Saturday’s 9-4 win followed the recipe that has been missing for the Cleveland Indians for chunks of time this season.
Hit the ball hard, score some runs early, and win some games. The steps for success have been notably absent, especially in Corey Kluber’s starts, which made the early three-run bomb from Michael Brantley, the Brandon Moss two-run blast in the third, and the latter three-run shot by Yan Gomes sights for sore eyes.
Runs and even home runs have both been at a premium this season and, as would be expected, their absence has contributed to an increased number of losses on the official tally. Whether it be from bad luck, a lack of timely hitting, missing the clutch gene, or just not competing, the Indians have struggled to push runners across the plate when they have needed them the most.
The Indians wrapped up play Saturday night with the tenth-fewest runs scored in all of baseball while providing the fourth-lowest total in the American League. Given that fact, it seems tough to complain because so many teams have plated fewer runs and yet, given the solid efforts from four-fifths of the starting rotation this season and the expectations placed on the club prior to the year, it seems like just the place to start the complaints about the Indians’ current predicament at the bottom of the AL Central.
The Indians have put up four runs or more in an outing 46 times this season. Not surprisingly, they are 34-12 (.739) in those games. When scoring five runs or more? The Tribe is nearly unbeatable, posting a 28-6 (.824) record. They are 11-1 when scoring eight runs or more and, when scoring first, they improved to 28-8 with Saturday’s win over the Cincinnati Reds.
The real tale of the tape is when analyzing the Indians’ results when scoring three runs or less, something they did 81 times in total in 2014 when finishing with an 85-77 record, but just 70 times the season before on the way to a 92-70 record and a spot in the AL Wild Card game.
This season, Cleveland has a 2-10 record when scoring three runs, is 6-6 when scoring just two runs, falls to 1-11 when scoring just one run, and has been shut out eight separate times, a number matching the season total for the club in each of the last two seasons, with just under half of the 2015 campaign remaining.
A total of 44 of their games they have failed to score more than three runs. Their record in those games is, not surprisingly, 9-35 (.205).
After play on Saturday night, the Indians are averaging 3.97 runs per game.
The Indians have had some of their greatest struggles within the AL Central, aiding in the mountain that they will have to climb to contend at all for the division crown this year. They have a winning record against just one of their four rival opponents, taking five of nine contests so far against the Chicago White Sox. They are 4-5 against Kansas City, 2-4 against second-place Minnesota, and 3-9 against Detroit.
Proving that their 14-22 record in 36 games against the Central was not a fluke, they have been outscored 171-148 in those games. Those Central struggles play a large role in their record right now; they are 29-25 against the rest of baseball, outscoring non-divisional opponents by four runs on the season.
So the Indians are not the worst in baseball nor the worst in the AL in scoring runs, yet somehow, night in and night out, scoring enough runs to win seems to be of great difficulty.
Is this a matter of fans expecting too much from the team? Are we still living under the same offensive expectations as the Steroid Era?
The numbers might seem to indicate otherwise.
After Saturday’s game, Cleveland (3.97) is ahead of just Tampa Bay (3.62), Seattle (3.51), and Chicago (3.39) in the AL for runs scored per game. Just one of those teams (Tampa at 47-46) has a winning record. The league average was 4.21 runs per game entering play on Saturday night.
Keep in mind, runs do not always equate to wins.
After 93 games, Toronto is averaging 5.31 runs per game. They are 46-47 and have the eighth-best record in the AL and are four and a half games in back of both the AL East and AL Wild Card races. The Blue Jays, however, do not have the type of pitching that the Indians employ and are near the bottom of the league in runs allowed and ERA.
If the Indians keep at their current pace per game, or in some awful circumstance actually get worse, they will encroach upon a run drought not commonly seen in the city.
Cleveland averaged 4.13 runs per game in 2014, a steep drop off from the 4.60 runs of production they received during their brief playoff trip in 2013. The last time they finished a season below four runs per game was in 2010 when they averaged 3.99 runs and won just 69 games.
In the last 40 years, just five times have they finished with fewer than four runs scored per game. Just 24 times in the previous 114 years (21%) have they failed to average four runs per game or more for the season.
No matter how good a pitching staff is, no matter how strong the defense is behind them, if a team does not put runs on the scoreboard, it will not win games. One, as the Indians record proves easily, is not enough, and neither is two, and seldom more is three.
When breaking down the problems for the Tribe, there are deficits when looking at their numbers in the clutch.
The Indians ended Saturday with the fifth-best on-base percentage (.320) in the AL, but the tenth-best batting average (.248) and 12th-best slugging percentage (.386). Despite the feeling of being a big strikeout team, they have amassed the fourth-fewest in the league (621), but they have also driven in the fourth-fewest runs (345) and hit the third-fewest home runs (74). They have made up for the lack of the long ball with the second-most doubles (167) in all of baseball.
