The Cleveland Indians’ offense has been frustratingly inefficient this season with runners on base, especially with them in scoring position.
With a suspect starting pitching rotation struggling through the first few weeks of the season, the offense has been needed to provide valuable run support to make up for the deficits seen from each of the five regular starters to take the mound.
The problem is that the Indians offense has not been able to contribute at the level needed to compensate for some rough efforts on the rubber.
Indians pitching has allowed four runs or more in eleven of the first 17 games of the season. The Cleveland bats, however, have scored three runs or fewer in ten of those games.
If you cannot score runs and support the pitchers, it becomes increasingly more difficult to put W’s in the win column.
So far this season, the base paths have been the place that Indians base runners have gone to die.
The Indians seem to tighten up this season when runners are present on the bases. They are 13th in the American League with a .223 batting average with runners on base, better than just Toronto and Houston entering Saturday’s contest with the Blue Jays. They have struck out 67 times in 260 at bats in this position, the second-highest total of strikeouts with key opportunities to move runners around the base paths and add to the scoreboard.
The Indians are not the worst in baseball with runners in scoring position, but there is certainly plenty of room for improvement in the category. Entering play Saturday afternoon, they were eleventh in the AL and 22nd in all of baseball in batting average with runners in scoring position (.215). A much better on-base percentage of .324 brings the club up to sixth in the AL and 12th overall in the MLB.
Through the club’s first 16 games at the end of Friday’s 3-2 loss to Toronto, the Indians had just four of eleven batters hitting .300 or above with runners in scoring position.
David Murphy leads the way with six hits in 12 at bats (.500). Michael Brantley, a .314 hitter with runners in scoring position and coming off of a .375 mark in 2013, is hitting .318 (7-for-22) with a team-high 13 RBI in the clutch. Ryan Raburn has three hits in ten opportunities (.300). Demoted Nyjer Morgan was 2-for-5 (.400) with four runs batted in during his limited action with the Major League club.
It is the heart of the order that is providing the Indians the most pain in run production. Carlos Santana has just one RBI in those spots and is batting .214. He has, however, a .522 on-base percentage thanks to nine walks with runners in scoring position. Nick Swisher is hitting .211 and Jason Kipnis is batting .176. The two have driven in six runs a piece.
Santana has struggled the most, marred for more than a week in a lengthy hitting slump. He was batting just .164 heading into Saturday’s game with nine hits in 55 at bats. Batting cleanup, he has hit just two doubles and one home run while driving in three. He has provided other contributions, reaching base with an on-base percentage of .352 due to his walk total that is second in all of baseball, but has not been the run producer needed in the heart of the order.
Swisher is tenth on the team with his .185 average. Like Santana, he has just three extra base hits, including a pair of home runs, and has driving in seven runs. He leads the team with 16 strikeouts.
Kipnis, batting behind Swisher in the three hole, has moved the batting average to .250 thanks to a three-hit game on Friday night. He has five extra base hits (two home runs, three doubles) amongst his 14 hits entering Saturday. His seven RBI are third on the team.
The run production has come from unexpected places, including Brantley’s team-leading 14 RBI to go along with his .279 average while mainly hitting in the five and six spots in the lineup. Murphy, who has hit in the bottom third of the lineup, is second on the team with 12 RBI and is third with a .283 batting average.
Including Saturday’s game, the Indians have scored 71 runs on the season and allowed the opposition to score 80. They had a team total of 127 runners stranded on base and were hitting just .215 in 149 at bats with runners in scoring position prior to Saturday’s game. They had scored 59 runs, eighth best in all of baseball, but it still amounted to a large village left stranded on the base paths.
One of the biggest issues for the Indians has been response runs, scoring immediately after the opposition has.
What has made the offensive woes become more pronounced and a significantly pressing concern is that the pitching staff has surrendered response runs in bunches, eliminating any leverage the offense had provided the man on the mound.
This season, the Indians have scored in 37 innings. After 18 of those innings, the pitchers have immediately allowed 34 runs to cross home plate in the next half inning. The offense has responded in part, but not enough. The Tribe has scored in 16 innings in response to the opposition scoring, putting up 29 runs in retaliation.
The Indians entered Saturday fourth in baseball with 16 double play balls. The ultimate rally killer has been led by Santana, who added to his MLB-worst total to seven with an inning-ending 6-4-3 twin killer in the first inning of Saturday’s loss.
Yet somehow, despite how bad the run production feels on the field, the Indians still ranked sixth in the AL in runs scored heading into play Saturday. The concern is the 80 runs they had allowed to score over the first 17 games, the fifth-worst total in the league at the start of the day Saturday.
The Indians have not been able to pull out victories in one run games, losing three of the four contests. They are 4-1 in two run games, but 2-6 in games decided by three runs or more.
There are plenty of excuses to make about the slow start, including the injury to Michael Bourn at the top of the lineup, cold weather, rainy weather, multiple doubleheaders due to postponements, but certainly in the end the team needs to perform better in the clutch.
It will need to start at the top, where the run producers Swisher, Kipnis, and Santana will have to step up and get into the action as soon as possible.
Photo: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio