outside belief in their abilities, they keep showing up and keep executing to the best of their abilities.
And yes, they keep winning.
They’ve won in almost every way imaginable, from the small ball of a late-inning suicide squeeze to the big ball of a walkoff grand slam. Through it all, they’ve piled up quality starts, demonstrated dependable defense and, for the most part, avoided bullpen blemishes.
It’s been a fry cry from the 2010 team that went 69-93. In fact, one month in, this Indians team has already swept more series than that one. The Tribe has the best run differential in baseball, at +47, after finishing last season at -106.
What in the name of Andy Marte is going on here? Is the late Bob Feller pulling the switches from above? Did Charlie Sheen’s “winning” attitude displayed in “Major League” and announced in his bizarre media blitz have some sort of cosmic influence on this club?
Who knows? What we do know is that the Tribe’s strong start has, thus far, been sustained, even as some valuable pieces have fallen by the wayside.
“We lost two of our starters to the DL,” said closer Chris Perez, referring to Carlos Carrasco and Mitch Talbot, “and it’s just swept under the rug. It’s like, ‘OK, who we calling up?’ We just keep going. I think it shows how far this organization has come. I think there are other teams that could lose two-fifths of their rotation, like the Yankees, and start signing scrap-heap guys. We’re not doing that. We’re promoting guys from within that are talented.”
Jeanmar Gomez has been uneven in relief of Talbot in the rotation thus far, but top 2009 Draft pick Alex White had a solid debut Saturday, filling in for Carrasco. All along, Justin Masterson has evolved into a premier starting arm, and Josh Tomlin has been surprisingly unbeatable, too.
“Fausto [Carmona] has probably been the worst one, and coming out of Spring Training he was filthy and dominating,” Perez said. “He’s struggled the most and still been really good. The biggest question mark was getting quality starts, one through five, and we’ve done that.”
Indeed, the Indians’ rotation entered the off day tied with the Angels and the vaunted Phillies for the MLB lead in quality starts, with 20 in 27 games. Their starters have posted a 13-5 record with a 3.71 ERA and a .249 batting average against.
And when the starters have handed the ball over, they’ve handed it to a dependable relief corps that has posted a 3.08 ERA and .216 average against. Perez is 7-for-8 in save situations.
The pitching prowess has allowed the Indians to win in decidedly non-fluky fashion. This is not a club that’s simply bashed the opposition into submission (though the Indians do have the Majors’ fourth-most homers, with 34, and fourth-highest slugging percentage, at .445).
“You don’t see really crazy numbers,” Duncan said. “You don’t see guys with unreal statistics that you know they can’t keep up. You’ve got Masterson and Tomlin who haven’t lost a game yet, but don’t look at their win-loss record, look at the numbers of how they’ve pitched. That’s something I’ve been noticing, which makes me more encouraged. We’re not putting godly statistics up there. And we still have a couple guys who haven’t really started hitting, and we still have some young guys who are going to get better and better.”
With youth comes unpredictability, which the Indians feel they’ve helped counter with the additions of veterans Orlando Cabrera and Adam Everett in the infield. Jack Hannahan was a surprise addition to the roster when Jason Donald suffered a hand injury in Spring Training, and Hannahan’s contributions on the hot corner — a former defensive black hole for this club — have been a big boost, as well. Anything they get at the plate from Hannahan, who has delayed any need to rush top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall, is a bonus, and they’ve already gotten more than they expected.
“I don’t think we’re making overly exceptional plays,” Masterson said. “But we’re making the plays. And as pitchers, we’ve done a decent job of making pitches when we need to.”
But while strong pitching and solid defense carries a team a long way, Cabrera also points to the psychology that has been instilled here from day one of Spring Training. This was a young team that shrugged off losses as par for the course in 2010.
Now, the Indians come to the ballpark expecting to win.
“That’s one of the things Manny and I came to tell the guys,” Cabrera said. “Losing is just… a loss. We lost that night, we move on, and we come out on top the next game. It’s not like we’re losing, meaning we’re going to lose all the time.”
It is often said that no team is truly defined until it endures an extended stretch of losses. The Tribe was tested a bit last week, when Perez blew a save in Kansas City and the team was swept in a two-game, rain-shortened series in Minnesota. But the Indians quickly bounced back with a 6-0 homestand that included three victories over the Tigers in which they scored the winning run in their last at-bat each time.
A popular opinion is that a more meaningful measure of misfortune — the kind of losing stretch all clubs go through at one time or another in a 162-game schedule — might be a more accurate indicator of this club’s ultimate staying power.
But Acta, for one, dismisses that notion.
“I saw these guys tested last year, and they were younger with less experience and minus the solid veterans that we added to this ballclub,” Acta said. “I don’t worry about it. The main thing is, when that happens, you have to have the right people in your clubhouse, and I think we have them right now.”
They’re also in the right division. For while the Indians have stormed out the gates, the White Sox and Twins, the supposed darlings of the division, have been bleeding losses, entering Monday a full 10 games back of the Tribe. The Tigers, 7 ½ games back, haven’t been much better, while the Royals, 4 ½ games back at 15-13, have been another big surprise dismissed by some as a fluke.
“Everything’s really falling into place for us, if you look at it,” Perez said. “It’s there for the taking, but it’s not going to be easy. The top teams behind us, they’re going to make a run. They have too much talent. It might be one of those five-team races where nobody is really leading the pack. That’s why it’s nice coming out to this great start, because, if we do stub our toe, we could still be there.
“That’s all we can ask for is to have a chance.”
Amazingly, that’s what the Indians bought themselves in this season’s first month. Nobody predicted they’d have it, and few seem to think they can sustain it. But with each win comes a little more belief.