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7.19.2013

Can the Indians Sustain Success in the Second Half?

Nino Colla | Friday, July 19, 2013 | | | | | | | | | | | | Best Blogger Tips

At the All-Star break last year, the Cleveland Indians sat at 44-41, three games back of the division lead. They had seemingly stayed afloat with many like to call smoke and mirrors, carrying a negative run differential and benefiting from a surprisingly sluggish Detroit Tigers squad.
Photo - Getty Images via Yahoo! Sports

That should have been no surprise though. They did it in 2011 too, five games up, a more credible run differential with a positive four, and an impressive 27-19 home record.

We now look at this team in 2013, in a rather familiar position. A Cleveland team that is a few games up record wise, very much in the playoff hunt, and looking like a team with some promise after all.

That promise has come crashing down the past few seasons, more spectacularly in 2012 with abhorrent losing streak that effectively cost Manny Acta his job and spurred a revised plan of attack in the offseason.

We've been over that plan. That plan seems to be working.

Of course the question is now simple. Can the plan continue to work? Can this team avoid the same fate they succumbed to the previous two years? Do they have the staying power in 2013 that they didn't have in 2011 and 2012?

Considering I have plenty of statistical and analytic data to  help us evaluate those questions, why waste any more time in answering the big question. Are these Indians for real? While I hope so and want to believe so, I'm leaning toward thinking that they really are.

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As I mentioned, there was some obvious flaws apparent on the surface of the past two versions of our Cleveland Indians. I did not have to dig far to find them. That didn't stop me from digging far to figure out what I needed to figure out about this team, but humor me for a second.

I believe it is perfectly reasonable for a team that plays above .500 (in other words, above average) baseball to have a run differential that is positive. Sure you have some teams that don't score a lot of runs and win on pitching, but how often do they not have more runs scored than runs allowed? By seasons end, all your .500 teams, all your playoff teams, they have that number well in their favor.

That works out pretty well this year, especially in the American League where every team that is above .500, has a positive run differential, perhaps you could call it the "Astros Effect".

Last season, only one playoff team finished with a run differential that was less than 56 runs, and that was Baltimore, who sat at negative 36 runs, but above .500 prior to the break. Clearly, an anomaly like this year's Nationals squad who have a negative run differential, but a positive record. The Nationals team ERA is 3.58 (fifth in baseball) but the only offenses that rank worse than theirs in terms of runs scored are Pittsburgh, Houston, Chicago (White Sox), and Miami. A reasonable justification as to why that is like that.

What you can't justify is a team like Tampa Bay sitting at four games over .500 and a plus-four run differential. That trend turned in 2012, the Rays didn't make the playoffs, but they won 90 games and had a run differential of 120 (higher than all but one playoff team). The Orioles went form a negative run differential to a positive one, so they too gained ground but not as much at Tampa, they just seemingly got lucky and won some close games, credit their bullpen.

The point is this. You don't want to rely on luck though. You don't want to rely on not being a productive team that can't win games with authority. It means you aren't beating who you are supposed to beat.

The good news is that the American League (and the National League for that matter) seems to be doing that. There is a really significant gap between the teams that are having good seasons and the teams that aren't. Sure you have that awkward Washington situation and below .500 team with a barely (+1) positive run differential in Colorado. But across the board, other than a -2 from the Yankees, the above .500 teams are winning like they should.

That bodes well for the Cleveland Indians. It bodes well for several more reasons, one being the schedule. The Indians are not only beating who they are supposed to beat, they are playing well against the good teams, winning enough games against them to add into the total of games they should be winning.

Four of those teams above .500 are all in the American League East. All those teams have 51 ore more wins. All those teams are probably going to start playing each other a lot more, so something will obviously give somewhere. That leaves us with four standouts, two from the Central and two from the West. Detroit and Cleveland, Oakland and Texas. Sure the East could send three teams to the playoffs (almost did last year) if the cards fall right.

