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Is the best yet to come for the Indians?

Is the best yet to come for the Indians?
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The Indians are 26-18 and in first place in the AL Central by 3.5 games over the Chicago White Sox (23-22). They also just swept their division rival the Detroit Tigers (20-24) in a three game set in Cleveland.

If you have seen this movie before, don’t worry, you are not alone. The Indians’ good start is eerily similar to last season when the Indians got off to a hot start and through play on May 24th were 30-15 and in first place in the AL Central by 7.0 games over the Tigers (24-23).

But when you sit back and compare the start of this season to the start of last season, they could not be more different.

At the start of last season everything was clicking for the Indians. Their bullpen was lights out, their starting rotation was much more consistent, and the offense was very opportunistic and was hitting on all cylinders. For the first 45 games of last season the Indians were playing well in all phases of the game with their starting pitching, bullpen, offense, and defense, and they were even doing well in some of the intangibles like hitting well with runners in scoring position and winning several games in exciting walkoff fashion.

How good was the Indians offense during their start last season? In April they finished the month near the top or at the top of all of baseball in several categories as they finished 1st in runs (141), 1st in average (.272), 2nd in on-base percentage (.344), 4th in slugging percentage (.447), 4th in OPS (.791), 3rd in home runs (34), 3rd in total bases (398), and 7th in walks (94).

In comparison, the Indians finished this past April 16th in runs (90) among all of baseball, 17th in batting average (.245), 4th in on-base percentage (.344), 20th in slugging percentage (.374), 16th in OPS (.717), 23rd in home runs (16), 25th in total bases (259), and 1st in walks (101).

Take a look at the six regulars in the lineup from last year and this season and compare what they did in that 30-15 start and what they have done to date this season:

Player 2011 (30-15, 45 Games) 2012 (26-18, 44 games)
Michael Brantley .294 AVG, 4 HR, 23 RBI, .776 OPS .269 AVG, 0 HR, 14 RBI, .680 OPS
Shin-Soo Choo .244 AVG, 5 HR, 22 RBI, .709 OPS .268 AVG, 3 HR, 16 RBI, .793 OPS
Travis Hafner .345 AVG, 5 HR, 22 RBI, .958 OPS .242 AVG, 6 HR, 23 RBI, .819 OPS
Carlos Santana .207 AVG , 6 HR, 21 RBI, .715 OPS .252 AVG, 5 HR, 23 RBI, .765 OPS
Jack Hannahan .237 AVG, 4 HR, 17 RBI, .685 OPS .287 AVG, 3 HR, 18 RBI, .801 OPS
Asdrubal Cabrera .312 AVG, 10 HR, 34 RBI, .919 OPS .300 AVG, 5 HR, 19 RBI, .890 OPS
TOTALS: .273 AVG, 34 HR, 139 RBI, .794 OPS .269 AVG, 22 HR, 113 RBI, .789 OPS

When comparing the starts of those six players this season to last season, a few things immediately jump out.

First off, for as locked in as shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera has been this season, I think a lot of people forget how he was playing out of his mind at this time last season. He was a nightly highlight reel on Sportscenter’s Web Gems segment and he was a significant run producer. He’s once again playing well this season and has a similar batting average and OPS, but the run production is a far cry from it was at this point last season.

In addition to Cabrera, a lot of people have been encouraged by what they have seen from designated hitter Travis Hafner this season, though again, I think they forgot the tear he was off to last season. He is just as productive with the homers and RBI this season, but his batting average is 103 points lower and his OPS is 139 points lower at the same point this season.

Outfielder Shin-Soo Choo has been better this season. He is not being as productive, but he is making up for it by getting on-base more. On the flip side outfielder Michael Brantley is well behind his 2011 pace as he is 25 points lower in batting average, 96 points lower in OPS, and has taken a significant step back in the home run and RBI department.

Catcher Carlos Santana has been much more consistent with the bat this season than last season, though he has been equally as productive. The same goes for third baseman Jack Hannahan as he is getting on-base more and hitting for a better average, but has been equally as productive.

Bottom line, those six players collectively are performing at about the same level as last season. They have had more doubles this season (58 – 2012, 44 – 2011) but less home runs (22 – 2012, 34 – 2011). The increase in walks (120 – 2012, 110 – 2011) along with the increase in doubles has helped offset the significant drop in home runs and small drop in batting average to put them right in line with last year’s performance.

