Can the Indians’ Offense Be More Consistent?

There were some positives to take out of the 2014 season for the Cleveland Indians, but offensive consistency was not among those.

It may have slipped under the radar to some degree due to the surprisingly good numbers that came from the starting rotation and the generally unpleasant quantity of errors committed by the defense behind those pitchers. In the end, the offense had the opportunity to pick up and support strong pitching efforts or to overcome mental lapses on the field, but overall, they failed to do so. In the end, their failures may have contributed to the Indians’ season ending prematurely, despite a second consecutive winning year.

The offense, from a runs scored perspective, was just under the American League average of 677 runs scored on the season, but exceeded the Major League average of 659. Over the course of the year, the Indians plated 669 runs, the seventh-most in the league and the eleventh-most overall in all of baseball. The numbers could have been worse, but delving into the numbers further showcases a frightening inability to score runs over a large portion of the season.

In a total of 81 games, the Indians scored three runs or less. Even the best of pitchers will allow some runs over the course of a start. Cleveland pitching posted the sixth-best ERA in the league with a 3.57 mark, better than the league average of 3.81, but proof positive that even a strong effort from the Indians’ arms over the year still saw more than three and a half earned runs cross the plate per nine innings. When you spend half of the season failing to exceed that mark at the dish, it makes posting a winning record, let alone being a playoff contender, that much more of a difficult task to achieve.

The Indians offense was blanked on eight separate occasions. Three of those shutouts were 1-0 losses. Two more were 2-0 finals. Just a small handful of runs would have tipped the scales much more favorably in the Indians’ direction.

They were a disappointing 1-19 when scoring one run or less. The lone victory was a late season shutout by Corey Kluber and Cody Allen against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Lack of run support could equal more stress and strain being put on a starting rotation. As each of the men took his place in the center of the diamond, how many times might it have crossed his mind over 100 pitches or so that he could not afford to make a mistake because he could not trust his offense to back him up with some run support?

The Indians record improved to 11-15 when scoring two runs in a contest, as they were aided by a pair of walkoff wins and were hurt by a similar loss. When scoring three runs in a game, Cleveland was 13-14, again assisted by a pair of walkoff victories and hurt by a walkoff defeat.

To sum it up, when scoring three runs or less over the course of the season, the Indians were 25-56 in 81 games. Hardly the way to play meaningful games in October and certainly one of the greatest areas of weakness needing to be addressed prior to play in 2015.

A glimpse at Kluber’s unbelievable Cy Young award winning season provides additional proof at the significance of scoring runs. Kluber finished the season 18-9. Of his nine losses, five times his teammates scored one run or less and they scored a pair in one other. Even a pitcher throwing an award winning season is going to have a difficult time winning the game when his teammates provide no offensive threat. Similar could be said of his seven no decisions; while the Indians were 4-3 in these games, they scored three runs or less in five of the contests.

It was not just runs that the Indians struggled with. Their ability to reach base was almost strictly average, from a numbers perspective.

Cleveland was ninth in the AL with a .253 batting average, equaling the league’s average and better than just six other teams. They were sixth with a .317 on-base percentage, but that mark was just one-thousandth of a point above the league’s average. They were smack in the middle of the 15 teams in the league in slugging percentage, ranking seventh overall with a .389 mark that was one-thousandth of a point below league average and, no surprise, their on-base plus slugging mark of .706 hit the league average on the head while showing the seventh-best mark overall.

The numbers tell the story – the Cleveland Indians were a very average offensive team in 2014.

Can this offense pick it up and be more consistent in the coming season?

When considering the lackluster efforts mentioned above and underperformances of one-third of the expected daily lineup, it is astounding that the Indians finished 85-77.

It is a testament to stellar late season pitching and the development of a pair of young breakout stars, Michael Brantley and Yan Gomes, in spite of the failed free agency campaigns of Justin Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera and the absence of notable contributions from Michael Bourn, Jason Kipnis, and Nick Swisher.

The key to consistency for Terry Francona’s Tribe will start at the top of the lineup. Bourn has to be healthy. He has to be an ignitor, reaching base with his bat and providing a bit of chaos with his feet. He may never be the 60 stolen base threat he was in the past while in the National League, but he can still affect a game with his legs. His triples total for the season may illustrate that fact – he led all AL players with ten three-baggers and was second, two behind, to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Dee Gordon for the MLB lead, all while missing 56 games on the year.

