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Indians trends heading toward the ALDS

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Looking at what is going right and wrong for Cleveland during the purgatory that is the last week of the season

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Cleveland Indians Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re finding it hard to muster excitement for the Tribe’s last six games, well, you’re not alone. There’s very little about pounding the White Sox (in one the worst seasons in the franchise’s 117 years) or Royals (in likely the second-worst season in the franchise’s 50 years) that is fun at this point. If we could, we’d just fast forward to the playoffs, but instead we’re going to have to content ourselves with some meaningless baseball.

There’s good and there’s bad all the time, but they come into sharper focus this time of year. With that in mind, let’s dig into some things going right for the Tribe and some that could use some improvement, starting with how...

Trevor Bauer is back and the world is not entirely evil or something like that. In his first outing, he threw 34 pitches (17 strikes) over 1 1/3 innings, scattering a pair of singles, walking one, and striking out JD Martinez. He needs more recovery time, as his fastball velocity was just 93.8 mph in the first inning and 92.8 mph in the second, down from a 94.6 mph average prior to injury. But the good news is, he has a chance to get recovery time. The Indians tentative plan is to throw him today (with Carlos Carrasco piggybacking) and possibly again on Sunday piggybacking Carrasco. Bauer himself would likely disagree with this, but even a diminished Bauer is a good thing for the Tribe rotation, as he can work abbreviated stints before handing the ball of to...

A lights-out bullpen. I’m guessing you’ve also noticed: Andrew Miller back. In his outings since returning from the disabled list he’s allowed seven hits, two walks, and three runs while striking out nine of the 32 batters he’s faced. Perhaps more importantly, his fastball has averaged 93.58 mph and his a maximum of 96.7 (when he was pitching angry against the White Sox on September 18). Vintage Miller (October 2015, ‘16) averaged 95.66 and 95.06, so seeing this kind of post-injury performance from the lanky lefty is encouraging.

Also encouraging, Cody Allen’s last 9 outings. In 8.1 innings pitched, dating back to August 30, Allen has not allowed a run and only has allowed eight base runners (three hits, five walks) while striking out 11. Some of those outings have been as low-stress as possible (.000, .003, .023 WPA), but he’s had many meaningful outings as well (.090, .141, .212, .095, .126, .126 WPA). He’s been resting since September 15 after working so much in the bullpen and on the mound to correct his form, but should return this week to ramp up for postseason play.

As for the other bullpen dudes on Matt’s playoff roster? Brad Hand has an ERA- of 55 in Cleveland; Shane Bieber has the lowest FIP of any Tribe starter the first time through the order, 2.20; Dan Otero is running a career low walk per nine innings, 0.8; Oliver Perez has not allowed a hit in high-leverage situations and just two hits with men in scoring position; and Adam Cimber has walked just four batters since August 5. That the pitching staff is clicking is also a testament to the catching staff, which has the fourth best adjusted framing runs above average (tied with Boston) per Baseball Prospectus, 8.1 of which have come from…

Yan Gomes, who is also tearing the cover off the ball right now. Since August 1, when his batting average sat at just .240, Gomes has added 27 points by going 38 for 114 with eight doubles, four home runs, and thirteen RBI with an .867 OPS. His production at the bottom of the order is particularly important to add balance, because the top of the order is being held down by…

Michael Brantley, who is the only batter hotter than Gomes since August 1. Over that stretch, Brantley has gone 57 for 168 with nine doubles, five home runs, and 18 RBI (plus 19 walks to 19 strikeouts) with an .893 OPS. Coming off injury-riddled seasons, exactly what the Indians could expect from Brantley was a question mark, but he’s gotten back to his old form, providing 3.1 WAR (both B-Ref and FanGraphs flavor) and even heating up as the season has progressed. Of course, hot Septembers and Octobers are par for the course for Brantley, as he has a 120 wRC+ for his career in those months. Nonetheless, his numbers this year in August and September, 142 and 147 wRC+, respectively, are especially important because…

Jose Ramirez looks like a guy that has been figured out. Using the arbitrary cutoff of August 1, as for Gomes and Brantley, Ramirez’s splits are hit .298/.408/.630 with 32 home runs before and just .215/.355/.393 with 6 home runs after, including a 14-for-102 stretch with no home runs between August 18 and September 11.

