Monday’s day off was hardly one free of news about the Cleveland Indians, and while there was a positive piece of information that spread through the social media landscape, there was a far more negative and discouraging chunk of news that shed a bad light on the organization and the potential risk readily present that could cause the 2020 Major League Baseball season from coming to a crashing halt.
First, some of the good news, because it ends with that aforementioned bad stuff. You can ignore that negativity at the end, if that’s more zen for you.
COACHING CAROUSEL CONTINUES TO TURN
One of the overlooked and less discussed news stories about the Indians heading into this season was how bench coach Brad Mills‘ departure from the team due to the coronavirus was going to affect manager Terry Francona in the dugout. He opted not to pull in one of his experienced base coaches (first base coach Sandy Alomar Jr. and third base coach Mike Sarbaugh) and instead utilized Mike Barrett, the team’s replay coordinator, and returning pitching coach Carl Willis to be extra set of eyes and a sounding board for him.
Francona’s absence over the last nine days likely left the team feeling concerned about the captain of the ship. His battle with a longstanding gastrointestinal issue took the Tribe’s chief decision maker out of the mix, but to the credit of the good coaching staff that he has surrounded himself with over the course of the last eight years, the team was able to end a four-game losing streak (the last two games coming under the leadership of interim manager Alomar Jr.) and post five wins over the last six games against the Reds and White Sox.
While Francona is set to return for Tuesday night’s series opener with the Chicago Cubs, he will be without Ty Van Burkleo for the first time during his stint in the Indians dugout. The hitting coach for the Indians since 2013 was under a minor microscope early this season due to the abysmal performance at the plate by the team as a whole, but just as the bats started to show some signs of life following the team’s first road trip of the season, Van Burkleo opted out of the season due to the persistent inconvenience known best as COVID-19, citing “complicated family circumstances” as a reason for doing so.
Van Burkleo is still making contributions to the coaching staff, but is doing so remotely from his California home. The team added their director of hitting development, Alex Eckelman, to the Major League coaching staff, where he will work with assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez and hitting analyst Justin Toole to jointly handle the hitting coach role.
With all the changes, it will still be good to have Francona’s presence back in the clubhouse, hopefully with some good health and good vibes in tow, especially since his first press conference back will be addressing the boneheaded decisions of two of his now-restricted starting pitchers…
CESAR WAS MONEY WELL SPENT
There wasn’t a lot of commotion when the Indians added second baseman Cesar Hernandez in the offseason on a one-year, $6.25 million deal, but the transaction is paying some early dividends through the first quarter of the season. In 16 games, Hernandez has supplied the lineup with a .305/.414/.390 slash out of the leadoff spot, doing his part to set the table nicely for the meat of the order. Unfortunately, that effort has amounted to just nine runs scored for Hernandez, but that feels like much less an indictment on him and far more a reflection on the inconsistent results coming from the heart of the order.
Hernandez had spent his first seven big league seasons in the Philadelphia lineup, ultimately working his way into regular innings at second base. He has shown an ability to be a threat on the bases and to pile up some extra base hits, with the long ball slowly becoming more visible over the years. He had a .277/.352/.381 slash during his Philly years.
Hernandez has shown some good patience at the plate and it has paid off. He has seen a lower percentage of fastballs among his total pitches (just a hair over half of the time), but has posted well above average numbers in regards to hard-hit percentage (39%) with a significant drop to career averages in soft-hit percentage (just 7.3% of his hits so far in 2020, compared to a rate over 20% in his first six big league seasons). His strikeout rate is a bit up from career norms, but some of that could be the small sample size, playing in a new league, or everything affiliated with this unusual baseball season.
Hernandez has reached base safely in each game of his Indians career thus far, while posting separate five- and six-game hitting streaks along the way. As Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Santana, and Franmil Reyes behind him start to heat up a little bit, that solid tendency of getting on base should come in handy for the Tribe lineup.
WALK THIS WAY
With 23 walks in his first 16 games, Santana is the leader in all of Major League Baseball in the base-on-balls stat and has done so with a substantial advantage of seven over the next closest player.
Santana has gotten off to a little bit of a slow start at the plate, but has made up for it by working counts and taking the free pass as handed out to him. Six different times this season he has drawn at least two walks in a game and he had four in the win against Cincinnati on August 6. While he has more than two and a half times as many walks as hits (9) on the year, he has been able to make a difference just by getting to first base the free way. Ten of the walks came on full counts, meaning that he has worked the pitchers heavily all by himself.