But they are going to be playing each other a lot more. The Indians early season schedule was full of AL East tilts, so much so that they have just three games left against the Orioles the rest of the way. Not to toot the Indians remaining schedule, but they have 19 games left against teams with a combined winning percentage of .566. Compared to 48 games left against teams with a .421 combined winning percentage. They have 29 divisional games left against Minnesota, Chicago, and Kansas City.

Teams that are a far cry from the AL East juggernauts they've been facing early in the year. Teams they should match up against and win more often than not. Teams they've done exactly that against this year so far in the small amount of times they've played.

The thing is, that's where they are going. And while the schedule they completed is a testament to them and the record they have despite facing tougher opponents, it does not really tell us why. How did the Indians get in the position they are in, and can they hold serve or even improve on it?

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Take a look at this chart to the right. This is a comparison of where the team was at the All-Star break last year and where they are at this year. As you can see, some MLB rankings can vary based off the year, and you need to keep in mind the team has played more games this year before the break.

But it is rather eye-opening. We knew they were going to sacrifice walks for strikeouts. But it has resulted in relatively no change in the on-base percentage or average, but only increased the power numbers with more home runs, a higher slugging percentage and a higher OPS. Does it matter that they went from striking out less than all but one team to striking out more than all but five teams? No, because the offense is more productive.

Look at their pitching. It barely improved rankings wise, but just the .20 decrease in ERA has resulted in better pitching. It may not be drastic, but it is night and day the way the team is pitching this year compared to last. Just look at the strikeouts. They're getting more swings and misses and that is going to help you and save some runs. I have to further this point later, but look at something else real quick to help tie that point in.

Remember how June has been the big breaking point for this team the past two seasons? Well, not this year. It is even more evident in the monthly breakdown that the pitching has been the reason that this team has looked as strong as it has and has avoided that "June Swoon".

The offensive numbers are relatively the same, with only 10 more runs scored in June than last year, similar averages and OPSes. But the ERA went from 4.87 in 2012 to 4.14 in 2013. That's substantial because the pitching did not give in like it did last year. If you remember, the starts that Jeanmar Gomez and Derek Lowe got off to were really big reasons that the team fell off the map. Once those two took dives, the team did as a whole.

That brings me back to the rotation as a whole. You have had the same five starters start 81 of the 95 games, which is really what you need in a successful rotation. Consistency. Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister have combined for 26 starts with 139 strikeouts and ERAs of 3.88 and 3.45. This compared to the 26 starts by Josh Tomlin and Jeanmar Gomez, who struck out just 83 hitters and had ERAs of 5.45 and 5.18. That's a huge amount of runs not scoring thanks to two starters.

Scott Kazmir has made two less starts than Derek Lowe and actually has a higher ERA. But he has 56 more strikeouts and after the break, Lowe went 0-4 with just 17.1 innings pitched and a 11.94 ERA. Obviously, the big key moving forward is Kazmir not regressing to that, which he most likely will not because he is not as old as Lowe was. Lowe was working some veteran magic and the league finally caught up to him. If anything, Kazmir's 3.71 in three July starts lead you to believe he's only going to get better. He's also sharp at home with a 5-0 record a a 3.92 ERA.

The pitching as a whole has 12 shutouts, which is the most in the American League. It's also double of what they had for the entire 2012 season. And only Boston had fewer shutouts in 2012. That is a lot of zeros the staff has put up as a whole (over 100) and it shows you just how better the pitching has become.

But can it continue? We talked about Kazmir possibly getting better, but the Indians need four other guys.

The shining star has been Justin Masterson. He's improved and bounced back in a big way from a disappointing 2012. Not only was he bad in the first half, he got even worse in the second half with a 6-7 record a a 5.60 ERA. This year, he's .68 points better in his ERA, he's tossed more innings, has more strikeouts, putting in more stronger efforts in his first All-Star season.

