May Improvements Keep Tribe in the Mix

In efforts to keep this post clean of all of the inappropriate and colorful language that one could use with ease to describe the start to their season, this will be said instead in its place regarding the Cleveland Indians’ first month: April was bad. Their record was bad. Their individual and team stats were bad. Their effort was bad, their defense was bad, their bats were bad, and their spirits were bad.

Thankfully, the Cleveland Indians have shown a little bit of life in May as the month comes to a conclusion. They don’t look quite so bad.

It would not have taken much, as they did not exactly set the bar very high with a combination of lackluster play from nearly every facet of the roster. But even after the rough start, the Tribe has at least been able to tread some water and make up some of the ground lost when they ended April seven games below the .500 mark.

With so much hype and so much hope around a ball club returning nearly its entire roster from the previous season, and with dreams of continued development from Corey Kluber, Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, and the like, the dreams quickly turned to nightmares as the team stumbled to a 7-14 start. After winning the final two games against Houston to conclude their season opening series, the Indians were a game over .500, then proceeded to open the home schedule with a three-game sweep by the Detroit Tigers and a two-game split with the Chicago White Sox to very rapidly find themselves four and a half games in back in the division and a couple games under the even mark less than two weeks into the schedule.

The April schedule certainly was a factor, as the Indians played just four games of 21 outside of the American League Central. The Central, featuring returning division champs Detroit and the AL pennant winners in the Kansas City Royals, was thought to be a highly contested grouping, but the pummeling the Indians took from their core rivals set the club back badly. A rebuilt White Sox club, after a massive injection of funds both through free agency and trade, beat the Indians three times in five tries, while the young but surprising Minnesota Twins took two of three themselves. Kansas City matched that mark with a 2-1 record, while the Tigers, who bounced back and forth with the Royals throughout the month for the top spot in the division, punished the Tribe five times in six meetings.

It all led to a 5-12 mark in the division, a horrible way to break the Sports Illustrated cover prediction jinx. Some around and supportive of the Tribe may not believe in jinxes and jixes and anything else of the sort, but it is possible the early season pressure of a World Series run may have weighed heavily on the team.

Of seven completed series within the month, they won only their first and split a short set with Chicago. In eight separate series opening games that occurred in April, they were 1-7, winning just a 13-1 shellacking of the Tigers before going on a four-game bender.

The pitching was spotty, the firemen ignited more fires than they put out, and the offense was absent. It combined to a 98-79 difference in run production, in favor of the opposition. The offense scored more than six runs just twice, and 16% of their runs in the month came in that one game against the Tigers. Only two games were decided by one run – both were walk-off losses.

They were well rested, with four days off scattered throughout the month, and their only real road trip of April was a trek through the midwest that conveniently moved progressively closer and closer to home with each stop. The schedule was tilted more to road games, but they were a disappointing 2-7 defending the shores of Lake Erie.

There were injuries that compounded things. Brantley fought a back injury. Gomes was lost for six weeks just six games into the season with a sprained MCL. Nick Swisher started the season on the disabled list, even if his bat may not have been projected to be a big contributor to the lineup after an injury-riddled and statistically-underwhelming 2014 campaign.

The Indians’ starting pitchers struggled, most noticeably Kluber, but also the revolving door of back end starters. While Cleveland’s ace was victimized by little run support, he was not nearly as sharp as he was the previous season while winning the game’s top pitching honor. He was 0-3 with a 4.24 ERA in five starts to start his Cy Young defense.

Carlos Carrasco was 2-2, but had an even loftier 4.60 ERA. While Trevor Bauer (2-0, 1.80 in four starts) and Danny Salazar (3-0, 3.32 in three starts) did their parts, Zach McAllister lost his lone start in the rotation and was shipped off to the bullpen and left-hander T.J. House took the loss in all four of his starts, earning a 13.15 ERA with a 2.54 WHIP while averaging nearly a walk per inning before landing on the disabled list and ultimately becoming a regular member of the Columbus Clippers starting rotation.

While the starters were shaky, the bullpen was even more unstable. Cody Allen earned just four saves and allowed nine runs in seven innings (11.57 ERA) over eight games. Bryan Shaw was dealt a loss in a walk-off win by the Twins and had a WHIP of 1.64 in eleven games. Marc Rzepczynski (0-0, 6.75 in ten games) and Scott Atchison (0-1, 5.63 in nine games) were working as much for Terry Francona as they had the previous season, but the results were not what they were in 2014 while working over 70 games each.

The bullpen as a unit had a 4.03 ERA in 69 appearances with a 1.47 WHIP with eight fewer walks than the starters…while facing 160 fewer batters. Were the arms in the ‘pen still tired and worn from extensive use in 2014? Tough to say, but there seems to be in the least a strange coincidence that the four to struggle the most noticeably were the four most called-upon men of Tito’s bullpen options.

Errors, an ongoing theme of the last few seasons, were, of course, a factor once again. The team made 13 of them in 21 games, with eleven coming in the team’s 14 losses.

In what may have been one of the few positives from the month, attendance was at least up. The Indians drew an average of 14,176 in 12 gates (13 games due to a doubleheader with San Diego) in 2014 while going 7-6. This season, they drew 15,626 despite the 2-7 home start. Early season excitement surrounding the club coupled with the new look at Progressive Field after substantial offseason construction may have helped to drive the numbers up. It was not the play on the field.

