Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 54
Bob Toth | On 01, Feb 2020
Baseball takes little time off in between seasons, so neither can we. Follow along at Did the Tribe Win Last Night as we count down to March 26, when the Cleveland Indians host the Detroit Tigers for game one of the 2020 season. – BT
Countdown to Opening Day – 54 days
The number 54 has had a tendency of being a short-term numerical destination for Cleveland Indians players, with few lasting more than a couple of seasons in the digits and fewer still surviving long stints with the club.
Similar can be said for last year’s number 54, reliever Hunter Wood, who switched numbers in the offseason to 44 (Logan Allen, who wore the number 53 temporarily for the Indians in 2019, will take on 54 in his second season with the organization).
Wood was a quiet trade deadline acquisition by the Indians in late July of 2019. After opening the season with the Tampa Bay Rays, Wood was dealt with utility man Christian Arroyo days ahead of the deadline for minor league outfielder Ruben Cardenas. The 26-year-old right-handed reliever had been shuttled back and forth between Tampa and Triple-A Durham over the 2018 and 2019 seasons, but the Rays were in need of a 40-man roster spot for the newly acquired Eric Sogard and their heavily used pitching staff became a focal point for roster reduction.
Wood had posted good overall numbers for the Rays in his limited body of work over his couple of seasons in the Majors, although there were some concerns due to a high fly ball rate and a lower strikeout rate and advanced metrics like FIP, xFIP, and SIERA. However, the Indians were seeking bullpen arms and Wood was a controllable one with minor league options remaining. He debuted briefly in 2017 and made 29 appearances during the 2018 season, posting a 3.73 ERA with a 1.46 WHIP in 41 innings and working eight times as an opener. He was 1-1 at the time of the trade with a 2.48 ERA over 19 games (29 innings) with a 7.4 strikeout rate and a 1.14 WHIP.
Wood’s numbers did not translate quite as well as he moved to the north shore. He made 17 appearances in Terry Francona’s bullpen, posting a 3.86 ERA and a 1.53 WHIP. His strikeout rate ticked up a notch to 8.3, but he did allow three homers over 16 1/3 innings, highlighting the risks attached to fly ball pitchers during the launch angle revolution.
Wood worked primarily for Francona in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings, but oftentimes took the mound with the Tribe on the losing end (the Indians won just one time in the final eleven games thrown in by Wood). Having been a part of Kevin Cash’s “opener” movement in Tampa, Wood has the ability to pitch a little longer, but he worked more than a full inning of work just three times under Franacona’s watch. That could change some in 2020, as baseball adapts to commissioner Rob Manfred’s time-focused decision to limit pitcher usage during games.
Wood saw similar results against lefties and righties in 2019, although there were some differences underneath the surface. While batting averages were separated by just .002 points, there was a .037 difference in on-base percentage favoring left-handers. Right-handers, however, provided much more pop, putting up a .481 slugging mark compared to left-handers’ .324 figure. He struck out just eight of the 84 left-handed hitters that he faced, while he retired 31 of 111 right-handers that way. He did pitch well in the rare high leverage situation, allowing just two hits while striking out five in 19 plate appearances in those spots.
Wood will have a chance to lock down a spot in the Indians’ bullpen for the coming season, but he will have to put up results against batters on both sides of the plate. While he has fared better in some regards against righties, he has been hit hard by them in stretches, while he has failed to dominate over the lefty opposition.
When asked about the number 54, Cleveland Indians fans are probably much more likely to recall the failed mission of the ’54 season, one that saw the Indians win a still club-record 111 games before a dreadful four-game sweep at the hands, arms, bats, and gloves of the New York Giants.
One of the more visible occurrences of the number 54 on the diamond came in 2016, when Ryan Merritt became a cult hero of sorts for the club thanks to his playoff heroics during the Indians’ World Series run. The 24-year-old left-hander and 16th round pick in the 2011 draft had made just four Major League appearances and only one start before his name was called in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Toronto Blue Jays to help fill in for an injury-depleted starting rotation that was missing Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar while Trevor Bauer had missed time with a lacerated finger.
The surprise starter was given an early lead before he could even take the mound as Mike Napoli drove in Francisco Lindor with a two-out double. Merritt got to work and kept it a one-run lead by retiring big names Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson on ground balls before striking out Edwin Encarnacion. In the second, he got Troy Tulowitzki to fly to right before getting two big strikeouts of Russell Martin and Melvin Upton to retire the side. A Carlos Santana home run in the top of the third gave Merritt a two-run edge, and he protected that by getting two outs in the air and one on the ground against the bottom of the Jays order. Coco Crisp padded the lead with an unlikely home run of his own to give Cleveland a 3-0 lead before Merritt finally allowed his first base runner on a one-out single in the fourth by Donaldson. A double play grounder by Encarnacion ended the inning and Merritt left one out later after giving up a single to Martin. The Indians held on to win the 3-0 final to clinch the American League pennant.
Merritt returned briefly to the Majors in 2017, making four starts and one relief appearance while earning two wins, posting a 1.74 ERA, and a 1.45 WHIP. But out of options for the 2018 season, Merritt landed on the disabled list to start the season with a left knee sprain and after he completed his rehab assignment, he was designated for assignment. He passed through waivers unclaimed and was outrighted to Columbus (where he remained for the rest of the minor league schedule), but he became a free agent following the season and signed a minor league deal with the Tampa Bay Rays with an invite to spring training. He is currently a free agent after going 4-4 with a 7.04 ERA with Triple-A Durham in 2019.
