Cleveland Indians: Catching up after the First 18

The Cleveland Indians will play nine sets of 18 regular season games. They’re 11-7 after the first set, so let’s catch up on how they got here.

In last night’s contest between the Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners, Carlos Carrasco pitched seven shutout innings, recording 12 strikeouts and allowing five base runners. If for some reason, this is the very first thing you’ve read on the Tribe in 2019, you could be forgiven for thinking something along the lines of, “Yeah, so? He does that all the time.”

Carrasco’s nearly flawless Wednesday outing gave the Indians a 1-0 victory and a hard-fought, decisive road sweep of one of Major League Baseball’s most surprisingly dangerous teams. This all following, of course, a disastrous series in which the Indians were swept by one of baseball’s least dangerous teams–a three-game blunder highlighted by Carrasco failing to make it out of the first inning against the Royals just five days before putting the clamps down on Seattle.

Carrasco’s ERA and WHIP sit at 7.41 and 1.76, respectively, after Wednesday’s exceptional performance, and I think he is emblematic of the Tribe’s season as a whole early on: when the Indians are on, they’re on; and when they don’t have it, they really don’t have it.

I thought of this as I reveled in Cleveland’s impressive showing against the home-run-happy Mariners, and I decided with the off day before an important home series against Atlanta, the 18-game threshold would be a good time to take stock of how things are going for the Tribe.

This will be a nine-edition column, with each new edition coming every 18 games. It will be loosely formatted from one edition to the next to fit whatever storylines are most prominent regarding the team, but our first installment will focus on the Indians’ bumpy road to a solid 11-7 record.

The Rotation of Evisceration (and at times, Humiliation)

As was expected when coming into into the 2019 season, the starting pitching has been a strength for the Indians. Corey Kluber threw six shutout innings on Opening Day before surrendering two runs in the seventh. Trevor Bauer allowed one hit through his first two starts, and Mike Clevinger allowed zero earned runs through his. We’ve already touched on the volatility of Carrasco’s first few outings, but he’s been pretty dominant in the good ones.

Of course, we’ve seen the opposite end of the spectrum as well. Kluber has given the Indians two quality starts, but in his other two outings: 14 hits, eight walks, 10 earned runs in six combined innings. Bauer got touched up by Detroit once, but it was admittedly the only one of his four starts in which he was not outstanding. And this isn’t performance-based, but Clevinger’s sudden trip to the 60-day DL is cause for long-term concern.

And then there’s Shane Bieber. In Bieber’s three starts, he’s pitched 19 innings, allowed three earned runs, and struck out 20 opposing hitters. His ERA is 1.71, and his WHIP is 0.81. Bieber forces baseball enthusiasts to envision a world in which Kluber and Carrasco might be the third and fourth-best starters in their own rotation, and it’s not that far-fetched of a sentiment.

By and large, the collective track records of the Tribe rotation allow us to chalk up a bad outing here and there to precisely that: a bad outing here and there. Still, for the cardiovascular health of everyone involved, it would be nice to see Kluber and Carrasco level off.

Sighs of Relief (Pitchers)

For everyone (myself included) who may have lamented the state of the Indians bullpen last season–as well as the fact that the front office neglected to adequately address it this winter–here’s a comforting stat: Cleveland has the third-best bullpen ERA in baseball at the moment.

Their collective HR/FB ratio of 10% is seventh-lowest in the league, which is a far cry from last year’s league-worst 17%. Simply put, the Tribe ‘pen is getting the job done early on, and it has been an all-hands-on-deck effort.

Six Indians relievers have pitched six or more innings, and among them, only Neil Ramirez has an ERA above 2.84. Three–Ramirez, Brad Hand, and Nick Wittgren–have K/9 ratios of 12 or better. Adam Cimber is inducing ground balls at a rate of 68.8%, which is exactly what the Indians need from the sidewinder.

Much was made of Cleveland’s bullpen woes after last season’s 162-game debacle, and understandably so. But so far in 2019, the Tribe’s relievers have kept the ship on course.

Welcome Back, Old Friend

The trade for Carlos Santana this past winter did wonders for nostalgia and sentimentality among the Indians community, but so far his presence in the lineup has done more than allow us to relive the days of yore. Santana is slashing .389/.515/.537, all three of which are by far the best on the team. He also leads the Indians in runs scored and RBI, with 12 and 11, respectively.

Santana has almost single-handedly kept the Indians offense afloat for prolonged stretches, capitalizing on seemingly every opportunity to drive in a run. Without his heroics, the Indians would very likely be staring down a losing record at this juncture. Instead, they sit atop the AL Central, awaiting the imminent return of another hero, Francisco Lindor.

The rest of the offense has been about as up-and-down as the above-mentioned Carrasco. Leonys Martin is sporting a healthy .370 OBP out of the leadoff spot, and surprisingly holds the team lead in home runs. Still, if he’s going to remain at leadoff, it’d behoove him to cut down on his 28.8% strikeout rate.

Jake Bauers, for his part, has been slowly but surely coming along. His solo home run in Wednesday’s game allowed the Tribe to make good on Carrasco’s outing in the 1-0 victory, and although he hasn’t had a breakout stretch as of yet, he’s performed well enough to believe there is one on the way.

A real sight for sore eyes would be that of Hanley Ramirez and Carlos Gonzalez going on an early-season tear, rewarding the Indians for giving them a chance to continue (or in Ramirez’s case, resurrect) their careers. Ramirez has a few mammoth homers to his credit so far, but his overall contributions are limited by a 29.8% strikeout rate, a disconcerting number that would be by far the worst of his career. Gonzalez has not yet recorded a sample size large enough to judge, but if he can give the Indians something in the form of a 15-homer, 70-RBI season, it would go a long way toward bridging the top half of the order to the bottom.

As for Jose Ramirez, he’s just going to get the benefit of the doubt. His BABIP is a lowly .155 despite a serviceable 39% hard-hit rate, and he’s not exactly striking out at an alarming clip (14.7%). His walk rate of 5.3% is dwarfed by last year’s 15.2% showing. A change in his plate approach and some better batted-ball luck will help Ramirez get back on track before long.

In any case, the Indians limped into the 2019 season without their starting middle infielders, one of whom is an MVP candidate at his best. They’ve weathered the storm of their best healthy hitter getting off to a slow start, and they’ve made the best of a rather underwhelming collection of outfielders. Despite plenty of chances to collapse under what has gone wrong, the Indians are 11-7, which is probably better than even the most optimistic fans expected.

Most Valuable Player(s)

In each one of these discussions, I’ll try to end with a tip of the cap to the player or players who’ve played the largest role in fueling the success of the team at large. For the first 18 games, I’ve decided on a three-way tie between Santana, Bauer, and Bieber.

As was mentioned above, Santana has spent much of the early schedule bearing the weight of an entire team’s worth of offensive production.

Bauer has been the Cy Young candidate we all expected, and the one he promised to be. He can’t be any lower than third among AL pitchers in early CY discussions.

The evidently unflappable Bieber has established himself as much more than a “fifth starter,” and his early contributions–especially in the wake of Clevinger’s injury–can not be overstated. There are 29 other baseball teams in North America who wish they had someone as reliable as Bieber in the back end of their rotation.

Next: Breaking down the latest Indians roster move

My hope, in closing, is that three different players force their way into consideration for team MVP by the time I write the second edition of this column. Either way, all things considered, the team and fans alike should be encouraged by Cleveland’s start to this season.