Smaller successes, yielding larger results
As I was watching the Tribe during their nationally televised game this past Saturday in St. Louis, Rick Manning and Thom Brennaman were discussing the construction of the Indians ballclub. At one point they mentioned how the Tribe has the look of a National League team, as their success is contingent upon less glamorous means, compared to other mashing, mega-market teams in the American League.
Instead of slugging it out with opponents, Cleveland has won its games thanks to an emphasis on qualities that are understated, befitting to the character of the team: on-base percentage, steals, pitching and full effort defense. Since the Tribe has excelled in these often overlooked —or at least less-glamorized— areas, they’ve put themselves in a position to contend against two big spending brutes in the American League Central.
This point deserves serious merit because the Indians’ front office has astutely observed, largely because of a smaller payroll, that they cannot contend on the same platform of having a high-octane offense. Rather, they must succeed in the small ball areas of the game. To that end, the Indians organization has done a shrewd job of recognizing the changing culture of the game. In post-steroid era baseball, the focus has shifted toward the importance of pitching and defense, especially with respect to defensive shifts, as the average number of runs scored per game in Major League Baseball has decreased each of the last five seasons.
Point being, the Indians success this season, which has them only a half-game out of first place, mirrors the shifting brand of baseball. Since Cleveland cannot legitimately contend in free agency, the importance of having a precise system of drafting and developing talent, while retaining pieces fundamental to team success (i.e. the Cabrera and Santana signings), is the only way the Tribe can match the potent, star-studded lineups of the beefy, big market payrolls. The Indians must beat teams in alternative ways by doing enough small things the right way to gut out series wins, just like they recently have in Detroit and St. Louis.
One linchpin to the Indians’ success this season has been the efficient method in which hitters have gotten on base. Ranked 3rd in the league in on-base percentage (.329), the Indians have disguised a mediocre team batting average (.250, 9th in the AL) by continually exercising patience at the plate and happily taking a ton walks (225 walks, most in the league). These stats are familiar to Tribe fans, but one lesser-known fact is that the Indians are tied for the 2nd-fewest strikeouts (372) in the American League. It’s encouraging that the patient approach at the plate hasn’t resulted in a ton of caught-looking punchouts.
Coupled with a high on-base percentage is the team’s ability to register a timely hit, when such is needed. Cleveland has a .261 batting average with runners in scoring position, good enough for 6th in the American League. While that number drops when there are two outs with RISP and with the bases loaded, there are other offensive stats to savor: 2nd in on-base percentage with two outs (.336), 3rd in batting average with two outs (.248), and 3rd in sacrifice flies (18), 5th in runs scored when the team is trailing (98). These numbers underscore the Tribe’s philosophy about the importance of getting on base and recording timely hits.
In addition to a well-suited plate approach, the Indians’ ability to selectively steal bases has bolstered their offense. Oddly, the team does not have a true burner, yet they lead the league in steals (49), chiefly because of the trio of Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, and Shin-Soo Choo. Therefore, the team has done a superlative job of identifying opposing pitchers’ methodical deliveries and unthreatening arms behind the dish.
This penchant for swiping bags is the paragon of small ball success. Getting a runner into scoring position without the necessity for the ball to be put in play is a lethal tool, one that you don’t necessarily need a big payroll for. Manny Acta and his staff deserve a lot of credit for spotting opportune times to run. Not only is Cleveland pacing the league in steals, but their success rate (77.8%) is impressive, too. The only other team in the top ten in steals with a better percentage is Los Angeles of Anaheim at 78.9%.
The top of the Indians starting rotation is showing flashes of getting it together. Neither Justin Masterson, nor Ubaldo Jimenez issued a free pass in their most recent starts. This wouldn’t be noteworthy if the aforementioned duo hadn’t been pacing the American League in walks for the better part of the season thus far, but both have struggled with command, so this recent development is soothing. Masterson tossed seven innings of one-run ball in St. Louis on Saturday, as Jimenez followed suit with his own seven inning, one-run effort. If this is an omen for the previously-scuffling duo, then Tribe fans should be plenty eager to see these still-young arms take the mound.
On the other side of the outfield fence, the bullpen has hit a bit of a valley in its season as Cleveland relievers’ earned run average has ballooned to 4.05, 12th in the league at the one-third point in the season. If there was ever a deceptive stat, it’s bullpen ERA as the ‘pen is still the strongest part of the team. The Mafia boasts a league-leading 22 saves while owning the 5th lowest opponents’ batting average (.226) and 3rd highest number of holds (35), respectively. The bullpen needs to maintain impressive marks to fortify the team’s other building blocks.
Lastly, the defensive prowess displayed by Tribe defenders demands discussion. It’s hard to say which play was more criminal: Michael Brantley’s robbery of a would-be Alex Rios home run a few weeks ago or the leaping stab-and-grab Johnny Damon pulled on Prince Fielder last weekend in Detroit. One thing is for sure, Tribe players are giving every ounce of effort they have on the defensive side of the ball. This last piece to the tiny puzzle, team defense, rounds out the little things the Tribe is doing to win games. Cleveland is tied for 4th fewest errors (29), as well as 4th in fielding percentage (.987). While there are some players on the team with less-than-superior range, it does not speak to the defensive effort, which has been nothing short of impressive.
The emergence of Carlos Santana’s defense behind the plate is especially inspiring. With a mere three passed balls (only two other catchers with 40 games played have less) and a gaudy caught stealing rate (34.5%), Santana has shown immense improvement with his defense in a short period of time. Add in the power sinker-heavy pitching staff and it only makes the 26 year-old backstop look even better. If he sustains something close to his 19:10 stolen base to caught stealing ratio, opposing base runners will attempt significantly fewer steals over the long term.
The fashion in which the Indians win games reflects the character of the city of Cleveland. It ain’t flashy, it’s blue-collar, but it does the job. It’s a small symphony of unappreciated pieces, synchronized to achieve a larger task. A home run heavy lineup or strikeout-rich starting staff is entertaining on a basic level, but it’s not the only way to win. More importantly, it’s not the way Cleveland can or should win the bulk of its games.