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Cleveland Indians: Baseball’s most frustrating elite team

As a fan base we wonder why things don't come as easily as we think they should. Here's a deep dive on why the Indians are winning, but frustrating at the same time.

As with anything in life, what makes our ability to enjoy something or despise it is based on one thing: expectations. These expectations are the beauty and pain we all face on a daily basis. Expectations are far more dangerous in the more serious aspects of life, but for those who closely follow the 2017 Cleveland Indians, expectations couldn’t have been higher coming off a remarkable 2016. 

We all know the story—up 3-1 in the World Series, only to falter in the series’ final three games with crushing heartbreak in Game 7 (blame the rain delay). In baseball, with great results come great expectations.

Clear AL favorites

After a trip to the World Series, you can always plan to have expectations run wild the ensuing year. That was no different in Cleveland coming into 2017, and the excitement only grew when the club shocked its fan base in December by opening the checkbook for free agent slugger Edwin Encarnacion. 

Indians general manager Mike Chernoff noted, “As we headed into the offseason, we didn’t expect to have these types of resources. Ownership has always stepped up in situations when it seems like the right investment to make. We’ve always had faith that ownership would be willing to support us in the right moment. This is one of those moments.”

The Encarnacion signing took the excitement to a whole new level, leading to expectations rising as high for this franchise as its late 1990’s prime. The Indians got a healthy Michael Brantley back as well, so all signs pointed up for the young club full of promise, and loaded with poise coming off 2016.

Harsh realities

I’m not here to complain about a first-place team. The Indians sit at 60-50, riding high after a Yan Gomes’ walk-off 3-run homer against the Rockies, and possess a 4 game lead over the struggling Royals in the AL Central. They’ve seen Jose Ramirez become the first Indians position player to start the All-Star Game since 2001, the emergence of a potential young star in center fielder Bradley Zimmer, and Francisco Lindor continuing his steady play as one of the bright young stars of the league. 

There are plenty of positives. The year has been far from a disappointment so far. What I am here to do is point out why so many Tribe fans are struggling with why this team should be better. The Pythagorean win-loss formula claims they should be winning more, and there are a few key reasons why that frustration exists.

The problems

The Indians problems can be traced to two specific things. Each one has been equal in frustration, and each has resulted in their underwhelming record.

Inconsistent starting pitching is the main problem. Coming off a season in 2016 where this was an obvious strength (2nd best ERA in the AL—4.08) there was little reason to doubt the starting rotation. The results haven’t been what we all expected. On the surface this area seems to be one of strength, the Tribe starters carry a 4.20 ERA, good for 4th in the AL, but remove Corey Kluber’s Cy Young worthy year and it jumps to around 5.00.

Carlos Carrasco is considered the second best pitcher on the staff, and he began the year proving so (2.89 ERA & 0.92 WHIP through April and May), but since July 14th he has posted a 6.48 ERA and 1.50 WHIP, which has pushed his season numbers to their highest point yet.

Danny Salazar and Mike Clevinger have been on opposite ends of the spectrum. Salazar got off to a terrible start in the first two months (5.50 ERA), and that beginning of his campaign was so frustrating that manager Terry Francona decided moved him to the bullpen. Right shoulder soreness shut him down for June and most of July, but since coming off the DL he has posted some improved numbers (1.35 ERA in 3 starts), so there’s plenty of optimism there.

Clevinger has been a pleasant surprise when the staff needed him most. During Salazar’s time on the disabled list, Clevinger posted a 3-0 record with a 2.90 ERA and 1.16 WHIP to ease the burden. Clevinger doesn’t quite seem to have the consistency needed to be a fifth arm when everyone is healthy, but he handled spot duty well this year. His struggles during his last two starts of July (8.16 ERA and 2.09 WHIP) prompted Francona to skip his latest start and let the Tribe go with a smaller rotation to fit around off days. Clevinger will be needed in late August and into September as the days off become scarce with make-up games needing to be rescheduled.

Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer have always been two of the most important arms in the rotation because when those two are on, the Indians are tough to beat. 2017, as a whole, hasn’t been kind to either starter. Bauer currently sits at 10-8, and while on the surface that isn’t bad, his ERA resides at 5.00, and that’s including the two gems he has thrown of late. Tomlin isn’t performing any better as his ERA sits at 5.38, and while he doesn’t walk many hitters (only 12 BB), he perpetually hovers around the league’s leaders in home runs allowed per inning pitched (1.55 in 2017—good for 13th in the MLB).

