Cleveland, We Have a Problem
Bob Toth | On 03, Aug 2020
Cleveland, we have a problem.
Ten games in the books and suddenly the Indians’ hot start, highlighted by near historic levels of pitching dominance, has been fully erased from the collective conscience. The Indians are 5-5, sitting in a third place tie in the American League Central and two and a half games out with 50 left to play.
It need not be a doom-and-gloom scenario yet, but this season is unlike any other. One-sixth of the season, or roughly 17%, is over. For you weird people constantly multiplying things out by 2.7 to put things in comparison to a traditional 162-game slate, the Indians are sitting at a 13.5-13.5 record through the equivalent 27th game of a full season schedule.
That’s certainly not where the team should be with the way that the pitching staff has excelled to open the season.
There is plenty to be discouraged about. The bats are baaaaaaaaaad right now. No one player in the lineup is thriving, with Jose Ramirez leading the pack with a .333 average (that fell 102 points with a 2-for-13 performance in the series against the Twins). The Indians are averaging 2.6 runs per game. They scored just four runs in their series against the Twins and seven times this season have scored two runs or less. The 18 runs scored between the series finale last Sunday against Kansas City and in the doubleheader against Chicago on Tuesday feel more like an aberration than the norm at this point.
There were some that expected the bats to be behind the pitchers early in the campaign. Hitters were going to have a tougher time during quarantine to see live arms, let alone multiple pitchers to get different looks. Pitchers, however, just needed to get stretched out. Working on their own to fine-tune their pitch arsenal was far easier to accomplish with limited populations and therefore the concern regarding pitchers was more about durability and pitch count than actual quality.
For the Indians, their pitching has been among the best in the game. Despite scoring a meager 26 runs through their first ten games, the team has only allowed 25. The Twins entered the four-game weekend set averaging 7.2 runs per game and the Indians held them to ten for the whole series. The starting rotation has done its part to limit the damage and to prevent what little damage was done from escalating into a bigger mess.
The collective Indians pitching staff has posted an American League leading 2.35 ERA through ten games. Their 0.90 WHIP and 113 strikeouts are tops in all of baseball. Their .203 batting average against is second-best in the AL. Their 15 walks allowed are third in MLB and best in the AL.
Their starting pitching has carried the team. The six men to pitch through the first ten games have combined for a 2.57 ERA and a 0.90 WHIP with 83 strikeouts and nine walks (9.2 K/BB rate). The staff has worked the most innings and struck out the most batters in baseball. The lone major blemish has been the long ball, which has victimized them eleven times, second only to Arizona.
Shockingly, all eleven of those home runs have been solo.
The Indians bullpen dropped its team ERA to 1.80 with two scoreless innings in relief of Aaron Civale on Sunday. The staff has logged just 25 innings, easily the fewest in the AL, and racked up 27 strikeouts in that span with just six walks. The group’s WHIP is at 0.88 after a pair of hits off of James Karinchak Sunday. These numbers are all heavily skewed by the disastrous performance of Brad Hand in Wednesday’s 4-0 loss to the Chicago White Sox, when he was tagged for all four runs in the top of the ninth to cost the Indians a well-pitched game by Zach Plesac, who pitched eight dominant innings of scoreless baseball.
Pitching is not the Tribe’s problem.
The offense has been offensive, but the bad kind of offensive. After 347 plate appearances, the team has posted a combined .193/.285/.278 slash (.563 OPS for those who can’t add easily). All four are at the bottom of the MLB leaderboard. Base hits have been rare; extra base hits have been nearly non-existent with just eight doubles and six homers for the season. The strikeout rate is unusually high for the club and some unexpected names have contributed a bit more to that collection than normal. Ramirez is striking out 23.8% of the time (compared to a career rate of 11.5% entering the season) and Carlos Santana‘s 25% clip is well above his 16.5% rate of the previous ten years. The scuffling offense has just one sacrifice hit of any sort this season and has an MLB-leading tendency to ground into the double dip, with ten twin killings on the season.
A combined .245 batting average on balls in play (putting the team in the bottom fifth of the league) further highlights the woes.
