Bipolar Tribe Offense Disappoints
It was a tale of two halves for the 2014 Cleveland Indians offense. Before the All-Star break, the Tribe ranked fifth in the American League and seventh in baseball with 417 runs scored. After the break, Cleveland was eleventh in the AL and nineteenth in baseball with only 252 runs scored. The Indians’ slash lines tell a similar story, with production at the plate diminishing as the season pushed forward. Before the break, the Tribe slashed .256/.323/.397 yet they managed only a .249/.309/.377 clip in the second half. Simply put, the bats went to sleep a little early this season.
A microcosm of the second half offensive attrition was Lonnie Chisenhall. Lonnie Baseball surged out of Spring Training to reclaim third base from Carlos Santana, nearly playing his way on to the AL All-Star team. Though Chisenhall had an encouraging year at the plate overall, slashing .280/.343/.427 with 13 homers and a 1.9 WAR, he struggled tremendously in the second half. Chisenhall’s second half splits were .218/.277/.315, his on base percentage among the worst in baseball for regular starters. Only four of his 13 homers and 18 of his 59 RBI came after the break. Chisenhall may be a viable trade chip for the Indians this summer, with his value extremely high following a productive year and Giovanny Urshela waiting in the wings. Chisenhall’s second half floundering may be enough to convince the Indians to part ways with him in return for a viable power bat or rotation arm.
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On the other end of the spectrum was Michael Brantley, the Indians’ most consistent player and a legitimate AL MVP candidate. Michael Brantley’s 6.6 WAR set him second among AL position players behind only Mike Trout. Brantley finished with 200 hits, the second most of any player in baseball behind Jose Altuve. Dr. Smooth’s .327 average is third to Altuve and former-Indian Victor Martinez. With 20 homers and 23 steals, Brantley is the Indians’ first 20/20 guy since Shin-Soo Choo in 2010, and only the ninth player to accomplish the feat in team history. He was the only player in the big leagues this season with at least 40 doubles, 20 homers, 20 steals, 90 RBI and a batting average over .320. The last Indian to do that before Brantley was Roberto Alomar in 1999.
If you spent a lot of time watching the Tribe this season, it was painfully obvious the team struggled to get clutch hits with runners on base. The Indians were woeful with RISP, leaving 3.6 runners in scoring position per game, the eighth most in all of baseball and the third most in the AL. The Tribe scored three runs or fewer in 81 of their 162 games. In those contests, they amassed a 25-56 record.
It is no secret that the Indians lack a middle of the order power bat, and that certainly helps to explain the lack of clutch hitting down the stretch. Nick Swisher was supposed to be that guy, but age and injuries have taken a toll on the commissioner of Brohio. Swisher played dismally, slashing just .208/.278/.331 before being shut down for the season with bum knees. Managing only eight homers and contributing a WAR of -1.6 over 97 games, Swisher looked more like Matt LaPorta than his former self. The Indians will likely need production out of Swisher next season to have any hope of playing October baseball.
Carlos Santana has looked like a legitimate power threat at times, hitting homers in bunches. However, Santana’s .208 batting average at Progressive Field in 2014 is the worst mark in team history for a player with 250 plate appearances, edging former Indian Asdrubal Cabrera’s .209 average from a year ago. Santana did manage to lead the league in walks with 113, beating out Jose Bautista. If he can continue to develop, Santana may be an internal solution to the Indians’ run production dilemma. His .249 BABIP for 2014 suggests luck played a role in his struggles, making a rebound season in 2015 all the more likely.
Another option may be Zach Walters, who hit 7 homers after being acquired for Asdrubal Cabrera, the most of any Indians player in that span. His power is evident; Walters’ homer off Alex Cobb in Sunday’s season finale came blistering off the bat at 122 MPH, the hardest hit home run in MLB this year.
Ultimately, the Indians will need to seek out a power bat either in free agency or via trade this offseason to bolster the lineup going into 2015. Though it is unlikely the Indians will be able to sign many of the big name free agents, one to watch is Victor Martinez. V-Mart has verbally indicated a Cleveland reunion intrigues him. Coming up through the Indians’ farm system, Victor treasures his memories from playing in Cleveland and still resides outside the city. A hometown discount and a multiyear contract may be enough to lure the MVP candidate back home, as well as shift the balance of power from Detroit back to the Tribe in the AL Central.
Statistics via FanGraphs, the baseball nerd’s deity.