The Cleveland Indians and Small Sample Size Theater

Originally Posted to RollTribeNation.com.

It’s always comical when someone begins a baseball argument with the phrase “Small sample size, I know, but…” and then goes on to derive a concrete conclusion off of that small sample size. Typically it’s never a good idea to invalidate your argument before you even make it.

Having said that, the season is only a week old, so there’s not much to analyze at this point other than the dreaded small sample size. Keeping that in mind, let’s look at six early season performances from Indians players to decide if they are a harbinger of things to come.

1. First baseman Nick Swisher is hitting .231/.286/.385 with 1 HR, 1 Double, 10 extra pounds around his midsection and 4 RBI in 28 plate appearances.

Having said that: Even though Swisher was somewhat of a disappointment in 2013, posting the second lowest OPS of his career (.763), he still finished fourth in OPS among Tribe players with more than 300 plate appearances. The combination of a tougher ballpark for left-handed power and his advancing age might mean Swisher won’t quite be the player he was with the Yankees. However, he should still be able to post a solid OBP (.341 in 2013) and put up tough at-bats while still taking care of his duties as the primary emissary of Brohio. I’m not too worried.

2. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera is hitting .158/.273/.211 with 0 HR, 1 Double, and 1 RBI in 21 plate appearances.

Having said that: Whenever I watch Asdrubal Cabrera bat nowadays, I think about this story from 2011, back when Orlando Cabrera was on the team. Here’s the choice quote from Asdrubal:

“O.C. told me in spring training, ‘If you hit the ball hard in B.P., you can do it in games too,'” Asdrubal said in his improving English. “I just try to hit the ball a little more hard.”

And that certainly worked for a while, with Asdrubal hitting 25 and 16 homers in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

But now I’m starting to think this focus on power is putting Asdrubal’s game in a stranglehold. He was never a big power guy in the minors; he never hit more than eight home runs in a minor league season. Asdrubal always seems to be out of sync at the plate, and he rolls over on a lot of pitches that a player of his skill level should be hitting with authority.

I obviously can’t say for sure if Asdrubal is still employing the approach he learned from Orlando back in 2011, and even if he were that wouldn’t necessarily mean that’s the source of his struggles. But if I could give Asdrubal a bit of advice, I’d tell him not to worry about how many home runs he hits and go back to the more contact-friendly approach that got him to the Majors in the first place.

3. Starting pitcher Danny Salazar struggled a bit in his first outing, allowing two earned runs on 7 hits over 5.2 innings while striking out 4 batters and walking three.

Having said that: Salazar isn’t listed here because of concern over a singular outing in cold weather. He’s listed here because of concern over his repertoire, or more specifically the straggling development of his slider. When Salazar is on, he’s absolutely filthy. But on days like Friday, when he’s struggling to command either one of his heater or split-change, his inability to consistently throw a third pitch will make it exceedingly difficult to overcome that lack of command.

This is somewhat nitpicky. Salazar will be “on” more often than not, and most pitchers tend to struggle when they cannot command one or more of their primary offerings. But the Indians have put themselves in a position where they need Salazar to be a horse in the rotation, and being able to throw his slider consistently will play a big role in whether or not he’s able to do that.

4. Third baseman Carlos Santana has now played four regular season games at his new position, and so far has acquitted himself well.

Having said that: Most people were skeptical about the team’s motives when they announced Santana would be the everyday third baseman, to say nothing of whether or not he’d be able to handle the position. But so far so good on the latter front, as Santana has committed only one error and more or less makes you forget that he is a converted catcher playing third base (granted he was originally a third baseman converted to catcher, but still).

As for the motives, Santana just turned 28 years old (Happy Birthday Carlos!) and is under contract through the 2017 season. Generally speaking, it’s suboptimal for a player to become strictly a designated hitter so early in his career. He may not be an everyday catcher, but if Santana can play a competent third base it greatly increases his value to the team since they can keep the designated hitter slot open (and Swisher might be taking up that slot sooner than you think). Santana is one of the team’s best hitters, and in the grand scheme of baseball his bat plays much better as a third baseman than as a first baseman or DH. That more so than reasons relating to team morale is why Santana made the conversion (although the morale reasons probably played a role as well).

5. Catcher Yan Gomes is hitting .222/.250/.556 with 2 HR, 0 Doubles, 1 horrible neckbeard and 4 RBI in 18 plate appearances.

Having said that: Gomes is really only listed here so I can say nice things about his contract extension. With Gomes, it will all come down to his defense. If he continues to exhibit the same level of defense he displayed in 2013 (although having said that, I feel as though he’s been straight dropping an alarming number of pitches this season) he should be well worth the money owed to him even if he doesn’t take a step forward as a hitter.

6. Second baseman Jason Kipnis is hitting .227/.370/.318 with 0 HR, 2 Doubles, and 3 RBI in 27 plate appearances.

Having said that: Don’t worry about Jason Kipnis. Please.

Since we’re all already here, how about a bonus round.

7. Manager Terry Francona has a fun, confident clubhouse through six games.

Having said that: I’m not a person who tends to credit the manager for a significant portion of a team’s performance. In my mind, the most important thing a manager does is making the right in-game tactical decisions such as taking advantage of platoon splits, shifting the infielders, etc. The ability to keep his players happy and motivated is secondary to me because I usually view that as a post hoc analysis of why a team succeeded or failed.

But after watching the press conference where the team announced the Kipnis extension, and really after watching the 2013 season, it’s pretty clear that Tito Francona has instilled an air of supreme confidence in this ballclub. I don’t know how many victories that will translate to, but it certainly can’t hurt.

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About PapaBearJere

Jeremy Klein is an unabashed Cleveland Sports fan who only wants to see a Cleveland team win a title. You can follow him on twitter @PapaBearJere or email him at thenarrativeblog@gmail.com.

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