Tribe’s Wild May Featured a Wide Array of Mixed Results
Bob Toth | On 01, Jun 2018
With six games to go in May, the Indians were 9-13, suffering from on-going issues from their bullpen despite being the top scoring club in all of baseball at the time. Dealing with a tough stretch of the schedule, the team gave away several potential wins and struggled to show consistent playoff-caliber play.
As the calendar flipped to June, the Indians were 15-13. The offense was still producing. The starting pitching was still excelling overall, with some occasional bumps to be expected. The bullpen was still bad. That has not changed.
While there was a lot not to like in the 31 days of May play, especially any time that Terry Francona went to the center of the diamond to pull his starting pitcher, the Indians showed some encouraging signs during a rather difficult stretch of the schedule. They played seven with the reigning world champion Houston Astros, three with the bashing New York Yankees, and two pairs against some of the strengths of the NL Central in the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs. They went 7-3 against the AL Central in the month, but only after a 3-3 start versus Kansas City and Detroit.
The Indians began the month with a 15-12 record, sitting in first place with a season-high four-game lead in the division, but with a six-game winning streak to close the month, they reached a season-high mark of five games over .500 with a new season-best four and a half game lead in the division.
As it stands, even with all of the difficulties that the Indians have shown over the course of the season – injuries, early inconsistencies with clutch run production, the bullpen, Josh Tomlin – Cleveland actually opens June with a better record (30-25) than it had in the same number of games last season (29-26 on June 4) when the club finished with the second-best record in all of baseball. That season, the Indians went 13-14 in May, scoring 110 runs and allowing 105. During the Tribe’s World Series run in 2016, they were 31-24 after 55 games, five games into a six-game winning streak.
The 179 runs scored in the month were the most by the team since scoring 180 times in 30 May games in 2007. The lineup had scored 102 runs in 27 games in March/April, but in one more game in May, they put up a much more eye-catching tally. The bigger problem for the club, however, was a 43-run jump from the opposition’s bats in the same span.
One of the keys to the offense’s improved production in May was a lineup change that brought Michael Brantley up to the second spot. Even more important, the left fielder has remained healthy and is well on his way to a second straight All-Star berth. He took the field in 27 games in May, hitting .333 with a .398 on-base percentage and a .579 slugging mark with seven doubles, seven homers, and 26 RBI. He walked just one fewer time than he struck out. He was the team’s and the league’s leading RBI man for the month (and was third overall in baseball) and was second on the team in runs scored with 26 and hits with 38.
Brantley really picked up the production during a Major League season-high 19-game hitting streak when the team went 12-7. He hit .366 during the stretch with 30 hits, including three doubles and six homers, while driving in 19. While he was held hitless in the series opener with the Minnesota Twins on Thursday, he drew two walks, giving him a streak of 21 straight games reaching base safely. He failed to reach base safely in just one game all month long.
Francisco Lindor may have been overshadowed some by Brantley’s long hitting streak, but it should take nothing away from his performance in May. He put up a .373/.432/.737 line at the plate with a 1.169 OPS. He led the club in hits (44), runs (27), and doubles (13), and was second in homers (10) and fourth in RBI (23), doing all of that work out of the leadoff spot. He capped the month with his second four extra base hit game of the year, something done just a handful of times in baseball history. His batting average trailed only Jean Segura for the best mark among regulars in the AL in the month.
Lindor will have some tough competition for the AL’s Player of the Month award right in house from Jose Ramirez. He put up comparable numbers to Lindor, slashing .336/.432/.757 with a 1.189 OPS. He led the club with eleven homers and 17 walks; was second with 12 doubles, 26 runs, and 25 RBI; and was third in hits with 36.
Edwin Encarnacion’s turnaround also got less attention with the performances of the three batters ahead of him in the lineup. After slashing .158/.231/.358 in 25 games in March and April with a double, six homers, and ten RBI, he hit .315 in May with a .376 OBP and a .609 slugging mark in 23 games. He hit six doubles, added seven homers, and drove in 24 runs, third-best on the team.
Starting pitching was strong overall, especially at the top from Corey Kluber. After missing last May hurt, he made up for it with a 4-1 record in six starts with a 1.83 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP. He struck out 41 and walked just one in 39 1/3 innings, moving into sole possession of the third spot on the Indians’ all-time strikeouts list. Trevor Bauer was 2-1 with a 2.81 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP with 40 strikeouts in 32 innings, posting the top strikeouts-per-nine rate on the staff. Mike Clevinger posted a 2-2 mark with a 3.60 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP, with both losses and the bulk of the damage done to him coming in back-to-back starts against Houston. Carlos Carrasco had an ERA just under five in five starts, but he was second on the staff with a 10.2 K/9 rate. His numbers were heavily inflated by rough starts to open and close the month.
The collective bunch of starters went 13-6 with a 3.61 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP in 28 games. In one more start and nine more innings than March/April, they added 38 more strikeouts while walking three fewer batters.