The first player in Tribe history to don the 54 (in the 69th season of American League baseball in Cleveland) was a 22-year-old named Gary Boyd, likely long forgotten in Indians lore. On August 1, 1969, Boyd took the mound and made his Major League debut.
It didn’t go well. Four walks, two hits, and four runs later, Boyd was hooked after just one and two-thirds innings by manager Al Dark and former Indian player and manager Joe Gordon’s Kansas City Royals issued a 6-0 five-hit shutout.
He made another start on the 8th against the same Royals club, but this time did so at home. The results were not much different – two-thirds of an inning worked, two hits, two walks, one homer allowed, and a pair of earned runs. The Indians would get him off the hook with a four-run bottom of the first, powered by a three-run home run from Duke Sims.
Boyd next appeared a month later and worked in four games as a reliever before getting another starting nod on September 17th. Against Detroit, he again was wild – he worked two and one-third innings, allowing two hits, four walks, and two more runs while striking out a pair. He would make one final appearance nine days later, the last of his big league career. After two more seasons in the minors for the Indians and one with the Chicago White Sox in 1972, his professional career was done.
The number 54 re-emerged in the 1980’s, first on the back of the only player to wear it who was not a pitcher. Kevin Rhomberg, a utility man of sorts, spent three years with the club from 1982 to 1984 and wore the number for parts of his first two seasons in Cleveland. His third career hit in 1982 was his first and only home run.
Mike Jeffcoat and Tom Waddell kept the number warm through the mid-1980’s until Rod Nichols wore it for four seasons from 1989 to 1992. Mark Clark took it the following season and wore it for all three years of his Cleveland career. Brian Slocum spent three years in it from 2006 to 2008, and it has been on the field in limited use by pitchers again courtesy of Mark Lowe in 2014, Ryan Webb in 2015, and Merritt in 2016 and 2017.
Fans likely best remember the number on the backs of two back-end relievers for the clubs in the 21st century.
David Riske wore it the longest, spending six seasons in the number from 1999 to 2005. He was a setup man and occasional closer, working in as many as 72 games in 2004, a career best.
He is one of the great longshot stories in Indians history after signing with Cleveland in 1996. He was their selection in the 56th round that season and remains the last player selected in the round by the team, an honor he will hold indefinitely with the current June draft slotting in at 40 rounds.
The Washington native defied the odds by hitting the Major League stage in just two and a half seasons, throwing a scoreless inning of relief on August 14th, 1999, at the age of 22. He appeared 12 times that season and struggled at times, finishing the year with a 1-1 record, an 8.36 ERA, and a 1.86 WHIP. He earned the call with a 3-0 record and a 1.23 ERA in 46 relief appearances for Akron and Buffalo earlier that season.
His 2000 season was almost entirely lost to injury, but he would eventually return to the Majors in 2001, pitching in 26 games, earning a 2-0 record with his first MLB save, and posting a tidy 1.98 ERA. He again spent time in the minors in 2002 and was not as crisp with Cleveland, but he would spend each of the following three seasons with the parent club, twice finishing with a WHIP under one, saving as many as eight games in 2003, and earning seven wins in 2004.
In January of 2006, he was dealt to Boston as part of the package that sent Coco Crisp and Josh Bard to New England for Andy Marte, Guillermo Mota, Kelly Shoppach, minor leaguer Randy Newsom, and cash. The Red Sox would move him in June to the Chicago White Sox. He spent 2007 with Kansas City and spent his last three MLB seasons in the uniform of the Milwaukee Brewers, always remaining true to his number 54 jersey choice, even if the number 56 in honor of his draft slot may have been a more befitting alternative.
He attempted to come back from Tommy John surgery with the Baltimore Orioles in 2011, but he would never play for the club at the Major or minor league levels.
Chris Perez may be the better remembered of the men to wear the number in Cleveland, although it was not always for good reason. His off-the-field legal transgressions aside, he was an animated character on the mound, a polarizing figure for some as he became the source of boo birds later in his Cleveland career. It did not prevent him from working his way up the all-time leader board in Indians history in saves, exiting town with the third-most for the franchise (124).
A late first round pick in 2006 by St. Louis, the right-hander and University of Miami product made his debut less than two years after signing with the Cardinals. His stay was short, however, as he and pitcher Jess Todd were sent to Cleveland in the June 2009 trade for utility man Mark DeRosa.
Perez came to the shores of Lake Erie with eight saves under his belt in 70 games for the Cardinals, but quickly took the reins of the closer’s role for Cleveland. He saved 23 games and worked in 63 total in his first full season with the club in 2010, finishing the year with a 1.71 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. The next season, he saved 36 of 40 chances and made his first All-Star team. He was 39-for-43 in save opportunities in 2012 and was again selected to represent the Indians in the Midsummer Classic.
Distractions away from the game may have started to affect Perez on the mound in 2013. He was 25-for-30 in the saves department for the year, but surrendered his closer’s job late in the season as the Indians were pushing hard for a playoff berth. He was 5-3 with a 4.33 ERA that year, one that would spell his last in an Indians uniform.
He spent 2014 with the Los Angeles Dodgers and went to spring training with Milwaukee for the 2015 season, but did not make the club and joined their minor league team. He opted out of the deal at the end of April and over that summer was suspended by Major League Baseball for a second failed test for a drug of abuse.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images
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