It has become increasingly impossible to understand the Cleveland baseball team.
Night after night they risk getting no-hit, their rotation is as thin as it’s been in a decade, and now the injury bug keeps biting them over and over. And yet, here we are, approaching Memorial Day, and Cleveland is just barely out of first place in the division, somehow hounding a Chicago team that is by most measures one of the best in the game when they’re healthy.
Stats tell me they’re probably not that great. The win/loss record tells me otherwise. Game to game, the eye test tells me something different. It’s a constant question of which team shows up. They are an enigma until we observe them, which at the very least has made for a very exciting (or nerve-wracking, if you’d prefer) two months of baseball.
Offensively, Cleveland is a mess. They rank 24th in wRC+ and runs scored, 28th in average, 29th in on-base, a middling 17th in walk rate, and on top of all that just keep running into buzzsaw pitching. It’s like the entire lineup just collectively forgets how to hit some nights. This is all not taking into account losing Franmil Reyes for a month and a half.
Yet, recently, it’s as much the pitching and defense that has kept losing them games. Sunday saw the bullpen implode. Monday was a nice six-run outburst. They took a 10-0 hammering on the chin to start the weekend and just got shut out by the Tigers — it’s not like the offense is without some kind of punch, at least sometimes. You just never know when it’s going to happen.
On the other side, it’s feast or famine, isn’t it? Even within the once-vaunted rotation though, even if it was fully healthy, you can’t tell me you look at Aaron Civale from pitch to pitch and think he’s going to shut down whoever he faces. This is a guy who has the same velocity profile as a young Josh Tomlin for god’s sake. Yet he pitches like he’s a 38-year old garbage man with an arsenal rivaling Satchel Paige.
With Zach Plesac down, it’s Civale, a somewhat less potent Shane Bieber, and who knows what else? It’s bound to make you worry whenever it’s not one of those two. And then, of course, to make it all even more confusing, Triston McKenzie comes back from Columbus and looks unhittable again. What is this?
Even series to series I have no grasp of this team. They went 1-3 against a good Yankees team, because of course they did. Then they go 1-3 against the Mariners, a singularly bad team, and you wonder if Cleveland can even hit its way out of a paper bag. But they went toe-to-toe thus far with the White Sox, swept the Cubs, and have handled their way in the Central thus far. I never expected them to be world beaters this year unless absolutely everything broke their way, but this level of ... goodness? ... is a bit unexpected, no?
Maybe this is just what happens when you get to pitch effectively six or seven-inning games. The bullpen has been utterly shutdown all season and is like five or six pitchers deep. It’s the kind of bullpen any contender would dream about. There’s less pressure on starters to go deep, the lineup feels like it only has to score like three or so runs to win, so there’s a bit more of a free and easy vibe. That’s the sort of thing that helped the Royals charge to a pair of World Series, along with an absurd amount of luck.
I’d prefer things to change. Cleveland isn’t exactly the most aesthetically pleasing team to watch right now. They look moribund on most nights at the plate, and downright pitiful at least once a week. The rotation just makes me worried because really, who the hell is even the third starter at this point. One of the Logan Allens? Hentges? McKenzie? Who knows?
Despite this, because they’re at least alright pitching for five innings, and because the hitters are still major leaguers, even if most are below average at it, they can still scrape a few runs together now and then and grab some wins. It helps to have that MVP candidate of course, but this winning ugly sure makes it hard to draw hard conclusions.
It reminds me of a bizarro version of that 2015 team that by third-order run differential was something like a 94 win team, but finished 81-80 on the year. Like everything is just barely breaking their way. It’s sure to level out the rest of the year, hopefully on the good side. The younger guys like Josh Naylor or Owen Miller will probably find their stride if given the chance and turn into at least solid contributors. If Franmil Reyes comes back in a similar shape they’re bound to improve. Same with Zach Plesac, and if they can find another solid arm for the rotation.
That’s a lot of “ifs,” but that’s what we expected in 2021, isn’t it? They’re better than most retooling teams, but they’re still trying to piece it together. Winning while they do it is just a nice cherry on top ... however those wins come.