Normal logic would dictate that the removal of five veteran players from a team within the span of just over a week would leave the remaining members of the roster in a bit of a state of shock.
Somehow, if there was a negative result from the trades of those familiar faces from the Cleveland locker room at the end of July and the first week of August, the effects did not show on the field nor in the standings.
After a purge of a large chunk of money from the roster, fans would have understood a subpar result for the rest of the season. Instead, a 16-12 August gave the Indians their second-best month of the season (May: 17-12) and threw their name back into a large mix of teams fighting for their postseason lives.
What gets lost in that record is that the team started the month 1-5. hurt by a pair of walk off losses on a west coast trip through Oakland and Anaheim. Beginning Saturday, August 8th, the first full day in the post-Nick Swisher and post-Michael Bourn eras in the city, the team rattled off four straight wins and would end the month with a six-game winning streak to match a season high. The club played at a .682 clip, but even despite the better play, they actually lost ground in the American League Central, falling two games further behind the Kansas City Royals, while they churned water in the Wild Card race, remaining five games out of the second spot. There was progress to note, however, as they hopped three teams that stood in their way in the highly contested race.
Starting with August 1st, the Indians compiled the fourth-best record in the AL through the rest of the season with a 33-26 (.559) mark, bested only by Toronto (40-18, .690), Texas (38-22, .633), and Kansas City (34-26, .567). Notably, all three of those teams played in the ALDS and two are in the ALCS, beginning Friday night.
The revival started following the Swisher and Bourn trades to Atlanta on August 7th. It was aided by other minor deals sending outfielders David Murphy and Brandon Moss to Los Angeles and St. Louis, respectively, and reliever Marc Rzepczynski to San Diego.
There are plenty of speculative points to make regarding the rebirth of the club after the departure of those guys.
Maybe with the pressure of having to contend off of the team, they were able to settle down and just play some better baseball. Of the five men to depart the town, only one was having a quality year (Murphy) at the time and he may have been quietly one of the harshest blows of the moves.
It is possible too that with the removal of high-priced, low-return talent on the club, any sort of resentments in the locker room disappeared. The guys being paid the most on the roster were neither contributors nor true leaders among men. Swisher had become more mascot than member of the team, with his extended absences and ineffectiveness diminishing any sort of positive return his high energy attitude may have provided. Bourn was just finally starting to play at his best level in an Indians uniform at the time of the trade; once back in Atlanta, his previous home of a year and a half, he hit .221 with four steals and four extra base hits out of 30 hits as a Brave.
What the moves did do was create playing time and opportunities for some new faces in town.
Abraham Almonte, departing the Padres organization, started his Indians journey in Columbus, although that stay was brief. He would join the Indians outfield and play nearly every day, hitting .282 in 22 games in the month. He was surprisingly well-rounded in his contributions, hitting eleven singles, five doubles, three triples, and three homers on the way to 14 RBI and 15 runs scored. He hit .264 for the season with Cleveland with five homers and 20 RBI in 51 games, after a .204 average over 31 games in San Diego with just three doubles and four RBI in limited opportunity.
Chris Johnson arrived from the Braves. A fresh start was needed for the former National League batting champion runner-up, and he showed much more at the plate for Cleveland than he had for Atlanta over the course of the last three seasons. He had seen his average steadily decline from .321 with the Braves in 2013 to .263 last season and he had fallen to .235 when trade time tolled. A fluke bug bite cost him his hot start for the Tribe, as he hit .429 in six games in the month with three doubles. He would hit .289 in 27 games in his two months for Cleveland.
The trades of Murphy and Moss created roster spots and playing time for Lonnie Chisenhall and Jose Ramirez in particular, who were both unceremoniously shipped to Columbus after horrid starts to their 2015 seasons. Chisenhall was third on the club for the month with a .403 average in 23 games while driving in 14 runs. Ramirez hit just .241, matching a cooled-off Jason Kipnis, but he had a .333 on-base percentage courtesy of a dozen walks. He was third on the club for the month with 15 runs scored.
These numbers complemented those of Michael Brantley (.406 in 24 games; ten doubles, three homers, 17 RBI, team-high 19 runs scored) and Francisco Lindor (.370 in 28 games; eight doubles, two homers, 12 RBI, 18 runs scored). Carlos Santana was more productive, driving in a team-high 20 runs in the month, while Yan Gomes led the team with four homers and was second with his 18 runs batted in.
The Tribe picked it up at the plate, posting their second most runs of the season over the course of the month. They averaged 4.89 runs per game, just short of the 5.03 scored in the month of May, when they scored a season-high 146 runs and won 17 games.
By comparison, they averaged 3.76 runs per game in 21 April dates, 3.04 in 26 June tilts, and 3.58 in 26 July contests. Not surprisingly, they were eleven games under .500 in those three months combined.
People can try to argue that the game of baseball has changed, that pitching is the key and that the monster offensive clubs of the 1990s are extinct. While that may be true on many levels, the Indians’ season made for a simple statement.
More runs equal more wins.
Once the Indians offense awoke from its extended hibernation, the club flourished. This is not to say, however, that the pitching staff did not play a significant role in the successful month.
Danny Salazar led the staff with a 3-1 record in five starts. He had a 2.53 ERA and averaged more than ten strikeouts per nine innings with a WHIP of 1.06. Josh Tomlin was right behind him, posting an identical 3-1 record, but doing so in four starts with a 3.08 ERA. He struck out 8.9 batters per nine innings, averaged a team-best 13 strikeouts per every one walk, and had a devastating WHIP of 0.76.
Corey Kluber made six starts, winning two and losing two, with an ERA of 3.32. He was second on the staff with a 7.83 strikeout/walk rate, averaged 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings, and had a WHIP of 0.81 with a pair of complete games.
Carlos Carrasco was just 1-1 in four starts, but it was not his fault that he did not get more wins. He had a 1.47 ERA, averaged 9.7 strikeouts/nine, and had a WHIP for the month of 0.69.
May was a strong month for the Tribe at the plate in regards to its runs per game production, but the pitching staff was still allowing 4.24 runs per game. The pitching staff remained consistent in June, averaging 4.31 runs per game, but the offense fell off almost two full runs and the team went 11-15.
In August, the team had the complete package. The 4.89 runs of offense complemented a season-low 3.64 runs allowed per game, leading the team to its biggest score differential of the season.
While the bats cooled a tad in September (4.44 runs/game), the staff allowed 3.67 runs per game. The team, with no surprise, again posted a winning record.
The recipe for success seems clear enough – the Indians will need to play April 2016 like August 2015, or at least like September 2015. If they once again act as though April doesn’t matter, they will dig a hole too deep to climb out of. That was the case this season, as a 7-14 start proved disastrous for a team that finished four and a half games out of the second Wild Card spot.
Every. Game. Matters.
The staff showed the consistency throughout the season to give the team and its fans a belief that they can replicate the production at a similar level moving forward. The offense could use the attention of the offseason to bring in a piece to supplement a full season of Lindor on the roster and return performances of Brantley, Kipnis, and others. If they can do that, they may have a legitimate contender moving forward.
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