Mixed Results and Feelings For Tribe as First Half Concludes
Bob Toth | On 12, Jul 2015
It’s hard to believe, but Sunday’s action concludes the unofficial first half of the regular season in Major League Baseball.
It’s a tough feeling to digest, especially in the northeast Ohio region where entering the second full week of July, summer hasn’t fully kicked spring to the curb. But like the annual hopes for an eventful and entertaining summer, the 2015 season has been anything but those things for the Cleveland Indians, at least in regards to their record.
The expectations for the season may have been far more tapered for the fan base, distracted by a different #23 playing a stone’s throw from Progressive Field, had Corey Kluber and Michael Brantley not graced the regional cover of Sports Illustrated in March, altering completely what the local homers feel every season by proclaiming “Wait Till This Year”. This just wasn’t another wishful thinking, “what if”, “next year is this year”, kind of start to a year. The national media was thinking it, and even though that same group of writers and pundits has been wrong and cruel and unjust to Cleveland for all of my lifetime, the majority of the fans out there begun to feel that their hopes weren’t such a crazy pipe dream after all.
Maybe this would be the year…
Now halfway through, those thoughts are gone for most. The Tribe tripped and stumbled out of the gate, had their local holiday destroyed in a three-game sweep by the Detroit Tigers to usher in a new era of a newly renovated home at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, and have been looking up from the bottom of the division almost from the jump of the season. The magic has been absent at home, the offense has been missing in action, and the team has squandered more stellar pitching performances than they have benefited from.
It hasn’t all been bad. But it hasn’t been great, and there is more than enough room for improvement to occupy plenty of columns for the remainder of the regular season and beyond.
Jason Kipnis. He’s not just been good. He’s been great. Incredible at times, even. After hitting .240 in 129 games of an injury-shortened and injury-depleted season last season, the Tribe second baseman has matched or even surpassed in some cases the offensive numbers he put up a year ago. The good kind of offensive, mind you, not the make you want to slam your head into a wall in frustration kind of offensive that he and others have displayed over the last year and a half at times.
“Dirtbag” will enter the All-Star break the Indians’ lone representative, despite compelling cases for several pitchers on Terry Francona’s staff (more on them later). He is at or near the top of the leaderboard in numerous statistics in the American League, bringing in a .327 batting average, .406 on-base percentage, 112 hits, 27 doubles, and six triples into Sunday’s action. He has already exceeded his total of doubles and triples from last season and has equaled his home run output, while he needs three runs, nine more hits, eight more walks, and four more RBI to match his 2014 numbers – all in more than 150 fewer trips to the plate than last season.
After hitting just .218 in the first month of the season, he had 51 hits in 29 games in May and added another 34 in 25 games in June. His 20-game hitting streak through June is the top mark in the AL this season and just one short of the longest in baseball. His 29-game hitting streak at Progressive Field from May 1st through July 6th? Longest in ballpark history and just two games short of tying Hal Trosky’s club record, set back in 1936.
Carlos Santana. What has happened to the man who twice slugged 27 homers and hit for a semi-respectable average?
Maybe fatherhood has gotten the better of Santana, who started this year in a much better place than last with an actual position to play. Instead of bouncing around from third base to catcher to first base and thankfully no other stops in between, the slugger led the league in walks with 113 and hit 27 homers while driving in a career-high 85, but added in a career-worst .231 batting average. To appease those who find batting average a bit outdated or overrated, his on-base percentage jumped to .365, just two-thousandths of a point below his career average, so the slugging Santana was on pace with career norms, even after a .151 average last April and a .169 mark last May.
This year, “Slugging Santana” has turned into “Slumping Santana”, even with the rare appearance of “Slamtana” with his two-out homer in the eighth inning in a key moment of Saturday’s 5-4 loss to the Oakland Athletics. He hit .239 in April, .217 in May, and down to .189 in June. Through eleven July games, he is hitting .303, getting hot just in time for four days off over the break. Hopefully, he doesn’t lose whatever he figured out at the plate during the mini-vacation.
Honorable mentions to Lonnie Chisenhall and Jose Ramirez, who were both banished to Triple-A to make way for the youth movement on the left side of the infield, even though the pair is a combined four years older than the Indians’ future stars.
A Reason for Hope…
Speaking of those future stars, Giovanny Urshela beat the Tribe’s top prospect and his good friend, Francisco Lindor, to the Majors by a matter of days, but already their impact on the lineup and on fans’ hopes for the future is noticeable.
Urshela has settled in sooner, hitting .250 with two homers and seven RBI in 30 games. He may have benefited from a little more seasoning in the upper levels of the minors, where he played 140 games at Double-A and 125 at Triple-A to Lindor’s 109 and 96, respectively. Or, it could be that the spotlight is not and has not been shining on Urshela with anywhere near the intensity that it has on Lindor for his entire professional career.
Urshela has been solid in the field, committing just two errors so far and looking the part of an every day third baseman. He also added a 13-game hitting streak, one of the team’s longest of the season. Lindor, to his credit, is hitting .222 through his first 25 games and has a pair of homers and nine RBI. He has made four errors in the early going, but has shown fantastic range and a strong arm with half as many errors as Ramirez in just over half as many games played.
Lindor will not turn 22 until November, while Urshela will turn 24 in October. The season’s hopes may appear dim, but the future sure seems bright.
Four-fifths of the starting rotation. Say what you will about Kluber’s ridiculous win-loss record. The stat is becoming as outdated as the VCR. It still serves a purpose, but there are far better ways to accomplish what you’re looking to do with it. If the man had an ounce of run support, the Indians would be faring much better in the AL Central standings.
The top four guys – Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar – have been about as dominant as a top four as the Tribe has seen in quite some time and acts as strong proof of why so many prognosticators thought there was something to rally behind on this Indians roster. Lo and behold, each of them has toppled the 100-strikeout mark prior to the All-Star Game, a feat never accomplished, and that includes Salazar, who had two fewer starts to do so as the rest of the starters.
Carrasco is third in the league in wins with a career-high ten and, until Saturday’s game, had earned a decision in every start of his season. His six wins on the road are tied for the most in baseball and his 122 strikeouts are fourth-best in the AL. Kluber has been jockeying for the K crown all season long and his 148 are just nine behind the current AL leader Chris Sale. Bauer has won a career-high eight games and is averaging just a hair under a strikeout per inning pitched. He has been the best of the starters in reducing the number of men reaching base with hits, holding opponents to a .218 average. He has had a tough time at home, going 3-3 with a 5.82 ERA, but is 5-2 with a 1.82 ERA on the road. Salazar has balanced him with a 4-1 record with a 3.53 ERA at home and has won a career-best eight games of his own.
Every. Failed. Starter.
It wasn’t pretty. It started with Zach McAllister and T.J. House making the rotation out of camp, thanks to Salazar not locking down the spot in the spring. McAllister’s leash was short – one bad home opener start and he took the Carrasco path to the bullpen as Francona and Mickey Callaway hoped to win the lottery twice. House was hurt and ineffective and, after a trip to the disabled list, found his way to Columbus and later, their disabled list, too.
Bruce Chen got a chance. The soft-tossing ageless lefty, one of the few remaining remnants of the Montreal Expos organization, made a pair of appearances, earning a 12.79 ERA and a 2.84 WHIP. In his 17th season of Major League action, the 38-year-old Chen retired after his release from the Indians. Shaun Marcum, the 33-year-old surgically rebuilt righty, got a more extended look with better, but mixed, results. A 3-2 record, a 5.40 ERA, and a 1.23 WHIP found him designated twice for assignment, landing back on Columbus’s roster each time for safe keeping.
But…More Reasons for Hope…
Cody Anderson was not on many people’s radar for an early season call-up, especially starting the season at Double-A Akron. Yet here he is and contributing at the highest level.
