Published on July 31st, 2013 | by Adam Hintz2
Contender or Pretender: Cleveland Indians
As the calendar turns to August, most of the teams in the league have identified themselves as either true contenders or wannabe pretenders. In past installments, I looked at teams that were currently hot and generating some buzz, and found them to be pretenders (Not entirely true: I found the Rockies to be contenders in a weak NL West – so long as Tulo stayed healthy, and he did not), but I have been putting off my analysis on one team: The Cleveland Indians.
I’m a fan of the Indians; I write for a little blog called It’s Pronounced Lajaway for the ESPN Sweetspot Network, and so I fancy myself somewhat knowledgeable about my hometown team. The 2013 Tribe, however, is frustrating to pin down for a myriad of reasons. To be completely honest, I’m still not completely sure what to make of this Indians team, but let’s try to parse it out anyway.
The Indians don’t do anything exceptionally well, but they do boast an above-average offense. They are currently third in the American League in runs scored at 4.76 per game. The team started off the season with a lot of power, and led all of baseball in home runs through early May, but they’ve fallen back into the middle of the pack as the summer has gone on. The team will struggle to score runs at times, but manager Terry Francona does a masterful job of juggling guys in an out of the lineup to keep the fresh.
Speaking of Terry, actually…
Terry Francona has to be the biggest bright spot on this Indians team; it is often difficult to quantify the difference that a manager makes in baseball, but his presence has already paid dividends. He pushed for Jason Giambi to be on this team, and the 42-year old slugger has proven to be a tremendous clubhouse presence; just go and watch the highlight of Giambi’s walk-off home run to see what he means to this team – look at how the guys react to him.
But beyond his roster decisions, Francona has coaxed a great season out of Ryan Raburn (of all people!) by playing him in good matchups and giving him lots of rest. Jim Leyland up in Detroit could learn a lot about managing from Francona (I am not a Leyland fan, and I will touch on this in my next column).
The other significant bright spot has been the emergence of All-Star Jason Kipnis. You won’t hear about it on Sportscenter, but Kipnis has been the best second baseman in baseball since about May 15th. He puts up great at-bats, hits for some power, runs well, and plays an above average second base. None of his numbers will absolutely pop off the stat sheet at you (.295/.374/.504 with 15 HR 63 RBI and 21 SB), but Kipnis is the total package.
So, just looking at what is good about the Indians, we start to see what makes this team so hard to figure out: this is a team with really great intangibles, who go out and fight every day. I like to think of this team as a cheap used car – more often than not it’s fun to drive, but it will break down every once in a while.
Much like above, the Indians don’t do anything exceptionally well, but they don’t do anything exceptionally wrong, either. Mark Reynolds has been the worst player in the AL since his torrid start to the season in April, but he doesn’t play every day. The aforementioned Giambi has an ugly batting average (.194) but he is slugging over .400 and has 24 RBI in only 124 ABs.
The starting rotation was supposed to be the major weakness of this team, but Justin Masterson has been an all-star (12-7, 3.42 ERA) after having a horrible 2012 (11-15, 4.93), and even Ubaldo Jimenez has been serviceable (8-5, 4.17). The team has a nice grouping of mediocre starters, including Zach McAllister (4-6, 3.48), Corey Kluber (7-5, 3.74), and the surprising Scott Kazmir (6-4, 3.96). Even though this team does not have an ace, they generally keep the team in games.
Nick Swisher has been called a bust in some circles, but I don’t buy that. He has an OPS above league average (.742), he plays multiple positions, and he sees a ton of pitches (which then translates into a lot of walks). There has been a drop-off from his New York days, but he doesn’t have the same protection that he did, and Progressive Field is not the same hitter-friendly park that Yankee Stadium is. I would like to see a higher batting average from Swish (currently .244, was .272 last season), but that would be my only gripe.
Mark Reynolds has defined ugly. After a great start to the season (Reynolds hit .301 with 8 HR in April), the free-swinging right hander has fallen off the face of the earth: Reynolds has hit only 7 HR in the three full months since April, and hit a measly .104 in the month of July. His OPS for the month was .350. I honestly have no idea why he’s still on the team, though I suppose the team is going to see how he starts August, as he had a great August last season.
Though not an abject disaster, the bullpen has been far off expectations. Joe Smith, Vinnie Pestano, and Chris Perez were supposed to anchor a great bullpen, but instead have battled injuries and ineffectiveness. Rookie Cody Allen has been great, but the bullpen is certainly not a strength of this team right now. Rich Hill, the only lefty out of the bullpen, has an unsightly ERA (6.35), but he has been much more reliable over the past few weeks.
When analyzing the Indians, you have to also analyze the Detroit Tigers, who should be running away with the American League Central. The Motor City Kitties are a better team from top to bottom, but as long as the Indians stay within striking distance, the team should remain motivated to play well. I think a wild card berth is the only realistic way for the team to make it into the postseason, but keeping pace with Detroit is also important.
I still think it could go either way (the memories of the brutal collapse last August are still fresh), but I think Terry Francona will continue to get the most out of this fun, but ultimately flawed team. I look ahead to the Indians easy September schedule (starting on September 6th, the Indians schedule looks like this: 3 vs NYM, 3 vs KC, 4 @ CHW, 3 @ KC, 4 vs HOU, 2 vs CHW, 4 @ MIN) and I see a team that should finish the season with a flourish. I don’t feel confident about it, but I have no choice but to label the Indians a…
All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.
Featured Image courtesy of Jason Miller / Getty Images.
Terry Francona is a much better fit in Cleveland than Boston. I'm glad to see the Indians flourish under his leadership.
I have to agree, if only for that last 20 or so games. they can easily win 15 of those games the way they have been playing against teams they should beat. Even if they have problems with Detroit, they only have a few games left vs them... Also the AL East will not be able to have all of their teams maintain such high win percentages, if only because they must play each other so much. Up until now they have been feasting on West teams, when they play each other somebodies percentage must go down each game.