“It’s Early,” is a Weak Excuse for the Same Old Problems

Everyone has heard it a million times: The baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint.

This adage seems to be the rallying cry for the Cleveland Indians in recent seasons. Slow start after slow start has been met with cries of, “it’s early,” and “on this date a year ago the Indians were (some random record worse than their current one).” A year ago when the Indians started the season 11-17, the team was quick to remind everyone that they started slowly in 2013 and still made the playoffs. However, the 10-game winning streak from 2013 never materialized in 2014 and the Tribe was not able to overcome the deficit they dug themselves early.

Cleveland actually outplayed both Detroit and Kansas City after April in 2014, but were never able to catch up. See, the games in the first month, they count as much as all the other games on the schedule, too.

As the Indians begin 2015 at 6-11 through three weeks, they’ve struggled mightily again. Again, the Tigers and Royals are out to good starts, and again, the Indians are left playing catch-up for the next five months. This morning they awaken six games out of first place and with the worst record in the American League and second worst in baseball.

They’ll have to go at least 6-5 in their next 11 games to avoid playing worse than last April. But, hey, it’s early.

And even though it is early, and anyone who seems concerned is open to mockery or ridicule, the Indians problems aren’t new. The Indians are still a terrible defense and an inconsistent offense, just like they were in 2014. In those two ways, it’s not really the 17th game of the season, it’s more like the 179th game for a roster that had little tinkering or improvement to it this winter by the front office. The same players of 2014, are giving the same performance and output in 2015.

But hey, it’s early. Isn’t there another adage about not changing a behavior or action, yet expecting a different result? I think it’s called insanity.

As Jonah Keri of Grantland pointed out this week, the Indians finished dead last in Major League Baseball in Defensive Runs Saved, at -75 in 2014. In essence, that means the Indians gave away 75 more runs than they saved, due to their defense. It’s probably the biggest reason they finished three games out of a playoff spot and five games out of the division last year. While 24 of 30 teams are between 2 and -2 in DRS—because it’s early—the Indians are already a -7. But, for all those positive thinkers, they aren’t dead last this year—just 29th behind the Minnesota Twins.

But hey, it’s early.

Keri does go on to point out that the Indians have three starting pitchers with strikeout stuff. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer—and now even Danny Salazar—have the ability to rack up strikeouts, thus not forcing the defense to work or make errors.

Another column this week, Mike Petriello of Fangraphs, points out that Indians’ pitchers themselves have been quite poor defensively, but the belief that Carlos Santana at first base and Jose Ramirez at shortstop would heal all the problems just aren’t true. Worse yet, he points out a statistic that is quite troubling. The Indians have a MLB-worst .338 BABIP (Batting Average of Balls In Play). So, while the Indians pitchers have four pitchers in the 20s, with incredible stuff, if the opponent makes contact and puts it in play, they have a better chance of getting a hit against the Indians than any other team.

How could that be? Wouldn’t one think that even if the opponent made contact with some of that great Indians’ pitching, it wouldn’t be square? The only explanation is because the range of the Indians’ defenders is so poor that it is much easier to find a whole to drop in that hit. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a pitcher. Get the hitter out, but don’t even let them hit it.

Maybe they’ll become rangier once the games aren’t so early. Maybe Michael Bourn will have the range he once had in center field back in 2012, maybe Brandon Moss, David Murphy, Ryan Raburn and Santana all won’t play the field like designated hitters. Maybe Nick Swisher will come back and play a good outfield, maybe Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis will improve at their respective positions, even though they’ve been poor defenders their entire career. Hopefully they do improve because it seems the front office and Indians manager Terry Francona seem set on sticking with their veterans, instead of giving players like Tyler Holt, James Ramsey or Francisco Lindor roles where they could immediately improve the defense.

Meanwhile, the offense continues to flounder. Even with two solid offensive displays this weekend in Detroit, the Indians have been held to three runs or less in eight of 17 games. A year ago they were held to three runs or less in 81 of 162, so the inconsistent offense isn’t a new trend. Last year, the Indians scored 669 runs, good for seventh in the American League, but if all the runs are scored in bunches—and half the games you’re scraping to score—you’re not really as league average as it seems.