Santana has drawn a walk in 32.4% of his total plate appearances on the year, the top mark in all of baseball by nearly 5% (among all players with four or more plate appearances on the year). If he were to maintain that current walk rate at his average 4.18 plate appearances per game, it would amount to 219 over a 162-game slate (106 more than his career-high and nearly double his MLB-best of 113 in 2014). The only player to ever top 200 bases-on-balls in a season was Barry Bonds, when he drew 232 in 2004 to break his own record of 198 set two years earlier.
Jim Thome holds the Indians’ all-time record, occupying the top five spots on that list with a max of 127 in 1999.
The Chicago Cubs will likely be champing at the bit to get back out on the diamond. They last played on Thursday, routed 13-2 in Kansas City by the Royals to end a six-game winning streak while falling to 10-3 on the year. Their weekend series against St. Louis was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak amongst the Cardinals players and support staff. The Cubs avoided that plague, one that has seen ten St. Louis players and seven staffers come down with the novel virus.
After spending his first nine big league seasons in Cleveland, Jason Kipnis hit the free agent market in the offseason and signed in early February with the Cubs, bringing him back to his native Illinois. He won a spot out of camp and has gotten off to a good start for his hometown club, hitting .375 with a .444 on-base percentage and a .938 slugging mark with a double, a triple, two homers, and four RBI through his first six games.
This will be his first game back at Progressive Field since the conclusion of his 1,121-game Indians career last season.
Tuesday, August 11 – 7:10 PM ET – LHP Jon Lester (1-0, 0.82 ERA) vs. RHP Adam Plutko (1-0, 2.57 ERA)
Wednesday, August 12 – 6:10 PM ET – RHP Kyle Hendricks (2-1, 3.54 ERA) vs. RHP Carlos Carrasco (2-1, 2.50 ERA)
TRANSACTIONS and INJURY NOTES
Logan Allen (P) – recalled from team’s alternate training site (8/11)
Christian Arroyo (UTL) – designated for assignment (8/6)
Mike Clevinger (SP) – placed on restricted list (8/11)
Tyler Naquin (OF) – activated from 10-day injured list (8/11)
Roberto Perez (C) – 10-day injured list (7/29) – right shoulder strain
Zach Plesac (SP) – placed on restricted list (8/11)
Cameron Rupp (C) – signed to minor league deal, invited to alternate training site (8/3)
Daniel Descalso (2B) – 60-day injured list (7/23) – left ankle sprain
Derek Dietrich (UTL) – released (8/8)
James Norwood (P) – 10-day injured list (7/30) – right shoulder inflammation
Jose Quintana (SP) – 10-day injured list (7/20) – left thumb nerve injury
Brad Wieck (RP) – 10-day injured list (7/26) – right hamstring strain
Mark Zagunis (OF) – restricted list (7/23) – COVID opt-out
And lastly, the bad news eluded to at the top of the story. You’ve heard it already, so feel free to move along if in need of something a little less infuriating.
On Sunday, it was announced that Saturday’s victorious starter Zach Plesac had been sent home ahead of the team’s series finale with the Chicago White Sox after breaking protocol and leaving the hotel, a big no-no on the road for Major League teams this season (ask the Toronto Blue Jays just how enjoyable their season is being the road team essentially for all 60 games). He reportedly went out to dinner with friends.
That news didn’t go over well in the court of public opinion, so what transpired on Monday served as another kick in the pants. Mike Clevinger, scheduled to start the series opener in Cleveland against the Cubs on Tuesday night, was scratched from his fourth outing of the year because he too had broken the club’s protocol for safety in the pandemic. Clevinger opted to hang Plesac out to dry on Sunday and let him take the fall, knowing full well that he was with Plesac in socializing outside of the designated hotel areas. While Plesac was crammed in a rent-a-car for the seven-plus hour trip back to Ohio on the Turnpike, Clevinger’s selfish self was around the team on Sunday and rode the same plane back with them, putting all present in jeopardy of being exposed to anything that he was subjected to during his mini-vacay away from the team.
The Indians released a statement on Monday night regarding Clevinger.
“Today the organization learned that RHP Mike Clevinger violated team protocols on the club’s recent road trip to Chicago. He has been instructed to quarantine and will undergo subsequent testing while away from the team. RHP Adam Plutko will start in his place on Tuesday night against the Chicago Cubs. The Cleveland Indians will continue to keep the health and safety of our players, coaches and staff members as our top priority.”