Kipnis is one of the pieces that could look to rebound the most. An early season oblique injury seemed to tap the Tribe second baseman of all of his power at the plate, as he had just 32 extra base hits in 129 games after having 57 in 149 games in his 2013 All-Star campaign. He finished the season with a .240 average and .310 on-base percentage with a career-low six home runs, fewer than the seven he hit in 36 games in his debut season of 2011. His average was 30 points below his career mark entering the year and his OBP was 39 points lighter. Half of his home runs came in the first month of the season, prior to his injury.

Swisher was easily the biggest disappointment for the Tribe at the plate last year, especially given the large chunk of cash the team paid him to do it. A pair of bad knees may have contributed to the worst overall season he had seen at the plate. He hit just .208 with a .278 OBP and struck out 111 times in 97 games. It marked an unsettling decline from Swisher, who entered with a .255 career average and .358 OBP. His season was shut down in the second week of August and he later had work done on both knees.

Carlos Santana made up for a bad start to the season, offensively and defensively, by leading the team with 27 home runs and 113 walks, and should continue to build upon the second half effort. Santana hit just .231 on the year, but his MLB-leading walk total helped to push his on-base percentage to .365, second amongst all regulars on the roster while providing much-needed compensation for his lower-than-desired ability to hit his way safely on base.

Brantley and Gomes catapulted themselves to nationwide attention with breakout years at the plate.

Brantley earned MVP votes, finishing third in the balloting, behind a .327 batting average and a career-high 20 home runs and 97 RBI. He was recognized midseason with his first trip to the Midsummer’s Classic. The jump at the plate was a surprise to many – he was a .277 hitter lifetime with a total of 26 homers at the MLB level before his 2014 outburst. Whether he can continue to build upon last season’s numbers or if he comes back down towards his prior career marks remains to be seen.

Gomes kicked off some rust after a big contract and new daddy duties early in the season in his first year as the Indians’ number one backstop. Defensive miscues may have negatively affected him some at the plate, but once in control of his footwork, Gomes erupted for nearly double his prior year’s numbers, hitting 21 home runs and driving in 74. His batting average dropped to .278, but he was rewarded with an AL Silver Slugger Award at catcher. The 2015 season will mark his fourth in the MLB and just his second as an everyday catcher.

Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall certainly broke out last season, establishing a new career high with a .280 batting average, well over his career .244 average coming in to the season, while flirting with an average near the league leaders for the first half of the year before settling back down to earth some. His season batting average at the end of any game did not dip below the .300 mark for the first time until August 6th. The key to his success was his immensely improved average against left-handed pitching. After hitting just .111 against them in 2013 and .194 for his career, he hit .294 against them in 2014. The league may have adjusted to him in the second half of last year, but if he can readjust to them now, he has shown he can be an every day contributor.

Jose Ramirez will do more for the lineup than Cabrera did on his way out of town last season. The Indians young shortstop option for the present may not be a great bat, but he can move runners along effectively, proven by leading the league in sacrifice hits while logging just 68 games of action. He is capable of stealing bases at will when on base. He will not hit for the power that Cabrera had provided in the past, but he also will not strike out and ground into nearly as many double plays either. If the experiment does not work out, it is okay, because the presence of the veteran Mike Aviles as a utility infielder can spot any slumps Ramirez plays into, and ultimately, he is only keeping the seat warm for the star prospect of the future, Francisco Lindor, who would likely make a debut at the Major League level at some point before season’s end.

To improve this consistency from an offensive standpoint, at least one of Bourn, Kipnis, or Swisher needs to rebound. The Indians will return very much the same offensive weapons as last season, plus Brandon Moss, who if healthy himself could provide some much needed pop in the lineup. Moss brings in a .234 average, .334 OBP, 25 home runs, and 81 RBI during an injury-limited season while he dealt with hip issues, despite being named to his first All-Star team in July.

Even minor improvements from those mentioned here could pay significant dividends in the win column for an Indians team who finished within striking distance of the postseason last year with some major deficits on the club. Just a few more Ws to the win tally could be substantial to a roster that returns nearly all of its personnel after watching the two clubs above them in the division do more subtracting than adding in the months that followed the final out of the World Series.

It is hard to imagine that all three of Bourn, Kipnis, and Swisher would continue to be negatively impacted by injuries and ineffectiveness. It sounds as though all are entering the spring in good shape, healed from their in-season woes that may have hampered their contributions over the year. With continued growth from the likes of Brantley, Gomes, and Santana, an adjustment and some consistency from Chisenhall, power potential from Moss, and a dynamic piece from Ramirez now or even top prospect Lindor later, the team should be poised to perform even better at the plate this season.

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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