A common theme to most ball games for the Cleveland Indians this season has been the lineup’s inability to contribute meaningful at bats with runners in scoring position. But, as it turns out, the Indians are hardly the only team struggling to produce when opportunity knocks.
There were already significant concerns about what Cleveland was going to bring to the plate after losing the reliable, albeit occasionally inconsistent, bat of Carlos Santana in the winter. While he is hardly lighting the city of Philadelphia on fire with his production – he has slashed .151/.301/.288 for the Phillies with four doubles, two homers, and ten RBI in 21 games – he has knocked in eight runs when stepping to the plate with runners in scoring position.
Couple that with the loss of the rented Jay Bruce from the roster, and it was tough to see how the Indians might replace the departing production. Compounding the problem even further, Michael Brantley started the year on the disabled list, Lonnie Chisenhall lasted just seven games before succumbing to a strained right calf, and some of the bigger names in the lineup (Yonder Alonso, Edwin Encarnacion, Jason Kipnis, Francisco Lindor, and Jose Ramirez) are hitting .236 or lower through the club’s first 19 games.
The offensive woes have been real, but the Indians still sit atop the American League Central Division with an 11-8 (.579) record, fifth best in the AL.
For most of the Tribe bats, those numbers get even worse when hitting in higher pressure situations with a runner standing at second or third base. Those moments have become even more heightened for Cleveland this season, as the offense is one of the worst at producing runs in all of baseball. Heading into action on Monday night, the Indians were tied for the second-fewest runs scored in the AL and were the second-worst team in all of baseball when it came to driving in runners in scoring position.
There have been a few bright spots, however, that have gotten lost in the droughts and difficulties that have come from unsuccessfully trying to push across runs. Despite the scoring woes, the team has one of the best pitching staffs in the game, helping to make up for the lack of run support. The starting staff has the third-best ERA (2.66) in the league and is tops in batting average against (.201) and WHIP (0.98). The bullpen, which appeared suspect early after the losses of Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith to free agency, has the third-best ERA (2.63), the third-fewest homers allowed (5), and the top batting average against (.198) and WHIP (0.97). As a whole, the Indians still have a +14 run differential without much from the bats and they have allowed the fewest runs in all of baseball – just 54, with 31 of that total coming in four games.
It has not been all doom and gloom from the offense at the plate.
Brantley, who has taken up residence in the cleanup spot for the club, has hit .462 with a .538 slugging mark when hitting with runners in scoring position, notching six hits in 13 at bats while driving in seven runs. That mark is second on the team, tied with Lindor (.333 average with a .667 slugging mark with two doubles and a homer in 15 at bats with runners in scoring position) and one behind Alonso (.267 with a .533 slugging with a double and a homer in 15 at bats).
Those three have easily carried the load.
On the other side, Encarnacion is hitless in 13 at bats with runners in scoring position. Five of those at bats have ended in strikeouts and four plate appearances ended in walks. He has just one RBI in those situations this season and it came on a bases loaded hit by pitch. Yan Gomes is 1-for-12 (.083) with RISP with a single and an RBI. Bradley Zimmer is 1-for-10 with a single, a walk, and an RBI while striking out five times. Kipnis is 3-for-16 (.158) with a double and four RBI, but has struck out a team-leading seven times. Ramirez is 3-for-16 (.188) with a homer and four RBI.
Some players are coming around at the plate, so there could be increased opportunities coming for better production from the lineup. Both Kipnis and Gomes are riding eight-game hitting streaks, and Brantley has remained productive, hitting in his last seven.
Previous career trends would seem to indicate that at least a few of those slumping guys – especially Encarnacion and Ramirez – would bust out of those April funks in the near future.