It is a remarkable rise and turnaround for the 2013 Bob Feller Award winner as the team’s top pitcher that season, posting a 9-4 record with a combined 2.65 ERA in 26 games at two levels. But last year, he struggled to a 4-11 record in 25 starts and finished with a 5.44 ERA and 1.48 WHIP as his star seemed to dim some.
A 3-2 start in ten games with a 1.73 ERA and 1.02 WHIP at Akron got him the promotion to Columbus while the Indians were auditioning fifth starters. After three quick starts there and comparable numbers to his Akron stats, he landed in Cleveland to the tune of a 2-1 record in four starts, a .165 batting average against, a 0.65 WHIP, and a 0.89 ERA. He also flirted with a perfect game and no-hitter – in his second career start.
A Little More Good…
The mad scientist behind the creation of the David Murphy/Ryan Raburn platoon. Do we call it Murphburn? Raphy? Maybe it’s easier to just stick with Bobby and be grateful that the two veteran outfielders have been able to contribute something of both leadership and statistical production out of the right field/designated hitter spots vacated by the injury to Nick Swisher.
Murphy has only hit .322 this season with five homers and 26 RBI. His counterpart Raburn has hit .297 with four dingers and 21 runs driven in. Francona has used them almost exclusively with splits in mind – the lefty Murphy is hitting .324 against righties and is 4-for-13 (.308) in limited action against lefties, while Raburn is 3-for-16 (.188) against right-handers, but .314 versus the lefties.
And a Little More Bad…
Bad contracts. Swisher and Michael Bourn. One can’t get on the field and the other? Most fans wished he didn’t. Their lacking contributions to the 25-man roster alone would have fans calling for their heads, but then factoring in their contractual obligations that would have done plenty to have supplemented the roster with some quality Major League (right-handed power *ahem*) bats just makes it all the more painful. There comes a point where one must question if it is more worthwhile to cut one’s losses and pay a minor league replacement the minimum to attempt to do better than both of these veterans have been able to do during their time as Indians.
Hope on the Horizon…
When these guys move on, whether it be through the end of their contracts, trades, or outright releases, the Indians have a fantastic glut of outfield prospects waiting in the wings.
Tyler Holt is on the 40-man roster and the thought would be he would be the first man up with prior experience and better numbers thus far this season. He won’t hit for power, but he is hitting .288 with a .376 on-base percentage for Columbus. Capable of playing all three outfield spots, he has made just two errors this season and could look nice as a fourth outfielder some day.
Tyler Naquin, a top prospect for the club, got the bump from Akron earlier in the season and is hitting .239 with four homers and eleven RBI in 29 games for the Clippers. He was number five on MLB.com’s Top 30 Prospect Watch for the Indians, and two of the men in front of him have already been promoted this season. Number six on that list is James Ramsey, the outfielder acquired for Justin Masterson from the St. Louis Cardinals last season. He has made just one error in the field, but has struggled at the plate, possibly even allowing Naquin past him on the future depth chart some. Age and experience will help keep him in front of others knocking down the door, especially in Lynchburg, where Luigi Rodriguez is hitting .292 with eleven homers, a team high, and 41 RBI. Bradley Zimmer is hitting .305 there with ten homers and 38 RBI and will be a starting center fielder in the Futures Game Sunday. Clint Frazier has eight homers and 41 RBI in his second pro season.
The renovations at “the Jake”. I don’t call it “the Jake”. I don’t call Quicken Loans Arena “the Gund”. But that’s me, and I’m not you, so you call it whatever you want to as long as you get down there and show the team some love on occasion.
