Tough April for Tribe Ended with Winning Record
Bob Toth | On 02, May 2019
All things considered, the opening month of the season could have gone much worse for the Cleveland Indians.
With a lineup a shell of last year’s version and without All-Star Francisco Lindor‘s presence in the lineup for nearly three weeks, the Indians managed to put together a winning month. A 16-12 record is hardly something to brag about, especially for a team expected by most to run away with an American League Central Division constructed primarily with orange barrels and yellow caution tape, but for just the third time in the Terry Francona tenure in Cleveland, the Indians left the first month of the season with more Ws than Ls.
It didn’t come pretty. The +4 run differential was just one such stat to indicate the current state of affairs in Cleveland.
April isn’t always the best indicator for the Indians’ potential over the course of the year. The weather in Cleveland sucks early, and if the team isn’t playing at Progressive Field in the cold and the wind, they are dealing with early season road trips while still getting their legs underneath them. Last year, the team went 15-12 in March/April with a run differential of -1. They were 14-10 with a +16 in 2017. Both of those teams made it to the playoffs (although neither run was all that memorable). The 2016 World Series Tribe club started the year 10-11, outscoring opponents 91-85 to open the year. That season turned out pretty well, as long as you forget about what happened in Game 7.
Until recent memory, Francona clubs were frequently slow starters in Cleveland. For comparison’s sake, the Indians were 11-13 in 2013, 11-17 in 2014, and 7-14 in 2015 under Francona in the first month of those seasons. So that 16-12 mark, while not what many hoped, still marked the second-best opening month under Francona during his seven seasons at the helm of the Indians.
After all of the subtracting and subtracting and even more subtracting from the roster in the offseason, there was some expectation that specific areas of the roster were likely to see some significant regressions.
As a team, the Indians were at the bottom of the baseball leaderboard in key offensive statistics. The lineup combined to hit just .215, worst in the American League and third-worst in MLB. A .301 on-base percentage pulled them closer to the middle of the pack overall (23rd), but it was still the second-worst in the AL (thanks to the number of plate appearances wasted in the senior circuit on light-hitting pitchers). Little power production led to a .340 slugging mark, worst in the AL by 32 points and the second-worst in the game, seven points in front of the Miami Marlins (who entered the day Wednesday with the worst record in baseball). The Indians had just 26 homers as a team (led by Leonys Martin’s five), six ahead of Detroit’s MLB low of 20 and good for 26th overall.
The team’s shift in roster construction and approach could be seen in some of the other peripherals. They stole 20 bases (tied for sixth overall) and showed patience at the plate, drawing walks 10.1% of the time (eighth overall). A wRC+ of 69 and a strikeout rate of 25.9% put them among the worst through the end of April in both figures, and they were one of three teams to post a negative fWAR (-0.1) through the first month of the year (only Miami and Colorado were worse).
Since home runs were not leading to much of the team’s overall offensive support on the scoreboard (22 solo shots, three two-run homers, and one three-run shot finally recorded on Tuesday), the team found some clutch ways to get runners across the plate. Cleveland was at the top of Fangraphs’ “Clutch” stat through the first month-plus of the season with a 1.32 mark. They hit .268 in high leverage situations (per Baseball-Reference) with 33 RBI in 146 plate appearances. With two outs and runners in scoring position, they drove in 38 of their runs with a .288 average and a .417 OBP. Seven of Carlos Santana’s RBI came in such situation while he hit .455 with a .667 OBP. Jose Ramirez, despite his struggles, found a way to contribute, driving in four in those spots with a .286 average.
The offense lacked thunder. It took the team 26 games to register its first three-run home run (thank you, Carlos Gonzalez), and that didn’t come until the final day of April. Trading Edwin Encarnacion clearly spelled a drop off in home runs, and not bringing back Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, and Yan Gomes (gone to Houston and Pittsburgh via free agency and Washington via trade, respectively) meant that their offensive production was going to need to be replaced and that several players in the lineup were not going to have their usual protection around them.
