Indians Surviving Early Season Roller Coaster Ride

When it comes to Major League Baseball, it’s often said you don’t know what kind of team you have until you’ve played 40 games. Passing judgement any earlier than this is difficult due to the overall length of the season and a lack of sample size. But once 25% of the season has been played. trends start to form. Patterns appear. The standings begin to start fleshing themselves out with contenders separating from pretenders.

So, after the first two months and 58 games of the season, what can we say about the Indians? Are they contenders or pretenders? Is this a team that can compete for the World Series? Is this the team everyone envisioned when they left Goodyear, Arizona to start the season?

Well…

The first two months of the season were a roller coaster ride for the Indians. At times they looked like the favorites to win the AL pennant. At other times they looked like a team that may not win its own division. It’s been a roller coaster ride full of ups and downs, twists and turns, and more than a few surprises… and not all of them good.

As fans, most of us, but certainly not all of us, have tried to remain patient. A track record of success over the previous five seasons under Terry Francona has awarded them that courtesy. Not only that, but the things that have gone right during the first two months are reason enough for optimism. Or, maybe it’s all a delusion born out of blind faith. I’ll let you decide.

What has gone right?

Starting Pitching

Coming as a surprise to literally no one, the Indians big four has been good, In fact, three of the Indians top four starters have been dominant. Corey Kluber has been unhittable. Trevor Bauer has finally delivered on the promise of his expectations and eccentric training regimen. Mike Clevinger looks like he is two years away from being a front line starter. Just look at the numbers that have put up.

Kluber has been especially good to start the 2018 campaign. With a nearly sub-2.00 ERA and Fielding Independent pitching of 3.12, he has clearly been the best pitcher in the American League and looks well on his way to a third Cy Young award. Somehow, he keeps getting better.

The real positive surprise so far, without a doubt, has been the performances of Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger. Bauer had shown flashes late last season of what he could be. That performance has carried over and then some in 2018. His 2.77 ERA and team leading 97 strikeouts have been a real breath of fresh air for a player that has been, at times, frustrating to watch. What’s perhaps even more amazing is that his 2.69 FIP would suggest that Bauer could be even better than he has been to date. Meanwhile, Clevinger has been a revelation. Like Bauer, he dominated the second half of 2017 and has now built himself into a potential front line starter. Not only that, but Clevinger has become a fan favorite thanks to his outgoing personality and presence on social media.

The only thing more surprising than the dominance of Kluber, Bauer and Clevinger is how pedestrian Carlos Carrasco has been at times. In some starts, he has looked like the Cy Young candidate many envisioned heading into the season, most notably his complete game 14 strikeout performance against the Brewers. In others, it’s been a struggle as he’s served up more home runs and walks than we’ve seen in years past. However, there’s no reason to panic. Carrasco has plenty of time to figure things out. He’s too good not to. When he does, look out.

The Lineup

For years, fans have been complaining about the Indians perceived lack of offense. At times the complaints were valid. Over the past five seasons the Indians have had moments where they struggle to hit with runners in scoring position. Bases loaded opportunities passed by without a single run scored. Providing run support to a once in a generation pitching staff was a challenge.

Overall though, the complaints were invalid. In 2016, the Indians ranked fifth in baseball in total runs scored. In 2017, they dropped to sixth. So far in 2018, the Indians are once again sixth overall in runs scored.

A large part of this can be attributed to the recently completed month of May. Over those 31 days, the Indians scored a major league leading 179 runs. Compare that against the 95 runs scored in April and clearly a switch was flipped. Most will attribute this increase in production to the increase in temperature, Those who have been paying attention will properly attribute it to Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez.

The Indians one-two punch went crazy in May. Actually, crazy isn’t a strong enough description for what Lindor and Ramirez did. A more accurate description would be to say they went nuclear.

In addition to the 21 combined home runs, Lindor and Ramirez were also responsible for 25 doubles and 53 runs scored. They were the life blood of the offense, delivering big hit after big hit time and time again. However, things really came together when the decision was made to move Michael Brantley into the second spot in the order.

