What if I told you the 2018 Cleveland Indians outfield isn’t the worst thing about the team a month into the season?
A month ago, you might not have believed it. No Michael Brantley, a wildly inconsistent Bradley Zimmer, Tyler Naquin’s there, and the remains of Rajai Davis fueled solely by adrenaline rush of stealing a base. It was pretty questionable for a team shooting for 80 wins, let alone one with World Series aspirations. The Indians were a pretty well-built team heading into the season, but when tasked with picking one weakness among the bunch, the obvious answer was always the outfield. Maybe the bullpen, depending on how much you loved Bryan Shaw, but the outfield was always up there. Even with all that, it managed to get worse when Lonnie Chisenhall went down an injury shortly into the season. How in the world would this group every succeed?
Well I’m here to tell you — it’s not great. But it could certainly be worse.
Heading into play Thursday, the Indians outfield went to the plate a combined 194 times so far in 2018. They’ve managed a 74 wRC+, which means they’re roughly 26 percent below an average offensive unit. Not 26 percent below good, mind you, but 26 percent below being acceptable. That seems like the offensive equivalent of a Zack Snyder movie, but it’s not terrible in the bizarre world of 2018 baseball.
That 74 wRC+ ranks 15th in baseball among outfielders, and it’s not even the worst position on the Tribe — that honor belongs to the team’s second basemen. Now, I’m not going to name names, but the combined 81 plate appearances of various Indians second basemen have resulted in a .162/.235/.216 combined slash with no home runs and an unmeasurable amount of sadness. But this investigation isn’t out calling a specific position, or any player at that said position, no matter how smooth and jazzy their walk-up music is. I’m here to look at the surprisingly only slightly, not apologetically terrible outfield.
I’ll break down individuals in a minute, but just know as a group, Indians outfielders are slashing .247/.294/.346 with three home runs and nine stolen bases. They’ve walked a league-low (among outfielders) 4.6 percent of the time, but their strikeout rate is a weirdly respectable 22.2 percent.
Almost all of the positive output from the outfield comes from the $11 million man, Michael Brantley. I was among those who was a little annoyed at the Indians paying Brantley instead of potentially paying Carlos Santana or another, healthier outfielder. So far, in the smallest of small sample sizes, Brantley is very much proving me wrong. If he’s the type to dig through old Tweets about him and laugh, I imagine he finishes off every day sitting in front of a warm fire, wrapped in a fuzzy housecoat, whiskey in hand, and just casually chuckles at the Let’s Go Tribe Twitter account circa December 2017. I like to imagine he gets a real kick out of it.
Brantley is unequivocally the best hitter, probably the best overall player, on the Indians right now, even though he’s only played in half their games and he missed most of spring training. His 138 wRC+ leads the team by a large margin — a full 41 points over second-place Jose Ramirez, and he’s one of the few Indians players with a BABIP over .300 (.333). Everything about his season so far (a whopping 35 plate appearances in, granted) looks like vintage Michael Brantley. He’s striking out 5.7 percent of the time, and his .333/.371/.485 slash is perfectly believable for a full season of Brantley pre-injury parade.
Aside from Brantley, I mean yeah — it’s not pretty. None of the offense is, though, outside of Brantley and an ascending Jose Ramirez. So, by comparison, they could be a heck of a lot worse.
Bradley Zimmer is coming on as of late, riding a five-game hitting streak in which he’s gone 8-for-19 with two doubles. Take the good with the bad, though, he’s struck out 15 percent of the time and hasn’t drawn a single walk during the streak. His BABIP is also an absolutely very real sustainable .500 in the last five games. Clearly he’s back and there’s no need to worry about Spider-Leg-Man.
Even Tyler Naquin, for all the grief I give him and his dedicated group of Facebook commenting fans, has an 80 wRC+. Again, that’s not great in a real baseball season, but April is frozen over and there’s no correct context for what a good offensive player looks right now. But Naquin’s gone 8-for-30 with a home run. If this month represents how baseball will be played until the heat death of the universe, you might as well put Naquin in the Hall of Fame now. Bradley Zimmer would be right behind him.