Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Sunday, June 30, 2013
Indians defy logic, tie Tigers for first

By David Schoenfield


The consistently amazing thing about baseball is that even as we understand more about the sport, because of today's wealth of data, it continues to confound our explanation of events.

For example, a series of statements:

1. The Detroit Tigers have Miguel Cabrera.

2. The Cleveland Indians do not have Miguel Cabrera.

3. The Indians have scored the same number of runs as the Tigers (albeit in two more games played).

4. The Tigers have allowed 43 fewer runs.

5. The Indians and Tigers are tied for first place.

The Indians shut out the White Sox 4-0 on Sunday behind a six-hit shutout from Justin Masterson. Granted, it was against the White Sox, not exactly the baseball gods' gift to good offense. When Masterson keeps the ball down and has that sharp break on his slider he's as tough as any right-hander in the game. The Indians turned four double plays behind him -- helping finish off their first four-game sweep in Chicago since 1948 -- and Masterson recorded seven of his eight strikeouts on his slider as the White Sox went 0-for-11 against the pitch.

Meanwhile, with tension high in Tampa Bay following an incident Saturday night in which Cabrera yelled at the Rays' bench (he had struck out following a high-and-tight fastball from Fernando Rodney), the Rays refused to retaliate after Rick Porcello hit Ben Zobrist in the first inning and went on to beat the Tigers 3-1.

Those events put the Indians in a virtual tie for first with the Tigers, Detroit at 43-37, Cleveland at 44-38. You can take your run differential, your Miguel Cabrera, your most-strikeouts-in-the-majors rotation and throw up your arms in bewilderment. A good kind of bewilderment, however. The unexpected is always exciting along with the potential of a pennant race in a division most expected the Tigers to win with ease.

The other interesting thing about the run differential factoid is the Indians have twice scored 19 runs in a game -- the only team to score more than 17 so far this season -- including in the first game of Friday's doubleheader. You would think that would lead to the possibility of a skewed record for Cleveland, that it would be underperforming its Pythagorean record due to those two offensive outbursts. Instead, they've exactly matched their projected record based on their runs scored and allowed, while the Tigers have underperformed by five runs.

This, of course, leads us to examine the bullpens. Well, it gets a little confusing here. Cleveland's pen has allowed 123 runs in 250.1 innings (4.4 runs per nine innings). Detroit's pen has 108 runs in 226.2 innings (4.3 runs per nine innings). Plus, the Indians actually have more blown saves than the Tigers -- 13 to nine. The results from those data points, however, are much different. Detroit's pen is 6-15 and 2-9 in extra innings. Cleveland's pen is 14-6 and 5-0 in extra innings.

The numbers bear out that the Detroit has pitched poorly in extra innings, 14 runs in 22.2 innings, while Cleveland has allowed one run in six innings. But Detroit's offense is partially to blame for these late-game woes and Cleveland's offense has keyed their perfect record in extended frames. The Indians are hitting .500 in extra innings while the Tigers are hitting .202 (even Cabrera is just 1-for-9 in extra innings and .174 (8-for-46) in games "late and close."

Basically, the Indians have performed well late in tight games -- call it clutch if you will -- while the Tigers have performed their worst, both the bullpen and the offense.

Some of the blame probably has to fall to Leyland's use of his bullpen. Why is Phil Coke, with his 0-5 record and 6.56 ERA, still being used in critical situations? (He was the losing pitcher in the 10th inning in Thursday's loss to the Angels.) Coke pitched well in the playoffs last year but had been terrible all season. Maybe Leyland doesn't feel like he has the depth but it's also a talent assessment and it appears he has misjudged Coke's ability to get batters out so far.

All that said, these results won't necessarily last all season. At some point, Leyland stops using Coke and uses somebody better. At some point, Detroit's offense should start getting some big hits late in games. But I say should. As much as we think we can predict this great sport, we can't. Maybe this is the year the Indians don't fade away.

What's happening isn't just a bullpen issue. As I've pointed out before, Detroit's offense has struggled in close games late in games, thus the poor record in extra innings.