From the moment the Cleveland Indians front office announced that Michael Brantley would require surgery on his non-throwing shoulder and would miss time in 2016, we knew the season could start out rough. An already weak outfield was about to lose its best piece, and the lineup lost one of its best, most consistent hitters. There is no possible way the Indians would avoid another slow start to the season, would they?
Well, here we sit nearly a month without Brantley and, surprisingly, everything has not imploded. Terrifying locust creatures have not emerged from the earth's crust to destroy our way of life, and the sun has not rapidly expanded to absorb our home planet (although it did ruin an afternoon for Rajai Davis). All told, the Indians offense is actually not all that awful so far in 2016. Here is where they rank among American League teams in some key areas:
- AVG: .249 (6th)
- OBP: .313 (7th)
- SLG: .397 (6th)
- wRC+: 102 (6th)
- ISO: .148 (8th)
Not great, but average. In fact, just a shade above average according to wRC+, which sets 100 as the league-average marker. Considering this offense was considered by many to be average even with Brantley in the lineup, these rankings are pretty encouraging.
So, how did that happen? How did the Indians offense, which was already considered to be a weak spot coming into the season, manage to play well enough to keep the Indians right around .500 without their best hitter? Let's take a look.
They are scoring first
We all know how well the Indians (and every MLB team) does when they score first. It's the reason Terry Francona frustratingly calls for bunts frequently, and when the Indians fail to score first it leads to long losing streaks.
So far this season, the Indians have scored first in nine of their 16 games, winning eight of them. The only loss that the Tribe has suffered after scoring first was the late-game meltdown on April 12 against the Tampa Bay Rays, when Corey Kluber allowed four runs in the eighth inning. Other than that, if the Indians are scoring early, they are in good shape.
Someone has always stepped up
Dig back through the Tribe's box scores this season, and you would be hard-pressed to find a game where every single offensive player rolled over and died. Even in losses, someone in the lineup had a good day. And even in a few wins, such the Indians' 2-1 win over the Detroit Tigers on Friday, it only took one or two offensive players to do something great. The fact that the offense had to overcome the black hole of suck that was Collin Cowgill makes it even more impressive.
This stands in contrast to previous years, where it often times felt like the entire offense would just die for days at a time. That could still happen over the course of a long baseball season, but it has not so far in April.
Mike Napoli has been great
When you are looking at players who stepped up in every game, Mike Napoli is a player that you will frequently notice. Over his first nine games, Napoli was huge for the Tribe. He slashed .286/.342/.543 (154 wRC+), homered twice, and recorded a hit in eight straight. Granted, Napoli has cooled off in the last few games, but going back to the first point, other players have stepped up in his place.
The rest of the free agents have been... okay, at least
Other than Collin Cowgill, I do not think we can call any of the Indians' offseason acquisitions total failures yet. Marlon Byrd, Juan Uribe, and Rajai Davis started slow, but they have rebounded as of late. Over the past week, they are a combined 13-for-38 with two home runs.
Also, as a fun fact due to small sample sizes, Rajai Davis currently leads the Indians in FanGraphs WAR with 0.7. His defensive value is also at 2.9, the highest on the team.
Everyone else has been healthy
This is a big one, especially considering the health issues of the team last season. With the obvious exceptions of Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall, everyone else in the lineup has had a clean bill of health so far in this young season. With Brantley potentially returning today and Lonnie just returning late last week, it has been extremely important for this team to remain healthy. The depth just was not there if someone went down, especially in the outfield.
Slumps have not lasted forever
"Forever" is relative in this case, of course, but no one seems to have slumped in every game of the season. Even Yan Gomes, who started out looking like a train wreck in 2016, had a great game on Saturday. Unlike last year, when it seemed like everyone was constantly working their way out of a downward spiral, players are naturally having good games and off days. You know, like how baseball is supposed to work.
Francisco Lindor's offense in 2015 was no illusion (at least so far)
Francisco Lindor surprised just about everyone when he was called up last season and became one of the best hitters in the entire league in the 99 games he played. If you have been patiently holding your breath waiting to scream "SOPHOMORE SLUMP" at the top of your lungs the moment Lindor begins to look bad for a string of games, you may suffocate soon.
Lindor is striking out a bit more in this early season than he did last year (2016: 20.0%, 2015: 15.8%), but he is walking more (2016: 10.0%, 2015: 6.2%) and he leads the team in hits with 20, and is tied for second in doubles with three.
Maybe once Lindor is in the presence of Michael Brantley he will crumble or something, but so far he has been great and I would not be surprised to see it continue.
Tyler Naquin has been good when he actually gets to play
Prior to Abraham Almonte's 80-game suspension this offseason, Tyler Naquin seemed quite a ways away from a major-league debut. However, Almonte's suspension and a strong spring propelled Tyler to the majors and he has done about as well as anyone could realistically expect.
In 33 at-bats this season, Naquin has racked up 10 hits, including a double and a triple. He has yet to hit a home run or take a walk (and his .417 BABIP suggests he has been a tad lucky), but he has been a serviceable platoon partner for Rajai Davis. I would still like to see Naquin get a shot against lefties, but as it is, I cannot complain about how he has done so far in Brantley's absence.
~~!!~~LACK OF BUNTING~~!!~~
Okay, so to be fair I do not really know if this correlates to the offense being passable in its first few games, but so far in this early season, the Indians are not bunting an insane amount, which is fantastic. So far this season they only have one recorded sacrifice hit. The less I see Francisco Lindor bunting with someone on second and no outs, the better.