As I mentioned in my last article, pitchers have been laying off fastballs to the goat, which is smart because he’s slugging .689 on fastballs this year. More than simply seeing fewer fastballs, however, Ramirez is just swinging less than he was during his best months. So far, in September, he’s swinging at 41% of fastballs, whereas 47% of fastballs he’s seen have been in the zone; likewise, he’s swinging at 34.2 and 27.8% of offspeed and breaking balls, but 45.2 and 40.7% of those pitches have been in the zone, respectively. So, perhaps part of Jose’s skid can be explained by the same kind of ennui we’re all experiencing: Dude just wants some meaningful games to play again. If that’s true, you have to wonder…

What’s Yonder Alonso’s excuse? The hope when signing Yonder Alonso last December was that he would be the launch angle success story of the first half of 2017 for both years of the deal. Instead, the split monster got him again. In the first half of this year Yonder posted solid numbers, .258/.324/.434 with a wRC+ of 102; but in the second half he’s been a pumpkin again, .215/.279/.390 with a wRC+ of 77. His barrel rate is also at its lowest, as he’s currently barrelling up just 6.5% of pitches, down from 21.3% in April and a mile from his career high, 30.3% in May of 2017.

If there’s a saving grace for Yonder, it also comes from his splits: against lefties in the second half he has just one home run, but he’s launched nine dingers against righties. This would be okay if a platoon were possible, but Yandy Diaz happens to smash righties better than lefties as well (133 vs. 55 wRC+), so solving this one is a little trickier. Less tricky than the outfield because…

Jason Kipnis is perfect and everything is okay. Well, not really. Despite Kipnis’s error-free plat, by Statcast’s outs above average, the Indians are the worst defensive playoff team. In fact, the Indians -16 outs above average is 7 fewer than the Rockies (-9), 11 fewer than the Dodgers (-5), and 19 fewer than the next-worst American League club, the Yankees (3). This problem is largely due to the fact that the team’s best outfielders are hurt or Rajai Davis. Michael Brantley and Melky Cabrera have both been worth -5 outs above average.

Offsetting this, however, is the fact that the Tribe has the second-best shortstop by ultimate zone rating per 150 chances, Francisco Lindor, and only the Cubs and Red Sox are better as a team in terms of UZR/150. Plus, as Travis Sawchik has noted, defensive chances are down. So, outfield defense may be a down area for the Tribe, but maybe it’s not a major detractor. In fact, in terms of team-wide trends, the Indians have some significant momentum…

In terms of run differential, where Cleveland has scored 74 more runs (292 - 218) than allowed in the second half. The only AL playoff team better than the Tribe is Oakland, who have a 108 differential thanks to an offensive explosion (326 runs). The Cleveland offense has been less prodigious but still dangerous, with a 104 wRC+ since the break. Even better, Tribe batters have struck out less than any other team in the big leagues over that span, with a rate of just 16.7%, two percentage points lower than number two Houston.

On the pitching side, the A’s and Indians have each allowed just 218 runs in the second half, trailing the Astros (205) for best in the AL, but Cleveland also has the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.8), strand rate (79.5%), and ground ball rate (44.1%). That the pitching staff has managed to so while running the highest hard hit percentage (37.8%) and batting average on balls in play (.305) among AL playoff teams speaks to the quality of the pitching staff, even without…

Bauer, whose return is a tangible lift and (for those of us carrying emotional scar tissue from Carlos Carrasco’s late-season fracture in 2016) feels like a good omen. With the randomness that is playoff baseball, we could use all the good omens we can get. As we as Tribe fans are aware, no matter what’s going good or bad, anything can happen in October. Here’s hoping for something good.