Prior to the move, the spot dividing Lindor and Ramirez had been occupied by Jason Kipnis. Despite his red-hot spring and cautious optimism heading into the season, Kipnis did not deliver. Out of the two-hole, Kipnis slashed an abysmal .186/.258/.271. Meanwhile, Brantley, who had already been performing well in the heart of the order, has slashed .323/.379/.581 out of the two-hole with seven homers an 20 RBI. His presence in the top three has completely changed the dynamic of the lineup. Not only that, but the move down in the lineup has reinvigorated Kipnis. No, he is not 2016 Kipnis, but he is no longer an automatic out.

And while Lindor and Ramirez have garnered the majority of the headlines, they are not alone in accolades. Along with Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion, and Yonder Alonso, the Indians are the only team with five guys with over 30 runs batted in. No other team has more than three such players. It’s a dangerous lineup, for sure. It also makes you wonder how much more dangerous it could be if the Indians were to acquire another hitter at the deadline like, say… Manny Machado. Dare to dream.

Michael Brantley

While already mentioned for his performance, we must also praise the Indians for the decision to retain Michael Brantley for 2018. Many fans were upset by the Indians decision this past offseason to exercise Brantley’s $12-million option. Popularity for the decision was further struck a blow with the decision to allow fan favorites such as Carlos Santana and Jay Bruce walk away in free agency. Heck, there were even a small number of fans who would have preferred keeping Bryan Shaw over Brantley.

The uproar made sense. Brantley had been limited to 101 games over the two previous seasons due to injuries. Paying a player that could not be relied upon to stay on the field was deemed foolish. To everyone’s credit, the early returns on the investment in Michael Brantley could not be going any better. While Santana, Bruce, and Shaw have struggled with their new teams, Brantley has flourished. Fully recovered and healthy for the first time in two years, he is playing like an all-star. Let’s just hope he avoids the injury bug going forward.

The Division

Say what you want about the Indians lackluster performance to start the season, but they have been aided by the current state of the AL Central division. Despite only being two games above .500 and having lost three straight to a division rival, the Indians still find themselves up 2.5 games in the division. Not only that, but that 2.5 game lead represents the largest division lead in baseball. Now consider the current state of the other divisions and how it relates to the Indians. In the AL West, the Indians would be 6.5 games behind Seattle. In the East, they’d be 11 back. Thank god for the AL Central.

What this means for the Indians, though, is that it affords them time. Because the division is so bad, the Indians can work through their problems internally first. They can exhaust all options before resorting to drastic measures in an effort to keep up. That’s huge. And, if they do get their act together, they should be able to cruise to a division title while the East and West beat the snot out of each other heading into October.

What has gone wrong?

Injuries

No matter what a team does, they can’t predict injuries. They can prepare for them by acquiring depth both on the big league roster and in the minors, They can utilize the versatility of players and taking advantage of platoon options. They can even be counter active after the fact through the trade market. But, under no circumstance can a team predict them. And when they happen, they can be devastating, regardless of the preparation.

Such has been the case for the Indians in 2018. The list of players who have spent time on the disabled list this season is staggering.

That’s a formidable list of players who have been in and out of the lineup this season. This also doesn’t take into consideration the random bumps and bruises that occur over the course of a season. For example, Carrasco suffering back spasms during a start. To their credit, the Indians have done a somewhat decent job of working their way through all of these injuries. But, one can’t help but wonder what might have been without the injuries or how much more difficult this season can become if they continue.

Josh Tomlin

Before you jump all over me with your hot takes about Josh Tomlin and his level of “terribleness,” please keep in mind the realistic expectations for the Tribe’s former fifth starter. Josh Tomlin has never been expected to perform at the level of Kluber, Carrasco, or even Bauer or Clevinger. What was and has been expected from Tomlin is to take the ball every fifth day, throw five to six somewhat decent innings, and hand the ball over to the bullpen. Some outings will be shaky. Others will be god-awful. But providing five innings and allowing three to four runs would be acceptable. That’s what we’ve come to expect.

