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5.16.2013

A Tale of Two Tribes: Between 2012 and Now, Talent is the Key

Nino Colla | Thursday, May 16, 2013 | | | | | | | | | | | | | Best Blogger Tips

Do you remember where the Cleveland Indians were on May 18th last year?

Do you want to remember?

Trust me, it isn't bad. It's actually quite good. It's what followed makes the memory a touchy subject. The Indians went 46-77 after May 18th. A steady slide down the standings. That record was the worst in the AL Central over the span of May 19th to the end of the year. If they had not caught fire to start the season, they might have made the Astros look good.

The losing streak, the implosion of the rotation, the left field mess, the injuries. There wasn't much good going on with the Tribe after May.

Yet we sat here, with our Indians three games up on the Tigers in the division, thinking, hoping, and believing that perhaps, there would be a run made out of this start. We weren't sure how, but maybe this rag-tag bunch of players that were assembled had some sort of extra factor that helped over come the talent gap other teams had over the Indians.

Yeah about that.

That's the word there, talent. When it comes down to it all, you can do a lot with an "it factor" or intangibles, and leadership. But none of that means anything unless you have talent. No team goes to the playoffs without talent. They can win a World Series with the other stuff, but they can't get to that position without players.

We're talking major players.

And that's your separation. That makes this year's Cleveland Indians team much better than last year's team. Take a trip with me as I show the incredibly different Cleveland Indians teams that share the same record.

2012 - Hot Start, First Place
Photo - Getty Images via Yahoo! Sports

Up through May 18th, the Tribe never got to high or too low. They never lost more than three games in a row, but never won more than four in a row. Nine of their 22 wins came by one run, while six more came by two or three runs. That's only seven wins by more than three runs. Their losses? 10 of 17 came by three runs or less. So a lot of close games, a lot of low scoring games.

They also played in six extra inning games, which is double compared to this year's version of the Tribe.

The Indians, above all though, claimed stake to first place in the American League Central. They were three games up on the Detroit Tigers, who got off to a sluggish 19-20 start. Despite the fact that freshly signed Johnny Damon was their left fielder, Jose Lopez was hitting ninth, and the top of the rotation in Masterson and Jimenez was flailing around 5-5 the Indians were playing good enough ball to lead. Jeanmar Gomez and Derek Lowe got off to a surprising 7-3 start, Chris Perez had blown one save to open up the season, but then reeled off 12 straight, somehow, the offense was producing enough to win led by new leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo.

Just where did the Tribe sit at May 18th, at 22-17?

22-17 (39 Games, May 18th), 1st AL Central (3 Games Ahead)
Detroit Tigers: 19-20 (3.0 GB, .487)
Last Game: L 3-2 to Miami (LP: Tony Sipp)
Record Post May 18th: 46-77 (.374)
Batting: 33 HR, 174 R, 253 SO, 179 BB, 25/35 SB, .246/.339/.385, .724 OPS
Pitching: 4.11 ERA, 1546 BF, 6007/3676 P/S, 249 K, 152 BB, 35 GIDP
Run Differential: -4
Longest Win Streak: 4
Longest Losing Streak: 3
Lineup: Choo, Kipnis, Cabrera, Hafner, Santana, Brantley, Damon, Kotchman, Lopez
Rotation: Masterson, Jimenez, Lowe, Gomez, McAllister


2013 - Re-energized, Re-loaded, and Refreshing

A 5-10 start, five straight losses. The early AL East scheduled wreaked a little havoc on the Tribe's early start after winning the opening series against the new-look Toronto Blue Jays. As April started to trail away, the Indians started to get into their division schedule with a four game set against the Royals. Some ugly rain forced a double-header on Sunday.

Game one was an absolute drubbing. Their ace, Justin Masterson got jumped while former Indians Jeremy Guthrie pitched a solid scoreless game. Then the night cap came and it seemed like everything changed. After a 10-3 win behind the arm of Corey Kluber and the offense, the Indians would go on to win six straight, the height of their season.