The big difference from last season to this season with the offense has been the play of the three other players in the lineup that have changed since last year. At this time last season Orlando Cabrera was the second baseman, Grady Sizemore was in the outfield, and Matt LaPorta was the first baseman. Now of course the Indians have Casey Kotchman at first base, Jason Kipnis at second base and a combination of Shelley Duncan and Johnny Damon in left field.

Take a look at the difference in production from the three players last year to the three this year:

Player 2011 Player 2012
Matt LaPorta .263 AVG, 5 HR, 22 RBI, .808 OPS Casey Kotchman .222 AVG, 3 HR, 15 RBI, .639 OPS
Grady Sizemore .282, 6 HR, 11 RBI, .974 OPS Damon/Duncan .179 AVG, 3 HR, 12 RBI, .565 OPS
Orlando Cabrera .263, 2 HR, 24 RBI, .631 OPS Jason Kipnis .260 AVG, 6 HR, 24 RBI, .740 OPS
TOTALS: .266 AVG, 13HR, 57RBI, .763 OPS TOTALS: .222 AVG, 12HR, 51RBI, .652 OPS

The only real plus from last year to this year as far as lineup changes goes has been the switch at second base from Orlando Cabrera to Jason Kipnis. However, Cabrera was actually equally productive with the batting average and RBI total, but the difference is that Kipnis is a far superior offensive performer with his ability to pile up extra base hits and impact the game with one swing of the bat. And Kipnis has yet to really hit his stride offensively.

First baseman Matt LaPorta did not play well down the stretch last season, but a lot of people may not recall the good start he got off to at this point last season. He was a very productive player in the early going and his right-handed bat helped balance the lineup. While Casey Kotchman has been a huge plus defensively, the gap between what LaPorta did offensively last season and what Kotchman is doing this season is enormous.

The most significant difference is what outfielder Grady Sizemore provided the team last year as compared to what the duo of Shelley Duncan and Johnny Damon have provided in his absence this year. You are talking about a 419 point difference in OPS. If there was ever any indication that the Indians really miss a healthy Sizemore, this would be it.

Everyone knows the production at first base and left field has been a big problem all season, and these numbers should only help show it. On top of that, the Indians have been just as good as last season at getting on base, but the biggest difference is their ability to produce runs as they are hitting for a much lower average as a team with men on base and have been a lot less fortunate with the timely hitting. That difference is not only the change from LaPorta to Kotchman and from Sizemore to Duncan/Damon, but also the drop in production from players like Hafner, Brantley, and Cabrera.

This is where the Indians can get better, and this is why the Indians offense has not yet peaked.

On the pitching front, the starting pitching this season has been good for the most part, though the Indians have been plagued with inconsistency from their top two starters. They have had a few injuries to work around this season with Josh Tomlin sidelined with a wrist injury, although both Carlos Carrasco and Mitch Talbot both missed some time last year during their 30-15 start due to injury as well.

Player 2011 Player 2012
Josh Tomlin 6-1, 2.41 ERA, 9 starts Josh Tomlin 1-2, 4.67 ERA, 6 starts
Justin Masterson 5-2, 2.50 ERA, 10 starts Justin Masterson 2-3, 4.62 ERA, 10 starts
Jeanmar Gomez 0-1, 4.91 ERA, 4 starts Jeanmar Gomez 3-2, 3.19 ERA, 8 starts
Roberto Hernandez 3-5, 4.73 ERA, 11 starts Derek Lowe 6-2, 2.15 ERA, 9 starts
Carlos Carrasco 3-2, 5.18 ERA, 8 starts Ubaldo Jimenez 5-3, 5.02 ERA, 9 starts

As you can see, there is definitely room for improvement on the pitching front. For as good as Lowe has been, Masterson has been equally as bad. Over the long haul Lowe’s performance will probably regress some, and Masterson’s performance is expected to pick up some. With that in mind their contributions to date are a wash as while Lowe has been a significant improvement to date over Hernandez last season, Masterson has been a shell of the pitcher he was at this time last season.

At this time last year right-hander Carlos Carrasco was in the rotation and at least from a performance perspective you would never know he ever left as right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez has performed almost exactly the same to date. The difference here is Jimenez is expected to have much more upside, and if he can find it then his numbers will only improve.

Right-hander Josh Tomlin has pitched well this season, but it is a far cry from the exceptional start he was off to last season. That’s been one of the biggest differences with the staff from last year to this year, though right-hander Jeanmar Gomez is pitching better this season and has really solidified himself in the rotation.

