All about April
For just the fourth time in the last decade, the Indians exited April with a winning record. And they exited it in sole possession of first place in the AL Central, despite a minus-1 run differential.
So for all their faults – and undoubtedly some faults were flashed in the season’s first 20 games – the Indians can consider April to be a successful month, on the whole.
But which elements of April were illusions, and which were illustrative of what to expect in 2012? Let’s take a look at some of the most noteworthy developments and try to find out, shall we?
THE RETURN OF PRONK: Travis Hafner hit a home run to the Area Formerly Known as “Pronkville” (and now known as the “Subway Extreme Fan Zone”) on April 11 — a standout moment in a standout month for Hafner, who has a .295/.450/.459 slash line.
Hafner continues to struggle against lefties (.176/.318/.412), and so the Indians would be wise to continue to limit his opportunities when southpaws are on the mound. The idea is to stick to his strengths, and right now his greatest strength is a 1.89 walk-to-strikeout ratio that is the best in baseball and worlds better than the 0.63 career mark he had coming into the year.
Doubtful the walk rate is sustainable, and Hafner was 3-for-19 in his last six games of the month. The return of Pronk? We’ll stay in wait-and-see mode on this one.
I CHOO CHOO CHOOSE YOU: With Grady Sizemore still out of the picture, the Indians’ greatest area of upside from their 2011 offensive performance rests in a return to form for Shin-Soo Choo.
It hasn’t happened yet, and that’s a credit to the early success opposing pitchers had in jamming Choo on the inside part of the plate. Just as he began to cheat a little bit in his swing to account for that attack, he hurt his hamstring last week, and so Choo ended the month with a .697 OPS, still seeking his first home run.
Dating back to the beginning of 2011, Choo has a disappointing .379 slugging percentage. Right now, the plummet in power is his established trend (his isolated power mark of .085 ranks 28th-worst among all qualifying hitters this season), but there is enough track record prior to 2011 to lead one to believe it will return.
CORNERSTONES AT PREMIER SPOTS: My friend Paul Cousineau did a fine job expounding upon the notion that the Indians have established star talents at shortstop and catcher in Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana, so I’ll turn you to him for full context.
But the quick and dirty analysis is that Cabrera (.808) ranks fourth among all Major League shortstops in OPS, while Santana (.863) ranks sixth among catchers. Their 2011 track records back this up as more than an April illusion, and so the Indians continue to get elite production from two positions not always known for it.
ACES IN THE HOLE: Want to hear a depressing stat? Two of the top four walk rates among Major League starters, entering Tuesday night, belong to the Indians’ top two starters — Justin Masterson (12.7 percent) and Ubaldo Jimenez (13.3).
Personally, I’m inclined to give Masterson the benefit of the doubt. He was dominant on Opening Day against the Blue Jays, and 35 percent of the earned runs against him came in a single inning in Seattle.
Ubaldo? Well, I’m not as confident, simply because his complicated delivery has proven so difficult to repeat over the years. He has a 4.50 ERA with 5.3 walks per nine innings. If we were to somehow remove his magical first half of 2010 from the equation (a 2.20 ERA in 18 starts), he has a 4.02 ERA and 4.05 walks per nine in his career (135 starts). So I would expect some improvement from Jimenez over the long haul of the season, but I wouldn’t hold out hope for a major surge into elite status, based on the bulk of his career.
The Indians targeted Lowe because they saw some flaws in his mechanics from his brutal year with the Braves and felt they could fix him. And what’s encouraging about Lowe’s early success is that many of the numbers he’s posting (9.9 hits per nine, 0.6 homers per nine, 2.8 walks per nine and a 1.30 groundball-to-flyball ratio) are right about in line with his career norm and therefore don’t appear fluky. Even his .289 batting average on balls in play is only slightly below his career norm of .299.
But Lowe’s success has come in spite of a ridiculously low strikeouts per nine tally of 2.6 (career average is 5.9) that will likely have to rise in order for him to keep this up.
HOT-HITTING HANNAHAN: Jack Hannahan had a .976 OPS through April 24 (when he had a game-winning hit against the Royals), prompting me to pen this column on his surprising success. That OPS has fallen 198 points in the five games since, and, well, that’s not wholly unexpected when you look at Hannahan’s track record.
The line on Hannahan is that you sign up for the defense and take anything you get offensively as a bonus. He reversed that notion by committing four errors while logging some big hits in April. Over the course of a full season, however, I think that notion will hold up.
THE BLACK HOLE: American League hitters with a lower OPS than Casey Kotchman’s .494 mark? There are two. Brent Morel of the White Sox (.426) and Mark Reynolds of the Orioles (.467).
So suffice to say that Kotchman has been one of the worst-performing regulars in the big leagues thus far this season. And while he’ll almost undoubtedly improve by default, remember that his OPS+ of 91 (or nine points below league average) from 2004-2010 is his norm and his 128 mark (28 points above league average) from 2011 is the outlier.
Kotchman’s poor performance is juxtaposed against the 1.210 OPS Matt LaPorta is logging in Triple-A Columbus right now. But it’s best not to get too caught up in that for the moment, given the early juncture in the calendar and the fact that LaPorta has a .994 career OPS at the Triple-A level and we’ve seen how well that’s translated to the big-league stage.
The other obvious areas for concern are left and center fields. Shelley Duncan is 5-for-his-last 34 with 16 strikeouts, and so it would appear Johnny Damon — whatever he has to contribute at this point in time — is arriving on time. But Damon or no Damon, we knew all along that left field would be a spot where the Indians could likely count on below-average production.
Another ho-hum start for Michael Brantley, who has a .321 OBP, is the bigger disappointment, but he finished the month strong, going 8-for-20 in his last five games.
ABOUT THE BULLPEN: The bullpen’s 4.35 ERA ranks ninth among the AL’s 14 teams, and so it has not been the team strength it was considered to be entering the year. But Chris Perez has a 1.08 ERA and .406 OPS against since Opening Day, Joe Smith was solid all month, Vinnie Pestano and Tony Sipp appeared to find their footing their last few times out and an extended look at Nick Hagadone is, in my view, a good thing.
The concern with the ‘pen is obviously in the middle innings, and that leads to the greater concern that is innings provided by the starters. Tribe starters worked just 5.83 innings per outing in April. Among AL teams, only the Royals, Twins, Tigers and Yankees rotations worked less. Sure, that puts the Indians in good shape with regard to what has, so far, been a weak division, but this is one area that must improve in order for the Tribe to maintain its position atop the AL Central.
PS: For a look at some interesting April stats from around MLB, click here.