Offense Has Powered Tribe to First
Eddie Kerekes | On 07, Jun 2016
The Cleveland Indians currently sit in first place in the AL Central with a 32-24 record following a sweep of the defending champion Kansas City Royals and a victory in Seattle over the Mariners on Monday night. Though their 2.5 game lead is slim, it is astounding given the notorious slow starts of the last few years.
For some perspective, the last time the Tribe were more than a game ahead of everyone, Justin Masterson was the staff ace.
But being in first place after June 6 is not the goal for this club; the goal is to be in first place after October 2. As Mike Napoli said following Sunday’s game, “It doesn’t mean anything right now. It’s the place you want to be, but we need to continue playing good ball as a team and things should take care of itself.”
The team in first in the AL Central after June 5 has won the division only two-thirds of the time since 1995 and only half of the time since 2010. So the Tribe’s strong start to 2016 is no guarantee of playing in the postseason, but the reasons for their success may be the same reasons for the team’s berth in the playoffs.
It starts with the offense, which was not supposed to be the strength of the team. Even with Michael Brantley out for an extended period of time, the club is fifth in the AL in wOBA (.324), third in runs per game (4.87), and second in offensive fWAR (11.0) entering play on Monday night. And when the offense is on a roll, the team wins games. During the Tribe’s six-game winning streak, they scored five or more runs in each of the first five games.
The best offensive player on the team so far? That would be the surprising Jose Ramirez. Expected to be a utility player this season, Ramirez has become the main left fielder in Brantley’s absence and he has produced similar to the injured All-Star. Ramirez currently has a .315/.384/.461 slash mark, leading the Tribe in average and OBP and second on the team in slugging. He was also second among AL left fielders in fWAR (1.6) and has more walks (17) than strikeouts (16) entering Monday’s action. Don’t expect a slump from Ramirez either; he hit .304 in the minor leagues and his BABIP of .336 is in line with his last two years in Columbus.
A team isn’t scoring the third-most runs in the AL with only one hot batter. Francisco Lindor has been the other key to the Tribe’s success. Though many expected a sophomore slump for the Rookie of the Year runner-up, Lindor has duplicated his success from last year. Entering Monday, he had posted the exact same average (.313), a higher OBP (.367), and about the same number of defensive gems per game. Filling in for Brantley in the third spot in the lineup, Lindor has also excelled with men on base, hitting .356 with runners on.
Coming into the season, many thought the strength of the Tribe was their starting pitching. The starters haven’t been phenomenal – with the exception of Danny Salazar – but they’ve still pitched well. The rotation was fourth on Monday in the AL in ERA (3.98) and second in K/9 (8.12). Salazar has pitched like an ace with opponents hitting only .181 against him. He also has a 10.7 K/9 rate, a 2.24 ERA, and a 1.12 WHIP. Corey Kluber, though not having a Cy Young caliber season, has still pitched well. He’s 12th in the AL in batting average against (.227) and fifth in WHIP (1.08). His 3.04 FIP indicates his 3.84 ERA should come down.
The return of Carlos Carrasco from a hamstring injury should push the Tribe’s rotation back to its former dominance. It will also minimize the number of starts from Cody Anderson, who posted a 6.94 ERA as the fifth starter and was briefly demoted to the bullpen and to Triple-A Columbus.
Out to the best start in the Terry Francona era, Tribe fans have many reasons to believe this is the year the team will finally make some noise in the postseason. The season is long, and challenges from the Royals, Tigers, and White Sox are definite. An 18-7 record in the division is promising, but success against all three teams (and the Twins) is important for the Tribe to remain in first place. With an offensive attack that shows no signs of stopping and pitching that hasn’t reached its full potential yet, this could be the year the Central crown comes back to Cleveland.
Photo: Kirk Irwin/Getty Images