Do The Indians Have a 60-Game Surge Like Seven Years Ago?
By Bob Toth
The Cleveland Indians’ struggles continue as Major League Baseball approaches the July 31st trade deadline. The team is stumbling through the trade season, trailing by less than a half-dozen games in both the American League Central Division race and the AL Wild Card, despite hovering around the .500 mark for most of the season.
At the 100 game mark, the 2012 Indians were 50-50. The month of April saw the team at 11-9 and in first place, finding themselves no worse than three games under at any time throughout the month. The Indians pushed their divisional lead to a season-high four games in May, but a bad end to the month saw them drop five of six after hitting their high-water mark on the year of eight games above .500 on May 24th at 26-18. The team ended the month at 27-23, good for second place in the division behindChicago. A 12-15 month of June cost the Indians their lead in the division and moved them to 39-38, just two-and-a-half games out of first.
Another Indians team of recent history found themselves very much in a similar position. This team is responsible for the franchise’s second-highest win total it has seen in the last 12 years. If not for an unfortunate and painful collapse in the last week of the season, the 2005 Indians (93-69) may have found themselves playing in October, even though they were considered well out of the race in late July with a record of 51-49.
Similar records at the 100 game mark are not the only things comparable between these two teams.
Both teams were rocked in their 100th games of the season – the Tribe suffering an 11-0 defeat on Friday night against the Twins and a 13-4 loss on July 25, 2005 against the A’s.
Each team is known for the strength of its bullpen, especially in the back end. Closer Bob Wickman was the team’s lone All-Star representative in 2005, sporting a 2.47 ERA on the season while being tied for the league lead in saves with 45. Setup man Bobby Howry appeared in 79 games, held a 0.89 WHIP, was third in the American League with 29 holds, and led the bullpen with seven wins. Rafael Betancourt utilized great control in leading the team in strikeouts per nine innings (9.71) and averaging over four strikeouts per every one walk.
The present-day Indians proudly run out the “Bullpen Mafia”, led by two-time American League All-Star closer, Chris Perez. The trio of Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano, and Perez has been nearly unstoppable when appearing in games together. Perez is amongst the league leaders in saves, with 29 in 31 opportunities, and is on pace for a total in the mid-40s. Setup man Pestano leads all of baseball with 29 holds. Smith leads the league for wins by a reliever with seven. When the three pitchers appear in a game, a win is almost guaranteed.
At the plate, the two teams have put up some statistically similar numbers as well. The 2005 team scored just 18 more runs than its present counterpart, 448 to 430. The 2012 team has stranded 31 more runners on base, which helps to account for some of the disparity in scoring, and is certainly not a surprise to anyone who has watched the team this season. In 2005, the team utilized the sacrifice much more frequently and successfully, with 46 sacrifice hits compared to just 33 this season.
The 2005 team was far more successful with the long ball, hitting 21 more than this season’s total of 92. That team was slightly more productive at the plate, despite ten fewer plate appearances overall. They hit .261, compared to this season’s average of .256.
The primary offensive difference for this year’s team compared to 2005 is that they have been far more patient at the plate, drawing 60 more walks and striking out ten fewer times. They have also been much more dangerous on the base paths, stealing 21 more bases despite being caught three fewer times.
Slumps and degrees of underperformance haunt both rosters. The struggles of several key players from this year, in addition to the usual extended absence from Travis Hafner, have caused the team to perform worse offensively than many hoped entering the season. The same happened in 2005.
Victor Martinez started out the campaign falling short of the high expectations placed on the fourth-year catcher. He had eleven home runs and 42 RBI, but was batting just .253 through 100 games, despite coming in with a career average of .284 and coming off of career-highs in home runs (23) and RBI (108) the year before. A strong second half catapulted his numbers to 20 home runs and 80 RBI and a .305 batting average by season’s end.
Third-year catcher Carlos Santana has seen a prolonged slump throughout the first half of this season. Through the team’s first 100 games, Santana was batting .235 with eight home runs and 38 RBI. Of late, he has shown signs of coming out of it, hitting .311 with several multi-hit games since the All-Star break.
Left fielder Coco Crisp started out the 2005 season with a .253 batting average through the first two months of the year. After being shifted out of the leadoff spot, the speedy outfielder accumulated a .292 batting average, eight home runs, 37 RBI, and eleven stolen bases through the season’s 100th game. He would finish the year batting .300 with 16 home runs, 69 runs batted in, and 15 stolen bases.
