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When hope starts becoming reality

Following the Tribe's opening series loss to the Chicago White Sox, I wrote a rambling piece about hope as a Tribe fan. The piece was more emotional than analytical, however, and did not really give any guide as to what we might expect and where, specifically, we could hope for improvements on the field. Since that piece the Indians have gone 24-11 and have consistently played some of the best baseball in the league. The hope I talked about in that piece has begun turning into reality on a number of fronts.

During the offseason, I did write a series of pieces that tried to lay out positive indicators for the Indian's young players, including LaPorta, Brantley, Santana, Carrasco and Masterson. If the Indians were going to be good this season, I saw these five guys as essential parts of a winning future in Cleveland. While not everyone is where we would like them to be, the group has not disappointed.

Matt LaPorta (.274/.354/.487, 142 OPS+)

One of the failings I brought for LaPorta was his inability to handle the inside of the plate, his struggles on off-speed pitches, and his subsequent total absence of hitting ability to the opposite field. Last season he hit an astoundingly bad .114 on balls to right field, his lone extra-base hit being a freak triple.  So far this season he has hit .389 on balls to right, including three doubles and a HR. LaPorta is still a pull hitter, but he seems to have corrected the hole in his swing that left him so vulnerable prior to this year. This is all despite the fact that LaPorta is seeing fewer fastballs than any point in the past (down from 55% last season to 45% this season). LaPorta is still struggling with offspeed pitches, but it is hard to argue with the huge improvements to his performance at the plate. Also, despite fangraphs' defensive numbers, LaPorta has looked quite agile at first.

Michael Brantley (.304/.383/.437, 138 OPS+)

Without meaning to sound too arrogant, I think I did a pretty great job of nailing Brantley's keys to success. Here are the positive indicators I listed for Brantley and what he has done so far this year.

  • Increased BB-rate (>10%)    2011: 11.0%
  • Lower IFFB% (<10%)    2011: 5.7%
  • Increased ISO (>.125)    2011: .133
  • Better contact rate/contact outcome ratio.    2011: This is hard to put into a single number, but Brantley's production on balls in play is considerably up from last season. Particularly on his fly balls...
  • Better production on fly balls (OPS > .450)  2011: 1.000, this is up from .295 a year ago. Brantley still puts the ball on the ground a high percentage of the time, but this might be the single most encouraging number Brantley has put up so far this season.
  • Excellent base-running (SB:CS >5:1)  2011: 5:2 so far...can't win them all
  • More doubles and triples (>20% of his hits, >7.5% of his balls in play) 2011: 24.5% of his hits for extra-bases
  • Above average reviews/measures of his defense  2011: who knows what the numbers mean, but I for one think his reads on balls both in center and left looks considerably improved.

Brantley is starting to look like a legitimate starter, and at just 24, he could become much better. I still think watching his production on balls in play will be the biggest indicator of Brantley's potential ceiling.

Justin Masterson (2.73 ERA, 2.85 FIP, 6.8 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 58.4 GB%)

The keys for Masterson that I identified were focused on Justin's control and performance against lefthanders.

I suggested he needed to work ahead in the count more frequently, beginning with a higher percentage of first-pitch strikes (up slightly to 56%). I suggested Masterson should either abandon the changeup, a pitch Masterson used last year mostly against lefties, but with little success, or improve its effectiveness. He has done the former, throwing only a handful all season, instead using almost exclusively his fastball (77.5%) and slider (21.5%). The reason for the changeup, of course, was Masterson's noted struggles against lefties. Last season Masterson's spread between RHH and LHH in FIP, xFIP, BB% and K% were huge. Not surprisingly, I suggested these numbers needed to improve for Masterson to transition into a viable starter. This season Masterson is striking out and walking righties and lefties at an equal rate. While lefthanders are still making considerably better contact than righties (.394/.194 BABIP, 24.2/3.4 LD%), the performance of the two are much more in line (3.07/.2.61 FIP, 3.57/3.31 xFIP). Masterson's strikeouts against righties and groundball numbers have actually declined somewhat from last season, suggesting a possibility of improvements to come. His effectiveness against lefthanders is still key, of course.

Carlos Carrasco (5.29 ERA, 3.37 FIP, 5.3 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 43.9 GB%)

Carrasco's performance to date has been more uneven than those listed above. Interestingly, the two things I mentioned first as positive indicators for Carrasco (fewer HRs on fly balls and increased effectiveness of his fastball) have both come to pass (HR/FB from 15.8% to 2.8%). However, the third indicator I gave for Carrasco, maintenance of his strong strikeout and walk peripherals, has not come to pass. Carrasco's control has abandoned him periodically, an issue that he needs to correct if he is going to stay in Cleveland.

Carlos Santana (.222/.357/.389, 117 OPS+)

The other Carlos has also struggled at times. For Santana the problem has been making contact and making solid contact. Rather than improve, his power has dropped considerably this year, as has his effectiveness on balls in play. On the bright side, he has been better over the past month (.241/.400/.468), although the low batting average in this case is still indicative of his occasional weak contact. Santana is seeing more fastballs this year and thus far, has struggled to consistently square up on them. My other comments for Santana regarded his defense, and all signs point to pretty positive results in that area of his game.

Obviously the above five have played important roles in the Indian's turnaround, but they are far from a complete story. In my piece on "where the wins come from" I pointed out that the single biggest factor that could help the 2011 team was a return to health and performance from Asdrubal Cabrera and Grady Sizemore. Sizemore's current DL stint is alarming, but while he has played, he has hit the ball better than just about any stretch in his career, putting up a 1.3 WAR in only 18 games. I still have a goal for Sizemore to appear in 100 games this season, a number that would make him a key contributor to the team. Asdrubal Cabrera has arguably been the team MVP thus far, with his 1.2 WAR only trailing Sizemore and Masterson. The return of a very Pronk-like Travis Hafner (1.0 WAR, 171 OPS+) has been a key addition, as well.

The other key so far this season has been the peripheral performances from fifth-starter (ha!) Josh Tomlin, bullpen guys like Pestano, Sipp and Perez, and performances off the bench from Marson, Duncan and company. And Jack Hannahan. These performances, I think, are a reflection of the Indians organizational depth at its top levels. This is again something I wrote about in the offseason, and something that will continue to be important going forward in the season. If Hannahan comes back to earth, it is nice that Lonnie Chisenhall is on the doorstep. If Talbot or Carrasco continue to flail, Alex White is already looking pretty comfortable in a Cleveland uniform. If Orlando Cabrera stops getting all those key hits or Adam Everett shows his age, it lines up nicely to have Jason Kipnis and Cord Phelps in Columbus. Even if Shelley Duncan begins to flail in his role as a right-handed bat off the bench, we conveniently have Jared Goedert lying in wait. This is the value of depth and a reflection of the real talent that the Indians system have right now.

Ups and downs are an inevitable reality going forward, but the Indian's strong performance may be reality as well. The Indians appear to be taking real steps towards being, and not just becoming, a playoff team. Nearly every major national media outlet and baseball blog have fallen over themselves in an attempt to explain, account for, and project the Indian's success. I think they have all underestimated the reality of what Cleveland is doing right now. And that reality exists in more than just the major's best record and best run differential, it also exists in the individual performances of young players and returning to health veterans.