If you are not a local or have somehow lived under a rock hiding from the never-ending rain in northeast Ohio’s extended spring this year, Progressive Field has only looked better in its infancy compared to the cavernous relic that was Municipal Stadium. The bullpens are fun and accessible. The seats in front are absolutely unique. The view looking into the park has a completely different feel. A long-overdue Larry Doby statue is just around the corner. And speaking of the corner, The Corner seems to be jam-packed with people game in and game out. Between atmosphere, the view, and the discounted ticket, it seems to be a perfect storm to get fans through the gates.
The Tribe’s play at home. The Indians have managed to make home field advantage irrelevant with their play in Cleveland this season, falling to 19-25 with Saturday’s loss. Too much home cooking? Whatever the case, the club has been outscored 219-179 at home and has somehow played better on the road, which cannot help the attendance numbers any.
Last season, the 85-77 Indians were 15 games over the .500 mark at home. They were 21 over in their Wild Card run in 2013. This year has been a different story and is far more on pace with a Manny Acta-led team than a Francona one. Even if the Indians had won just half of their home games, a move of just three games in the standings, they would be seven games back in the Central and would be the first team out of the Wild Card, just two games back.
And remember that walk-off magic from year’s past? Absent. A game-winning sacrifice fly from Murphy on Sunday, June 21st gave Cleveland a 1-0 win in their only walk-off this season. Even the long ball seems to be in short supply for the Indians at home – in 2013, they hit 87 in 81 games to rank fifth in the AL; they were tenth in the league last season with 72 in 81 games, and so far this season, they are 14th in the league and 26th in all of baseball with just 29 in 44 games. Brantley and Kipnis are responsible for four each; Brandon Moss, who was said to be able to make good use of the wall in right field upon his acquisition, has hit just two of his team-leading 14 overall in their friendly confines.
A Final Parting Reason for Hope
If Kevin Costner taught me anything, he taught me that movies about postmen in post-apocalypic America just don’t work, and that “if you build it, he will come”. The Indians built a beauty of a ballpark more than 20 years ago that still stands the test of time. It is a travesty that more fans do not show up to support the Tribe, win or lose, but history has shown that as the team and the weather get hotter, the fans do occupy seats in the park. I’m not going to stand on my soapbox and preach to you how to spend your money. But comments like these from Salazar after eight and two-thirds dominant innings on a dollar dog, fireworks, and perfect weather for a ballgame kind of night, say it better than I ever could.
“It was awesome. Wow. Everybody in the dugout, they were like ‘wow, we have a big crowd tonight’. It was good. All of us get excited when we see people coming to the game. It’s important to us.”
The gate on Saturday was the second-highest for the Indians at home this season, just the fifth over 25,000, and was of no surprise when factoring in great weather, a Sandy Alomar jersey giveaway that brought in the collectors, and postgame fireworks that wrapped up the evening. The only thing missing was the Indians extending their winning streak to five games, something they fell just short of doing in their 19th one-run game of the year. They are now 9-10 in such contests.
Seeing the Indians at or near the bottom of the standings always hurts, but seeing them in the same position of the attendance list every year stings a bit too. Finishing above the Tampa Bay Rays by miniscule numbers each season is not comforting when the Rays are the team most often discussed and rumored for relocation.
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The second half will provide Tribe fans with plenty to watch, even if they can’t crawl back into contention within the division. The youth movement is exciting and fans will find watching Lindor will be a joy for many years to come.
But don’t overlook that wild card possibility, one that the Indians sit just five games in back of with one game left before the break. Larger deficits have been shredded by teams down the stretch, as Indians fans might recall from that magical ten-game run to wrap up 2013. The team has had consistent starting pitching and has avoided the injury bug. If the bats could come alive, the team could play themselves right back into the league’s postseason push. A boost against the Central couldn’t hurt, as their current 14-22 record against their rivals cannot continue if they hope to turn the ship around.
There’s a lot to love, a lot to like, and a lot to loathe. Hopefully the first two will compensate for the loathsome and give the Cleveland area another team to be proud of before their next door neighbors reclaim the spotlight with their tip-off at the end of October or their neighbors on the lake take their first snaps.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images