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What went so wrong for the Cleveland Indians 2015 season?

The 2015 Indians were destined for great things. Where did it all go wrong?

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

It’s over. No amount of Jose Ramirez bat flips can save the Cleveland Indians season now, as they were officially eliminated in the wee hours of the morning on Thursday. When the Houston Astros came from behind to win 7-6 against their division rival Seattle Mariners, it was the final blow in a season of gut-punches that ultimately sunk the Indians 2015 World Series dreams.

Truthfully, the Indians were only mathematically eliminated on Thursday. If you had an earnest belief that they still had a shot when they needed to rattle off six wins a row while three other teams simultaneously went 1-17, you may have been fooling yourself (hey, at least you did not write 1,200 words about it). In reality, their fight has been more or less over when they lost by a final score of 0-3 against the Kansas City Royals on September 27. Even before that, with their playoff odds rarely spiking over 4%, the Tribe were kept in the hunt more because of the Astros dramatic slide than by their own doing.

So what exactly happened? The Indians were coming off a late-September surge in 2014 that saw them land just short of the playoffs, they had a top-notch pitching staff, and an offense full of young players about to hit (or in the midst of) their prime for 2015. Even Sports Illustrated chose them as their favorites to end the World Series drought that dates back to 1948. This was our year!

Not so much.

Slow starts and early injuries

The Indians sucked in April. At first glance, the Tribe’s 0-2 loss to the Astros to start the season looked like a fluke; obviously the Indians were better than the lowly Astros, right? As it turns out, that was game was prophetic than accident, and it showcased the biggest problem with the Indians going forward -- offense.

Cleveland batters in April were worth only 85 wRC+, 11th in the AL, and only got on base at a .302 clip, 10th in the AL. One easy explanation is injuries. Yan Gomes, who came into the 2015 season as one of 2014’s biggest offensive surprises, went down with a sprained MCL on a play at the plate in the fifth game of the season. He would not return until late-May, and the hole at catcher was obvious during his absence.

Roberto Perez did well enough -- heck even pretty great -- for a replacement catcher, hitting for a .209/.314/.442 slash in 53 plate appearances covering for Gomes. However, it became more apparent over the course of the month that Gomes was a big cog in the Indians offense, especially at a time when everyone else in the lineup was struggling. They needed premium name-brand cereal and they got off-brand stuff in a giant plastic bag. Still tastes the same, but it was not fooling anyone.

When Michael Brantley was available to play in April, he was playing at an All-Star pace with a .339/.381/.458 slash, including seven doubles. But a li lingering back injury kept him out of six games early on in the month, wherein the Tribe went 3-3. By the time Brantley returned to full-time duties on April 17, he was hitting third on a team that lost three out of its last four games and was already drowning on offense.

It was not all the offenses fault, however. Even 2014’s Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber came out of the gate like a wet match. Over his five starts he allowed 16 earned runs, issued seven walks, and struck out only 36 batters -- the lowest K total of any month this season besides his injury-laden September. Even though I am a firm believer that W/L records mean nothing, he went 0-3 if that type of things helps hit home just how bad he was during those five starts.

Underwhelming outfield

This has mostly been fixed with Lonnie Chisenhall’s move to right field and Abraham Almonte's surprising contributions, but a lack of consistent production from the Indians outfield was a huge contributor to their struggles throughout 2015. Whether you want to blame Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Brandon Moss, David Murphy, Ryan Raburn, Zach Walters, Tyler Holt, Mike Aviles, Jerry Sands, or Michael Brantley (actually, don’t blame him), there are plenty of directions to point your fingers here. The Indians outfield struggles were not for lack of warm bodies to throw out there.

Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher’s poor performances were costly in more ways their massive contracts. On the field, they did virtually nothing for the Tribe; the two of them were worth a combined -0.9 fWAR. Expanding that further, the combination of Bourn, Swisher, Holt, Sands, Walters, Aviles were worth a combined -2.6 fWAR. And as a fun aside that does not really mean anything: Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Cody Anderson, and Trevor Bauer were worth a combined 0.1 batting fWAR over 23 plate appearances.

Brandon Moss showed some of the power that he was meant to have, hitting 15 home runs in Cleveland before being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, but his .288 on-base percentage and poor defense in right field neutralized a lot of value he generated with his power bat.

The outfield has come on strong lately, with Michael Brantley, Abraham Almonte, and Lonnie Chisenhall providing an offensive jolt over the last couple months, but more than 100+ games of outfield mediocrity was too much for the rest of the offense to overcome. Not to mention that for, who knows what reason, Mike Aviles has started 37 games in the outfield for the Indians. Even during September, with a stable of young outfielders available, Terry Francona shuffled Aviles out there when the Indians needed wins the most. Your guess as to why is as good as mine.

Lack of power

Home runs are the easiest thing to point to when it comes to the Indians power drought in 2015, but they have had issues just getting extra base hits in general. As of October 1 they sit ranked 14th in the AL in ISO (.143), 14th in home runs (135), and 13th in slugging percentage (.399). Keep in mind that these power numbers also including Michael Brantley, who leads the league in doubles.

The Indians lack power from the traditional "power-hitting" positions all over the field. Giovanny Urshela was exciting when he first came up at third base, but as expected, his glove has been the only highlight and not enough to make up for his dismal six home runs or .327 slugging percentage. Carlos Santana’s power at first base came around towards the end of the season, culminating in a team-best 18 home runs, but like a lot of things for the 2015 Indians it was too little too late.

Finally, the designated hitter, the one position where you can just plug in any power hitting machine no matter how horrible they are on defense, has been a mixed bag of horrible and even more horrible for the Tribe.

Looking at the top home run leaders for the Tribe, it’s a strange list, including a shortstop, a player that has not been on the team for months, and a frequently injured catcher:

  • Carlos Santana (18)
  • Michael Brantley (15)
  • Brandon Moss (15)
  • Francisco Lindor (12)
  • Yan Gomes (12)

Three of these players (Moss, Lindor, Gomes) have played fewer than 100 games for the Tribe this season.

Hitting with runners in scoring position

One of the hardest things to watch about the Indians 2015 season was watching them come up to bat with runners in scoring position. Weirdly enough, if you can’t score you can’t win, and for a lot of the year the Indians could not score. All in all, the are currently  5th in the AL in on-base percentage (hooray!), but 12th in batting average with RISP, 10th in isolated power with RISP (.146), 10th in on-base plus slugging percentage with RISP (.729), and they induced the fourth most ground balls when hitting with men in scoring position (131).

Whether it is a mental block or a very strange set of coincidences, there is no denying that Indians just could not hit when it was needed most. Conversely, when the Indians came up to the plate with the bases empty, they were 3rd in the AL in batting average (.258), 2nd in on-base percentage (.320), and 4th in on-base plus slugging percentage (.730).


Just stop it.

Overall, the Indians have a lot of good to build on going forward, but way too much turmoil early on sunk whatever hopes they had for this season. Injuries and a lot of players slumping at once are both things that are difficult to control, but it is important to remember one key thing when it comes to the Tribe's 2015 failures:

It's all Sports Illustrated's fault.