Wednesday, May 4

The Indians, 1/6 of the way done

I was listening to the radio broadcast of the Indians' 5-4 win over the Tigres on Sunday, completing a three-game sweep consisting entirely of come-from-behind wins and extending their home win streak to 13 games, when Mike Hegan mentioned that the Indians are nearing that 40-game mark in the season where you can really gauge how the rest of the season might be expected to proceed. I have no idea what Hegan was talking about - the fact of the matter is that the 27 contests they've played is really in no way close to 40 games, and in fact only 2/3 of the way there, but they are 1/6 of the way through the season holding the best record in baseball and having notched a franchise record for wins in April. As such, I thought I'd take a look inside the numbers and see what has made the 2011 Tribe so successful thus far.

First of all, know that Cleveland's 19-8 start isn't happening by accident. The Tribe's pythagorean W-L is 18-9, the club ranks 1st in SRS according to (1.5, where the yankees and Phillies are tied for 2nd at 1.1), and the Indians own baseball's best run differential at +47. They've scored the most runs of any AL Central club and allowed the fewest. Any way you slice the numbers, other than home attendance, the Cleveland Indians look really good so far. Baseball Prospectus now gives us a 39% chance of qualifying for the postseason, which is still less than half of what it grants the 13-15 Boston Red Sox (whom the Indians took down in one of their FIVE three-game sweeps this month) but represents a marked improvement from a couple of weeks ago.

Anyone who's followed the club will tell you that it's the pitching that's propelled the Indians to such a hot start, with the starters giving the club a chance to win every night and the bullpen locking things down at the end. While the chuckers have done these things, it's the offense that has been the team's top strength. The team's OPS+ is 127 while its ERA+ sits at 109 - very good, but not on par with how the Indians have swung the bats. The Indians staff is 3rd in the AL in ERA at 3.48, which is great - the Tribe batsmen are FIRST in the AL in runs, which is greater.

All nine Tribe regulars have an OPS+ above 100, led by Travis Hafner's improbable 176 and Matt LaPorta possibly pointing towards a breakout campaign and an increase in the amount I pay to sponsor his Baseball Reference page at a solid 144. Jack "The Zookeeper" Hannahan is next at 134, with Michael Brantley in 4th at 129. Brantley, incidentally, leads the team in OBP at .394 (and this team leads the AL) - if he can just keep doing that for the next five years in Cleveland, I'll be really happy. What would you have thought if I'd told you these four cats would be leading the Tribe in batting production at this point? Amazing. Our middle infielding Cabreras have also hit well above average for their positions, with OC at 104 and Asdrubal at 126 (including a club-leading five home runs).

Oh yeah, and Grady Sizemore has come back from knee surgery on a video game-like tear, crushing a home run his first game back (he has four already in just 54 PA) and notching an extra-base hit for every four AB's so far. His OPS+ is 218 and in just two short weeks he's reestablished himself as the face of the franchise and arguably its most valuable player. Glad I didn't toss out that jersey.

One of the oft-repeated storylines of the Indians lineup is how it's remarkable that they're producing even without elite production from their nominal top two hitters, Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana. This, like the view that pitching has carried the Tribe so far, isn't exactly true. Sure, Santana's OPS+ of 104 doesn't quite match his vast potential, and Choo (106) hasn't reached the standards set by his monstrous three-year run from 2008-10 (156, 136, 148). But Choo leads the Indians in WAR (thanks in large part to his outstanding work in RF), edging out Brantley, Cabrera, and, somehow in just 12 games, Sizemore. Santana's WAR is a pedestrian 0.4 thus far, but consider how a few notable Tribesmen fared in 2010 WAR:

Brantley: -0.5
LaPorta: -0.2
Sizemore: -0.9

The point is, the Indians are getting contributions from their whole lineup and scoring a ton of runs as a result. Yes, certain players will cool off, but others will get hot - the important thing is that we have some key guys who seem to have turned the corner on injuries (Sizemore, Hafner, Asdrubal) and guys who really look like they might be figuring it out (Brantley, LaPorta). We also have Choo, who is a straight baller.

Defensive statistics are tricky, and I refuse to cite the Indians' defensive "rank" in the league just by the number of errors they've made. But I will say that BR has our defensive WAR at 2.0, where for all of 2010 it was only 1.9. The Tribe defense also passes what some call "the eye test" but what I prefer to call the "can't remember them losing games this year because the defense fucked up, which happened all the time in 2008-2010 test." Let's talk pitching.

As I mentioned before, we have a staff ERA of 3.48, good for an ERA+ of 109 and 3rd in the AL. The bad news: the two teams we trail (Oakland and California) happen to be the two clubs we're out West visiting this week. We'll see who gives.

The biggest stories among the Indians staff are obviously starters Justin Masterson (5-0, 2.25 ERA, 165 ERA+) and Josh Tomlin (4-0, 2.45, 152). I wrote at the start of the year that I expected two guys from the bottom 80% of the Indians' rotation to have a breakout campaign, but no way did I expect them to do so this fast and to this degree (also I guessed Carrasco and Tomlin, half right). It will be interesting to see to what extent this duo regresses to the mean, and to discover where that mean might be. Masterson, in particular, looks like he might have a pretty damn good mean.

Fausto Carmona has been a mixture of brilliant and brutal. His season ERA sits at 5.15, but 16 of the 21 earned runs he's yielded so far have come in just two of his starts, including his 10 ER, 3 IP Opening Day debacle. Take out Opening Day, and Fausto has an ERA of 2.98 for the season (editor's note: he went out and tossed 8 IP and yielded just one ER right after I posted this). Keep that up and we'll forget all about Opening Day, assisted by having killed a lot of brain cells that day anyway despite Progressive Field's egregious lack of PBR or Blatz.

The bullpen was expected by many to be a team strength, and certainly hasn't disappointed. In Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, and Chris Perez, we have a foursome every bit as fearsome as Eric Wedge's vaunted Circle of Trust from 2007, with the exception that Chris Perez can probably run faster than Joe Borowski could throw. The foursome that makes up the Circle of Trust (v2.0) currently sports an ERA of 1.58 (R. Perez hasn't given up a run yet), in addition to one comically Italian name that I love saying whenever he makes an appearance. Hey! Its'a Vinnie Pestano!

Hell, may as well add Joe Smith (1.59) to the CoTv2.0 - won't change my ERA calculation much.

The remainder of the rotation is in a bit of flux, with injuries to Mitch Talbot and Carlos Carrasco serving as the only blemishes on Cleveland's 2011 campaign thus far. But I liked what I saw from Alex White on Saturday (as I attended his MLB debut) and the other two looked good before going down.

The other five sixths of the season aren't likely to be as memorable as this 19-8 stretch, but they don't have to be - if the Tribe can assemble solid 14-15 win months from here on out, we take the AL Central.

Did I mention that we're TEN games up on Minnesota and Chicago? Go Tribe.

No comments: