Countdown to Indians’ 2020 Opening Day – 33
Bob Toth | On 22, 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 – 33 days
It was a tale of two seasons for Brad Hand last year, who went from an American League All-Star midseason to ineffective over much of the second half as the Indians bullpen took a big hit in the crunch time of a playoff chase.
Beginning his second season with the Indians after being acquired with reliever Adam Cimber from the San Diego Padres at the 2018 trade deadline for top prospect Francisco Mejia (whose number 33 moved to Hand’s back), Hand started strong and maintained the kinds of numbers that had made him an All-Star in the National League over the previous two years.
He saved nine games and worked 14 times in the first month of the season, holding opponents to a 1.32 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP while striking out 19 and limiting opposing hitters to a .167 average. His one loss came on April 14 in walk-off fashion against Kansas City.
Hand put up very similar numbers in May as he continued to anchor the Indians’ bullpen. In ten outings, he worked nine innings while allowing just a run on five hits and striking out 14. He earned a 2-1 record and six saves with a 1.00 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP. The one run allowed came via a 12th inning walk-off home run by Oakland’s Matt Chapman.
Hand was a strikeout machine in June and his overall numbers were good, outside of a disastrous five-run ninth inning against the Royals on June 25. He allowed one other run in the month four days prior (ending a streak of 14 straight scoreless outings). He K’d 20 of the 52 batters that he faced in 13 games, earning two wins and a loss while saving eight games.
The month of July provided a lighter workload for Hand and better numbers as he made just nine appearances in the month, saving four games. He allowed three runs (all of which came on the long ball), including a tough blown save against Toronto in the bottom of the ninth when Justin Smoak took him deep with one out (Smoak won the game with a walk-off single in the bottom of the tenth off of the bullpen). Hand struck out 15 batters in eight and two-thirds inning (15.6 per nine innings) for the month.
Things started to get out of hand for Hand in August as he allowed a single-month highs of seven runs, 16 hits, and five walks in eleven games. He struck out just eleven batters in his eleven innings, but still mustered a 2-1 record with six more saves despite a 5.73 ERA, a 1.91 WHIP, and a .348 batting average against. He fell apart in the middle of the month when he blew three saves in a four-game stretch from August 11 to August 21, accounting for all seven runs that he allowed for the month. Two homers from Carlos Santana saved the team from taking losses in those contests.
“I don’t really know what it is,” said Hand in The Plain Dealer on August 22. “I think it’s just baseball. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m making worse pitches than I was earlier in the year…I’m just not getting the job done right now. I need to be better.”
After some scarce work in September (two games in the first eight days of the month with two more runs and another homer allowed), Hand had an MRI done to make sure his arm was okay. The scan came back clean and manager Terry Francona referred to his situation as “kind of a tired arm” and that “his arm slot has been getting lower”. The team rested Hand for a few days, but he made just one appearance over the final three weeks of the season. After 12 days of rest, he struck out all three batters that he faced in his final outing of the year on September 21 against Philadelphia.
Hand pitched well overall for Cleveland in his first work in the American League in 2018 after spending the first seven and a half seasons of his big league career in the senior circuit. The left-hander appeared in 28 games for the Indians that year, earning eight saves and seven holds in a mixed role at the backend of the bullpen. He posted an encouraging 2.28 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP that was on par with his numbers as a reliever. His WHIP was elevated mainly due to a 4.2 walk per nine innings rate, but he averaged 13.3 strikeouts per nine innings with the Indians and for the season, the best single year mark of his career.
A former second round pick in 2008, Hand struggled at the beginning of his career with the Florida Marlins. He was solely a starter for the club in his debut season, going 1-8 with a 4.20 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP in 12 starts. He made just one appearance for the renamed Miami club in 2012 and was lit up. Over the next three years, he was used in both starting and relief capacities, but most of his key peripherals were trending in the wrong direction.
San Diego claimed him off of waivers during the second week of April in 2016 and his career trajectory changed course. The Padres threw him straight into the bullpen and used him an MLB-leading 82 times, seeing encouraging results overall in the late innings from Hand. His strikeout rate nearly doubled (he set down 111 over 89 1/3 innings), his hit rate plummeted, and he earned 21 holds on the year while posting a then career-best 2.92 ERA.
