I have frequently tried to be optimistic in a sea of terrible Cleveland Indians takes this season, but it’s hard not to feel a little deflated after this latest blow. The 2016 Indians survived Michael Brantley’s injury, the 2016 Indians survived Yan Gomes’ injury, the 2016 Indians survived Danny Salazar’s injury. Will Carlos Carrasco’s injury be the final straw?
There is no sense is saying the season is dead, because it’s not. A lot can happen in the playoffs, and luckily, the Indians have such a lead in the American League Central at this point that they can limp into the playoffs if they have to. If the Indians are going to compete for a World Series title past the ALDS, it will not be due to their strong starting pitching, though.
Coming into the season, the thought of the Indians offense carrying a beleaguered pitching staff would have been ludicrous. The Indians were coming off of a season in which the pitching staff featured three potential aces in Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, and Carlos Carrasco, with Trevor Bauer looking like he was ready to break out.
Well, now two-thirds of those potential aces are gone for most, if not all of, the playoffs, and Bauer will be thrust into the second pitching spot. Presumably, Josh Tomlin will take the third spot in the playoff rotation and Mike Clevinger will take the fourth if the Tribe make it to the ALCS. Tomlin and his home run issues will always worry me, and as much faith as I have in the future of Clevinger, he is still very much a rookie.
Let’s not pretend that the pitching staff is fine heading into the postseason, because it’s not. But that does not mean the Indians cannot win.
A lot is riding on Trevor Bauer figuring everything out in a month
If you ask two fans what they think of Trevor Bauer, you will probably get two completely different answers. The biggest differences will come between fans who just sift through box scores after games, and those who actually watch the 25-year-old pitch.
The former will describe a pitcher who has looked inconsistent at best, and pretty terrible at worst. But the latter will tell you that Trevor Bauer looked maybe the best he ever has in career through five innings against the Chicago White Sox on September 13, but collapsed in the sixth then had more runs tacked on after the bullpen let them home. Trevor Bauer is a difficult pitcher to nail down.
As for a year-to-year comparison, this year’s Trevor Bauer has benefitted from roughly a one mile-per-hour boost to his fourseam fastball over last season, according to Brook’s Baseball. Part of that came from his stint in the bullpen to open the season when he was frequently hitting 95+ mph, but even deep into the season he is approaching an average velocity of 95 mph, compared to the 93-94 he was hitting last season. As a result, his fastball has been much more effective this season (0.09 weighted value, according to FanGraphs) compared to last season (-0.10).
We saw a bit of Bauer’s control issues in his last start, when he hit three Detroit Tigers batters throwing inside. It was clearly an accident, especially hitting Ian Kinsler in the head, but it demonstrates the biggest hurdle Bauer faces as he assumes the No. 2 position in the Tribe’s lineup.
When he’s not missing inside, Bauer has also left way too many pitches over the heart of the plate, as his heatmap shows:
Trevor Bauer has some electric stuff, but roughly 20 percent of your pitches finding the middle of the plate is not ideal.
We should never expect Bauer to be an emotionless killing machine like Corey Kluber, but he will certainly need to get out of his own head in the playoffs. It’s completely anecdotal, but it certainly feels like — when Bauer has bad starts — it’s always a domino effect from him getting a call not in his favor or something generally not going his way. But, who knows? Maybe Bauer is the type of intense pitcher who will thrive on the added pressure of the playoffs.
The offense has stepped up all season long; it’s time to do it again
Where the pitching staff was a surefire strength coming into 2016, the offense was ripe with question marks. The outfield was going to be a mess, third base was a black hole, and Carlos Santana was a #bum. Now? Not so much.
Instead of being an unmitigated disaster, you could say the offense has been the Indians biggest strength at times this season. While Salazar struggled and Carrasco was inconsistent or injured, the offense just kept scoring. Enough so that, coming into today, they are the fourth-highest scoring team in the majors with 729 runs and they are tied for the fifth-highest wRC+ at 102.
The “disastrous” outfield has been a big part of their success already, even without Michael Brantley on the field. Tyler Naquin looked like he had no shot at making the Indians, but Abraham Almonte’s suspension followed by Naquin’s own fantastic spring training landed him a platoon spot in center field. He’s taken the opportunity and ran with it, slashing .203/.372/.539 with a 140 wRC+ and 14 home runs. Granted, that comes in 333 plate appearances in almost-exclusively platoon situations, but Naquin has been a tremendous rookie for the Tribe.
Naquin’s right-handed partner, Rajai Davis, proved to be one of the best signings the Indians could have made. While he has been slightly below average on offense (.255/.314/.404, 91 wRC+) he has been swiping bases at almost a career-best rate. He currently sits at 40 stolen bases and a career-high 12 home runs.
Mike Napoli, another offseason signing, and Carlos Santana have provided the majority of the team’s power, combining to belt 66 home runs to this point. Jason Kipnis is not too far behind, hitting a career-high 22 of his own out of the park.
And, of course, Jose Ramirez — the Angry Hamster himself — has been the clutchiest player since the legendary Clutch McClutcherson clutched his way to a World Series.
You don’t need three aces to win a World Series
Sure, having three star pitches is what any major league team aspires to, but believe it or not, you can win the World Series without them.
For proof, we need only to look back one year ago, when the Kansas City Royals won it all with a rotation consisting of Yordano Ventura, Edinson Volquez, Chris Young, and Johnny Cueto. None of those pitchers are Corey Kluber during the regular, and none of them are probably even Carlos Carrasco or Danny Salazar, either. But they were still the only team to celebrate in November thanks to some huge games in the postseason.
I hate saying that a team is following the “blueprint” of a former World Series winner, but it’s hard not to see some similarities between the 2016 Indians and the 2015 Royals, especially now with this injured pitching staff. Even without Carrasco and Salazar, the Indians pitching staff is not that much worse than last year’s Royals’, if not even better. The Royals bullpen was better as a whole, but does anyone feel worried about sending out Dan Otero, Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen to finish out games in the postseason?
The Indians lack the “clutch” gene of the 2015 Royals, but overall, their offense has been better. As previously mentioned, the Indians are one of the highest-scoring teams in the league this season thanks to great platoon usage by Terry Francona and career years from a few key offseason signings.
Even if the Indians do not follow the Royals’ “blueprint,” even if they flare out in the ALDS, there is no way this season is a failure. The Indians are going to win the American League Central, and they are going to compete in the playoffs.