Adam Plutko and Shane Bieber each made promising first Major League starts in May. Plutko, who had worked in relief in a couple of games in 2016, gave up three home runs to the Toronto Blue Jays in the nightcap of a doubleheader at the beginning of the month in a spot start. He returned late and put himself in possible position to be the fifth starter for the foreseeable future after taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the Chicago Cubs. His Memorial Day start left a little to be desired as he gave up five runs in five innings, but he still owns a 3-0 record in three starts. Bieber made his MLB debut on Thursday night, allowing four runs in five and two-thirds innings on his 23rd birthday.
Of course, there were some bad things. This is Cleveland sports. There are always bad things.
The Indians had to turn to the disabled list five different times in the month, placing two relievers and three outfielders on the shelf. For Andrew Miller, it was his second trip of the year after spending the first week and a half inactive before returning but succumbing to lingering right knee issues.
Miller seemed off immediately upon return from his hamstring issue that sidelined him to start the month. Prior to the injury, he had worked ten scoreless appearances, striking out 17, giving up six hits, walking four, and hitting two batters in ten innings. The command issues seemed surprising, even if his strikeout numbers were still impressive. But in six games after being activated (without a rehab assignment, no less), he allowed seven runs in four and one-third innings (14.54 ERA) with seven hits and six walks allowed while striking out six. He gave up two runs or more in half of those appearances.
The losses of Tyler Naquin (left hamstring strain), Bradley Zimmer (left rib contusion), and Brandon Guyer (left cervical strain) left the outfield light, as the trio joined Lonnie Chisenhall (on the disabled list with a right calf strain since April 8) on the disabled list. Greg Allen stepped up big and played well with regular playing time, getting a walk-off homer against Houston on the 27th and hitting .273 in 19 games. Melky Cabrera was brought up on May 20 and drove in eight runs in eleven games. Brantley has played like the third place finisher in the AL MVP voting.
Roberto Perez has not pushed for playing time, struggling at both sides of the dish. In eleven May games, he hit .167 with just six hits in 36 at bats. Worse, he struck out 14 times in his 41 plate appearances. His woes behind the plate continued as well as he was 0-for-5 throwing out would-be base stealers and is now 1-for-12 on the year. While serving as the game caller, there were also four wild pitches and a passed ball on his watch.
The bullpen bleeding would not stop. It started with the loss of Miller the first time at the end of April, which seemed to expose the severity of the issue. The Indians could not find anyone to eat up effective innings, adding in Ben Taylor, Evan Marshall, Alexi Ogando, and Neil Ramirez from the farm and Oliver Drake from the Brewers, but the five arms provided little relief to the beleaguered bullpen.
After a serviceable March and April from the bullpen (3-5 record, 4.30 ERA, 1.16 WHIP with 74 strikeouts and 19 walks in 75 1/3 innings), things fell apart. The staff combined to post a 2-7 record with an 8.01 ERA and a 1.74 WHIP. While their strikeout rate remained almost the same, the walk rate nearly doubled, as did the home runs allowed. The relievers combined to allow 24 more hits in just two and one-third fewer innings of work.
Only Matt Belisle, who made one scoreless appearance at the beginning of the month before being designated for assignment, posted a spotless ERA for the month. Zach McAllister was the bullpen’s leader at 3.75, followed by Cody Allen (3.97), who earned all four of the club’s May saves. Every other reliever posted an ERA no lower than 7.11 (Tyler Olson) and seven different relievers (Jeff Beliveau, Drake, Miller, Ogando, Dan Otero, and Ramirez) posted ERAs greater than nine.
The Triple-A relief corps has been depleted, with the bulk of that staff rotating through the Cleveland bullpen doors through the first two months of the season. Even when Goody (on the 60-day DL now) and Miller make their return, the staff still has not found an identity and has not dealt with the losses of Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith from last year’s bullpen bunch.
The bullpen was one of the biggest offseason needs for the club in an expensive pitching market and it remains to this day something that needs to be addressed at or before the trade deadline if the Indians have any hopes of a long run of bonus baseball in October.
June will feature four off days, including two in the next week. The club will play no more than 13 consecutive games and will see a heavy dose of the AL Central, playing six games with the Twins, six with the Tigers, and seven with the White Sox. They will spend no more than a weeks’ worth of games on the road and will spend ten days home later in the month during a nine-game homestand.
The Tribe will be limited to just seven games outside of the division during the month, playing two at home against the Milwaukee Brewers and kicking off a road trip during the final week of the month with three in St. Louis against the Cardinals and two with the Oakland Athletics, before that series concludes officially in July.
With the Indians’ dominance of the AL Central last season and the majority of those teams in full-on rebuilding modes, the Tribe will have its chance to really run away with the division with an extended look at some of their rivals, most of which are shells of their former selves. While getting some cushion in the division could help the team breathe a little easier, it does not make up for the glaring issues facing the front office in the coming months.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images