In Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona’s first season at the helm of the club, he turned a 68-94 team that had finished with the second-fewest runs scored in the American League in 2012 with 667 into a potent run-scoring machine that finished fourth in 2013 with 745 runs and reached the AL Wild Card game.
In each of the last two seasons, the club has tallied 669 runs while moving further and further down the runs scored leaderboard in the league and, in a potentially related factoid, has failed to make the playoffs in either circumstance.
So who pulled the plug on the Tribe’s offense over the last two seasons?
The Indians were eleventh in the league in runs scored this season with 669, 20 off the pace of the Detroit Tigers above them. Statistically speaking, they were an average offensive squad. Of the 15 teams in the league, they were 13th in homers; 12th in extra base hits; eleventh in RBI; eighth in hits and triples; sixth in team batting average and stolen bases; fifth in on-base percentage; fourth in sacrifice flies; third in walks; second in doubles and intentional walks; and first in sacrifice bunts. They hit into the third-most double plays in the league with 134.
In 2014, they were similarly in the middle of the pack in most offensive categories, with the same amount of runs scored as 2015, but fewer doubles and one more home run.
It has been a stark contrast from Francona’s first season back in Cleveland, when the offense was productive and a force. That lineup scored 76 more runs than the offense provided in each of the last two seasons and, while they had fewer doubles than the 2015 Tribe, they had 30 more homers and won the first of the two AL Wild Card spots.
A well balanced offensive attack that season did not see any one player with dominating numbers, but the team as a whole had contributions from top to bottom.
Jason Kipnis led the team with a .284 average with 17 homers and 84 RBI. Michael Brantley matched Kipnis’s average and had ten homers and 73 RBI of his own. Nick Swisher led the team with 22 homers and chipped in 63 RBI. Carlos Santana hit .268 with 20 homers and 74 RBI. A half season of Yan Gomes provided a .294 mark at the plate with 11 homers and 38 RBI in 88 games. Part time players like Ryan Raburn and Mark Reynolds provided plenty of pop, even if Reynolds did not complete the year in an Indians uniform.
Last season, it was a different story. While Brantley had an MVP-caliber season, Santana led the club with 27 homers and was second with 85 RBI while hitting just .231. Gomes broke out with a 21-homer season, but Kipnis and Swisher succumbed to injury. Lonnie Chisenhall could not carry a strong start through the whole season. Michael Bourn was out of the lineup 56 times and hit .257 with just ten steals when in the lineup, although he did lead the team with ten triples. After having ten different players in double digits in home runs in 2013, they had just four achieve that status for 2014.
The big money guys could not cut it in 2015. Swisher hit .198 with two homers and eight RBI in 30 games this season while lost to injury. Bourn hit .246 with 19 RBI and 29 runs scored with 13 stolen bases, but had just 12 doubles and a triple for his extra base production. Brandon Moss, acquired for a minor league infielder in the offseason, gave the club 15 homers and 50 RBI, but he struck out 106 times in 94 games and hit .217 while not walking nearly enough to compensate for the low average.
It was a lot of sunk cost for the Tribe, but certainly not the sole reason the club struggled.
Guys like Chisenhall and Ramirez played better in the second half, but they hit .209 and .176 respectively in the first half of the season, leaving an offensive void to match a defensive one provided on the left side of the infield.
The injury to Swisher was not the only time the injury bug bit the club.
Brantley played through nagging injuries throughout the season and finished with a .310 mark at the plate with 15 homers and 84 RBI, the latter two second on the club for the year. Had his back and shoulder been strong all year, one can only wonder how his numbers would have been positively affected. Could he have been an MVP candidate for a second straight season?
Gomes was lost during the season’s opening weekend in an unfortunate play at the plate. While he did not miss as much time as some feared, his bat looked like it was still in spring training when he rejoined the lineup. He hit .231 for the year and finished with a dozen homers and 45 RBI, but he also struck out 104 times in 95 games played, 16 fewer than the previous season in 40 fewer games played.
