Tribe Happenings: Third time the charm with this hot start?
Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook…
Quarter pole review
The Indians just passed the quarter pole in the season, which is typically the time when the fans and the front office reassess the team. Sitting at 24-17 and winners of 16 of their last 20 games, the Indians are playing well and hitting on all cylinders.
The Indians are ahead of last year’s pace by a game as the 2012 Indians were 23-18 after 41 games, and they are two games behind the pace of the 2011 Indians who were 26-15 after 41 games. With the Indians off to their third straight good start, the question remains: are they for real?
The IBI’s Jim Piascik will be doing a 40-game review of the actual performances of the players in a piece that will post on Monday, so I won’t delve too much into the individual performances to date. Instead, I will tough on some of the things that have led to their success and why this year’s good start may be more sustainable than the prior two seasons.
The biggest difference between the 2013 version of the Indians lies on the top step of the Indians dugout with Terry Francona at the helm instead of Manny Acta, and beyond that the bevy of veterans on the roster like Nick Swisher,Jason Giambi, Mike Aviles, Ryan Raburn, Mark Reynolds, Brett Myers and others who were brought in to provide what this team lacked more than anything: leadership and direction.
Now, there is no doubt that the offensive and defensive contributions from those additions have been huge, but there is no denying that the Indians clubhouse is a much different entity this season as compared to recent seasons. The chemistry and the way this team has so quickly come together – they have 13 entirely new players on the 25-man roster this year – is a testament to way the veterans have led and how the team has bought in to Francona’s message.
Beyond that major intangible, the actual talent on the roster is actually much better. The Indians no longer have theOrlando Cabrera’s, Shelley Duncan’s, Casey Kotchman’s, Johnny Damon’s and other past their sell by date players clogging up the roster and playing meaningful innings day in and day out. They now have a legitimate major league quality player playing at every position where they are at least an average player.
Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis, Mark Reynolds, Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, and Carlos Santana are no doubt at least average to above average players at their positions. The only two positions where they may just be slightly above average or slightly below average - depending on how you slice it - are with Michael Brantley and Drew Stubbs. However, considering how well-rounded those two players are and how they can impact a game in so many ways, I would still call them average players. On top of that they have a guy in Mike Aviles on the bench who might be a solid average player himself.
But the biggest difference between the lineup this season and in 2012 and 2011 is the power this team has up and down the lineup. They are pounding out extra base hits at an extraordinary clip and are hitting a lot of long balls. Check out their numbers through 41 games this season and where they rank compared to the previous two seasons:
|Batting average||.250 (9th)||.251 (9th)||.265 (4th)|
|On-base percentage||.317 (8th)||.324 (6th)||.335 (3rd)|
|Slugging percentage||.396 (10th)||.381 (13th)||.458 (1st)|
|OPS||.714 (10th)||.705 (13th)||.793 (1st)|
|Runs per game||4.3 (9th)||4.1 (13th)||4.9 (5th)|
|Home runs||154 (9th)||136 (12th)||56 (1st)|
|ISO (Isolated Power)||.146 (9th)||.131 (13th)||.194 (1st)|
Now, of course, 2011 and 2012 are based on 162 game seasons whereas 2013 is only through 41 games, so there is a lot of time for the offense to fall back. But there is no denying the power this team is showing so far as it has been a key reason for their success so far and will be a key to their success the remainder of the season.
On the pitching front, the Indians have not been blowing anyone away, but Justin Masterson and Zach McAllisterhave quickly become a nice one-two punch at the top of the rotation. In addition to that, Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir are getting more consistent with each start they make and have become reliable options in the middle of the rotation. Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber have also done a nice job filling in as the fifth starter or in spot duty.
I mentioned it before the season that if the Indians just got average pitching and it kept them in the game that they will win a lot of games this season. So far that has held true. Check out the numbers this season compared to the 2011 and 2012 seasons:
|Team ERA||4.23 (10th)||4.78 (14th)||3.92 (7th)|
|Starter's ERA||4.51 (10th)||5.25 (13th)||4.36 (7th)|
|Bullpen ERA||3.71 (5th)||3.99 (13th)||3.08 (4th)|
|Home runs allowed||153 (8th)||174 (9th)||50 (6th)|
|Walks||463 (11th)||543 (2nd)||146 (5th)|
|Strikeouts||1024 (13th)||1086 (13th)||339 (7th)|
|Batting average against||.263 (11th)||.268 (12th)||.236 (3rd)|
|WHIP||1.34 (10th)||1.42 (14th)||1.28 (7th)|
Again, this is only through 41 games this season compared to full 162-game seasons in 2011 and 2012; however, the Indians have been much more of a league average pitching staff this season. That improvement in and of itself may be the biggest reason why their start to date is more sustainable.