Moral of the story is that if the Tribe want to get on the run they’re capable of and run away with the AL Central, the pitching from their starters has to be more consistent. There always seem to be one or two of them struggling, and that leads to stretches of games where they can’t piece it together. 

We’ve seen how this affects the middle of the bullpen as both Bryan Shaw and Andrew Miller (both in the top 15 of reliever innings pitched since 2015) have been used persistently. Miller, on the disabled list with knee tendonitis, has to be managed carefully the rest of the way while Shaw has only generated seven swinging strikes in his last 229 pitches (3.0%). League average for relievers is 11.6% this season, so Shaw could use a lightened work load. As with most clubs in the MLB, the Tribe go as their starting pitching carries them.

Untimely hitting

The stats show little difference between the 2016 Indians and the 2017 version. Here’s a look at the categories of note – to which the Tribe are in the top 10 league-wide the last two years:

 2016 Indians2017 Indians
Batting Average.262.261
Hard Contact %26.4%31.6%

A case can be made more so that the 2017 Indians are hitting the ball better, but luck isn’t quite on their side. Hard contact is up, HR/FB% has increased slightly and the wRC+ is trending upward of late.

In the heroic Indians season of 2016, one which included 11 walk-off wins, the Indians hit .260 with runners in scoring position, good for 12th in the MLB. In an even more clutch stat, the Indians hit .234 with 2-outs and runners in scoring position, good for 16th in the league. Those are solid numbers. 

Compare those numbers to this year where the Tribe are hitting .247 with RISP, 21st in the league, and a putrid .207 with 2-outs and RISP, 27th in the league. Clutch hitting doesn’t make or break a season, but what it provides is plenty of frustration for players and fans. This frustration has been the theme for this team seemingly all year, even despite the lead in the division. They know they’re better than 60 wins, but they have to prove it when it matters most.

The overall result is that fans are stuck in a situation where they remember what they see most. Mix in less clutch hitting with below-average pitching, and you have plenty of close games. Close games can mean heart-break, and situations in which one glaring mistake is over-analyzed and blame is poorly placed. 

Fans remember the starting pitcher struggling more than they remember a starter giving six quality innings and squeaking out a narrow win. They remember allowing the 9th inning home run and forget the double-digit runners left on base throughout the game. Fans are constantly stuck on the phrase, “what have you done for me lately?” They rely on what they see most often. What they see with the 2017 Indians is a quality team, but one with erratic pitching and a propensity to leave runners stranded on base.

The good thing for the Indians is this group is wildly talented. They hit the ball, and they hit it hard. Hitting with RISP, and especially those situations with 2-outs, is a capricious stat. There is no rhyme or reason for it flipping, and the numbers say they will, and it’s likely to improve as the season moves on, evidenced by last night’s frustration for eight innings before the gutsy come from behind 9th inning. 

The Tribe simply haven’t seen as much of that as the fan base has grown accustomed to. The same for the starting pitching. Salazar is trending upward, Kluber has been Kluber and Carrasco is known to slip into late summer slides—he will come out of it as he has shown before. Trevor Bauer has strung together a nice start to August, and will give them plenty as their fourth arm – which is all you need for a playoff run. 

Don’t forget this rotation relied on Corey Kluber every third day, along with a dominant bullpen, to make it to Game 7 of the World Series. There was no Salazar or Carrasco in the 2016 playoffs. The rotation will rectify itself, especially when their best are going more frequently. 

Aside from the Nationals, they are the only team with three starting pitchers (Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer) in the top 30 of FanGraphs WAR. Mix in better starting pitching, getting Andrew Miller healthy, improved numbers with RISP and you have a team that is still the AL favorite until someone knocks them off. I’m banking on Tito and company when it matters most.

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Jake Burns

Columbus, Ohio native who is passionate about Cleveland sports and the game of baseball. Muskingum University Graduate in 2011 with a degree in English/Journalism.

Cleveland Indians: Baseball’s most frustrating elite team

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