So while 2012 was a never get too high or low team, 2013 had become the exact opposite. A team capable of getting hot and lighting the world on fire, and that's just what they did.

As it stands right now the Indians offense has blistered opposing pitching. Their the fifth best run scoring team in the entire game, the leader in home runs and OPS, and a team capable of getting on (fourth in OBP) and moving around (fifth in steals). To put it in perspective, in the same amount of games as last year, they've hit 20 more home runs.

Don't forget their pitching either, which seems to have found some sort of consistency behind a return to form of Justin Masterson, a surprising start of Ubaldo Jimenez, and the breakout start of Zach McAllister. Their ERA has improved from 4.11 last year to 3.95 this year. Their starters rank fifth in total wins by starting pitchers, and their bullpen is holding up their end of the bargain with a reliever ERA that ranks 7th in all of baseball.

22-17 (39 Games, May 16th), 2nd AL Central (.5 Games Back)
Detroit Tigers: 22-16 (0.5 GA, .579%)
Last Game: W 10-4 over Philadelphia (WP: Corey Kluber)
Record Post May 18th: 46-77 (.374)
Batting: 53 HR, 191 R, 315 SO, 132 BB, 21/29 SB, .264/.334/.457, .791 OPS
Pitching: 3.95 ERA, 1472 BF, 5769/3614 P/S, 324 K, 141 BB, 28 GIDP
Run Differential: +25
Longest Win Streak: 6
Longet Losing Streak: 5
Lineup: Bourn, Kipnis, Cabrera, Swisher, Reynolds, Santana, Brantley, Raburn, Stubbs
Rotation: Masterson, Jimenez, McAllister, Kazmir, Kluber

Finally Competing: What the Indians Are Doing Differently

MLB Ranks Offense: Runs (5th), HR (1st), OBP (4th), OPS (1st), SB (5th), SO (9th)
MLB Ranks Pitching:  ERA (18th), QS (17th), K (8th), SP ERA (22nd), RP ERA (7th), SP W (5th), SV (21st)
MLB Ranks Defense: E (14th), FPCT (17th), TC (29th)

Look at those offense numbers. No lower than fifth in some major categories offensively. They're even 9th in strikeouts, not where many people thought they would be after adding high-strikeout players like Mark Reynolds, Drew Stubbs, and Nick Swisher.

The pitching, while middle of the road, has improved vastly over last year. The biggest feather in the Indians cap? Their ability to strike out opposing hitters has increased by so much. Last year they sat at 249 strikeouts after 39 games. This year they sit at 324, which is good enough for 8th in all of baseball. Scott Kazmir's addition has no doubt helped that, but the sudden emergence of Zach McAllister, and the retooled bullpen has no doubt helped that.

Indians Relievers - Strikeouts
Chris Perez - 14
Bryan Shaw - 19
Cody Allen - 23
Joe Smith - 14
Nick Hagadone - 12
Vinnie Pestano - 8
Matt Albers - 11
Rich Hill - 11

Aside from the effectiveness of the bullpen and the increased ability to miss bats by the whole pitching staff, the team is being more efficient and throwing more strikes as a whole. Last year the pitching threw just over 6,000 pitches with 3,676 of them going for strikes. This year they've thrown 5,769 pitches with 3,614 going for strikes.

That's a 61% strike percentage last year to a 62 strike percentage. Not an incredible increase, but when you factor in the 238 less pitches thrown through the same amount of games, the Indians are more efficient with the way they are throwing the ball. Their starters are going deeper into games, their bullpen is being less stretched out, and their entire staff is benefiting from it.

As nice as it has been to see this team's pitching staff have a turnaround like this, the reason they are sitting at the same record is the offense. The games they are winning are not close and that's because the offense is rolling. And that can also translate to helping the pitching staff out, which is never a bad thing. More run support means more relaxing of the pitching staff, which leads to more strikes being thrown, more positive results, and more confidence.