Yes, Santana has been everything one could have hoped for in his return to the Indians and he fills some of the power void vacated by Encarnacion. Coming home to Cleveland, a city that he never fully left after signing his expensive free agent deal with the Philadelphia Phillies last offseason, Santana has been the most consistent hitter on the club since day one of the campaign and has carried the offense every step of the way. In 27 games in March and April, he posted a .316/.430/.463 slash with five doubles and three home runs. He led the club in RBI (16) and runs scored (17), as well as in hits (30) and walks (18). His strong walk rate may have been aided by less support around him in the lineup, but paired with his uncharacteristically high batting average, he gave the Tribe one of the top OBP men in the league. His strikeout-to-walk rate was a perfect 1.00, working the 18 walks and striking out 18 times in 114 total plate appearances.
Encarnacion, to his credit, had a productive first month of his own, slashing .238/.376/.485 with a double, eight homers, and 20 RBI while walking 19 times in 125 plate appearances for Seattle.
The early results favor the Tampa Bay Rays in the other portion of the three-team trade that moved Encarnacion to the Mariners and Santana back to the Tribe. The Jake Bauers for Yandy Diaz flip gave the Indians a corner outfielder and a first base option while purging the “positionless” Diaz, but the muscular specimen introduced himself to Rays fans by putting on an offensive display while getting his first consistent look in the Majors at the age of 27. Diaz put up a .298/.395/.596 slash with five doubles, a triple, seven homers, and 18 RBI in 26 games while serving as a third and first base option for the club. He had hit just one career homer in 88 games for Cleveland in 2017 and 2018. Bauers, 23, started off a bit slow, but in his 26 games, he hit .241 with a .323 OBP and a .379 slugging mark with three doubles, three homers, and eleven RBI (second on the club to Santana).
The rest of the outfield around Bauers has almost fully lived up to the preseason expectations of being an offensive void and one of the glaring weaknesses on the roster. Martin slumped but recovered with a career-high five homers in the month, a surprise and intriguing contribution from the team’s center fielder. Jordan Luplow and Greg Allen each received demotions to Columbus during the month, and Tyler Naquin’s numbers have been up and down as well in right, despite posting the second-best overall batting average on the club throughout the month. Gonzalez, 33, was brought up after serving his spring training time at Columbus and has just started to flash some of the old power that once made him one of the more dynamic players in the game.
Production out of the catcher’s spot has been underwhelming. Roberto Perez has worked in 20 games, hitting .215 with two doubles, two homers, and five RBI while striking out 23 times in 70 plate appearances. Kevin Plawecki has been in the lineup 12 times, hitting .222 with three doubles and a solo homer accounting for his entire run production. Gomes, meanwhile, hit .254 in 19 games with two doubles, two homers, and eight RBI for the Nationals, and youngster Eric Haase (the team’s other catcher on the 40-man roster) has gone deep seven times and driven in 13 for Triple-A Columbus, despite a .219/.311/.563 slash there in 17 games.
Ramirez is still broken. Lost since sometime after the All-Star break last season, pitchers have seemingly figured out how to pitch to him and the former MVP candidate sometimes looks too focused on trying to hit the ball to the moon. Some late production pulled him closer to the Mendoza line, but through 121 trips to the plate, he was hitting .181 with a .281 OBP and a .276 slugging mark with four doubles, two homers, and nine RBI.
The Indians cut bait with a pair of veterans brought in late in the spring who made some offensive contributions to the club, but became roster casualties when injured players returned to the roster. Hanley Ramirez hit two homers and drove in eight, but with 17 strikeouts in 57 plate appearances and just a .184 average at the dish, he was designated for assignment and outrighted to Columbus (he declined that plan and became a free agent). Brad Miller helped fill Jason Kipnis’ absence and hit .250 with three doubles, a homer, and four RBI, but he was let go as the team continued to look at rookie Eric Stamets (who struck out in 24 of his 48 trips to the plate while posting a 2-for-41 mark) and utility man Max Moroff (who hit a paltry .129 over 19 games). Miller, of course, took a parting shot at the Tribe front office at his DFA, noting that the Indians did not want to keep their best players with them, which, at least statistically, was correct of the 29-year-old who now toils in the New York Yankees’ Triple-A system while waiting for the injury bug to feast on the Bombers’ lineup some more.