Bottom line, the starting pitchers are pitching deeper into games, the best relievers are being better used late in games, the lineup is tough one through nine with the power to come back on a team at any time, and to top it all off they have outstanding leadership in the dugout from the manager on down to the players on the field.
All of that adds up to a pretty good baseball team and a team that – barring a rash of injuries – should be in the playoff hunt all season. Yes, this team has failed to maintain early season success in 2011 and 2012, but those were completely different teams which overachieved the first two months of each of those seasons. This team is much different and it can be argued that the best has yet to come with this team now that they are healthy and at full strength.
Keys to the turnaround
The Indians were 11-13 at the start of May, but since then they are 13-4 this month and the hottest team in baseball.
The Indians really managed a tough situation in April where they were never completely healthy as they lost players like Brett Myers, Scott Kazmir and Michael Bourn to time on the disabled list, and they also had regulars such as Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera, and others miss a few games with minor bumps and bruises.
But they were able to weather the storm because of the solid bench that they built in the offseason with the likes of Mike Aviles, Ryan Raburn, Jason Giambi and Yan Gomes all being major league quality options that could start for a good amount of teams.
The depth of the roster was what helped keep the team afloat while they waited to get healthy, but it is the rejuvenated Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir on the mound and the return of Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera as forces at the top of the lineup that have been the true keys to the turnaround.
Over his last four starts Jimenez is 3-0 with a 1.90 ERA, and in 23.2 innings has allowed 17 hits, 8 walks, and has 29 strikeouts. The consistency of his stuff has been there and most importantly he is walking less hitters and striking out more hitters.
Over his last four starts Kazmir is 2-2 with a 3.68 ERA, and in 22.0 innings has allowed 21 hits, 5 walks, and has 24 strikeouts. He had a minor hiccup his last time out, but the quality of his outings continues to get better and when you have a 5:1 strikeout to walk ratio that is pretty darn good.
With Justin Masterson (6-2, 3.14 ERA) and Zach McAllister (3-3, 2.65 ERA) pitching at an All-Star level, the emergence of Jimenez and Kazmir as steady middle of the rotation pitchers has been huge. If both even come close to sniffing previous levels of success they had when they were at the top of their game and Masterson and McAllister continue to do what they have been doing, then the Indians have themselves a very formidable four pitchers at the front of their rotation. That just leaves the fifth spot which the Indians can piece together with the likes of Brett Myers, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco.
On the offensive side of things, the return of Jason Kipnis this month has been a huge key. After a brutal April where he hit .200/.269/.286 with 1 HR and 4 RBI in 70 at bats, he is red hot in May hitting .295/.362/.738 with 6 HR and 19 RBI in 61 at bats. The overall quality of his at bats have improved tremendously in May, and you have to wonder if the elbow issue he dealt with in April had a much bigger effect on his play than we initially thought.
I said it before the season, and he is proving it now, and that is that Kipnis is the straw that stirs this offense. He is the bridge between Bourn and the middle of the lineup and can really impact a game in so many ways offensively.
Not to be overlooked is Asdrubal Cabrera because he is probably the second most important player in the lineup. Entering play on April 28th he was hitting .162 with 2 HR, 5 RBI and .509 OPS in 18 games. In 21 games since then he is hitting .313 with 2 HR, 14 RBI and .921 OPS, and it is no surprise that the Indians recent run of success coincides with his turnaround offensively.
Ever since Francona swapped places in the batting order between Kipnis and Cabrera and put Kipnis in the two-hole and Cabrera in the three-hole things have magically come into place for the lineup. With Kipnis and Cabrera finally playing well it gives the Indians run production trio of Nick Swisher, Carlos Santana and Mark Reynolds many more opportunities to drive in runs. And that is a good thing.
Chisenhall sent out
The Indians made their first significant roster change on Monday when they optioned third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall to Triple-A Columbus.
While the Indians have had to juggle the roster some the first month and a half of the season due to injuries, the decision to send Chisenhall to Columbus was the first roster decision the Indians have made this season based on performance. As the Indians near the 40-game mark they may soon make some other decisions with other positions on the roster as well.
The move did not come as much of a surprise as Chisenhall was hitting just .213 with three homers, 11 RBI and .604 OPS in 26 games. He also had just three walks compared to 22 strikeouts in 94 at bats. The struggles even carried into his game defensively as he had four errors in 58 total chances for a .931 fielding percentage.
Among third basemen in all of baseball Chisenhall ranked 27th in batting average (.213), 29th in hits (20), 31st in walks (3), 19th in strikeouts (22), 22nd in home runs (3), 28th in on-base percentage (.253), 25th in slugging percentage (.351), 26th in OPS (.604), and 23rd in WAR (0.1). Defensively, he ranked 20th in fielding percentage (.931).