Giovanny Urshela provided the defense lacking at third base upon his arrival, but he would hit .225 at the hot corner with six homers and 27 RBI with numbers mirroring those of Ramirez.
The team as a whole, once again, had just four guys in double digits in homers at season’s end after the Moss trade to St. Louis. Santana led the lot with 19 and added a team-high 85 RBI, but he was generally the most criticized offensive weapon on the club due to a .231 average that most focused on while ignoring a .357 on-base percentage.
It may be a chicken or the egg debate, but a noticeable statistic that jumps out over the last two seasons is the Indians’ increased reliance on bunting. It may just be a philosophical change in the clubhouse or it may be a response from the lack of the long ball as a source of run support.
In each of the last two seasons, the Indians have employed a position player who has led the league in bunting while playing in less than two-thirds of the team’s games for the year. In each season, they have been the most bunt-happy team in the AL and this season alone they out-bunted six different National League teams, the same ones who routinely bunt starting pitchers when situations call for it.
Francisco Lindor led the AL and all Major League position players with his 13 sacrifice bunts in 99 games played. Jose Ramirez had the same number in 68 games the previous year and was tied for the MLB lead with a full-time Yankees outfielder and a St. Louis starting pitcher. Mike Aviles was right on his heels with eleven sac bunts in 113 games.
Related in that clear cut change in the team’s approach at the plate is the level of preparedness that the batters have prior to heading into the box.
Throughout the season, there were some who questioned how effectively hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo and assistant hitting coach Matt Quatraro were preparing their hitters and how well they were working to break bats out of slumps.
It was just the second season in franchise history that the team has employed two hitting coaches on the staff. While Van Burkleo was expected to be in the dugout watching Cleveland players hit and reviewing video while they were in the field, Quatraro was to be in the cages working with the designated hitter and keeping bench players prepped for their eventual turns. At one point, it was shared that the two would be splitting video work while Quatraro would be studying the numbers to look for statistical advantages for the team at the plate.
Incidentally, since the team went to two hitting coaches, the offensive has gotten worse.
They started slowly and that slow start in April killed the club, putting them at a 7-14 mark and in a massive hole that took four months to climb out of. Ramirez hit .175. Kipnis hit .218, Chisenhall .221, and Santana .239. The team hit .238 as a whole.
Kipnis ended his struggles in May, but slowed at year’s end. Meanwhile, Roberto Perez hit .156 in 18 May games, Ramirez .198 in 24 games, Chisenhall .209 in 26 games, Santana .217 in 22 games, and Swisher .228 in 23 games.
Obviously, the players are responsible for working their way out of slumps and performing at the best of their abilities. But there are now multiple coaches there in the clubhouse with the explicit responsibility of helping them hit.
Playing on the big stage of the Majors is not exactly the best place for young players to work through issues at the plate, but it was clear that the June trip to Triple-A Columbus benefited guys like Chisenhall and Ramirez, who hit far better upon their return later in the year. Was that a reflection of the wake up call sent to both players by the demotion? Or was it a sign that Clippers hitting coach Rouglas Odor was the man that they needed to work with to get back on the right track?
The 47-year-old Odor has spent 27 years with the Tribe in some capacity. Last season was his first as the Triple-A hitting coach after spending the previous season in the same role at Double-A Akron. He was recognized for his efforts midseason when he was named as part of the World Team coaching staff for the Futures Game during the All-Star break.
For anyone holding out hopes that Francona would let go of his guy Van Burkleo after the team’s second straight subpar performance at the plate, think again. Per MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian on Saturday, the entire coaching staff will return under Francona for the 2016 season.
There are lots of fingers to point in many different directions, but one thing is clear – a team that cannot afford to spend big money and make big mistakes and truly embodies an “every game counts” mentality cannot afford slow starts, long slumps, and extended stretches of little run support to a starting rotation that statistically rivaled some of the best in the game. This season was lost in the hands of those who failed to perform at the plate, not those who tossed from sixty feet six inches away.
The bats will need to provide consistently in 2016 for the Indians to have a chance in the AL Central and in the playoff race in general.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images