April is now several days in the rear view mirror. Much further away is the Cleveland Indians’ magical run through the postseason and into their sixth World Series appearance in franchise history.
While the excitement, pomp, and circumstance led to high hopes last year and lofty expectations for this one, the first month of the 2017 Major League Baseball season reminded Tribe fans that this season is certainly not last season.
And that’s okay.
Last year was special in its own ways and frustrating in many others. The season concluded in heartbreaking fashion; a second championship for the city of Cleveland felt well within reach less than five months after the 52-year title drought ended. While fans waited for next year all offseason, next year is now this year and this year has been chock full of frustration and uncertainty, but with a winning record behind some inconsistent results on the field.
That the Indians were able to achieve the heights that they reached last season was remarkable, given that they played nearly all of the season without Michael Brantley, had next to no offensive production from three different catchers while two battled injuries for significant lengths of time, and two of the team’s top three starting pitchers were non-factors in the playoffs. With all of those negative circumstances, the Tribe reached the tenth inning of the seventh game of the World Series.
The American League pennant has been raised. The championship rings have been handed out and the players’ accomplishments of last season have been recognized and celebrated once more. But as the calendar page flipped to May, it became all the more imperative to leave the past behind and look forward, because there are still good things going on at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario that do not need to be clouded by the ghosts of last season’s shortcomings.
The Indians began the first month of the schedule with a 14-10 record. The road traveled kept the club away from Cleveland for half of the month and while it played exceptionally well away from Progressive Field during three of its four stops along the way (the Indians’ 8-4 road record was marred by a three-game sweep in Arizona over baseball’s opening weekend), the home portion of the schedule did not start out as favorably. But after dropping the first two home series to Chicago and Detroit, the Tribe did rebound with series wins over Houston and Seattle in their lone trips to Cleveland in 2017.
The high-scoring offense from last season, one that averaged 4.83 runs per game, was actually just a notch better than its efforts of a year ago, putting up 4.88 runs over the first 24 games of the year. The pitching staff, generally considered the strength of the squad, allowed 4.21 runs per night, a hair higher than the 4.20 average in 2016.
The 14 wins to start the year were encouraging when considering the Indians began last season with a 10-11 record with a +6 run differential. In playing three more games and earning four more wins than last season, the team put up a +16 run differential to start 2017.
The concern for the Indians may be how the runs are coming in, as they have come in bunches or not come at all. Three times the team has scored in double digits and in nine of 24 games, the club scored six runs or more. But in 11 games, the club scored three runs or fewer.
On the other side of the coin, the pitching staff allowed double digit tallies twice, six runs or more eight times, and three runs or less 11 times. The Indians were 11-2 when giving their pitching staff four runs or more to work with and 3-8 when providing three runs or less.
Brantley has been one of the reasons that the offense has gone in the right direction at times. Returning to left field after missing nearly all of last season, he has shown little sign of rust and appears to be getting better and better with each passing day, looking more comfortable with his abilities in the batter’s box after being away from it for so long. He appeared in 20 of the 24 games as the team used some caution with him (and rightfully so, given what he has already provided the club at the plate), and he delivered a .308/.365/.551 line at the plate with four doubles, five homers, and 17 RBI. It was this kind of production that was missing from the lineup last season, even if Jose Ramirez did everything in his power to single-handedly replace Brantley’s production himself last year.
Speaking of Ramirez, he hit .330 in April and .455 at home and was right up at the top of the Tribe’s leader board in several key offensive statistics. Still only 24 years old and showing little worry that his big contract prior to the season would negatively effect his play on the diamond, his 30 hits were tops on the team, as were his 21 RBI. His six doubles were the third-most on the roster and his six homers trailed only his temporary double play partner up the middle (Francisco Lindor) while Ramirez replaced Jason Kipnis at second base.
Lindor’s name has already generated some MVP talks, a little presumptuous at this stage of the season, but not necessarily unrealistic if he were to continue his numbers over the course of the season. Lindor was especially consistent at the plate last season and came out of the gate hitting .309 with a .380 on-base percentage and a .638 slugging mark with a team-high eight doubles and seven homers and the second-most RBI with 17. He was also third on the club in walks with 12 as the switch-hitting 23-year-old looked well on his way to a second consecutive All-Star appearance.
While there were the positives, there were some negatives to come from the offense.
Lonnie Chisenhall and Kipnis both started the season on the disabled list with shoulder injuries. Chisenhall’s was not as serious, occurring in a late spring wall collision, and after his rehab assignment appeared in 15 games and hit .302 for the club with a dozen RBI. Kipnis, however, has been much slower in getting going at the plate after his return a week later. With nine April games under his belt, he hit .161 with 11 strikeouts in 33 plate appearances. He has batted further down in the lineup with the logjam of talent at the top of the order, but he may be needed back at the top of the order at some point in the near future. He cannot help with his stick still in spring training mode.
Several young players lost opportunities in Cleveland due to underwhelming numbers and a decreasing amount of available playing time with Chisenhall and Kipnis activated during the month. Both Tyler Naquin and Yandy Diaz have performed well at Triple-A Columbus since their demotions, but more was hoped out of each player. Naquin left the roster when Chisenhall returned, hitting .235 at the time after just a handful of games. Diaz hit .236 in his first exposure at the Major League level, but after a double for his first MLB hit, he had just 12 singles and five walks while striking out 14 times in 61 plate appearances.
