“All you want to do is believe”
The Indians have been a contending team at this late (and by late, I of course mean … not at all late) juncture of the season schedule for three consecutive years. They have established a tradition of early season excellence. Or at least competence, which, even when followed by second-half heartbreak, at least beats the alternative option of an all-uphill effort in which you truly feel each and every step of the 162-game schedule.
Now, contention means different things at different times. A year ago at this time, the Indians were in first place in the AL Central, but you still had to talk yourself into believing it. Their standing was a product more of their surroundings than their own success. Their top two starters (Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez) had ERAs north of 5.00, their best hitter (Shin-Soo Choo) wasn’t hitting, their stopper (Derek Lowe) was striking out nobody and Jose Lopez, Aaron Cunningham, Shelley Duncan and Johnny Damon — none of whom are even in the Majors now — were getting plenty of playing time.
That Tribe team was still in “contention” — by the loosest definition of the word — in late July, but not enough to compel Chris Antonetti to add anything more than Brent Lillibridge (no, he’s not in the Majors now, either). When they won just five games in August, it felt more cognitively correct than when they won 16 in May.
I’d say 2011’s “contention” was more believable than ‘12, if only because of the mathematics involved. The Indians went 30-15 out the gate. I still can’t wrap my head around that. While the Tigers certainly had star power, they had not yet gone overboard in their pursuit of a monster middle-of-the-order and they had not yet assembled a resplendent rotation beyond Justin Verlander. It didn’t really seem a foregone conclusion, as it did in ’12, that the Tigers would wake up one day and begin dominating the division.
Besides, did I mention? 30-15! All suspicions that the Indians were “out over their skis,” as one scout told me at the time, were countered a little bit by the simple fact that the Indians had bought themselves some mathematical breathing room. It is, after all, hard to screw up being 15 games over .500 (and seven games up in the division) more than a quarter of the way through the schedule.
Naturally, they finished under .500.
All right, so here we are again. We’re basically at the quarter-pole of the season, and the Indians are contending. Through 39 games, they are 22-17, a half-game back of Detroit. More to the point, they’ve won 14 of their last 18 and are “undefeated” in their last nine series (five wins, four splits). They are, as Yankees manager Joe Girardi put it the other day, “a much different club” than they were even a month ago.
“They’re swinging the bats really, really well,” Girardi said. “There’s balance in their lineup, and there’s speed.”
The pitching has come a long way in a short time, too. If you watched Masterson shut down Girardi’s Yanks for nine innings Monday afternoon, what you saw was a bona fide ace effort on a day when the Indians had to preserve their bullpen. If you were the most pessimistic of people when it comes to Jimenez (and my hand is raised), even you had to be intrigued by the way he tamed the Tigers in a ballpark where he has traditionally had nothing but trouble. I remain skeptical about a guy who had to, in his own words, “erase everything,” shortly after a seven-week Spring Training camp, but not defiantly so. Furthermore, Zach McAllister continues to defy expectations based off his Minor League career, Scott Kazmir continues a strong comeback effort and Trevor Bauer seems to get a little bit better with each spot start. Where once I compared the Tribe’s rotation outlook to turnpike dining, they are now starting to resemble that dive off the side of the road that has surprisingly good burgers. Hey, that’s improvement.
Anyway, it’s the lineup, when it’s rolling, that makes this team inherently fun to watch. And while that lineup has provided enough power to push the Tribe to nine blowout wins, the most compelling stat is that the Indians have won 10 of their 13 one-run games. For that, you can thank the timely hitting, a defense that has been steady if not always showy and, of course, the continuing reliability of the relief corps, even though Vinnie Pestano has been missed.
How does all this compare to 2011? I have no freaking clue. I know the division is deeper now than it was then, thanks to the Tigers’ elite standing and the Royals’ revamped rotation. But I also know there’s a little bit more conviction in that Tribe clubhouse, given that it’s a more veteran club that can actually account for these early season accomplishments, to say nothing of the two-time World Series-winner at the top dugout step.
“Then [in ‘11], we were raking, and it was, at times, maybe playing a hair out of our shoes, if we were being honest and evaluating it correctly,” Masterson said. “This year, we have guys who are still not where they’d like to be and everybody’s not perfect every night. But the pitching is picking up the offense, the offense is picking up the pitching at times, the defense is helping everybody, and the bullpen’s as great as it’s always been. There’s a little bit more consistency, guys are more comfortable, and I like where we’re at and what we can do for the rest of the season.”
It’s a good sign that the offense has been as productive as it has (sixth in MLB in runs per game, fifth in on-base percentage, first in slugging percentage) despite Michael Bourn missing more than 60 percent of the games so far, Lonnie Chisenhall earning a demotion to Triple-A and Jason Kipnis starting rather slowly. The performance of the bench has been encouraging, and, among the regulars, the only guys who might be accused of playing out of their minds are Mark Reynolds and Carlos Santana. Reynolds won’t keep hitting a home run every 11 at-bats or so, and Santana won’t slug at a .600 clip. But Reynolds’ pure power is certainly not a novel development, and Santana strikes me as a breakout-player-in-waiting finally learning how to separate the offensive and defensive sides of his game.
Overall, the offense, it seems, still has more upside than downturn in its near future. And an offense this explosive can do quite a bit to overcome a merely average starting staff.
Again, though, I don’t know what this means. I don’t necessarily know that this team is any more equipped to handle 162 than the ’11 and ’12 teams were. I can certainly speculate that it is, based on that aforementioned managerial influence and the track records on the roster. But as this 2013 club began to come together over the winter, it became clear that it was going to be an especially difficult club to forecast.
The good news is that it’s a team that’s interesting and, in keeping with the Tribe’s newfound tradition of early season strength, in contention at the quarter-pole. The better news is that there is a decent degree of believability that this is not necessarily the peak.