Slumping Indians unable to replicate last year's magic
It wasn't a turnaround on the scale of the Pirates or Royals, but last year — their first under new manager Terry Francona — the Indians made the playoffs while posting their first winning record since 2007. The follow-up isn't going so well, however. On Wednesday, they lost their sixth straight game to complete a dreadful West Coast swing in which they were swept by the Giants and Angels. At 11-17, they have the worst record in the AL this side of the Astros.
The Indians were outscored 33-13 on the road trip, which highlighted their two big problem areas. The offense hit just .183/.256/.272 and scored more than three runs in a game just once. Meanwhile, the rotation delivered just one quality start and a 5.50 ERA; only once did the team allow fewer than five runs.
Of the two areas, the rotation was the more foreseeable problem coming into the season, as I noted in their Winter Report Card. Key in the team's turnaround from 2012 to 2013 was a unit that went from second-to-last in the league in both ERA (5.25) and strikeout rate (6.1 per nine) to sixth in the former (3.92) and second in the latter (8.6). While it's tough to blame the team for letting reclamation projects Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir — a pair who combined for 61 starts and 340 2/3 innings with a 3.65 ERA and 9.4 strikeouts per nine — walk away given their erratic track records, the combination of their departures and general manager Chris Antonetti's lack of corresponding impact moves left a front four of Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar, of whom only Masterson had spent a full season as a major league starter.
While the current unit is striking out an AL-high 9.1 per nine, a long ways from where they were just two years ago, thus far they rank 13th in the league in ERA (4.82) and tied for 12th in quality start rate (39 percent). McAllister is the only one with an ERA below 4.00 (he's at 3.82, for a 103 ERA+), while Salazar (6.04) and fifth starter Carlos Carrasco (6.46) have been dreadful, with just one quality start — the aforementioned turn on the road trip, from Salazar — and an average of 5.26 innings per turn between them. Salazar can certainly miss bats (11.0 strikeouts per nine), and while the 24-year-old righty can burn through a pitch count quickly, Francona has let him go past 95 pitches just once. Carrasco may have been on top prospect lists back in the days of Old Hoss Radbourn, but he's now the owner of a career 5.39 ERA in 262 innings, and a 6.65 mark in 70 1/3 innings since returning from September 2011 Tommy John surgery. He was sent to the bullpen earlier this week, a long-overdue move given his lack of success as a starter and his promising showing in relief late last year.
While the Indians can kick themselves for cutting Aaron Harang in late March, only to watch him resurface with the Braves and post a 0.85 ERA across his first five starts before the Regression Monster came a-knockin', the team does have Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer waiting in the wings at Triple-A Columbus; one of those two is a good bet to take Carrasco's next turn on May 6. Before undergoing Tommy John surgery in August 2012, Tomlin was the perfect embodiment of the low-strikeout starters who littered the team's rotation during their 2008-12 stretch, with an ERA and a strikeout rate that were exactly equal at 4.95 — which is at least more effective than Carrasco. The better move would be to give another shot to the 23-year-old Bauer, who has battled control issues — in both senses of the word — since being taken with the No. 3 pick in 2011. Since overhauling his mechanics this past winter and spring, he's dominated Triple-A (1.40 ERA and a 28/2 K/BB ratio in 25 innings), and he whiffed eight in six innings while walking two and allowing just two runs in an April 9 spot start against the Padres.
Even with a revamped bullpen doing very good work via the league's second-lowest ERA (3.24) and rate of allowing inherited runners to score (16 percent), Cleveland's 4.71 runs per game allowed is the league's fifth-highest rate, and not all of it is on the hurlers. The team's .652 defensive efficiency is the worst in the AL by a whopping 13 points, and their −24 Defensive Runs Saved is last as well; in fact, both are major league worsts. It's tempting to put some of the blame on Francona, but even with Indians hitters getting the platoon advantage a major league-high 77.4 percent of the time — similar to last year, when he employed multi-position platoons all over the place — this year's lineup has been considerably more stable aside from third base, where Carlos Santana, Lonnie Chisenhall and Mike Aviles have all shared time, with Santana spotting behind the plate and at DH as well.
Indeed, Santana's switch back to a position he had played only 52 times in the minors in 2005-2006 before converting to catching may be taking its toll on his offense; the 28-year-old switch-hitter is batting just .151/.313/.280. Some of that is extraordinarily bad luck on balls in play; not only does he have a .164 BABIP overall, it's just .188 when he pulls the ball, well below the major league average of .326. Already, he's grounded into as many double plays as he did all of last year (seven).
Santana is far from the only problem with an an offense that's second-to-last in the league in scoring (3.79) and in the bottom four in all three rate stats (.232/.313/.354). The other two of the team's three most effective hitters from 2013 besides Santana, Jason Kipnis (.234/.354/.394) and Yan Gomes (.250/.289/.417), have both been merely adequate, while Nick Swisher (.211/.287/.330), Asdrubal Cabrera (.220/.297/.330) and Michael Bourn (.263/.300/.351) have all been abysmal, and Ryan Raburn (.164/.217/.182) worse even than his wretched 2012, albeit in limited duty. If there's good news, it's that David Murphy (.282/.360/.436) appears to have rebounded from a lousy finale in Texas, but small-sample caveats apply there as well as everywhere else.
[UPDATE: The Indians will be without Kipnis for at least the next 15 days and possibly longer, as they've placed him on the disabled list due to an abdominal strain suffered while grounding into a double play — insult, meet injury — during Tuesday's game. Utilityman Elliot Johnson started in his place on Wednesday, but neither he (a career .216/.270/.318 hitter, and just 2-for-15 this year) nor Aviles (.240/.291/.320 in 57 PA this year, and .272/.303/.399 career) figure to be the solution for what ails the offense.]
As far as Pythagorean records go, the Indians are more or less right where they should be; their first-order record (based on runs scored and allowed) is a dead ringer for their actual record while even their third-order record (based on run elements and adjusted for the quality of competition) is just 12-16. So the question becomes what kind of chances they have to surmount this poor start. The Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, which use their PECOTA projections going forward, still give them an 11.9 percent chance at a playoff berth, including a 5.9 percent chance at winning the AL Central. The worst 28-game start last year — the dawn of the two-Wild Card era — was the Dodgers and Rays at 13-15. Precedents for playoff-bound teams who started 11-17 aren't unheard of, but since 1995 only the 2005 Yankees, 2005 Astros, 2006 Twins, and 2007 and 2009 Rockies have rebounded to reach October, with the 2001 A's coming back from 10-18. That's six success stories from among 172 postseason participants, or 3.4 percent, even less hope than the BP odds give them. Still, that's more than enough examples to offer hope for the Indians, and the good news is that they play 14 of their next 20 games at home, where they're 7-6 thus far; ten of those games come against the White Sox, Twins and Tigers, so they'll have the opportunity to gain ground on their division rivals. The bad news is that they're just 6-9 thus far against the teams on their docket over that span, but if they're going to turn things around, it's time to start doing so.