What the Indians got in 2018 was the absolute worst case scenario. Tomlin has struggled with his control, saw a decrease in his already below average velocity, and increase in his already historic home run rate. Over the course of a month and a half, he went from gritty and reliable veteran to unreliable door mat and eventually an afterthought. To date, Tomlin has been relegated to a role in the bullpen, a role not suited for his current skill set.

Luckily for the Indians they have options readily available within the organization. Both Adam Plutko and Shane Bieber have made spot starts in place of Tomlin since his demotion. Moving forward, it appears as though the role of fifth starter is Plutko’s to lose. But the real question moving forward is how long will the Indians continue to hold a roster spot for an ineffective Josh Tomlin?

The Defense

The Tribe’s defense has been somewhat problematic during the first two months of the season. However, this is not something that should be considered a concern moving forward. The Indians are still a good defensive team with a handful of gold glove caliber superstars on that side of the diamond. They will be fine.

The problem has been the timing of their defensive miscues. Errors have come at the worst time. They have extended innings. They have led to the flood gates opening for both the starting rotation and the bullpen. More than a handful of wins were turned into losses.

Bullpen

Alright, we’ve made it. We’ve arrived at the bullet point you’ve all been waiting for. The bullpen.

There is not point in mincing words… the Indians bullpen has been a dumpster fire. Heading into play on Tuesday, the Indians have the worst bullpen ERA in the majors at 6.02. They also own a major league worst 1.78 HR/9 and are 29th out of 30 with a 65.4% left on base percentage. About the only thing that is working in favor of the bullpen is usage. Thanks to the starters, they have pitched a major league low 157 innings.

So what went wrong?

First and foremost, the loss of Bryan Shaw had a bigger impact than anyone could have imagined. The absence of Shaw created a revolving door for the seventh inning. No longer could Francona go to one of the most reliable relievers in baseball as a bridge to Andrew Miller and Cody Allen. Instead, Francona was left with trial and error. First it was Nick Goody, then Zach McAllister, Tyler Olson, etc. There was no set plan in place and as a result guys struggled without clearly defined roles.

Second, injuries have played a huge part in the bullpen’s lack of success. Andrew Miller and, to a lesser extent, Nick Goody were going to be relied upon to work with leads. Fast forward two months. Miller’s knee has been a lingering issue and Goody’s elbow nearly exploded. That took an already taxed and muddled bullpen and threw more gasoline soaked confusion on to the fire. Francona has been left to throw anyone and everyone at every possible situation. Guys he trusts, guys from Triple-A, guys signed off the street. They’ve tried everything and everything has failed.

The next option for the Tribe would appear to be addressing the bullpen’s issues via trade. It’s likely the Indians will be buyers at the deadline. Unfortunately, the market for relievers has yet to develop. And, thanks to the second wild card format, it remains to be seen when it will develop. It is very likely we may have to endure another month of bullpen uncertainty before reinforcements show up. Until then, don’t be surprised if the Indians reach deeper into their minor league system attempting to utilize some of their younger, more promising arms.

So what does it all mean?

The Indians are a flawed team. I would also challenge you to find me a “perfect team.” They rarely exist. Most teams struggle in one or two areas while excelling in others. Unfortunately for the Indians, their most glaring problem is the one thing that can most easily send their season spiraling into the ninth ring of hell. Not all hope is lost, though. Things can change and the team can be improved.

On a positive note, they are scoring runs. A lot of runs, actually. They are going to get healthy. The defense should shore itself up and hopefully Carlos Carrasco remembers how to be Carlos Carrasco. If those things can happen along with a handful of shrewd moves by the front office, the team we are watching now should not be the team we are watching come October. Be patient and try to enjoy the ride. Trust the process.