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