Hand slid into the closer’s role for the Padres in 2017 and was recognized midseason with his first career All-Star nod. He went 3-4 on the year with a 2.16 ERA, a 0.93 WHIP, 16 holds, and 21 saves. He topped the 100-strikeout mark for the second straight season. He was off to another good start for the Padres in 2018 prior to being acquired by the Indians, going 2-4 in 41 games with a 3.05 ERA, a 1.08 WHIP, 24 saves, three holds, and an eye-popping 13.2 strikeouts while earning an All-Star nod for the second straight season. In 69 games between San Diego and Cleveland that year, he posted a 2-5 mark with a 2.75 ERA, a 1.11 WHIP, 32 saves, and ten holds in 72 innings of work. He topped the 100-K mark for the third consecutive year.
The Indians bullpen has plenty of question marks in it as the team will need to see if the young arms of Emmanuel Clase and James Karinchak are truly MLB worthy. Other arms, like Cimber, Nick Wittgren, Oliver Perez, Hunter Wood, James Hoyt, and other camp options, will need to step up as well to keep the Tribe’s relief corps as effective as it has been over the last few years. The Indians will be counting on Hand as the veteran leader and closer of the staff to get the job done when the time comes.
The number 33 has a curious place in Indians history. It has been worn by a handful of prolific sluggers, generally outside of their glory years on the diamond, and at other times was on the backs of some of the better pitchers on the roster through the 1960s.
It may be unfortunate that a number linked to some historically great hitters was tarnished some in recent memory after being claimed by Nick Swisher. The large sum of money given to the one-time free agent, returning from the Big Apple to his former Ohio stomping grounds, may go down as one of the worst expenditures of cash in the long history of the Indians franchise. To be fair, injuries took the wind out of Swisher’s sails and the pressures of being a cleanup hitter in the Tribe’s lineup were expectations that he never was able to live up to fully. Now, Swisher has formally hung up the cleats after brief time in Atlanta and back in the minors with the New York Yankees in 2016.
Prior to Swisher, fans trying to recall some of their favorite seasons in recent Cleveland memory by a player wearing 33 may recall a pair of forces in the lineup who both contributed to playoff teams.
When the Indians added former National League Rookie of the Year David Justice to the fold in 1997, it united them with the man whose solo homer in Game 6 of the 1995 World Series was the final nail in the Indians’ championship coffin that season. He wore 33 for the club, as the number 23 that he wore for his first eight seasons in the Majors with the Atlanta Braves was already on the back of ageless wonder Julio Franco, who was in his second stint with the club. When Franco was released by the Indians in August, Justice switched back to his old 23.
Justice hit a career-best .329 with 33 homers and 101 RBI and was named to the American League All-Star team in 1997, the only time he represented an AL squad in his career. He hit .185 in the World Series with the Indians, his fourth championship series of his career. He drove in four, all five of his hits were singles, and he walked six times while striking out eight times in 33 plate appearances. He would be traded to the Yankees midseason in 2000 and spent the 2002 campaign in Oakland with the A’s.
Eddie Murray is probably the better remembered 33 in recent Tribe history, thanks to his role in the resurgent Tribe’s return to the postseason promised lands in 1995 after their 41-year layoff.
“Steady Eddie” came to Cleveland in 1994 at the age of 38 to provide veteran experience and leadership to a very young, but dangerous, Indians lineup. Working as the club’s first baseman and designated hitter, he hit .254 his first season in town with 17 homers and 76 RBI in 108 games. When play resumed in 1995 after the strike, he posted his second-best single-season batting average with a .323 mark while hitting in the middle of the Tribe’s lineup, adding 21 homers and 82 RBI. He spent the first half of 1996 with the club, hitting .262 with a dozen homers and 45 RBI, but was dealt to Baltimore for pitcher Kent Mercker. He would play the following season with the Anaheim Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers to cap off his Hall of Fame career.
While these two had a bit more success with the Indians, plenty of other recognizable sluggers also took the 33 as their own during brief stops in Cleveland.
Johnny Damon and Trot Nixon were both beloved members of Terry Francona’s World Series drought-ending team in Boston in 2004. But by the time they came to Cleveland, they were in their twilight, as Damon hit .222 in 64 games and would never play in the MLB again, while Nixon hit .251 in 99 games and played in only eleven games for the New York Mets the following season before calling it quits.