Carlos Santana, long removed from hitting for decent average at the plate, hit just .224 in the month. He did draw the second-most walks on the club to boast a .327 on-base percentage, but his power had not manifested the same way as it did in 2016. His eight doubles were tied for the team lead, but he had just two homers to his credit. While the power was not what it had been, he still remained a contributor to the offense with 16 RBI in his 24 games.
His tag team partner at first base, fellow Dominican Edwin Encarnacion, was off to a much slower start at the plate and has quietly dealt with an injury that relegated him to DH duties only for the entire second half of the month. After his first 24 games, he was hitting .200 with a .343 OBP and was the team’s walk leader with 17. His move to the Cleveland organization has not come without some transition as he had a long homerless drought through much of the month and his 35 strikeouts in 106 plate appearances in the month were almost double the next highest K totals on the club (Brantley and Abraham Almonte had 18 each). His bat will pick up, especially once he sees some more familiar pitching down the road.
The team had little production from the catching position last season at the plate and that has continued in the early going this season. Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez combined to hit .185 (15-for-81) with three doubles, a homer, seven RBI, six walks, and 18 strikeouts in the first month. Last year, Indians backstops combined to hit an MLB-worst .185 with a .244 OBP with 21 doubles, two triples, 16 homers, and 62 RBI.
The offense may have felt flat at times, but they still scored the fourth-most runs, drew the fourth-most walks, and racked up the fifth-fewest strikeouts in the AL for the month. In what may have been a sign of the team’s struggles to drive home runs, they were second in the league in sacrifice hits and third in sacrifice flies as the team looked to push for runs every way that they could.
The offense had its woes, but so too did the starting rotation. The five-man rotation of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin, and Trevor Bauer put up an 11-10 mark in the month with a 4.78 ERA and a 1.27 WHIP in 24 starts.
The pitching staff as a whole was one of the best in the league at striking out hitters and preventing walks. The bullpen was the only staff in baseball to convert every save opportunity. The relief corps combined for a 3-0 record with a 2.25 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP with 78 strikeouts and 23 walks in 68 innings of work while allowing just two home runs.
The undoing for the starters has been the big inning.
Kluber allowed four runs in the third inning of his first start in a no-decision on Opening Day against the Texas Rangers. He allowed three in the fourth inning of his third start, a win over Detroit. Now, the team will have to hope that his lower back strain does not linger beyond his 10-day DL trip. The ace of the staff was 3-1 in historically his worst month of the year with a 4.19 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP in five starts.
Bauer’s first start to the season was a pitcher’s duel for five innings with Zack Greinke before the Tribe starter was tagged for three runs in a four-run sixth that proved to be the difference in the ball game. The bullpen did not help the cause, giving up six in the eighth. Two home runs in the middle innings of his next start, a three-run shot in the fifth to Miguel Cabrera and a two-run blast by Alex Avila, gave the Tigers a big lead that would prove costly as the Indians’ five-run ninth fell one run short in the 7-6 defeat. It was a similar script in his final start of the month as a pair of two-run homers in the fourth and sixth against the Astros could have cost the Indians, had it not been for a big first inning and a couple of two-run innings in the middle frames.
Salazar and Tomlin combined to allow 15 runs in the first inning. Twice in the month, Salazar gave up three runs in the first inning, including three runs on three pitches against Seattle on April 29 and three more the start before against Chicago when he faced nine batters in the inning and struck out the final out of the frame with the bases loaded. He also allowed three fifth inning runs to Texas in his first start on April 5. Tomlin allowed 13 runs in his first two starts alone, including a five spot in his first start in the fifth inning against the Diamondbacks, seven through the first five outs against the White Sox in his second start, and three in the sixth in a 12-4 win over the Mariners on April 30.
Carrasco may have been the best and most consistent of the bunch, posting a 2-2 record with a 2.04 ERA and a 0.79 WHIP in five April starts.
The relievers made up for the struggles of the rotation, posting a 2.25 ERA in the month, the second-lowest in the league.
Cody Allen was locked in over the course of the month, allowing just one run (0.90 ERA) on ten hits with a walk over ten innings. He saved all six of his opportunities to close and he struck out an absurd 20 of the 40 batters that he faced.
Andrew Miller was not charged a run in 11 2/3 innings of work over ten outings with 16 strikeouts and four walks, the latter of which was uncharacteristically high for the left-hander. Nick Goody, his former teammate from New York, allowed an unearned run over seven and one-third innings of five games with a 0.55 WHIP and a .091 batting average against after his mid-month promotion. Boone Logan allowed two runs (one earned) in eleven games in his first season in Cleveland.
Defensively, the pitching staff and catchers combined to throw out more than 50% of would-be base stealers, working as one of just two teams to do that in the first month of the season.
It may be difficult at times to move along from last season’s run to the postseason and expect the team to perform at that same playoff level at the start of the year. It is not to say that the hopes should not be for a return to meaningful October baseball, but baseball’s regular season is a 162-game grind. Players will be hurt, others will slump, and the team may even have to make some midseason adjustments through trades. It took similar last season to push the Indians over the hump and they very much needed a lengthy June winning streak to put enough space between themselves and the rest of the division to breathe a little easier.
The Indians have started out four wins better than a season ago and that improved level of play should keep them in contention as the year progresses. They have the lineup to contend, the experience to know how to get back to the playoffs, and the hunger to finish the job that was left unfinished in 2016.
They may not be waiting for next year, but they are ready to move on from the past and blaze a new path through the 2017 season.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images