The Cleveland Indians and June Swoons
So we’re now two weeks into June and the Indians, in what is starting to become an annual tradition, are in the midst of a precipitous slide in the standings. The Tribe has lost eight of eleven so far this month, and since their improbable sweep of the Mariners on the strength of a couple booted balls they are an unsightly 6-16. This stretch of ugly baseball again has fans wondering why exactly this team cannot maintain any of the momentum from their fast starts.
This year is especially frustrating because it was supposed to be different. Bringing in Terry Francona to call the shots was supposed to light a fire under this team. The revamped offense was supposed to be deep enough as to stave off an extended lineup-wide slumps. The bullpen was supposed to be a strength, stocked with hard throwing righties and a couple quality matchup lefties. As for the rotation, well, the hope was that a rejuvenated group combined with a much-improved defense could keep the team competitive.
The plan outlined above worked for a while, but just like years past it has began to fray at the seams, leaving people to wonder what exactly keeps going wrong. This is an almost a completely different team with a new manager, so why can’t this team ever play with some sort of consistency?
Let’s go year by year and see if there are any similarities from the 2011 and 2012 campaigns. The competent Shin-Soo Choo, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana, and Asdrubal Cabrera headlined the 2012 Indians lineup; a quartet of hitters any team would be happy with. But to say these guys headlined the lineup is understating just how awful the rest of the lineup was. The only other player with over 300 ABs was “big free agent acquisition” Casey Kotchman, and beyond him were a plethora of prolific out makers like Jack Hannahan, Shelley Duncan, Lou Marson, Jose Lopez, Johnny Damon…the list goes on and on. So it was ostensibly a lineup with five hitters whom pitchers had to worry about. As far as the starting rotation, all you have to know was a 39 year old Derek Lowe made 21 starts with a 5.56 ERA, and I promise it only gets uglier from there. The 2012 Indians were 26-18 on May 24. They finished 68-94.
The 2011 lineup wishes it had the firepower of 2012. Despite getting a whopping 325 ABs from the ghost of Pronk, this lineup gave over 100 ABs to Austin Kearns, Duncan, Kosuke Fukudome, a broken down Grady Sizemore, Hannahan, Travis Buck, and Barosaurus Laportus. On the pitching side, again all you need to know is the team gave Fauxsto Carmona 32 starts in which he posted a 5.25 ERA. To put that in perspective the AL average ERA in 2011 was 3.94. Just to be clear, THEY GAVE 31 STARTS TO A GUY WHO HAD AN ERA A FULL RUN ABOVE LEAGUE AVERAGE. The 2011 Indians were 30-15 on May 23. They finished 80-82. The fact that this team played a 45 game stretch where they went 30-15 is beyond shocking.
So even though both teams had a solid bullpen it’s easy to see after-the-fact why these teams didn’t go on to winning records. Lest I be accused of post-hoc analysis, it’s vital to point out this out: those lineups and rotations above were planned going into the season, not a byproduct of bad injury luck. The 2011 Indians went into the season planning on having LaPorta, Hannahan, and some combination of Sizemore, Kearns, and Duncan getting regular at bats. They also went into the season with Mitch Talbot and Fauxsto Carmona as key rotation cogs. The 2012 Indians planned on having Kotchman, Hannahan, and Damon/Duncan getting regular ABs, and they planned on giving DEREK FREAKING LOWE 32 starts.
It should be abundantly clear that these were not rosters with the talent to win 90-plus games. The 2011 team went 80-82. The 2012 team went 68-94. The true talent level of those teams lies somewhere in the middle, but they clearly were not playoff contenders based on their personnel. Nobody outside of the most optimistic of Cleveland fans (do those even exist?) had those teams pegged for a playoff birth, at least not until both teams broke quickly from the starting blocks. The 2011 team had a Las Vegas over/under of 72.5 wins and the 2012 team had an over/under of 78.5 wins. Over the long haul of the season they more or less did what they were expected to do.
That last sentence is the crux of the issue. Baseball is a game predicated on sample size. Any team can get hot for 10 games, 20 games, or even from say, opening day until the fourth week of May. Playing 162 games has a way of weeding out the statistical anomalies. And that’s what the fast starts of 2011/12 were, statistical anomalies. Those teams were 70-80 win teams, and that’s what they did. Just because the wins weren’t uniformly distributed across sixth months doesn’t changed the fact that over an entire season the teams record ended up reflecting their talent level. There was no magical loss of chemistry or momentum that hit around the fourth week or May, just regression to the mean.
Which brings us back to what we can expect from the 2013 Indians the rest of the season. Their Las Vegas over/under was 77.5 wins, which is very close to the pace the Indians are setting. I happen to think they’ll slightly outperform that number. The lineup has a lot more depth than years past, which will allow them to weather the eventual injuries that accompany a long season. The rotation is far from great, but they’ll keep the team in enough games. The bullpen is a mess right now, but that’s one of the easier things to fix.
But this is a .500 ball club, and to this point that’s how they’ve played. The stretches of winning followed by stretches of losing don’t change that. I can’t tell you whether the Tribe will sail or swoon in the coming days, but I can give you a pretty good guess on where they’ll end up.
Stats from Baseballrefernce.com