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May 7, 2013
Beware of the Tribe
With the completion of Monday’s slate of games, we are officially one-sixth of the way through the season, as every team has played at least 28 games, or 17 percent of its allotted 162. Exactly half of the league has actually hit the one-fifth mark, having played 20 percent of its games, but the Twins and Royals finished off the first sixth of their seasons on Monday. We have also turned the calendar on the season’s first month, and the accumulation of data from that month is giving us some useful information.
For example, did you know that the Oakland Athletics lead all of baseball with 174 runs? They have 10 more runs than the Detroit Tigers and Colorado Rockies, who sit tied for second with 164 (because 174-10 = 164!). The A’s also have three more games played than the Tigers and two more than the Rockies. That doesn’t diminish their runs-scored achievement, but it does send them to the bottom of that trio when you look at runs per game: The Tigers have 5.47, the Rockies 5.29, and the A’s 5.27. Sitting eighth in total runs scored are the Cleveland Indians.
That fact alone isn’t particularly surprising to me.
I spoke rather highly of them (relative to expectations) on the Effectively Wild podcast episode linked above. I updated my win total for them to 82 after the Michael Bourn signing (hey, hey, hey, stop reading that part where I gave the Red Sox 78 wins!). Humblebraggery or outright brag-braggery aside, the point is that I believed in the lineup, but the reason I said that the simple fact of their scoring the eighth-most runs to date isn’t surprising is because that general fact isn’t. The composition of their 149 runs definitely is.
Considering that I gave them a handful of extra wins with the signing of Bourn, I obviously expected him to be contributing heavily to the cause. Well, he’s been excellent this year, but he’s only played in 10 games thus far. Of course, that’s okay, because they have Ryan Raburn. That is somehow a real sentence. Raburn didn’t directly replace Bourn in center field, but his absence helped generate the hole for Raburn to net 140 innings in the outfield and post an astounding .343/.389/.597 line with four home runs, 11 RBI, and 10 runs scored in just 72 plate appearances. Sure, the production essentially came in three games where he went 11-for-13 (.846) with all four of the homers, nine of the RBI, and five of the runs, but it still counts, and they went 3-0 in those games.
But it’s far more than Raburn.
The Indians are fourth behind our earlier trio of teams with 5.14 runs per game, joining that group as the only four teams scoring more than five runs per game. The Orioles and their 4.97 runs per game make it in if you slice off the hundredths and round up. As I prepare to deep-dive into the Indians’ offensive output for you, I will share my conclusion with you at the outset, and then you might understand why this piece was filed as my fantasy piece of the week: You must avoid streaming pitchers against the Indians, and you should even consider benching anyone but the truly elite against them right now.
Leading their charge—well besides Raburn—has been one obvious candidate and one not-so-obvious candidate. The former, of course, is Carlos Santana. The catcher/first baseman really turned his season around in the second half last year, as some nagging injuries and the lingering effects of a concussion contributed to a 675 OPS in the first half. Since the All-Star break last year and through Monday night, Santana is sixth in baseball and third in the American League with a 948 OPS. He has hit 19 homers in that time, which is even more incredible when you consider that he hit just 18 homers in all of 2012. Just this year, Santana has a .367/.462/.667 line in 106 plate appearances, yielding an 1.129 OPS, tops in baseball.
The unlikely candidate is DH/first baseman Mark Reynolds. The unheralded free-agent signing has already earned back his $6 million dollar salary for the year based on the rough estimates of dollars per win above replacement. His 1.026 OPS is eighth in baseball while his 10 home runs leave him tied for second in all of baseball with John Buck. Obviously. The most important factor in his early-season run has been a seven-percentage-point dip in his strikeout rate, down to 23 percent, after an entire career at 30 percent, or, worse, peaking as high as 35 percent in 2010. How sustainable that is remains to be seen, but so far, he is absolutely raking.
But that isn’t all. There have been several other interesting statistics tied to the Indians’ early offensive barrage so here comes the statistical waterfall:
Looking at some of their run-distribution data thus far explains why I’m skeptical of running out too many starters against them right now and suggest that you only use premium guys who you would never sit regardless of opponent or venue (though they aren’t immune to Cleveland’s wrath either). While I don’t know exactly when I started using it, I’ve been using a pair of handy metrics I coined for a starter pitcher analysis termed “Gems” and “Implosions.”
Gems are basically super-quality starts, and they require that a pitcher goes six or more innings while allowing two or fewer runs. (It’s far from perfect, because nine innings and three runs is just as good ERA-wise and doesn’t hit the cutoff.) The Implosions are a bit easier, as they are simply any outing with five or more earned runs, because even if a pitcher somehow made it through all nine innings, that would still be an ugly 5.00 ERA.
The Indians have dropped seven implosions on starters, which is the third-highest total, though four teams are tied with eight behind the Tigers at 11. They have dropped six-plus on six different pitches, behind only the Tigers (8) and Athletics (7).
However, when it comes to really putting a hurtin’ on a starting pitcher, they’ve got that market cornered. The A’s lead baseball having scored eight or more runs 11 times. The Tigers and Rockies have done so eight times each. The Indians find themselves in a four pack tied at seven (Blue Jays, Rays, and Cardinals), but where they corner the market is in the fact that five of their seven eight-run barrages have been inflicted entirely on the starting pitcher. The Tigers at four and the Cardinals at two are the only other teams to do it more than once so far this season.
Not only that, but some of the names to have been pummeled by the Indians are particularly impressive:
Wade Davis and Philip Humber were the other causalities. Humber hilariously (or perhaps frighteningly) was also crushed for eight against the Tigers, too. The Indians also hit Cliff Lee pretty hard last week; it was close to an Implosion Start with five runs allowed, but only four were earned in his six innings of work.
The Indians scored 667 runs a season ago, good for 22nd in the league. They were also 68-94, the second-worst team in the American League and fifth-worst in baseball. I think they are still wearing some of that stink and seen as a bottom-feeding club. They are only 15-14 so far, but it isn’t for a lack of offense, as evidenced by their plus-24 run differential and 17-12 Pythagorean record. If you judge them off of that win-loss record or 2012’s win-loss record and decide to stream your waiver-wire fodder against them, you are going to end up on the losing end of that gamble more often than not.
They have done this without Bourn for two-thirds of their season, and with second baseman Jason Kipnis posting a paltry 669 OPS. When Bourn comes back and replaces Drew Stubbs (at least against righties, as Stubbs is raking lefties to the tune of a 1.025 OPS), that will give them yet another above-average asset in their lineup. And if Kipnis can be anything like the 810 OPS guy he was for the first half of his 924 career PA, then they can absorb the assumed (guaranteed?) regression of Reynolds and Santana without missing a beat.
Meanwhile, they should go to a straight platoon at third base with Chisenhall and Aviles, which would likely produce at the level of yet another above-average asset. Aviles hasn’t hit against lefties in his 37 PA so far this year, but his OPS against them is 100 points higher for his career, at 785. Chisenhall has been laughably bad against lefties since 2012, with a .153/.180/.254 triple-slash line in 61 PA. The sample is tiny, but they don’t even want to give him the opportunity because they know it won’t end well.
So far, the rebuild of the Indians’ offense this offseason is heading down a path that will end well. Now if only they could get some pitching.