We’re past Memorial Day, nearly a third of the way through the season where one of baseball’s many — probably false — old adages says you can finally start paying attention to your baseball team’s record. Seems like a good a time as any to review the state of the 27-25, American League Central-leading Cleveland Indians, where they’ve been, and hopefully, where they’re going.
The Indians have been rough to watch for long stretches of games this year. Early on it was a mediocre offense that was hitting lazy balls to waiting outfielders, and lately it’s been an atrocious bullpen missing its biggest weapon in Andrew Miller and several smaller cogs that have lost their teeth.
Let’s start with that first concern: The offense. It’s clearly righted itself when the weather warmed up and those warning track shots became 400-foot home runs. Over the last month, the Indians offense leads the American League in slugging percentage (.474), wRC+ (121), fWAR (7.0), and they are third in home runs (41) behind the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Not a bad ranking over any 30-day stretch of baseball, and it’s even more impressive considering how abysmal they were in the first month of the season. Maybe it was only the weather, or maybe the Indians adjusted to something after slashing .227/.297/.391 as a team in March and April.
You probably already forgot that Jose Ramirez couldn’t land a hit to save his life for the first two weeks of the season, and for good reason. It was clearly rust or a fluke or what have you, because he’s now a legitimate MVP candidate again, even if that means garnering a few votes and eventually losing to Mike Trout like everyone does every year.
Regardless, Jose is slashing .291/.387/.598 on the season for a remarkable 164 wRC+. He’s also fifth in the majors with 15 home runs, and he’s surrounded by some pretty good names in the leaderboards. Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Aaron Judge are all with a couple home runs of the G.O.A.T., but Ramirez leads them all with a 10 percent strikeout rate and an unmatched ability to not miss at the plate. Rumor has it he can also work a 17-pitch at-bat to spark a ninth-inning rally, but those are only rumors.
The other Indians superstar (more commonly referred to as Francisco Lindor), is having himself an equally impressive season with a .298/.374/.541 slash and 12 home runs as the team’s lead-off hitter. Like Ramirez, he started the season relatively slow and finished April with a wRC+ of 101. In May he’s taken off, belting eight of his 12 home runs and slashing .352/.418/.676. Best of all, he seems to have shaken off his early season yips that plagued his defense at shortstop, and he’s back to being on track as the league’s best at the position.
For the offense, the big question remains: Who’s next? Lindor, Ramirez, and Brantley are all staples at the top of the lineup, but someone (or someoneses) is going to have to step up for this team to outpace its struggling ‘pen.
Luckily there are a few candidates.
Edwin Encarnacion is a notorious slow starter, as his current .228/.302/.461 slash may suggest, but the ever-reliable EE always heats up along with the weather. For an uber-small example of this, over the last four games he’s gone 8-for-18 with two home runs and two doubles. His strikeouts aren’t going away any time soon, but if he keeps breaking out the parrot like he has already 12 times this season, the Indians are set in the clean-up spot of the lineup.
If Edwin can’t rebound — if his body just decides to give up at 35 years old (completely understandable, I’m 28 and I think mine gave up a decade ago) — then the Indians can just ride the sneakiness of Yonder Alonso and hope he’s on in October. Sure, he’ll drive you into the side of a mountain a few times, but when the Yonder Alonso Train can stay on track and go top speed, he can hit balls really, really hard.
After 188 plate appearances, Yonder ranks ninth in the majors in barrels per plate appearance; he’s making great contact once in about every 10 times he comes up to the plate. For context, the absolute best in the league right now is Mookie Betts at 14.6 Brls/PA, and no Indians batters ranks higher on the list. It’s not like Yonder has been awful, either, his 113 wRC+ isn’t the 132 he put up when he hit a career-high 28 homers last year, but take that tremendous season out and this would be a career year for 31-year-old. He’s just streaky as all get out, so he’s always a candidate to have a great stretch of hitting.
Enough about these confident assertions, let’s go full crazy and assume that Jason Kipnis can still turn it around as the Indians’ second baseman. He’s not exploding like Jose Ramirez did, but he does have at least one hit in 10 of the last 12 games, and he finally homered again on May 26, the first time he left the yard since May 2. Baseball Savant’s xwOBA isn’t a great predictive tool, but he does have a huge gap between his .346 xwOBA and .249 wOBA after a career of having the two numbers relatively close to each other. Maybe there’s some room for improvement from a guy slashing .191/.274/.281 — that doesn’t seem to crazy. If not, the drums of Yandy Diaz should be getting louder by the day.
There’s a lot of good to say about the Indians’ offense 32.09876543209877% of the way into the season, but not so much the bullpen. Andrew Miller is a broken shell right now, literally in that his body keeps sustaining injuries, and figuratively in that he has not been anywhere near an effective reliever for the Tribe, at a time when they’ve really needed him. Combine that with Nick Goody going down with an injury (and not being good before that), Tyler Olson struggling to be anything but a LOOGY, Dan Otero regressing into the abyss, and any number of relievers grabbed off the street being thrown in to face major-league pitching and you can imagine just how awful the bullpen has been.
To date, the group has thrown 139.2 innings (the last of any reliever core by a full six innings), mostly because Terry Francona does not want to dip his toes into the pool of sludge that is using Zach McAllister for more than two batters. Even with the lean inning count, they have the worst ERA (6.06), FIP (4.72), and only the Mets, Dodgers, Angels, Marlins, Royals, and Twins have given up more home runs than their 25 allowed. Those aren’t names to be around in 2018.
It’s hard to even find hope in this group or what’s coming up in the system. Merritt has gone into detail about the Indians’ struggles to develop ace relievers, and it’s hurting them like never before now. Shane Bieber debuts Thursday — cool! Unfortunately, he’s not going to help the real issue at hand unless Tito wants to put him in long relief in the bullpen. Andrew Miller might be back soon — cool! But can he be great again, or is his time as an ace reliever truly over?
The only real solution for the Indians is to find someone on the trade market, but they seem content sitting on their hands until closer to the deadline, hoping things will even out for their historically bad bullpen in the meantime. Maybe it’s the right approach — they see the numbers, they know the core can’t be this bad all the time — or maybe they are effectively wasting their best shot at a World Series in a long, long time because they can’t fix the most inexpensive position in baseball. Only time — and how serious the Twins are about competing — will tell.
Overall, there is plenty of time to get and/or stay excited about the Indians’ chances this season. You can almost guarantee they will trade for a reliever eventually, and when they do (assuming the trade works), it’ll help stabilize an already-great starting rotation with Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Mike Clevinger all pitching well, maybe as the best starting rotation outside of the Houston Astros. I don’t know if Shane Bieber is going to light the world on fire, but if he does we can take effectively eliminate the Astros from this conversation altogether.
And, who knows? With any luck they’ll have a Cavs championship parade to watch and strive to mimic like they did in 2016. That season went alright.