The poor early showing comes off of what was an excellent showing in spring training when Chisenhall hit .400 with four homers, 12 RBI and 1.123 OPS in 60 at bats, and had a solid seven walks and only nine strikeouts. But the bat and good approach did not carry over into the start of the regular season as his plate discipline crumbled and his at bats have gone downhill ever since.
Chisenhall’s struggles against lefties have also continued this season as he was just 2-for-22 (.091) against them prior to his demotion. The last straw might have come on Sunday in Detroit when he made a costly throwing error and had some very poor at bats over the course of the game.
Bottom line, even though the Indians were less than 40 games into the season, it was time to make a change as Chisenhall lacked much consistency in all phases of the game. Barring an injury forcing him back into the big league mix, he should spend a considerable amount of time in Columbus to get his swing right, his approach at the plate more consistent, and become a little more reliable defensively.
One he gets over the disappointment of being sent to Columbus, what Chisenhall needs more than anything is a chance to take a deep breath, relax and find a way to get his talents at the plate to more consistently show. The Indians still believe he is their long term third baseman, but at the same time he was clearly pressing and things were compounding on him at the plate and not getting better.
The sample size of less than 100 at bats and fewer than 40 games is small, but the Indians could ill afford to be overly patient and let Chisenhall work through his struggles at the major league level. If they were rebuilding and not in contention they could run him out there every day at third base and let him play the entire season no matter how he performed and then evaluate him at the end of the season. But they are in contention and expected to win now, which means patience is a lot shorter and consistency and reliability is a must by everyone on the roster.
Chisenhall is still hitting just 22-for-110 (.200) against lefties in his career with two walks and 29 strikeouts. Improving against left-handed pitching will continue to be one of the main areas of focus for him and getting more consistent in that area is what is going to separate him from being an everyday player or a platoon player at the big league level.
With the versatile Mike Aviles and red hot Mark Reynolds the Indians had in house alternatives that they could turn to at third base that are no worse defensively than Chisenhall but are more consistent and reliable players right now offensively. With Chisenhall having options remaining, it allowed the Indians to send him to the minors to get things right at Columbus and to possibly be an option again for them in the near future.
For now, Reynolds will get the lion’s share of playing time at third base, though Aviles will also get some time there as well. Reynolds has played most of his career as a third baseman, and with his production at the plate right now it is a natural fit for him and the Indians. This now opens up the designated hitter role for the Indians to use Jason Giambi more often and to also rotate players in and out of to give them a break in the field.
We have not seen the last of Chisenhall, but how he responds to the demotion to Columbus will determine how soon he gets back to Cleveland. If he finds his swing again and the approach returns, he could be back with the Indians at the hot corner very soon. Hopefully to stay next time.
Finishing off Bauer
Last season 22-year old Trevor Bauer was rushed to the big leagues by the Arizona Diamondbacks barely a year removed from the 2011 MLB Draft. He was called up at the end of June and made just four starts and went 1-2 with a 6.06 ERA before he was sidelined with a groin issue and did not pitch for the Diamondbacks the rest of the season.
After a wild three-team, nine-player trade last December that brought the prized arm of Bauer to the Indians, he impressed the Indians coaches and front office staff with a solid spring training and has since pitched well in several spot starts for the Indians this season. In three starts for the Indians this season Bauer is 1-2 with a 2.76 ERA.
The key for Bauer has been the work he has put in between starts which have improved the quality of his outings each time out. He really struggled with his command in his first outing in Tampa and then bobbed and weaved through five shutout innings against the Phillies in another spot start on May 1st, but he really put things together and had his best start to date against the Yankees on Monday pitching into the seventh inning and allowing just two earned runs on six hits and only allowed two walks.
It is that steady improvement from start to start and how quickly Bauer is adjusting and settling into things at the major league level that is so exciting.
There is a still a lot Bauer has to learn before he is a more consistent pitcher and can be relied upon every fifth day he gets the ball. He is still young and maturing and needs more experience and seasoning at the minor league level to polish himself off, but he is quickly getting to the point where he is just about ready to come up to the big leagues for good and finish off his development with the Indians at the major league level.
The pedigree and talent is there for Bauer to be a true ace of a staff, or even just a solid number two starter. He has a deep arsenal of pitches with three pitches that are at least plus - a low-to-mid 90s four-seam fastball, a devastating 12-6 curveball that is his best pitch, and a wipeout slider that is tough on lefties. He also mixes in several other pitches and different variations of all of his pitches, but the fastball-curveball-slider trio are his bread and butter.