Encarnacion’s slow starts are well chronicled, but he warmed up last season and slashed .247/.352/.481 with 69 of his RBI for the year coming with runners in scoring position. He looks to be caught in between this April, ahead of the breaking junk and behind the heater. He is striking out at a 30.0% rate, well above his 16.7% career rate and the near 20% rate of the previous two seasons. His walk rate of 7.5% is less than half of his 15.5% mark of a year ago and still a ways below his 11.1% career average. The BABIP is probably the most telling number, as after putting up numbers in the .260-.270 range for the last four seasons and .271 for his career, his sits at .143 through his first 19 games of the 2018 schedule. His pull rate is down more than 7.5%, his line drive percentage is down 5.9%, and his soft contact rate has cut into his hard contact percentage, putting some potential emphasis on his guessing game at the plate and leading to him not squaring the ball up well. Those numbers should all improve, if his prior years’ efforts are replicated.
Ramirez was pressing a bit after his slow start, but has heated up of late. He has looked far more like the player of old in the last seven games, hitting .355 with a .429 OBP and an .839 slugging mark in that span with five homers and seven RBI. Last season, he was one of the club’s best hitters with runners in scoring position, putting up a .280/.354/.512 slash at the plate with ten doubles, two triples, five homers, and 50 RBI. His .169 BABIP would certainly indicate that his numbers will return to norm (after a .333 line in 2016 and a .319 mark last season). He is walking at nearly twice the clip of previous seasons, possibly a reflection on the league respecting his game and working around him more than in the past. He has also been a little more pull-happy this season, just over 6.5% more frequently, and his line drive percentage (down more than 7% from his career average) has been affected by an increase in fly balls (up by more than 11.5%). It has not been a matter of pitch selection, as he has swung at 20.9% of pitches out of the zone, the best mark of his career in the small sample size.
The Indians offense should get a good jolt when two of its top three RBI men from a season ago really get going.
One of the biggest problems with the Indians lineup this season has been the ways in which the team is scoring. The Tribe has scored just 68 runs this season through 19 games (3.58 runs per game), yet is three games above the .500 mark. Their run total has equaled that of both Minnesota (8-8) and Kansas City (5-15), two teams clearly heading in opposite directions this season. Only the Chicago White Sox (4-14) have scored fewer runs (64) than the Indians this season in the AL.
This year, through 19 games, the club has a .191/.283/.298 line at the plate with six doubles, three homers, and 37 RBI with runners at second and/or third and an overall effort of .219/.290/.367 with 26 doubles, 24 homers, and 66 RBI. Last season, the Indians were third in the AL in scoring with 818 runs, an average of 5.05 per game. They drove in 550 runs with runners in scoring position while slashing .252/.334/.423, ninth overall in the league. They were eighth in 2016 (.260/.336/.404 with 519 RBI) during the club’s World Series run.
Fourteen of Cleveland’s runs this season have come in via solo home run, accounting for more than 20% of the offensive production. Another nine homers have been of the two-run variety and Alonso hit a grand slam, giving the Indians 36 of their 68 runs (53%) via home run in 2018. Only one of Ramirez’s two-run homers, Lindor’s lone two-run homer, and Alonso’s slam came with runners in scoring position, providing eight of the 37 runs (21.6%) driven in by the Tribe with runners in prime spots on the base paths.
Last year, the Indians were smack in the middle of the AL with 212 home runs. They hit 126 solo shots, 57 two-run homers, another 24 three-run shots, and five grand slams. The jogs around the bases produced a total of 332 runs, or roughly 40.6% of the offense’s overall run production. This year’s squad, in the small sample size thus far, is relying on its runs from the deep fly at a far more substantial pace, something that will hopefully balance back out as the year progresses.
As the weather warms up and the erratic schedule settles down, the Indians bats will find the success that they have had in the past while still getting plenty of production from the home run in the summer’s heat. So far, they have been able to ride the long ball while not performing well in the clutch, but over the course of a 162-game season, things should move back a bit towards the norm. If the numbers do not bounce back, it would not be out of the question or all that surprising for the Indians to once again look for a little more offensive support on the trade market come summertime, especially given the long track record of dominance from the starting staff over the last few years.
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