So what has this offense done exactly? Well, as noted, they've become home run happy. Not just hitting home runs to win games either though. Jason Kipnis' three-run shot on Wednesday against the Phillies was not needed to win the game. The only thing it did was put the game out of reach. The club is getting those home runs to help, but the biggest thing they're doing is hitting when it counts.

With men in scoring position they're hitting .278 with a .350 OBP, and an OPS of .838. With two outs and runners in scoring position, there are few teams as effective. The average bumps up to .309, the OPB gains .50 points to .400 and the OPS? The OPS is at .927, highly effective, highly deadly. They've hit 29 of their 53 home runs within two runs, so they are using the home run to either inch closer or separate themselves from the other team.

What is this leading to? A plus-25 run differential. That's a 29-run difference from last year. Despite being in first place and five games above five hundred, the Indians were at negative-4 last year. That is the biggest difference between last year's team and this year's team and the biggest reason as to why they have staying power in 2013, when they didn't in 2012. If you look at every single team that finished at .500 or above they had a positive run differential. Everyone below? Negative. You can't sustain winning the way the Indians were last year by scoring less runs than your opponents. Early season on, it can happen because things happen. But eventually, that stops. 

That's all well and good, but can't it reverse trend? Of course it could, the Indians could start scoring less than the runs they give up, which means they've inevitably start to lose games and that number will go down into the red. But among all 30 teams in baseball, the Indians plus-25 run differential is behind six other teams. Detroit's 60 is the best in baseball and that will no doubt continue to rise as they look to be on track to be the team everyone thought they could be last year. 

Photo - Getty Images via Yahoo! Sports
But this isn't a plus-one situation the Minnesota Twins are sitting at. This isn't barely above middle ground. They're doing this with a good offense and an okay pitching staff. The beauty is the pitching can get better and that number can improve. 

Is the rotation as it is currently made up of one that can last? Are you going to argue with how well McAllister looks? I'd let you rip Jeanmar Gomez apart last year, he was doing it with smoke and mirrors. He wasn't going out and giving you six strong every night, quality start after quality start, missing bats and pitching efficiently. 

That was a fluke, what McAllister is doing. That is real.

Ubaldo's sudden emergence aside, the Indians have some pitchers who can actually pitch this year. They may not be the best rotation. They may have games where they go out and it is a little rough. But the key thing that they have is consistency. They're going to have more okay games than bad. And with an offense that can make up for those middle-ground pitching games, you can afford to have a guy go out and give you six innings, three-four runs, and still be in the game. 

Why? Because you have talent.

Jose Lopez is not hitting ninth, Drew Stubbs is.

Johnny Damon is not playing left field, Michael Brantley is.

Jack Hannahan and Casey Kotchman, God bless their defense, are not playing corner spots, Mark Reynolds and Nick Swisher are.

I don't need statistics or anything to prove that point. Nick Swisher could go in a 0-for-30 slump over the next week. By the time the season ends though, you know what you are going to get and that is a solid producer who knocks in 90 runs.

Mark Reynolds could go cold the rest of May and only hit one home run. He's still going to finish with at least 30.

Jack Hannahan goes in a 0-for-30 slump, you know where that leaves you.

Casey Kotchman is going to hit one home run in the month of May and that may be his monthly low, but his monthly high may be 2.

The difference is talent. Is Corey Kluber the best fifth starter the Indians can get? No, they can certainly do better. But he's missing more bats and going much deeper into games than Derek Lowe. He'll have a much stronger season than the aging veteran who may give you four runs of shutout ball, but he'll only give you four runs total. Kluber may give up a few runs, but he's going six innings and keeping you in the game and keeping your bullpen fresh.

Talent is going to win the Indians a lot of games. The leadership is great, the intangibles are fun, the enthusiasm is a breath of fresh air. But the Indians had some of that last year. They certainly don't have the same level, but that is largely how they were winning games. They're winning games on talent this year and talent will take them into summer as a contender.

And after that? Well, anything can happen when you just have a chance to compete.

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