This does not include right-hander Zach McAllister (1-1, 3.96 ERA, 4 starts) who has been solid, but it should be noted that last year right-hander Alex White (1-0, 3.60 ERA, 3 starts) and right-hander Mitch Talbot (1-0, 1.46 ERA, 2 starts) pitched well in the early going too.

When you consider the small step back the rotation has made this season and the significant step back the offense has taken, it is amazing how the Indians are only three games off their pace from last year when they reached their high water mark of 30-15.

Their start this season is much different than last season. They have had few magical late inning comebacks and heroics, as they have instead relied on a consistent approach day in and day out of staying in every game, getting an early lead and turning it over to their very dependable bullpen, and winning games by the closest of margins. Through 44 games this season the Indians are but +1 in run differential, which is much different from last year when through 45 games they were +67 in run differential.

Last season’s start was unsustainable as there was nowhere to go but down, whereas this season in a lot of ways – barring injury - there is nowhere to go but up for the offense and starting pitching.  Health will always be a big key, but if this team can avoid any major injuries, they have the potential to stay in this thing all the way to the end.

Last year the Indians peaked on May 24th, but this season they have yet to peak and hit their stride. At some point this season that will happen, and when it does, it could give them all the momentum they need to this time hold off the Tigers and win the AL Central crown for the first time since 2007.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

Rich
May 26, 2012 - 10:54 AM EDT
Just a couple more thoughts. Comparing the numbers this year with last year's full season numbers (the first 45 games were unrealistic), the Indians' team ERA has improved from 4.23 to 4.02. Their offense is about the same. They're on pace to score 694 runs as opposed to 704 last year.

I think the defense is somewhat improved with Kotchman at first, Kipnis replacing OCab and Cord Phelps for part of the season at 2nd, and Santana has improved at catcher.

So overall the team looks somewhat improved over last season's 80-82 team, but not dramatically. The reason their record is much better is they're winning a very high percentage of one-run games and the schedule has been easy so far.

The exciting part is the pitching has room to improve with Masterson and Tomlin returning to form and Raffie coming off the DL to give us another lefty in the pen.

The offense should improve once they get somebody who isn't an automatic out in left field.

With the Tigers going from a 95-win team to a .500ish record (barring a major turnaround), the division is there for the taking.

The White Sox are starting to worry me, though. Dunn has made a huge difference to that lineup. Konerko can't keep hitting .380 can he?
Roger
May 26, 2012 - 9:29 AM EDT
one concern purplexing me were the moves yesterday and the lack of common sense with jack hanihan. by my count he has missed i think 12 games with back injuries and 25 man limit on active roster you err on side of caution and he should have been DL'd two or so weeks ago. Also not sure why they brought up the young ss to take zack's place when vinnie and CP they knew werent available for last nights game. When in first place you manage to win not to maintain. in addition why couldnt hafner have waited to the national league trip to get injured?
Rich
May 26, 2012 - 7:20 AM EDT
Awesome column. You made a great point in that a number of players were performing well above their capabilities at this point last year (Hafner .342, Tomlin 6-1, 2.41, Masterson 5-2, 2.50, LaPorta .808 OPS, for example), whereas this year nobody is really outperforming realistic expectations (well, maybe Derrick Lowe).

There certainly is upside, especially if they can get somebody who can break the Mendoza line in left field, either Grady or somebody in a trade.

One area the Indians have been very poor at this year has been home runs. They have no real power at the corner infield and outfield positions, although Choo is starting to drive the ball. With the weather improving I'm hoping to see a few more long balls.

Another possible development is that Manny seems to be willing to swipe a bag more often in the last couple of weeks. Maybe it's the opponents, but he's been sending Kip, Choo, and Brantley fairly regularly and with great results. Even Shelly Duncan swiped a couple of bags this week. Brantley's steal of second set up the winning run against Verlander. Manny even had Kipnis stealing second with the Tribe down seven runs last night. Something to watch in the future.
Tony
May 25, 2012 - 12:46 PM EDT
One thing I failed to mention was that the Indians also have more depth this year to compensate for injuries (McAllister for SP in minors, LaPorta and others for bats, Barnes and others for pen arms, etc). Plus just more upside with this team as Kipnis, Hagadone, etc all continue to get better and more adjusted. Last, the Indians have shown they will make a deal, so I think that they will add that bat if one becomes available.
Aarob
May 25, 2012 - 12:43 PM EDT
Great post! Really solid insight and analysis!
Steve
May 25, 2012 - 12:12 PM EDT
Wow. Outstanding stuff here Tony. The numbers don't lie, and it certainly seems as if the team has not yet tapped into its potential. I'm definitely hoping for the best.

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