Entering Sunday’s game, the team had just seven barreled-up batted ball events (according to Baseball Savant). Lindor was the only player with more than one, accounting for 5.3% of his plate appearances and the top mark on the team. He was literally in the middle of the pack among qualified hitters with the Indians a season ago with a 5.8% mark. Guys that had performed with much higher rates than him (Franmil Reyes, 9.3%; Roberto Perez, 6.7%, C. Santana, 6.6%) or comparably (Ramirez, 4.8%) are doing nothing of the sort. Reyes is averaging 3.2%, Santana 2.8%, Ramirez at 2.6%, and Perez’s max distance on a hit before first contact was 17 feet.
At least for Perez, he can blame his shoulder injury for the issues at the plate.
Certainly hard contact and barreled up baseballs don’t predict outcomes of baseball games, but they do impact it. Those are just some highlights (lowlights?) of the struggles at the plate for the Indians. Opposing pitchers have effectively kept the lineup off balanced and adjustments have not come nearly quick enough. Not only is the team hacking away at times, badly, but when they are making contact, they aren’t putting good wood to hide, rolling over or trying too hard to pull the ball instead of going with the pitch. They are pressing and slumping and it’s adding up to be a bad time for everyone, except for the guys standing 60 feet six inches away in enemy colors.
There are dead spots in the lineup. Reyes appears to be suffering a similar sophomoric slump as Oscar Mercado; while Reyes is in his third season, this is just his second go-round in the AL after playing the final two months of last season with the Tribe. The bottom three hitters on manager Terry Francona’s lineup card on any given night have combined to hit .097, including a .069 mark from Bradley Zimmer, Domingo Santana, Yu Chang, Greg Allen, and Mercado in the seven-hole.
Specific positions have also been offensive black holes – the three catchers on the roster have combined for a .097/.152/.097 slash in 33 plate appearances. Perez’s shoulder injury likely played culprit to an extent there. Outfielders have, regardless of the spot in the field, boasted a .132/.245/.176 slash through ten games. It’s tough to find success when there are four positions consistently failing to put up numbers night in and night out. Other spots haven’t exactly been carrying the water either though.
The Indians have had some success when working counts deeper, hitting .242 when ahead in the count, but specifically .353 in 2-1 counts and .333 in 3-1 counts. But when pitchers have gotten to two-strike counts of any sorts, they have struck out 45% of the time and hit just .144.
To be fair, the Indians have faced an odd mix of pitching over the first ten games. They have been successful in games in which they have seen the pitcher several times in the past – KC’s Danny Duffy, Chicago’s Carlos Rodon, and Minnesota’s Jose Berrios, for example (Cleveland won all three and had faced the trio 21, 16, and 11 times, respectively). Maybe less surprisingly given recent results over the last few years, they have had some difficulties producing against unfamiliar arms – the Royals’ Kyle Singer in his MLB debut, facing the Sox’s Lucas Giolito and his high-low, fast-slow mix for the fourth time ever, seeing Minnesota’s Randy Dobnak for a fourth time, and going head-to-head for the first time with the Twins’ veteran right-hander Kenta Maeda (Cleveland lost all four). The exception to this group was Chicago’s Dylan Cease, who the Indians had faced just once previously and chased from the game with four runs and seven hits off of him in just two and one-third innings. They have also had to contend with two bullpen games, splitting those two contests.
In the end, the bats need to slow down and get back to basics, showing some patience and balance and a better approach at the dish. The hitting staff, led by Ty Van Burkleo and assistant Victor Rodriguez, have their work cut out for them. The team is going to have to make those adjustments on the fly though and it won’t necessarily get any easier to do so this week as the Indians are set to face one of the hottest pitchers out of the gate in Sonny Gray (2-0, 0.71 ERA) on Monday. They have had success against Tuesday’s starter Tyler Mahle in two previous games against him, but they have only seen Wednesday’s pitcher Luis Castillo once with little to show for it. The unfamiliar righty Mahle has stayed with fastballs and sliders for the most part this season, while fellow righty Castillo remains a four-seam/changeup/slider artist, a mix that seems like it could be problematic for the Tribe’s approach in the early going.
With a chunk of the season already over, the Indians are going to continue to ride their strong early season pitching performances, but they may die by the lackluster results being provided by the starting nine at the plate if something does not change and soon.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images