When trailing in a ball game, they hit .247, the third-best mark in the AL. That number falls to .242, third from worst in the league, when playing with a tied score. When the bases are empty, they hit .252, fourth in the AL, but hit .241 with runners on, .226 with a runner in scoring position, .168 with a runner in scoring position and two outs, and .154 with the bases loaded. The one time they have seemed to succeed at a decent clip is with a runner on third and less than two outs, when they have hit .308 and have driven in the third-most runs in that situation in the league.
The more clutch the situation becomes, the worse the light-hitting Indians seem to perform.
Following Saturday’s action and with runners on base, the Indians have just two regulars over the .300 mark. The rest include Ryan Raburn (.299), David Murphy (.284), Giovanny Urshela (.267), Francisco Lindor (.255), Michael Bourn (.242), Moss (.212), Mike Aviles (.194), Carlos Santana (.191), Roberto Perez (.188), and Gomes (.164).
With runners in scoring position, the Indians have just two regulars and two parts of an outfield platoon who have hit better than .300 in those situations. The rest of the team is all below .250, including Perez (.250), Bourn (.216), Urshela (.208), Santana (.198), Aviles (.192), Moss (.188), Lindor (.143), and Gomes (.114).
The lone exceptions may be Jason Kipnis and Brantley. With the bases empty, Kipnis is hitting .316. With runners on, that mark increases to .343 and if in scoring position, it remains at a healthy .317. Brantley is hitting just .251 with the bases empty, but .342 with runners on base and .353 with those runners in scoring position.
Some of the guys have been victimized by some really bad luck. On a list of the 50 players with the largest percentage of grounders pulled, shared by ESPN’s Mark Simon on Twitter (@msimonespn) on July 18th, both Moss and Santana ranked in the top two-thirds of the list. Moss was 14th on the list pulling 68.6% of his grounders, indicating a trend that most fans have witnessed with regularity. What the list also noted of significance, however, is that of these players, only Ryan Howard (97.3%), David Ortiz (97%), Chris Davis (95.5%), Lucas Duda (92.6%), and Adam LaRoche (92.1%) were shifted on more than Moss (92%). It would seem to indicate that the pull-happy slugger has played right into opposing defenses’ gloves. Santana is in similarly bad shape, ranking 31st on the list with 64.8% of his grounders being pulled while being shifted on 73% of the time.
On another list, shared by Simon via Inside Edge Scout, three Indians ranked in the top 40 MLB players with the highest “hard-hit” rate. The measurement, based on a review of every at bat this season, breaks down each hit as either hard-hit, medium-hit, or soft-hit. Santana ranked as the highest of the three Indians, placing 14th with 20.1% of his hit balls categorizing as “hard-hit”. Despite that, his batting average was 34 points lower than any of the 13 players above him. Moss ranked in at 28th with an 18.8% rate, while Kipnis placed 39th with 18.2% of hit balls placing as “hard-hit”.
Of the 62 players on the list, Santana and Moss had just one other player with a batting average lower than them – current Astro and former Indian Luis Valbuena. While Kipnis may be benefiting from well struck balls finding holes in the infield or gaps in the outfield, Moss and Santana have little to show for hitting the ball with some authority. The hard-hit rate is not just limited to these three Indians either; Cleveland ranked first amongst all 30 teams with a 16.1% hard-hit rate, giving them the highest percentage of at bats ending with a hard-hit ball in all of baseball, 2.1% better than league average. But unlike the results for the other teams, these hard hits have not added up to runs and wins for the Tribe. It could be a statistical case of bad luck for the team.
Meanwhile, Cleveland’s starting pitching continues to go out and shut the door on opposing teams more often than not while suffering loss after loss. Sure, the starting rotation has a collective 4.15 ERA this season, ninth-best in the league, but when subtracting out the bad, bad, bad efforts of Shaun Marcum, Bruce Chen, Zach McAllister, Toru Murata, and T.J. House, that ERA falls 56 earned runs lower to 3.60, a mark that would be fourth-best in the league.
All teams will endure lengthy slumps and occasional gaps in production over the course of the season, but the one plaguing the Indians has lingered on long past its expiration date. It is difficult to consider that this Cleveland team, very similar to one that just two years ago averaged 4.60 runs per game, is struggling to eclipse the four-run average this season. It is hard to believe that the numbers missing from Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Giambi, and Nick Swisher would equate to be that much.
There is no quick fix to the Tribe’s problems, especially if bad luck (curses? jinxes? jixes?) are a factor. The starting pitching seems to be set for years to come. The defense should continue to improve as a continual youth movement pushes out the old (Swisher, Bourn, Raburn, Murphy, Aviles) and brings in the new over the next few years.
The offense may be the most confusing piece of the puzzle. Maybe Saturday’s nine run eruption will provide the team with a springboard to more consistent and productive offensive efforts. If the team can figure out the offensive woes, the pitching has kept them in plenty of ball games this season, and things could click nicely as a fully functioning machine. It is a problem that needs to be figured out, not just for the present, but very much so for the future, regardless of what the true cause may be.
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