Right fielder Shin-Soo Choo overcame a slow start this year, batting .235 with one home run and 12 RBI through the first month and a half of the season while batting in the three and six spots in the lineup. A move to the leadoff spot ignited Choo, who has batted .317 since, with eleven home runs and 27 RBI for a season mark through 100 games of .294, with 12 home runs, 39 RBI, and ten stolen bases.
In 2005, right fielder Casey Blake had nearly as many strikeouts (67) as he did hits (68) through the first 100 games. His .223 average while adjusting to life in the outfield consistently for the first time in his career did not help the team at the plate, but he did at least manage eleven home runs and 31 runs batted in. He would finish with 23 home runs and 58 RBI and a .241 average.
The 2012 Indians have had similar production from the left field tandem of Johnny Damon, Shelley Duncan, and Aaron Cunningham. The position combined to hit .214 with nine home runs and 37 RBI in their first 100 games.
The Indians got an unexpected performance from centerfielder Grady Sizemore in the 2005 season. Coming up to replace the injured Juan Gonzalez after his infamous one at bat with the team in his return to Cleveland, Sizemore proved to be an adequate replacement while batting .278 with 107 hits through 100 games. He showed an ability to drive in runs, with 45 RBI, while being a threat to steal with 12 stolen bases.
Injuries have allowed centerfielder Michael Brantley, like Sizemore a key part of a deadline trade for a star pitcher, to do the same – he batted .291 with 109 hits, 46 RBI, and eleven stolen bases after 100 games this year.
The roster in 2005 was composed of several young players – Sizemore,Martinez, Crisp, and Jhonny Peralta – who were surrounded by older journeymen – Ronnie Belliard, Aaron Boone, Casey Blake, and Jose Hernandez.
The team in 2012 is constructed in much the same way, with the youth – Santana, Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Jason Kipnis – and the veteran journeymen – Casey Kotchman, Jack Hannahan, Jose Lopez, and Damon.
The starting rotations were not exempt from first half struggles in the 2005 or 2012 seasons either.
Veteran Kevin Millwood started out the 2005 season with a 4-9 mark through the team’s first 100 games, despite a 3.19 ERA. The team gave him three runs or less of support in 18 of his 30 starts for the season. The poor run support did not affect him in the final 62, as he went 5-2 in the clutch and posted a 2.41 ERA.
Fifth-year player and this season’s Opening Day starter, Justin Masterson has been a hard-luck loser and the recipient of little run support as well, getting just 3.74 runs per start. Through 100 games, he was 7-8 on the year with a 4.12 ERA. In the month of June, he held the opposition to a .206 batting average and had an ERA of 2.06, yet went 2-3. The Indians, though, have won four of the last five games he has started.
Future staff ace and fifth-year starter C.C. Sabathia allowed opponents in 2005 to hit .277 against him in his first 19 starts. His 6-8 record was only made worse by the 5.24 ERA he had at the time. The youngster found it after his 13-4 shellacking against Oaklandon July 25th, and from that game on, he went 9-2 in his final 12 starts the rest of the way with an ERA of 2.38 and a WHIP of 1.01. The opposition batted .205 in these starts.
On the season through 100 games, Ubaldo Jimenez is 8-9 with a 4.97 ERA, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.28. During his best span of this year, Jimenez went just 3-3. Over these seven games, however, the team averaged just 3.29 runs in his starts, while he held the opposition with a 2.93 ERA. He averaged nearly a strikeout per inning and allowed just a .226 batting average against. His strikeout-to-walk ratio in these games was a much higher 2.75.
Twenty-six-year-old Cliff Lee gave up 14 home runs in his first 20 starts. His 3.87 ERA and 11-4 record helped to keep the 2005 Indians in contention through the first 100 games. He held the opposition to a .258 line while striking out 2.53 batters per walk. He stayed consistent the rest of the way, going 7-1 in his final 12 starts while maintaining a consistent 3.67 ERA in that span.
Twenty-four-year-old Zach McAllister took advantage of an injury to Josh Tomlin and the demotion of Jeanmar Gomez to grasp onto a spot in the rotation. In ten starts, he is 4-2 with a 3.18 ERA. His teammates have given him over five runs of support per game, helping them to win seven of his ten appearances. He has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.69 and has held batters to a .251 average.