May has been a much different story and a much more tolerable one at that.

Friday’s win secured the Indians a winning record for the month of May and Saturday’s win rounded their record off to 16-12 with a final game to play on Sunday.

The improved record is in part due to the change by Francona in the lineup, created in the final week of April when he replaced struggling leadoff man Michael Bourn with Jason Kipnis, who to his own credit was hitting .239 at the time of the move. After three hits in his first five games at the top of the order, Kipnis went on a tear, hitting in five games and then nine more after a hitless effort on May 7th. After two more hitless games on May 18th and May 20th, he had hit in nine more before ending his second nine-gamer of the year on Saturday night.

His May numbers are in hot pursuit of some of the legends of the game and are the best in baseball amongst regular players. He is hitting .445 in the month, one of the top marks in club history, and has posted a .531 on-base percentage. He has scored 29 runs over 28 games played and has 49 hits, including 15 multi-hit games. If he can get at least one hit and score at least one run in Sunday’s game, he will become the first player to get 50 or more hits and 30 or more runs in a month since Jimmy Rollins did it in September/October of 2005. The 49 hits have already established a new franchise May record since 1914, possibly ever, passing Bobby Avila’s record of 47 set in 1954.

The offensive surge has increased his batting average and OBP from .218 and .263 respectively at the end of April to .338 and .410 on the season after Saturday’s action. He is second and fifth in the AL in those stats for the year.

David Murphy has been solid at the plate in the outfield and as a pinch-hitter, batting .356 in the month with ten RBI. In limited playing time, Mike Aviles has hit .311. Bourn, down in the lineup, has hit .299 in one of his best stretches of play at the plate with the club. Brantley has driven in a team-high 22 runs and is tied with Kipnis and Brandon Moss with four May homers.

The starting rotation has continued to improved, even with inconsistency from the fifth spot in the mix. The staff has posted a 13-8 record in the month with a combined 4.23 ERA. Those numbers are inflated by the 12.79 ERA of the retired Bruce Chen, who was hit hard in his final two MLB starts.

Kluber has gotten in the win column and struck out a mind-boggling 60 of the 170 batters he faced in the month while walking just six men. It was just the eighth time since 1914 and the first time in that span in Indians history that a pitcher has recorded 60 or more strikeouts and six or fewer walks in a month, joining Clayton Kershaw (June 2014), Curt Schilling (April and May, 2002), Pedro Martinez (September/October 1999), Jim Kaat (September/October 1967), Sandy Koufax (September/October 1963, and Juan Marichal (September/October 1963). Pretty exclusive company.

Carrasco is 4-2 with a 4.10 ERA in six starts with a complete game loss in his worst of the outings of the month. Bauer is 2-2 with a pair of tough decisions in the mix. Salazar is 2-1 with a 3.86 ERA with one final start to go on Sunday. Shaun Marcum, after a strong start to the season at Triple-A Columbus, has earned two wins in his first three starts to help stabilize the final rotation spot for the time being.

Six different times a Cleveland starter has topped ten strikeouts or more in a May start, including Kluber’s season-changing game against St. Louis when he struck out 18 in eight innings. Twenty different starts in 28 games they have struck out at least a half dozen and the group has combined to strike out 199 in the month.

The bullpen, after a 0-4 record in April, has posted a 3-4 mark in May. After a 4.03 ERA in the first month of the year with a 1.47 WHIP, the staff has cut back slightly on the walks and the hits while offering a staff ERA of 2.78. Just 23 of the 35 runs allowed by the bullpen have been earned, although some of the relief corps’ own throwing errors have contributed to this bloated total of unearned runs.

Errors have not been as detrimental as they were in the first month of the season. The team has made 19 errors after Saturday’s game in May and currently ranks as the fifth-worst team in the AL in errors and fielding percentage. They have made nine of those errors in their 16 wins and ten in their 12 losses.

Will the improved play be enough to remain in the mix throughout the rest of the year and, if unable to gain on the division leaders, at least be in play for the Wild Card? They will need to keep the better play around and not have another collective team slump similar to that suffered in April. After placing 12th in the AL with 79 runs in the opening month, they have crossed the plate 140 times in May to rank third in the league. The pitching staff, once 12th in the league in ERA, is seventh with a game to go in May.

The recent return of Gomes at the end of this month should eventually help in both regards. While that may not have paid notable dividends in his week back thus far, it should have longer term benefits on the staff and the lineup as the season progresses. He is an upgrade over the Roberto Perez/Brett Hayes tandem behind the plate, and several pitchers have posted much better numbers tossing to Gomes than the other pair.

The Indians dug a deep hole with the poor April play and find themselves just a half-game better in the standings with one more May game to finish. With game number 50 of 162 on Sunday, they will have plenty of opportunities the rest of the way to perform better in the division, including three games this week against Kansas City and six more games in June with Detroit. As they continue to make the rounds against the rest of the baseball world, they will need to expand on their 13-9 record against non-divisional opponents while showing desperate improvements to their 10-17 mark in the Central.

Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer

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