Bauer is very in tune to his delivery and what he needs to do to maximize it to be effective and efficient with it. He is a religious follower of biomechanics as he constantly studies it in order to have a better understanding of what his muscular, joint and skeletal actions of his body are doing during the execution of his delivery in order to improve performance, prevent injury, and master the art of pitching.
But for as much as Bauer studies his mechanics and constantly works on them, his delivery is a little unorthodox and he has problems commanding his fastball. He works with his fastball too much up in the zone; something he generally prefers but is something that Indians coaches have worked with him to more consistently command his fastball down in the zone and only pitch up in the zone at times to change the eye level of the hitters.
At this point it is that fastball command which will determine how successful of a pitcher Bauer will be at the major league level. He has the moxie, toughness and the abilities to be a frontline pitcher. His stuff is electric and he has several pitches he can get swing and miss with, but until he more consistently commands his fastball his performances will be erratic.
If the fastball command ever falls in line, then he is going to take a giant leap forward. If that happens, then the Indians will have a fixture at the front end of their rotation for at least the next half decade and one of the best young starting pitchers in all of baseball.
Brett Myers threw 3.0 shutout innings in a rehab outing for Double-A Akron on Friday, though he only threw 28 pitches (13 strikes). He is being built back up and will make another rehab appearance on Tuesday and go five innings or 75 pitches. After that the Indians may make a decision on whether to activate him from the disabled list, though they have until June 16th to keep him on a rehab assignment in the minors (30 days for pitchers) before he has to be activated. … I have been hearing that the Indians may work around the Carlos Carrasco with some roster maneuvering around the All Star break. Another person with knowledge of this told me the same thing on Saturday. … Triple-A right-handed pitcher Danny Salazar is struggling with a sore shoulder and was scratched from his scheduled start this weekend. He might miss one or two starts.
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.
Definitely a different vibe to this team. Even people in the org saying it. A high ranking person even said to me this weekend that not only is the team better, but the clubhouse, the coaching staff, and the way the players are managed are better too. Huge difference from previous years.
Seth I am fine with the Chisenhall move. This is a team that wants to win and that is the main focus. When you operate like that the patience is shorter and guys have a much shorter leash. If this were a development year then no way should Chisenhall been sent out. But right now, I prefer the most professional approach of Aviles in there when Reynolds is not playing. And Chisenhall has not been very good defensively either, so even though Reynolds is a poor defender, it is not that much of a step down right now....if at all.
I hope the fans can catch on because the attendance this weekend was not very good. Sure, they had 34K at the game on Friday night....but the fans are proving that they are more interested in the promotions than the product on the field. I get the advent of home TV viewing and the internet has changed the landscape of people wanting to go to games....but that is a league-wide problem and not just in Cleveland. Yet, other teams draw better even with all of this new home technology. It's just an excuse. It's not a baseball town. Been saying it for years. The Indians are winning but the talk in town is who the Browns third string QB is and about Haslem's legal trouble. Just the way it is.
No way around it attendance is horrible. Should have had 25 k for sat and sun at least.
I think this is an exciting team that has some cred due to vets like Swisher, Titio, and Giambi. Speed power, come back stories, 3 great young pitchers in Masterson-McCalister and eventually Bauer. An outspoken closer. If they continue to win I think the fans will start to show.
Nice write up, hitting most of the important points but one thing. I think Michael Brantley is a better then average player. He is a leader, can play smallball, is a smart and proffesional hitter, plays good defense and can even play CF, can run the bases well and hits alot of doubles. If he can just add some power say 15 homers a year I think he will be a well above average player.
1990: population 505,616
2010: population 396,815
Then there's the growth of TV viewing. Next year the Indians will be getting $90 million before they sell a single ticket from local and national TV. They were getting a fraction of that from TV back in the Jacobs era. They'll be doing very well for a city of Cleveland's size if they can average in the mid 20s.
Def not a good sign for Salazar if he's ever going to push his pitch count past 100. Hopefully this is a one week blip.
and masterson and jimenez were total busts last year. it was a pure fluke we were like 3 out as late as july before the inevitable collapse. they need to keep it up all year.
this years team can and will contend for the division or wildcard into sept.
and if pitching falters, I think carrasco and bauer are major league ready. carrasco just needs to keep his head in the game.
perez is beginning to scare me as the closer. he has an avg fastball and no great cutter or out pitch. his key is not leaving 93 mph fastballs over the plate like yesterday.
I think they should've allowed him to work through it, as they did with Kipnis, Santana last year, Victor Martinez in 2005, and many other young players who have struggled for extended periods of time.
With the Chisenhall situation, any thought that this might speed up the timetable for Lindor, with the thought that they could set up Lindor to take over shortstop in 2014 and slide Asdrubal over to 3b?