If there is anything to be learned from these comparisons, it is that anything can happen in baseball.
The 2012 Indians are one winning streak away from being able to catch the teams in front of them in the playoff picture. Unlike this year’s team, that 2005 squad found themselves FIFTEEN games out of first place at the 100-game threshold.
In 2005, the dog days of summer were good to the Indians, as the team got hot and went on a run in the beginning of August. They won eight of nine to start the month, taking two of three at home versus New York and sweeping Detroit and Kansas City on a six-game road trip. Even after the great start to the month, the Indians still found themselves 12 games behind the White Sox before returning home to face Tampa Bay.
The Tribe was promptly swept by Tampa Bay, a team sporting the second-worst record in the AL at the time. Luckily, a timely losing streak by Chicago allowed the Indians to only lose one-half game within the division. The Indians bounced right back, finishing the rest of the month of August with an 11-4 record and, suddenly, the team was just seven games back of the White Sox with one month left to play.
The Indians started September on a six-game road trip and won four versus Minnesota and Detroit, moving into a tie for the wild card lead on September 5th. The team returned home for a ten-game homestand and dominated the opposition, going 9-1 before their final road trip of the season. On September 18th, the Indians trailed the White Sox by just three-and-a-half games with six head-to-head matchups remaining. The team also maintained a percentage-point lead overNew York for the lone wild card spot.
The Indians took two of three from Chicago and remained mere games out of first and still tied for the wild card lead, now with Boston. Two straight wins in Kansas City cut the deficit to just one-and-a-half games behind Chicago.
They did all of this without a significant roster move leading up to the deadline. On July 7th, the team had swapped middle infielders with Boston, moving Alex Cora for Ramon Vazquez, and on July 18th, the team exchanged outfielders with the Chicago Cubs, trading Jody Gerut for Jason Dubois.
The season changed for the Tribe on September 25th. It was the Indians’ last road game of the season against a Royals team with baseball’s worst record. Trailing 4-3 in the top of the ninth, the Indians got back-to-back singles, a sacrifice bunt, and an RBI groundout from Blake to tie the game off of Royals’ closer, Mike MacDougal. Howry relieved starter Jake Westbrook in the bottom of the ninth, trying to force extra innings. A single and a sacrifice put the winning run on second base with one out. Catcher Paul Phillips lifted a fly ball to deep center that Sizemore would lose in the sun, allowing the winning run to score easily from second base.
That Indians team would not recover. With six games remaining, all at Jacobs’ Field, they would lose two of three to the Rays and were swept by the White Sox. They would finish their season 93-69, six games behind eventual World Series winner, Chicago, and two games behind Boston for the wild card spot.
A team very similar statistically to this year’s Indians team found a way to not only stay competitive, but to make a solid charge on a title run with obstacles far greater than the current incarnation of the team has before them. That team did not make any significant upgrades to the offense, defense, or pitching staff, but got the quality effort needed from everyone on the team to make that push.
The Indians have 35 games left within the division, including six with division-leading Chicago. The six games with the White Sox will not take place until the final nine games of the season, meaning that if the team can keep the deficit close, they could find themselves very much in the same position as the 2005 team in comparison.
The Indians also have nine games remaining with second-place Detroit, which pending the Tigers’ play over these last two months could be a battle for the top spot of the wild card or division. The Indians have played Detroit well this season so far, taking seven of the first nine.
Clevelandwill also take on the two teams below them in the Central a total of 20 more times. They have played Kansas City and Minnesotato a combined 8-8 mark, which will need improvement if the team has any hopes to push for a playoff spot. With their season records against each of the following in parentheses, they also have three games remaining against Seattle(4-1), three against Los Angeles(4-2), three against New York(0-3), four against Boston(1-3), six against Texas(2-1), and seven against Oakland(2-1).
The Indians need improved production from the rotation, whether it be from the guys on the present roster, guys from Columbus, or an external acquisition. They also need to find a way to hit better in the clutch, to move along and drive in the runners that are able to get on base. The current players have to step up, especially those whose production has failed to meet the expectations of the team consistently throughout the year.
It has been said repeatedly that this Indians team has yet to play its best baseball. Despite a poor showing thus far to Minnesota, the season is not over yet. Two full months of baseball remain, with the Indians less than six games out in both their divisional and wild card races. With a gap far smaller between the present-day Indians and those blocking their path to the playoffs, anything is possible.