Remember 22-year MLBer Harold Baines? The former six-time All-Star came to town in 1999 after being named to his final Midsummer Classic while with the Baltimore Orioles. He was on a career-best chasing pace to begin the year with the O’s, but was traded to Cleveland on August 27 for a pair of minor leaguers. He hit .271 over his 28 games with the Indians and drove in 22 runs, but Cleveland was knocked out of the postseason after coughing up a two games to none lead in the American League Division Series to the Red Sox. Baines was an interesting selection to the National Baseball Hall of Fame last winter via the Veterans’ Committee.
What about the brief experiment with Cecil Fielder in 1998?
In 1989, Fielder was out of the Majors and playing in Japan. He hit .302 with 38 homers and 81 RBI for Hanshin and returned to the Majors in 1990 with the Detroit Tigers. There, his career was revived as he put on a home run display for the ages. He hit 51 homers in his first season back, then surpassed the RBI total he amassed in 1990 with one more in 1991 to give him a career-best 133. He hit at least 28 homers in seven consecutive seasons, but by the time he came to Cleveland, the Cecil show was coming to a close.
Released by the Anaheim Angels during the second week of August after a disappointing .241 average with 17 homers and 68 RBI in 103 games, he joined the Indians a few days later. The experiment was short-lived; he hit .143 in 14 games and struck out 13 times in 37 plate appearances before getting his walking papers a month later.
Ron Kittle spent a year in Cleveland in 1988, looking to get back to his big fly days of the early years of his career. An All-Star and American League Rookie of the Year in 1983, he hit 35 homers and drove in 100 runs in his first full season in the Majors. He hit .258 for the Tribe at the age of 30, hitting 18 homers and eight doubles while driving in 43 runs before moving back to the Chicago White Sox organization, the club with whom he had his best professional seasons previously.
Then there was Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. He came to Cleveland in the middle of September in 1974 for two players and cash and wore 33 for the first time in his career. It was just a short-term number for him, as he would be in his old number 20 by 1975 as the Indians player-manager when All-Star outfielder George Hendrick switched from 20 to 21.
Robinson played 21 seasons and slugged 586 homers before landing in Cooperstown and, in 2016, in the Indians’ own Hall of Fame. A statue was erected in his honor at Progressive Field, residing in Heritage Park, and his number 20 was retired by the club.
Hitters with pop have claimed the number all the way back to 1940, when one of the earlier Indians power hitters, Jeff Heath, was said to have worn it for a portion of his playing career. He spent ten of his 14 seasons in Cleveland and was an extra base hitting machine at some points of his early career. He hit .343 with 31 doubles, a league-leading 18 triples, 21 homers, and drove in 112 in 1938. He mirrored those numbers again for the Indians in 1941, when he made his first of two career All-Star teams and hit .340 with 32 doubles, 20 triples, 24 homers, and a career-best 123 RBI.
While the number has been used sparingly by pitchers over the last three decades, it did see a steady and strong dozen-year run on the mound beginning in 1958 when Jim “Mudcat” Grant started wearing it.
Mudcat spent his first seven seasons in Cleveland and posted a career 67-63 record during his time with the club. He was an All-Star in 1963, his sixth season for the Indians, and won as many as 15 games for the team in 1961. He was dealt to the Minnesota Twins in June of 1964 and led their staff with a 21-7 record in 1965 on the way to his second and final All-Star team. He would return to Cleveland after his playing career, serving as one of the voices of the Tribe in the broadcast booth.
Luis Tiant got his call to the Majors a month after Grant was traded and began his 19-year career. He went 10-4 in his first season and went 21-9 with a league-leading 1.60 ERA and nine shutouts in 1968, when he also posted a 0.87 WHIP and made his first All-Star team. After leading baseball with 20 losses, 37 homers allowed, and 129 walks the next season, he was traded to the Twins in a six-player deal. He topped the 20-win mark three times as a member of the Red Sox and made All-Star teams with the club in 1974 and 1976.
Other notable 33s in Tribe history (55 in total): Ed Morgan (the first in club history to wear it, from 1931-33), Hank Edwards (1941-43), Ed Klieman (1946), Dale Mitchell (1947), Bob Kennedy (1949-54), Jose Mesa (1993), Russell Branyan (1999-2010), Francisco Mejia (2017), Marc Rzepczynski (2018)
Photo: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
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