The first half of the Cleveland Indians’ season was, sometimes inexplicably, baseball. Eighty-eight games of trying to recover from a gaping, self-inflicted wound, winding up in actually sort of doing so.
Five and a half games behind a team that was the best in baseball until recently, a lot of work has already been done, and obviously there is more to do.
Naturally, baseball will correct itself, and regression seems to be on the side of the Indians. The Minnesota Twins were unsustainably good for a long stretch, while Terry Francona’s bunch had underperformed compared to projections.
Needing better luck than before the All-Star break, the hope is that regression to the mean will only happen to some of the more damning aspects of the first half. It is hard to imagine losing many more players to the unexpected and unthinkable.
In the rare case of performing above projections, the hope is that players like Roberto Perez and Oscar Mercado have made tangible adjustments and altered expectations.
Here are some things to look for in the second half.
Carlos Carrasco, period
This is obviously not a baseball thing as much as it is a human thing, but if Carlos Carrasco returns for any stretch this year, it will be a miracle. Word has differed on when he may return to the mound, but relatively, all estimations have been positive.
Professional Wrestler Roman Reigns announced that his own chronic myeloid leukemia (the same illness as Carrasco) had returned in October. He was in remission and back in the ring in February.
They are two completely different cases, but if Reigns could return to taking physical bumps so soon, that is at the very least a nice sign for Cookie. Any return would be exceptional.
Danny Salazar, preferably in the bullpen
Danny Salazar is back*, baby.
The oft-injured flamethrower is actually progressing through his rehab, and it looks to this point (*extreme knocking on wood intensifies*) that he will eventually join the major league club at some point in the future.
On Thursday, the righty tossed 46 pitches (27 strikes) at Double-A Akron, spanning 2 2⁄3 innings against the Bowie Baysox. Salazar allowed one run on a walk and two hits.
Salazar has until the day of the trade deadline, July 31, to continue minor league rehab before a decision must be made.
It has seemed for some time like the pragmatic role for Salazar will be in the bullpen, where there is less stress on his arm. That logic is slightly flawed in that, if the routine of a start every fifth day is an issue from a physical standpoint, how much better could random, short bursts be?
The 29-year-old has stuff that plays up in the bullpen, and in an age where relievers with velocity rule in the playoffs, Salazar could be the ultimate weapon in October. Of course, Indians fans have heard that before, and now he and the team must actually make it to the playoffs.
24-and-younger plate discipline
Unlike Tyler Naquin, aggressiveness at the plate is not for everyone.
Jake Bauers and Oscar Mercado are both very early in their development, and each has done enough to stay in the bigs since being promoted. As we know, the book on both will continue to develop, and they will have to adjust.
For the former, that process is much further along, and he hasn’t exactly responded well. It is not that Bauers has been poor, but he is still statistically below average, and there are plenty of reasons why it may be the case.
The 23-year-old was such a prized prospect because of his excellence at each minor-league level relative to his age. Always one of the youngest players at each level, he also consistently worked double-digit walk rates.
The only glaring differences in Bauers’ profile is that he is using more of the field in 2019, and is walking at just a 9% clip. To reach his potential, he must regain his control of the strike zone.
He is swinging more, whiffing less, and making significantly more contact in the zone, but it hasn’t been better contact. Bauers’ hard-hit rate has raised minimally, while his barrel rate has dropped slightly, and his average exit velo has remained the same.
Perhaps less hacks are more.
If the case of Mercado, a player with such speed will always cause his BABIP to play up. However, his 4.3% walk rate in the first 187 plate appearances of his career is significantly lower than his minor league rates.
It is difficult to tell a player with a 42.6% hard-hit rate to swing the bat less, and it is not at the point where it needs to be done yet. Mercado skidded into the All-Star Break, and trails only Naquin in Swing%, so maybe it is time to consider reining things in.
Yes, Bobby Bradley is only 23, and could always afford a little more plate discipline, but healthy hacks are kind of his game. Do your thing, Mr. Assassin.
José’s readjusted swing plane
Everybody had a thought on how to change José Ramírez’s swing in the first half, and things finally trended toward the positive in July. At the end of it all, the 26-year-old is still in the bottom 2% of the league in wOBA on contact.
The persisting issue (in this writer’s ever-changing opinion) seemed to do more with Ramírez’s actual swing, not his approach. His walk rate is similar, and despite his attempts to go the opposite way early on, his profile is not much different than years passed.
One glaring difference is that Ramírez has been under the ball 41.5% on contact this year. That’s up 8.4% since last year, and 13.3% since 2017.
That bit of information seems to indicate that Jose is actually doing what people who don’t understand launch angle think it is: Uppercutting for the sake of lifting the ball, not for getting on the same plane as a pitch.
The information and conclusion are not necessarily linked, but it makes more sense when considering Ramírez’s chase for for 40 homers a year ago, when the slump came about, and how it has continued.
Whatever Carlos Santana and Roberto Pérez are doing
There are things that indicate regression is coming for Santana, whose .311 BABIP is well above his career mark of .267. Less can be said for Pérez, but based solely on how underwhelming his whole career has gone offensively, a crash back to earth seems inevitable.
That does not have to be the case, however. Both are using the field more than ever before, and it is paying massive dividends for each. Santana sits 9th in baseball with a .958 OPS, while Pérez is fourth among catchers with 230 plate appearance at .872.
Not much has changed in either’s profile, other than hitting the ball harder, to more parts of the field. One would think that pulling the ball less would lead to less hard-contact, but that has not been the case yet.
These are the things that the Indians need to stay steady, while they rediscover the mean elsewhere. If things go considerably more normally than they did in the first half, this team still has more than enough talent to make up 5.5 games.