The Indians Continue to Compete In Spite of Lackluster Offense

There’s no denying that the Indians offense has been terrible the first two weeks of the season. From top to bottom, everyone in the lineup is struggling right now. However, even with the level of offensive ineptitude we have witnessed, the Indians once again find themselves near the top of the AL Central standings with a record of six wins against five losses.

Without question, the reason for the Indians run of success to start the season is due largely to the pitching staff. As Kyle Downing explained yesterday, the Indians starting pitching staff is bordering on near legendary status with their four-headed monster of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger. Going even further, the bullpen has been nearly unhittable and once again looks like a strength.

In eight of the Indians first 11 games, the pitching staff has held opposing offenses to three runs or less. For the season, MLB teams are currently averaging 4.18 runs per contest. This is just slightly below the 2017 average of 4.65 runs per game. The three-year average in MLB is 4.46. Suffice to say, most MLB teams score four to five runs per game, on average. To hold teams below this average on a consistent basis is an accomplishment that should lead to success. This has been the case for the Indians since the 2016 season.

That brings us to the offense. Over the past seven games, they have scored three runs or fewer. It’s not surprising given the offensive statistics currently on file. Just take a look for yourselves. This… this is not good.

The Indians offense is struggling across the board. Click to enlarge.

Overall, they have only managed to plate 31 runs, good enough to tie them for third from the bottom in all of baseball. Perhaps the most disturbing trend over the first 11 games has been the limited way in which they have been able to score runs. Twenty-one of the Indians 31 runs this season have been scored via the long ball. This speaks largely to the limited number of run scoring opportunities the team has been able to generate. They only have 51 at bats with runners in scoring position, last in all of MLB. Their average in such situations, .151, also dead last in all of baseball.

So, is it time to panic? Absolutely not. We are 11 games into the 2018 season. The only reason to panic at such an early point in the season is injuries. With the exception of Lonnie Chisenhall, the Indians have avoided any severe injuries to this point. So please, step away from the ledge and relax.

The primary reason for such abysmal offensive numbers right now is batting average on balls in play, (BaBIP). This stat, for those who are unfamiliar, indicates a team, or player’s level of success on balls they put in play. It also helps indicate how lucky or unlucky a team or player has been. League average is typically around .300.

As a team, the Indians are currently hitting .174 on balls in play. This is good enough for, surprise, last place and almost 100 points less than the next closest team. Looking again at the chart above, with the exception of Chisenhall and Bradley Zimmer, no one else is above league average. For Zimmer, this also speaks volumes to how effective he can be when he does put the ball in play, hitting .308 on balls in play but just .179 overall thanks to his 46.7% strikeout rate. But the big bats in the lineup, Jose Ramirez, Edwin Encarnacion, Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, etc. are all struggling to, quite simply, “hit it where they ain’t.”

Adding to this frustration is the type of contact the Indians have been making when putting the ball in play. Per Fan Graphs, the Indians have made hard contact 33.9% of the time so far in 2018. This places them in the top-10. Unfortunately, the majority of their overall contact has been fly balls, 44.2%. With the current conditions of Progressive Field hampering how well balls carry, the lack of success is no surprise. Additionally, the Indians have also hit a staggering amount of ground balls, 39.5% of all contact. Again, this is not a recipe for success.

So what does this all mean? It means that this is a team that has been incredibly unlucky and the law of averages tells us that things will eventually level out. Despite the popular opinion of the moment, these are good hitters. Their career numbers back this up. Once the weather begins to warm up a lot of the out they are making will turn into hits or home runs.

Career numbers
Indians career batting statistics, active roster only, excludes Lonnie Chisenhall. Click to enlarge

A large portion of this team has career BaBIP numbers above .300. To think they have suddenly forgotten how to hit is preposterous and, quite frankly, irresponsible. Let’s pump the brakes on the doomsday scenario, take a deep breath, and relax. The offense will eventually turn itself around, the same as it does every season. As long as the Indians pitching staff remains dominant and limits the amount of damage the offense needs to do in order to win, things will be fine. Eleven games is far too soon to hit the panic button and blow this up.

What we are seeing is the result of a small sample size, poor weather conditions, and probably a little bit of pressing. Over time, as the ball begins to carry more and ground balls and fly balls morph into line drives, the players will relax and success will come. Patience is key, both at the plate and in the stands.

And also a little bit of luck.