Clevinger had several notable quotes about being careful in the pandemic state prior to the start of the season.
“This isn’t going to be a ‘run to daddy’ kind of thing. We’re going to handle it in-house. This is a player discipline thing. Keep the coaches, front office kind of out of it,” Clevinger was quoted on July 30. “It puts a little extra accountability, kind of. Just having that trust in your teammates is a big thing. It’s a big thing on the field. If you feel your teammate doesn’t trust you off the field how are you going to feel like he trusts you when you get between the lines?”
It will be interesting to see just where the trust lies now between the Tribe players, the coaches, the organization, and Clevinger, because it seems the free-spirited right-hander may have violated that personal code a fair amount. Clevinger has not issued a statement at the time of this story.
Plesac seems to have taken some of it to heart, or at least is putting that best foot forward in the public eye. Via his personal Instagram account, Plesac shared Tuesday afternoon that “Life can throw some crazy things at you.. but how you respond is the testament. What you may think is harmless can actually have consequential outcomes.. and the lesson learned is this: The most important thing we can do is take care of EACH OTHER. Putting others first, and having the character to understand why there is a greater impact if we are selfless.” Plesac previously issued a statement through the Indians front office Sunday night, taking some responsibility for his actions. While he owned up for himself, it sounds like he didn’t ‘run to daddy’ and out Clevinger, which still keeps him on the hook for some of the unnecessary risks that were placed on the affiliated members of the organization in Chicago and on the plane back.
The team announced their intentions to keep any possible consequences internal for the pair on Tuesday afternoon, saying that the players were to be placed on the restricted list and cannot take part in any team baseball activities until testing negative in 72 hours. They will be tested for COVID-19 on Wednesday. The team does not believe that they were with an individual who is positive for COVID, but is taking this precaution and understandably so.
My personal opinion on the matter, which seems relevant after writing so many words about the subject.
I work as an essential employee, having to get temperature checked and wear masks and socially distance at meetings all day long while interacting with dozens upon dozens a day. In addition to the work inconveniences, the restrictions placed on shopping, restaurants, and bars, to name a few, have significantly altered my day-to-day interactions and the amount of social interaction that I get. It’s a pain in the ass and nobody enjoys this.
That said, these guys have to wake up and I hope that they do. There is no way that the mass outbreaks that decimated the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals organizations over the first three weeks of the season or the collateral damage to clubs like the Orioles, Cubs, Brewers, Twins, Yankees, Phillies, Pirates, Rays, Blue Jays, and Nationals (to name a few) who all had to go through extra testing, revisions of their schedules on the fly, or the pressures of doubleheaders down the road as a result of this damned virus were not talked about ad nauseam in the locker room daily. Teams have discussed protocols at length and these expectations seemed to be clearly outlined and identified, especially for road trips. It’s more than disappointing that it took just three cities visited (Minneapolis, Cincinnati, and lastly Chicago) before someone slipped up on the Tribe.
The Indians have some older individuals on the coaching staff who may have pre-existing health issues/risks for themselves or their loved ones, noted readily in the above ‘Coaching Carousel’. The level of disrespect and disregard that they displayed for someone like teammate Carlos Carrasco, who too is an at-risk individual after his well-publicized battle with leukemia a year ago, is palpable. Plesac, the 25-year-old second-year big leaguer, owned it and took his lumps on a long car ride back to Cleveland. Clevinger, however, let the kid take the fall when he had an opportunity to step up and own his behavior and instead proceeded to jeopardize everyone around him selfishly by not stepping up and looking the part of a responsible 29-year-old father with five years of time spent travelling the country already as part of MLB. Not everyone wants the burden of the role model, but the lack of maturity, responsibility, self-awareness, and something resembling a moral compass is tough to swallow from an adult. It is all the more disappointing when knowing how many people have sacrificed, have gotten sick or died, are out of work, are locked down at home, and/or are otherwise living a shell of their former lives for any of those reasons.
You effed up. Own it, apologize, try to do better, and move on. End mini rant.
ONTO THE NEXT
The Indians will take their second day off of the week on Thursday before beginning a three-game series in Detroit with the Tigers on Friday night. The Cubs will head home to Wrigley Field to start a ten-game homestand on Thursday night, starting with the visiting Milwaukee Brewers.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images