Kipnis and Lindor were out of action for a stretch, and Gonzalez was a late arrival to the squad, so their results were limited based on the short time that they have been with the club. Their numbers will be important moving forward, as they will provide the kind of lineup production that Santana and Ramirez will need to be able to flourish.
As for the starting rotation, the results have been mixed. Trevor Bauer has struggled with walks, but has allowed just 27 hits in an MLB-high 47 2/3 innings of work (1.05 WHIP) while going 4-1 with a 2.45 ERA in seven starts. Shane Bieber (3.68 ERA, 1.06 WHIP) has been a pleasant sight out of the fifth spot in the rotation, showing no early signs of a sophomore slump. Corey Kluber has had some unusual command problems, leading to a 2-2 showing in six starts with a 5.81 ERA and a 1.68 WHIP. Carlos Carrasco (2-3, 5.86 ERA, 1.45 WHIP) is second on the staff in strikeouts in an up and down month, and a knee injury in his last start against Miami cost him what looked to be one of his better outings in the making. The loss of Mike Clevinger to an upper back sprain after allowing just two hits and striking out 22 batters in two outings was an untimely blow, but Jefry Rodriguez (acquired with others for Gomes from the Nationals in November) has worked himself in as a serviceable option from Columbus in a pair of spot starts, allowing three runs in 12 2/3 innings (2.13 ERA, 0.79 WHIP).
The bullpen lost Cody Allen and Andrew Miller. Brad Hand has served his role well, earning nine saves with a 1.32 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP with 19 strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings as Francona’s biggest late-inning weapon. Nick Wittgren has been a solid addition since being called up from Columbus, posting a 0.87 ERA and a 0.77 WHIP with a 12.2 K/9 rate in eight games and ten and one-third innings of work. Dan Otero has worked around a 1.50 WHIP with a 1.50 ERA in his ten appearances, despite striking out just five batters in 12 innings. The others around them have been far less impactful, as Tyler Olson (3.38 ERA, 1.63 WHIP) has struggled with walks and Oliver Perez (7.94 ERA, 1.94 WHIP) has given up two homers in five and two-thirds innings of work from the left side. Neil Ramirez (6.55 ERA, 1.82 WHIP) has given up nine runs, 13 hits, and seven walks in eleven innings, Adam Cimber (4.63 ERA, 0.69 WHIP) has given up runs in bunches despite some otherwise effective outings, and Jon Edwards (1.80 ERA, 1.80 WHIP) was shipped back to Columbus after walking five and hitting two in five innings of work.
Incidentally, Allen lost his closer’s job in Los Angeles and posted an 0-2 mark in April with a 6.00 ERA and a 1.89 WHIP (walking ten in nine innings while giving up three homers) before he was removed from the ninth inning role. He has since landed on the 10-day injured list with a lumbar spine strain that will keep him out for at least a couple of weeks. Miller, in his first season in the National League since 2010, has supplied the St. Louis Cardinals with six holds and a save, but he has blown a save while posting a 5.56 ERA, a 1.77 WHIP, and nine walks in eleven and one-third innings over 16 appearances. Bullpens are fickle beasts, and life has been little better away from Cleveland for two of the key workhorses of the Tribe’s magical 2016 run to the Fall Classic.
Given the mixed production across the board, things could certainly be worse for Francona’s 25 guys. A 16-12 start has them near the top of the division, just in back of Minnesota. They did not dig themselves a giant hole to climb out of, even with some unsightly production at the plate and some inconsistent results from the pitching staff. As the weather warms up and some of the rust gets kicked off of the bats of the returning players, there is a chance the team could heat up. The numbers should not compare to seasons’ past, but in the American League Central, the team should be good enough to remain in the mix for another Central crown come the end of the season.
Photo: Lindsay Wasson/Getty Images