The reason? He's been so much better against the right handed hitters. Masterson has and always will struggle to some degree with lefties. They hit .296 off of him last year, he gave up 13 home runs and walked 56. And he faces a lot of them. This year he's got that average down to .257 in more than 300 at-bats (he had 456 at-bats last year in a whole season against lefties. But the right handers? He went from .232 with 32 walks in 332 at-bats to shutting right-handers down completely. A .177 average a a .257 on-base percentage in 186 at-bats. The big improvements in both areas have helped, but by dominating righties, he created a little more leeway with lefties.

He's also been more sharp the third time through the lineup. Masterson would run into trouble the third time through last year, hitters reaching base at almost a .400 clip, hitting .313 with six home runs and 29 walks. In 2013 he has the average down to .247 with just 14 walks. He's just eight strikeouts away from matching last year's third time through total in a little less than 100 at-bats. It's the reason he has been able to finish off three shutouts this year.
Photo - Getty Images via Yahoo! Sports

Other than Masterson, the real breakout star has been Corey Kluber, probably the Indians most dangerous starter. Kluber's not doing things by accident, he's doing it with the strikeout, which is further proof he's simply getting better and has staying power. He's outstanding at home (2.53 ERA in seven starts) but has eight quality starts as a whole and in nine of his starts has walked one hitter or less. His 8.9 strikeout per nine innings and 4.27 strikeout to walk ratio could rate among the league leaders if he qualified. Kluber is the real deal.

There's no telling if what Ubaldo Jimenez is doing is real, but he is at least doing one thing. He's giving the Indians some quality innings. Last year, not so much. While he pitched more innings last year (98 through 19 games compared to 102 innings in 17 starts in 2012), the strikeout to walk ratio is up, the WHIP is down, and the strikeouts per nine innings, up. He's getting better early on. Of course we all know he's making more pitches. He has just 11.2 innings pitched past the fifth inning, compared to 28 last year. But his ERA in innings 1-3 is 4.85 compared to 5.45 last year. He's at 4.62 in innings 4-6 compared to 4.93 in 2012.

He needs more pitches, but he's getting through these innings by keeping his team in the game. Which is a whole let better than giving up five runs in the first two innings, settling down, and getting into the sixth, and then giving up two more runs. It may land him in the bullpen if the Indians can find another starter, but at least they can count on The Big U for something other than disappointment.

While Carlos Carrasco has been a disappointment, and Trevor Bauer remains a work in progress, if the Indians return from the break with Zach McAllister back in the rotation, they should have a formidable five, at least temporarily. McAllister has made just 11 starts due to an injury in his finger, but prior to he was the one having the breakout year. When they get him back? A three-headed trio of Z-Mac, Masty and The Klube could lead this team. In all but one of those 11 starts, McAllister had no less than five innings pitched or more than three runs surrendered and the one was when he got injured and had to leave in the fifth. Masty's the Ace, Kluber is the workhorse, and Mac is the consistent reliable one.

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A big reason that the rotation is improved, but the ERA is not better is because of the struggles of the bullpen. In the end you would rather have your starting staff with the better ERA considering they are pitching in more innings than your bullpen. So that can explain the limited decrease in ERA, yet the overall improvement in the pitching staff, because it is miles better than it was in 2012. The bullpen's struggles though have been well documented, but they've also dealt with some depth-challenging injuries to their closer and prime set-up man.

Chris Perez since his return from the DL has rounded into form. He has 10 innings pitched in 10 games, has given up just one run and walked just three and is a perfect 7-for-7 in save opportunities. His stability at the back end has at least steadied some of the waves. His early struggles resulted in a few blown games, but he was also not getting many save opportunities to begin with.

The big problem now is setup man Vinnie Pestano, who went the past two seasons with incredible results. He gave up 16 runs in his first full season and 20 last year. In just 31 games this year he's already surrendered 15 earned runs. He has already given up six home runs and is on pace to walk more hitters in any one season he's pitched. The Indians have to hope he regains form while he is pitching in lower-leverage situation so that they can reinsert him into the back end and the entire bullpen can be more of that cohesive unit they were in 2011 and 2012.

