The unexpected first half of the 2014 Cleveland Indians
The Indians opened the unofficial second half of their season last night with a comeback 9-3 win over the Tigers. The Indians started the second half at 47-47, and despite the fact that 47-47 is only .500 and only good enough for third place, I think I'm mostly relieved, if not pleasantly surprised, at what the Indians have managed to make of their season so far. The Tribe aren't out of it by any means, and if they're able to reverse some of the problems they've had in the first half, we'll be well on our way to another October run.
What's gone right
It's hard to imagine a brighter spot to the Indians’ first half than left-and-sometimes-center fielder Michael Brantley. The Indians signed Brantley to a 4-year, $25 million contract in the offseason, and so far he's looking well worth the investment. Cleveland's lone All-Star, he came into Saturday's action hitting .330/.388/.525 with 15 HR and 63 RBIs, all of which lead the team, and his .330 batting average is good enough for 5th in the American League. Even better, Brantley is hitting .360 with runners in scoring position, and a whopping .600 in 10 at bats with the bases loaded, and never seems to let the moment faze him. Defensively, Brantley has been one of the few bright spots for the Indians, leading the team in outfield assists and is second in the American League, while playing errorless baseball.
I should also mention Lonnie Chisenhall, who has come from almost not making the team this spring to being a platoon player to being the Indians’ everyday third baseman with one of the top ten batting averages in the league (.328/.392/.515 in the first half). Chisenhall had the best night he'll have this season (and indeed, probably his career) on June 9, when he hit 3 HR and drove in 9 in a 17-7 rout of the Rangers. Chisenhall has gone for long stretches where it seemed like he wasn't driving the ball as much as letting the ball hit the bat and seeing what happens, but he's gotten consistent results so far, which has been welcomed in a lineup where other hitters with bigger expectations aren't performing.
Corey Kluber should have been the Indians second All-Star but was victimized by the All-Star Final Vote campaign, but this shouldn't detract from Kluber's first half performance, in which he became the de facto Indians ace. Kluber only went 9-6 in the first half, but did so with a sparkling 2.92 ERA and a strikeout to walk ratio of 4.59. Kluber only gave up 6 unearned runs in the first half, but was victimized by a subpar Indians defense a number of times which detracted from his otherwise stellar numbers. Poor or incomplete first half performances from Justin Masterson and Danny Salazar make Kluber's first half even more important, as he's become the rock and the stopper in the Tribe rotation.
Kluber was excellent in most of his games, but in the games when he wasn't and in the games when the other starters struggled, the Indians bullpen stepped in. Led by Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Mark Rzepczynski, Carlos Carrasco and Scott Atchison, the Indians bullpen was the third best in the league in the first half, putting up a 3.05 ERA over 312.1 innings of work. (By comparison, the Indians starters had a 4.49 ERA in the first half.) The relievers listed previously were pretty consistent the entire first half, but what's made the Indians bullpen great so far has been their ability to mix and match relievers here and there to mitigate slumps, like when John Axford was removed from the closer's role in May and replaced first by committee and then by Cody Allen. Indians manager Terry Francona will have to be careful not to overwork his bullpen in the second half, but that'll also depend on some bounceback performances from the Indians starters.
What's gone wrong
Although it seemed to be a little more intermittent towards the end of the first half, the Indians defense was abysmal in the first half, particularly on the corner infield positions. The Carlos Santana Third Base Experiment sometimes seemed to be working, but he never seemed entirely comfortable over there and hasn't played there since May 17. Meanwhile, Lonnie Chisenhall has been better, but still not great at third and has had some defensive miscues in bad spots for the Indians. Defense at first base hasn't been much better, with Nick Swisher being the bulk of the problem: Swisher has made 9 errors at 1B this season out of 31 for his career, while only playing 51 games at 1B this season compared to 470 for his career, meaning he's made 29% of his career errors in only 10.8% of his career games at first base. Yan Gomes has also been inconsistent behind the plate, with some of his throws sailing into center field, but with his absolute cannon this isn't entirely surprising, and he's still managed to catch 34% of would-be base stealers.
Swisher's bigger problem was that for most of the first half, he simply wasn't hitting. When I was thinking about how to write this column I thought about a format where I gave grades to players based on their first half performances, and if I were to do that, Swisher would have gotten a D-. The only thing that saves him from an F is that there was a time in June when he had something like 5 hits in 40 at bats, but 2 of them were go-ahead or game-winning home runs in the 9th inning or later, showing that he's at least able to get some big hits in big spots occasionally. That hardly excuses his first half line of .211/.290/.352, but his line in July is .300/.327/.520 over 50 at bats, so maybe things are turning around (as I'm writing this, Swisher just hit an RBI double over the head of Austin Jackson in Detroit). Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana also had subpar first halves, but Santana rebounded in June with a line of .308/.426/.590 while Kipnis, who never seemed quite as far away from turning it around as Swisher or Santana, hit two home runs last night.
The Indians other big problem in the first half was their starting pitching, headlined by the struggles of Justin Masterson, who it turns out was pitching hurt. Masterson has struggled with his command all year, and when he doesn't pitch from ahead he's very hittable, which is evidenced by his first half 5.51 ERA. Masterson's strikeout to walk ratio was only 1.66, and he's on pace to throw more wild pitches than he ever has this season. The Indians put Masterson on the DL on July 9 with a knee issue, and if he's pitched with that injury all year, it explains many of his control problems. The rest of the Indians rotation hasn't been bad as much as inconsistent, which has been for a variety of reasons: youth/inexperience, poor defense, and the ill-timed home run ball. Indians starters are projected to walk 50% less hitters than last season (partially because they're not pitching as deep into games), which indicates that they struggle sometimes with putting away hitters. This problem can be attacked in two ways: 1) when ahead in the count, attack the hitters with pitches off the plate or above or below the hitting zone, and 2) when the hitters manage to put the ball in play, the defense needs to do its part and retire that hitter.
What to fix
The Indians will look like a different team this half if they can play better defense. I'm not asking for Gold Glove-caliber, but they should make all the routine plays, which has been a problem so far this season. Additionally, getting Justin Masterson back to his 2013 form, and getting Danny Salazar back in the Major Leagues will help. Masterson is supposed to begin a rehab assignment soon, and Salazar has shown signs of improvement and regaining his form at AAA, and I would think that means we'll see him by the end of August at the absolute latest, if not earlier.
There's talk of the Indians acquiring David Price from the struggling Tampa Bay Rays: Price has a couple years left before he is eligible to be a free agent and could be an elite left-handed arm for the Tribe for this season and potentially 2015. But while I don't doubt Price's ability, I don't see the Indians making a serious run at him. Tampa Bay's asking price will be really high: if the Indians offered star shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor for Price straight up, I don't think the Rays would accept, and that's saying something. Besides, this doesn't feel like a “go for broke” type of year: the Indians are only 6.5 games out of first place and only 2.5 games out of the Wild Card, and if the Indians are able to correct some of their issues in the second half, they won't need to mortgage their future just to sneak into the playoffs.
The Indians came out of last year's All-Star break at 51-44, but while this year's 47-47 is a regression, there's no reason to doubt that the Indians might make a similar second half run this season. Don't forget: he might be on the disabled list now, but the Indians have a secret weapon lurking, waiting for his moment:
66 games and 2 innings left (it's the top of the eighth in Detroit). Go Tribe.
I pulled most of these stats from the excellent baseball-reference.com.