This weekend in Detroit is no better example. The Indians scored 20 runs in three games, while the Tigers tallied only 13, but it was Detroit who took the series with two wins. It isn’t just scoring runs, it’s when you score runs. The 13 runs Friday night still only account for one win, Saturday was another anemic result as they were shut down by Alfredo Simon and Sunday they played catch-up late after being down 7-2 through six innings.

This weekend did show life from Moss at the plate, who started the season ice cold, and Michael Brantley had eight hits on the weekend. Brantley is the only Indians regular hitting above .250. For the first time in his career, Bourn was moved out of the leadoff spot as he hits .169 on the young season. The stories from spring training about Bourn looking like he’s in the best shape of his life seem to be gone already. Brantley and Moss will be saddled with more than their share of offensive responsibility moving forward while players like Bourn continue to struggle offensively and defensively, just as Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer and Salazar will have more than their share bestowed upon them from the pitching side.

So, when do the same old problems from last season, no longer get excused with how early it is in this season?

Photo: Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo

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This Post Has 8 Comments

    1. No, I didn’t say give up on the season, but just blindly excusing poor play with “it’s early,” is not ok either. For years the organization has said it’s early and not to worry. I think fans are very justified to be worried and have concerns about this roster, whether it is early or not, because they have the same problems as they did a year ago.

  1. I totally agree with the column. The Indians did little to improve their most glaring weaknesses. They still need right handed power in a strong armed right fielder and third baseman. It’s so obvious when team after team throws as many left handed pitchers as they can against the Tribe. Bourne reminds me so much of Marquis Grissom whom we also got from Atlanta. Bourne is an above average center fielder but he is not a consistent hitter and does not appear to utilize the speed he apparently has–mostly because he doesn’t get on base enough to use it, if it’s there. I would prefer to see Brantley move to center, where he would be one of the best hitting center fielders in the game. Unload whatever is left of our lefthand hitting outfielders and infielders to obtain the righthand power we need if we ever are to be contenders. Also, the poor play early has a devastating effect on attendance. By the time the Tribe gets hot, if they do, it’s too late in the season and/or it’s not enough to be in a race for the playoffs.

    1. Joe, thanks for agreeing with the column, or at least enjoying it. However, Michael Bourn is not an above average center fielder. He was the best defensive center fielder in baseball in 2012. Last year, only four players who played 350 innings in center field were worse. Bourn doesn’t run any more because he’s slow. His speed is gone and it is obvious in his diminished range. Speed is not evaluated in baseball by stolen bases. Stolen bases just happens to be the stat that we know requires speed. There are tons of defensive metrics that say Bourn has lost a step, if not more. He’s hurting them at the plate and in the field. Brantley is also below average in center field and with his back issues, I think the team is right in being reluctant to play him in center field. I think they should have a better idea than playing a utility infielder in Mike Aviles though.

    2. If obtaining legit right handed power was as easy as unloading 4th outfielders and fringe infielders then the Indians would’ve done it by now.

  2. I agree 100% with you about everything especially about the lack of defense. I hope the front office will fix this ASAP. Because I live out west (San Diego), I watch Tribe games on MLB.TV. Do you think there is pressure on the front office to fix this mess?

    1. Indians general manager Chris Antonetti met with the media prior to today’s game. The first question was how concerned was he about the slow start and he responded, “In an ideal world, we would’ve won more games than we have already, but I think we’ll refrain from reading too much into just a handful of games. I continue to believe in the roster that we have and that we’ll play better than we have so far.”

      So no, I don’t think anyone is feeling any pressure to fix anything.

  3. Best article I have read yet concerning this year’s team! It’s the same garbage every year with this team. They know where their weakness is and in the off-season they do nothing about it! Defense was horrible last year, and did they do anything about it, no. They couldn’t hit a “lick” off lefties last year(seeing the whole lineup was just about all lefties), but what did they do, went out and got another lefty, makes sense?? I’m sorry but this organization has been awful for years and it starts from the top down, and until Dolan sells this team, the same BS is going to continue to happen year after year.

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