The two biggest reasons that the Indians bullpen has found a way to stay afloat has been the duo of Joe Smith and Cody Allen. Smith has been a workhorse. After pitching nearly 70 innings the past two seasons, Smith has been used in 41 games already this year. He's quietly become Mr. Reliable for the team and has kept his numbers in line with what we've come to expect from him. Allen has followed suit, not just in Smith's performance but his effectiveness against right-handed pitchers. Allen is a right-handed dominator with a .209 average against and just one home run given up.

Of course on the flip side of that, the team's effectiveness against right-handers is as great as their in-effectiveness is against left-handed hitters. Rich Hill has struggled mightily with a 6.08 ERA despite being in the bullpen all year. But Francona's faith in Hill has kept him around so he has a bit of a fresh chance at the start of the second half to put it all in the past. Hill hasn't been ineffective against lefties. He's held them to a .192 average. But he has been used as more than that just a left-handed specialist and he just finds ways to give up runs.

The Indians need to find some sort of guy who can neutralize the lefty hitters they will come across. Nick Hagadone has surrendered just a single home run and has walked six with a .196 average. He may be the answer that the team needs despite his overall struggles. He's only allowed 15 percent of inherited runners to score (4-of-26) so he also has that working for him. But Hagadone's struggles have been well-documented and every time he makes solid progress, things kind of blow up.

Obviously it will take more than Nick Hagadone surprising us or Rich Hill turning it around. It will take a bit of a "meshing" if you will of this bullpen back into what we've become accustomed to with them. It starts with Perez, which is already happening, but it will hinge very much on Vinnie Pestano and him finding himself.

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When I look at this offense, I see a lot of different things going on. As much as the pitching has improved and giving proper credit to the rotation for helping put the Indians in this position, I can't get past what this offense has done. I mean, this has been the most improved and concentrated-on part of the team. Most specifically, in the outfield. They better have improved.

This team went from having a real questionable future with the outfield to being pretty set with a solid core for the foreseeable future. It starts with the guy they moved to left field in Michael Brantley. The guy has matured into not just a dangerous hitter, but the most cold-blooded swinger this club has. He's unconscious in the clutch, with two outs and runners in scoring position he's hitting nearly .400. He had one bad month in which he hit .222, but he also knocked in 13 runs, which is only four less than what he knocked in during May. He's filled in at leadoff when Bourn has been out and while he's normally right in the middle of that second part of the lineup, he can hit anywhere and fill any role needed.

He's meshed well with Bourn and Stubbs, who have had okay years thus far, but have numbers that point to them trending upward and getting better in the second half. He's dealt with an injury and a kind of up and down start, but Michael Bourn will steal 40 bases. He's 13-for-19 right now but he has at least 40 in each of his last five seasons. He's too good not to. What he is doing great is hitting. He's sitting right at .290, which is a little less than a career high for him in one year. But his career average sits at .274, so this is someone hitting the ball better than one would have thought for someone who's down in the steals department. Bourn has said on numerous occasions he has found himself not having to steal as much, but he will eventually.

And then there is Drew Stubbs, who has been a guy who's rounded out the lineup at the bottom. Drew Stubbs would be a bad guy to hit second or leadoff (the Reds tried). But he is the perfect guy to hold down the last spot in the order. Last year's 9-hole hitters hit .236 with a .301 on-base percentage, 11 homers and 51 in a full-season.

With Stubbs there in just half a season, he's hit .239 with seven home runs and 29 RBI. Are they great numbers? No, but when the last person in your order is putting up that production, the rest of the lineup must be doing something well. His career low in average last season is way below what he's capable of. He's up around .244 this season and in line to reach numbers that his career numbers would suggest he can get the job done. And remember, he's essentially in a crew that is getting the job done. Look at this outfield compared to last year's.

