The Cleveland Indians are 9-9 in their last 18 games. There’s been a mix of optimism and discouragement, so let’s see how the Tribe arrived at 20-16 overall
After starting the season without Francisco Lindor, losing Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger along the way, and getting minimal offensive production from just about everyone not named Carlos Santana, the Cleveland Indians could have a hell of a lot fewer than 20 wins at this juncture in the season.
That’s the encouraging part–that the Indians are 20-16 and on a 90-win pace despite not having come anywhere within a country mile of putting it all together yet. Of course, their place in the standings could also be looked at in a very different light: with one of the worst offenses in the league, their winning percentage is unsustainable and they’re lucky not to have 25 losses.
And that seems like a pretty good way to sum up the second 18-game stretch of the Indians’ season. It’s not their record that’s concerning, but rather how they’ve arrived at it. Cleveland might be hanging around with Minnesota, Houston and Tampa Bay in the American League standings, but it’s keeping some much less desirable company in far too many offensive categories. One of those things is going to change.
Let’s review some of the more prevalent story lines over the Tribe’s last 18 games.
The AL Central Conundrum
The Indians were penciled in as preseason locks to make the playoffs on account of their weak competition in the AL Central. Many analysts were quick to clarify that this was not necessarily a vote of confidence for the Tribe, but rather an indictment of the rest of the division. So far, Cleveland has not taken advantage. The Indians’ record versus AL Central foes is 6-9.
They have only played one AL Central team in the last three weeks–the White Sox, with whom the Tribe just split a four-game series. The Indians won the final two games of the series–punctuated by a Jose Ramirez walk-off homer and a rain-shortened shutout by Carlos Carrasco–salvaging what had been a truly miserable second week of May. Cleveland had been outscored 21-1 in the three games preceding its walk-off win.
There’s good news and bad news to be found within the Tribe’s small sample size of wins and losses. For one thing, they have more than enough games to amend their in-division winning percentage. For another, they’re off to a solid start against the top teams in the AL West, having gone 5-1 against Seattle and pulling off a 2-2 road split with Houston. They won’t have another crack at the Miami Marlins, though. The Indians finished the season series with historically bad Miami at 2-2, which will sting later on if they find themselves clawing for wins.
The Indians haven’t been hit in the face with the spaded injury shovel the same way the Yankees have, but the two players they’ve lost are not easily replaced. Corey Kluber joined Mike Clevinger on the DL last week with a fractured forearm, and the Tribe is in a precarious position as a result.
Kluber has not looked like the version of himself the baseball world has gotten used to, but that doesn’t mean a broken throwing arm isn’t terrible news for the Tribe. Cleveland will spend the foreseeable future relying heavily on Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and Shane Bieber. Jefry Rodriguez will be given an extended audition in the starting rotation, and he’s done a fine job in his role through three starts: 2.41 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 18.2 innings.
After Rodriguez, the fifth spot in the rotation figures to be manned by a committee of spot-starters until somebody proves they deserve a semi-permanent place. Things did not go as planned for Cody Anderson in his starting debut this past Sunday, resulting in a first-inning exit and a bullpen game the rest of the way for the Tribe. Given Cleveland’s lack of depth after Rodriguez, it stands to reason that the Indians could begin to intentionally throw bullpen games when necessary, whether by use of the “opener” or some other means until Clevinger returns.
The Indians have reportedly entertained the idea of James Shields, who isn’t nearly as bad of an option as most would try to convince you–he can eat innings and help conserve your bullpen, an admirable quality in a back-end starting pitcher.
In any case, it’s a good thing the Indians didn’t trade Trevor Bauer for prospects in the winter.
Deceptively Good Jose Ramirez
Jose Ramirez has been the target of a great deal of Twitter tantrums this year. “He hasn’t done anything since the All-Star break!” the people exclaim. With a .206/.297/.316 slash line on the season, the lamentations aren’t without merit. The Indians need their MVP third baseman, and he hasn’t quite gotten out of neutral yet.
He has, at least, begun to rev the engine in the last three weeks. Since April 20 (the last time we checked in on the team’s long-term performance), he’s slashing .269/.388/.403 with a team-leading 15% walk rate and team-low 13.8% strikeout rate. His hard-hit rate of 42.9% over this span trails only Carlos Santana and Roberto Perez.
After hitting 68 home runs combined in the last two seasons, there is some concern that Ramirez hasn’t found his power surge yet this year. Look past his overall batting average, however, and it’s pretty easy to see that he’s trending up. The home runs will come back soon enough.
Most Valuable Player(s)
Through the first 18 games of 2019, the Indians’ offensive formula could be summed up along the lines of “Carlos Santana and hope for the best.” They needed another bat, but not just any bat. Francisco Lindor returned on April 20, and although the Tribe hasn’t gotten much better offensively overall, his comeback hasn’t been all for naught. Lindor is tied for the team lead in home runs since April 20 with four and leads the team in slugging. His energy alone is a sight for sore eyes, and he’s played a key part in the Indians’ second 18-game stretch.
It would be criminal not to tip my hat to Jefry Rodriguez in this segment as well. Since April 24, he’s given the Indians 13 quality innings in two starts, allowing a .217/.288/.304 slash line to opposing hitters. The Tribe hasn’t called upon him every fifth day, but he’s been reliable when his number has come up. If nothing else, the decision to trade Yan Gomes doesn’t look like such a disaster anymore.
Let’s also hear it for Brad Hand. Hand has faced 28 total batters since April 20, allowed exactly zero of them to score, and just four to even reach base. That’s precisely the type of storm-calming presence the Indians need in the ninth inning, and with a little more consistency from the guys before him, the Tribe bullpen has what it takes to be sneaky good going forward.