“Yeah, we went down swingin'”
Right now, the Indians are bad.
That’s the best word to describe a team six games under .500 with a minus-25 run differential, a 9-19 road record, the fourth-highest starters’ ERA and the most errors (by far) in the Majors.
The bright side is that it’s a good year to be bad. And “bad” — as illustrated when they swept the Tigers last week — is not necessarily binding.
Stepping away from the particulars of the AL Central, where the Tigers have cooled considerably and yet still hold a four-game edge on the White Sox and a 7 ½-game lead on the Tribe, the Indians are deeply indebted to the mediocrity of the league in which they reside. It’s a league in which only one club (the A’s) has a winning percentage of .600 or better and the current second Wild Card holder is a Yankees team just four games over .500.
That puts the Indians, in spite of their uninspiring 24-30 record, just five back in the Wild Card chase. A year ago, a White Sox team that started out 24-30 was already 6 ½ back of the second Wild Card by that point.
That 1 ½-game difference might not sound like much now, but it could mean everything in a crowded late-season field.
Point is, while the Indians currently rate as bad, they’ve got company in the category. Five AL teams have a positive run differential right now. That’s it. Five.
But at some point — perhaps soon — relying upon the mediocrity of the rest of the league won’t be enough. Just as it’s not enough to say that the Indians’ slow start is attributable only to injuries or poor luck or weather or whatever.
Now, there is hope in the re-tooling the rotation received at the end of April, when Carlos Carrasco was sent to the ‘pen (and he’s looked good there), in mid-May, when Danny Salazar was shipped to Columbus to iron out his issues, and this past week, when Zach McAllister went on a well-timed DL trip.
Trevor Bauer has shown he can command a Major League game when he establishes his fastball, Josh Tomlin has served his purpose of providing strike-throwing efficacy, and T.J. House was terrific Wednesday night against the White Sox, so that provides potential (and is it possible House is actually the younger sibling of Mickey Callaway, because they look like bearded brothers reunited?).
But on a strategic or structural level, the rotation is what it is, from the standpoint that the Indians’ decision-makers, who I doubt will enter into the tangled trade market, have already made the most major revisions they had up their sleeves. They can’t will Justin Masterson’s velocity back, and they can’t go back in time and reclaim Scott Kazmir, either. All they can do is hope the rotation, which has a 4.57 ERA in May, stabilizes and Salazar puts on the pressure for a promotion.
As far as the defense is concerned, well, I don’t know what to tell you. The Indians have done early work to increase aptitude and they’ve backed off early work to decrease fatigue. They’re definitely aware of the errs, and they’ve addressed them as best they can from a work standpoint, but it’s not like there are major personnel moves to be made here.
Everybody fretted about Carlos Santana’s defense at third, ignoring the obvious fact that Lonnie Chisenhall has his own issues at the position, as evidenced Memorial Day. Nick Swisher, before he went on the DL, looked like he could barely bend over at first base. Asdrubal Cabrera has range limitations (and maybe, at some point soon, you move him and push Francisco Lindor through the pipeline). Etc., etc. The defense has impacted the pitching, and sometimes that, alone, is enough to sink a squad. Here, again, they just have to hope it gets better.
What, though, can be done about a lineup that has scored three runs or fewer in 52 percent of the Indians’ games and two or less in 37 percent of games?
Well, in one sense, the answers are obvious. Santana, once no longer concussed, needs to stop batting .159, Swisher, once his knee’s done barking, needs to stop OPS’ing (is that a usable verb now?) at .631, Cabrera needs to make more of his contract year and it would help if Michael Bourn at least outpaced the league-average OBP for leadoff men or Michael Brantley could just bat every inning.
Clearly, there are many individual issues at play here, and all of them play into Terry Francona’s evolving batting-order concoctions, none of which have yielded consistent fruit just yet.
I do wonder, though, if there is an adjustment to overall approach that might help here.
The Indians have espoused the plate discipline upon which many clubs rely on in this era of OBP awareness, but are they doing so to an extreme degree?
Opposing starters are averaging just 5.03 innings per outing against the Indians, much lower than the AL average of 5.85 innings. Maybe that sounds good, until you remember that today’s specialized bullpens, loaded with high-velocity hurlers, are no picnic. Last year’s league-wide relief ERA (3.58) was the best in 21 years, and this year’s relief mark (3.59) is substantially better than the starters’ mark (3.88). Starters are giving up hits at a .256 clip; relievers are giving them up at a .242 clip. “Getting into their bullpen” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
This is reflected in the Indians’ team OPS: .738 in innings one through six, .670 from the seventh inning on.
The Indians see more pitches per plate appearance (3.99) than all but two AL teams (the Twins and Red Sox, who rank 10th and 11th, respectively, in the AL in runs per game). The Tribe is disciplined, taking 56.3 percent of the time (the AL average is 55.1) and swinging and missing just 20 percent of the time (the AL average is 21.4).
Our basis of belief is that this overall discipline is a good thing, but here’s the stat that makes me question whether the Indians’ passivity is an absolute positive: The AL, as a whole, is slugging at a .572 clip on first pitches. The Indians are slugging .457 on first pitches. It could be a “if you don’t play, you can’t win” scenario, because the Indians swing at the first pitch just 24 percent of the time (league average: 25.6).
While pitching coaches are espousing the value of first-pitch strikes, the Indians are going to the plate with the mindset of taking them. Their entire offensive philosophy seems to revolve around going deep into the count (where they do, indeed, have the best two-strike OPS (.577) in the AL).
But are they missing opportunities to be more aggressive, more assertive early?
I’m just throwing that out there, and maybe it’s a wild pitch. But an evaluation of offensive approach seems worthwhile, given that the Indians have basically done all they can do to address the rotation, from a personnel standpoint, and the defense, from a work standpoint.
Granted, it could just be that the parts don’t add up, and the Tribe stays bad. That happens, you know.
But for now, the Indians are in a good position relative to their badness, which means they still have a chance to resuscitate their season.
Maybe they should take a swing at it.