A combined .259 average (479 hits) were collected by Brantley, Johnny Damon, Shin-Soo Choo, Ezequiel Carrera, and Aaron Cunningham. In just one season with Stubbs, Brantley, Bourn and now Ryan Raburn, the team has collected a .277 average with 28 home runs and 138 RBI in just a half season. The defense didn't just get better, the productivity did.

Even factoring Raburn into that equation, he has really helped that bench. I mean, 10 home runs off the bench? You have 77 runs batted in from your primary bench players as a whole? Raburn, Mike Aviles, and Jason Giambi have been huge. Furthering that, the DH position has been far better. Remember the increase in slugging and power numbers? The DH in 2012 hit 12 home runs and 56 RBI. Through the break this year the DH has 22 home runs, 72 RBI.

Granted they all play more than your standard bench players, especially in spurts. But they're guys that strengthen the depth. Compare this to last year's primary bench and you won't believe it. Jose Lopez, 66 games, 28 RBI. Jason Donald, 43 games, 11 RBI. Brent Lillibridge, 43 games, 8 RBI. Aaron Cunningham, 72 games, 8 RBI. Complete lack of depth.

Asdrubal Cabrera goes down? No problem, Aviles will fill in for a month. Speaking of, Cabrera has obviously not had the season you would hope for. If he did, I'd love to see how dangerous this offense would be. He's still been productive though. Here's the good news. He has 360 career RBI and 43 percent of those have come in August and September. The other 57 percent in the first four months of the season. So this is a second-half type of player. His career averages in August and September are higher, his production numbers are solid, so I would expect Cabrera to find his way and be a big part of this lineup again.

The concerning numbers though including the 2-Out, RISP number (just five hits and two walks in 30 plate appearances and a .239 with no homers with RISP period) and his lack of multi-run home runs. Five of his seven homers have been solo shots. He's just not been as productive as we've become used to. He hasn't lost his way or gotten worse, he's just had a dip in the overall production. The good news, as I mentioned earlier with the second half numbers, he's managed to knock in at least 68 runs and hit 32 doubles when he plays 130 games. He's at 71 games right now with 34 RBI and 20 doubles. If Cabrera gets hot, he can carry this offense. If he gets hot and the rest of the team is hitting, they're going to start winning games big, and they won't need a pitching staff.

The guy that carried the offense in April was Mark Reynolds. He was THEE biggest reason this offense thrived early on. It was really all him. The majority of his numbers come from April and early May and the majority of his struggles have come recently in July and late June. This is someone who gives you his numbers though. Every year he averages 34 home runs and 94 runs batted in. He's a career .467 slugger who has never hit less than 28 home runs when he's played 145 games. He's slugging .386 so he has a lot more to go up. He's a little less than halfway to what you could expect from him, so he'll catch fire again at one point, and you'll forget about this embarrassing cold streak. Perhaps it will be August, where he's hit 41 of his career home runs and slugs .530. Historically he's been a guy to struggle in June and July. His .235 and .217 averages would be right in line with the .187 and current .091 averages he sported this season.
Photo - Getty Images via Zimbio.com

The guy who has been the catalyst of the offense since Reynolds has worn down has been the Tribe's All-Star second baseman. Jason Kipnis is a star. He started in the three hole, struggled, so Francona took some pressure off and moved him around. He's returned to that spot to hit .325 with a .420 on-base percentage. That is what a three-hole hitter does. He makes it easier for the cleanup hitter and the guys behind him by getting on and making something happen, while also cleaning up the hitters in front of him. He's the guy that sees all the pitches you don't want to see and does something with them. With RISP he's a near .300 hitter with a .343 on-base percentage and 44 RBI. He knows how to get it done as well as set it up. He's the perfect type of hitter for that spot. His .417 average to the opposite field leads the free world, no one does it better than Kip going the other way. He is right ahead of Carlos Santana in OBP, as Santana sits at .382 on the year. Santana's 2-out RISP numbers are also impressive with a .302 average

No one is a better day game hitter than Kipnis either, with a .366 average and .424 on-base percentage. The best news? There's 15 day games left for him to do that.

