Second Thoughts: Quarter-pole Good, Bad and Ugly
Alright, we're 2-3 games short of a more official "quarter pole," but I'm getting the jump on it since there was no game to write about on Monday.
Near-elite starting pitching: Even in spite of a horrendous defense, this group has proven to be the best unit on the team (seventh-worst earned run average in baseball, but the third-best fielding independent pitching). Corey Kluber, not Justin Masterson, has been the best of the bunch (one of the best, period, in fact, as his 1.7 wins above replacement ranks third in the league among pitchers), and Zach McAllister has even been better, so they're not just riding their number one and merely getting by with the other four. No team has a better starter strikeout rate, and they are also one of the best at limiting home runs. If Danny Salazar can figure out his command issues, and Josh Tomlin takes hold of his spot and does what he does (or even if he doesn't and Trevor Bauer emerges), there isn't a single letdown among the five. If, by some miracle, the defense could improve from absolute worst to even slightly below-average, this is the kind of rotation that can propel a questionable team.
Michael Brantley's power spike: Brantley is the team's best position player right now. He has been a steady contributor in seasons past, but what we are seeing now, and what has begun to propel his game is an early-season power surge. Perhaps it is merely temporary (which seems probable because he is hitting less line drives and flyballs, and far more groundballs), or perhaps it is a natural progression. Either way, he already has seven home runs, second-most in his career to last year's 10, but in a fourth of the time. His .207 isolated power mark dwarfs one that has been between .112 and .118 in each of the last three seasons. I still don't think that the Indians can survive with him being their number-one run producer all season, but if this is more than just a hot stretch, he obviously becomes a significantly more valuable player.
Lonnie Chisenhall finally putting it together: After years of waiting on Chisenhall to show some consistency, perform like the highly-touted offensive prospect he was and earn his keep, we are seeing it. He is still a low-walk, high-strikeout hitter, and is currently being aided by a super inflated .439 batting average on balls in play, but it is also worth noting that he hasn't hit a home run yet, something he has done pretty well in the past. I think we can expect some kind of leveling out there. He has also proven to be a very underrated baserunner, in my opinion. Many fans don't like the strict platoon usage, and while he has probably earned a shot against more left-handed pitching, I think it is the right play.
The backend of the bullpen...: Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw have been elite thus far, both ranking in the top 20 of reliever wins above replacement, at 0.5 and 0.6, respectively. The two have combined to strike out 40 in 34.0 innings, while walking just eight, and surrendering just one home run. Despite a bit of "closer controversy" right now, having these two as options late in games is going to answer most of those questions.
...Except for John Axford: Conversely, Axford is in the bottom-five of reliever wins above replacement (-0.5). He also possesses one of the worst walk rates in baseball, his groundball rate is significantly down, his velocity is mildly down, and his batting average on balls in play has proven him to be fairly lucky. All of those things pointed to a reliever ready to implode, and it happened. Credit to Terry Francona for being proactive and not watching the fire grow before he put it out.
Michael Bourn, Asdrubal Cabrera and Nick Swisher: The three veteran position players that the Indians count on most are, again, not very accountable. The trio collectively underperformed last season, and I thought there was no way that it could happen again, but here we are. Bourn has again struggled with injuries that limit his most important weapon, Swisher's annual consistency before coming to the Indians is getting less and less consistent by the day, and, despite a recent surge, Cabrera has continued his descent from elite shortstop to above-average (and only that positive because of positional circumstance) shortstop. In Cabrera's case, this is probably his last season with the team. Bourn and Swisher, on the other hand, may very well continue to be a problem that the team can't afford, both on and off the field, for years to come.
Carlos Santana's maddening inconsistency: I flirted with the idea of placing this in the "ugly" category, but I think that has to be reserved for one single aspect. I love Santana's patience. I am a huge proponent of walking. But, maybe he has taken it too far. Maybe he gets too deep into counts too often and buries himself. I don't know what exactly the problem is, but he isn't this hitter. This... dead-pull hitter who regularly gets beat by fastballs. It goes without saying that the team desperately needs him to snap out of this identity crisis, and I have to believe that he will. He is not this hitter.
Against left: .159/.289/.159, 2.84 earned run average, 17 strikeouts and eight walks
Against right: .318/.423/.523, 3.38 earned run average, eight strikeouts and eight walks
This is kind of like Axford's red flags to me. If it keeps being allowed, there are going to be some ugly results that lose you baseball games. You can't have them face left-handed hitters exclusively, but such a distribution seems quite off to me, especially when considering that the team carries an extra reliever that allows for more selectivity among matchups late in games.
Baseball's worst defense: I have harped on this over and over, even warned of it before the season, and frankly, it is draining (both to write about and watch). Nothing is worse than a hopeless defense. It ruins games. It loses games. It stays with you after games are over. -29 defensive runs saved - worst in the sport, by a lot. -20.2 ultimate zone rating - second-worst. The outfield has been unremarkably average. The infield has been a joke that you laugh at to keep from crying about. Ultimately, this will be what dooms the team unless major changes are made.
In summation, I think the 18-20 record so far feels pretty accurate. A great rotation and a good bullpen being brought down by a disastrous defense and an about average offense (but with room to grow) sounds like a near .500 team. I still absolutely see this as a competitive team because of the pitching and the offensive upside, but if the pitching drastically falls off or the offense doesn't round out, the determining factor in what would be a failure of a season is the "defense."
Among the "bad" I would put Carlos Carrasco, who failed yet another opportunity to help us salvage something from the Cliff Lee deal. The strong performances by Tomlin and Bauer kind of make Carrasco's latest implosion an afterthought, though.