And if you didn't think all of that was enough. In addition to that nice schedule the Indians have, they have Jason Kipnis playing two teams he has absolutely creamed this season 23 more times. He's no stranger for beating up his home-state Sox, but combined against the Twins he is hitting .431 with two home runs and 19 RBI. Watch out in the second half.

Remember Lonnie Chisenhall's second half last season after he returned from a broken bone in his arm? Well since his return from Triple-A this season, he has been much better and much more like last year when he came back. Before the demotion he was hitting just .213 with 11 RBI in 26 games. Since then he's hitting .280 with 14 RBI in 22 games. And he's hitting right in the middle of that bottom part of the lineup with a guy like Stubbs backing him up and Brantley giving him opportunities to knock in some more runs. While he's still struggling against the lefties, he's making up by creaming the right-handers. Most of his production numbers come against the right-handed hitters anyway.

Perhaps the guy that this offense really hangs their hopes on is Nick Swisher. Swish has dealt with some injuries, but he's also dealt with a little bit of contract let-down. I wouldn't worry though. The guy is as consistent as they come. Since 2005 he's hit no fewer than 20 home runs, knocked in no fewer than 69 runs and scored no less than 75 runs. He's slightly halfway there on those categories. The thing is though, I think he's better. Those are lows. Swisher is still in the prime of his career Maybe the break is something that settled him and he can come in with the one focus.

If you're on the pessimistic side, you can believe in the laws of consistency even more now. He's sitting at precisely the same average in the first half as in the second. His OBP is .002 points away too. So if he's consistent to that trend, he'll be okay again in the second half, but not spectacular.

We talked about Brantley, Kipnis and Santana's ability to hit with runners in scoring position and two out. But this team as a whole has thrived in those situations. Far more than they did last year at least. Check this out.

Last Year Hitting with RISP: .239 AVG, .330 OBP
This Year Hitting with RISP: .272 AVG, .344 OBP

Last Year Hitting with RISP, 2 Outs: .221 AVG, .325 OBP
This Year Hitting with RISP, 2 Outs: .281 AVG, .367 OBP

Look how much the averages and on-base percentages have jumped in both situations. They rank seventh and second in all of baseball in average with RISP and average with RISP and two outs, respectively. No one is better than St. Louis, but when it comes to that two-out hit, no team is better in the American League, and no team has been better. It has become the staple of this team. And when you are scoring runs that way, and not by that luck we talked about earlier, you are good. You have more going for you. you are more likely to have that staying power than if you were to be scoring your runs in other ways.

So have we answered the questions yet? Do you believe in this team? Remember how we talked about being at least plus-five in the standings and having a positive run differential at the All-Star break? Well last year no team in the AL that had that finished below .500. Two teams in the NL, Pittsburgh and New York, finished below .500 after starting with a positive run differential and an above .500 record. One team in the NL who didn't have that in the first half, Milwaukee, finished with an above .500 record.

In 2011, it didn't happen at all in the NL. But it did happen once in the AL. The Cleveland Indians started 47-42 at the break with a positive run differential (+4), and finished at 80-82. You could say though they barely had that positive run differential and where definitely a team winning despite themselves and it caught up to them.

In 2013 though, they've very much won because of their talent and their performance. If anything, they've lost several games that should have been games they won. If the trend continues, and this team goes through the remaining schedule like they should, and what we saw in the first half holds true, and there is plenty of evidence that says it will, they'll be in the race. Will they make the playoffs? They don't have to to be considered a success. They're in the thick of it, playing good baseball. You never know who's going to get hot, like Oakland last year, and maybe throw themselves back into the discussion or who's going to go cold and make you forget about everything that happened in the first half.

The way it is set up for the Indians though, they could finally take off in the second half, instead of being taken down.

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