Is it too soon to count out the Tribe? After Monday’s walk-off win at the Tigers’ expense ended their recent losing streak, it’s worth looking at what has to happen to get last year’s wild-card surprise back in the running in the AL wild-card race. Here’s a quick look at what has to happen for the Indians to become relevant again.
1. This new-look Michael Brantley has to keep doing what he’s been doing. His game-winning blast on Monday was just the latest happy development for him. Almost like clockwork, he’s having a big year as a 27-year-old, right when you’d expect, and you can worry that a lot of it is a big early spike in his homers per fly ball, more than triple his previous career best. But you also can’t help but wonder if this is the payoff for a guy who’s significantly better than average at putting balls in play. Brantley’s .250 Isolated Power against off-speed stuff ranks in the top 20 among major league regulars, so when he got an Al Alburquerque slider over the plate in the 10th, he got an opportunity to add to that impressive clip.
2. Several slow starts in the lineup have to end. Michael Bourn has missed time to injury, but the bigger worry is his career-low walk rate so far (5.5 percent), which is crippling for a team counting on him to get on base in the leadoff slot. Nick Swisher has the seventh-lowest OPS among AL qualifiers, and he’s slugging just .317. Carlos Santana’s been even worse, below .600. While you might ascribe some of that to his troubles adjusting to life as a third baseman, and you can blame some of it on an unusually awful .167 BABIP through Sunday, he is at least walking. Santana and Swisher are supposed to be the stable middle of the order, and their poor performance is part of the reason why the Indians are among the worst at cashing in their baserunners, scoring just 13 percent of them, bettering only the Astros in the AL.
3. This is sort of a subset of the slow starts already mentioned, but the other thing the Indians have to do is start hitting lefties. As far as their record, the Indians were an MLB-worst 4-11 versus left-handed starters coming into their game against Drew Smyly on Monday. The average MLB OPS versus southpaws is .720, but through Sunday the Indians were at .608. You can deposit only so much of the blame for this at situational hero Ryan Raburn’s doorstep. Last year, Raburn went from scrapheap find to lefty-killer, mashing against them for a 1.020 OPS; this year, he was scrapping at less than half that clip at .508 before Monday’s action. Raburn is merely representative of a lineup-wide problem, because outside of Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera, all of the lineup regulars were putting up a .635 OPS or worse. Start hitting southpaws, and the wins will come.
4. The Indians have to play better defense. A .660 Defensive Efficiency isn’t just the worst in the league or in the majors this year, if that’s what the Indians’ leather men do all season it would be the worst-ever DE posted by a team going back through the 1950 season. (Earlier than that, and we’re less certain about the data.) So that’s epically bad, and to put it another way, 34 percent of all balls put into play against the Indians become baserunners. Not counting walks, not counting homers. The big league average is .689, the AL-leading Athletics are at .722, while the Reds are baseball’s best at .732.
Switch to Defensive Runs Saved, and you get a sense of the damage: According to Baseball Info Solutions, the Indians’ infielders had cost them 16 runs, while the outfield had cost them 26 runs. If you use the old sabermetric yardstick that 10 runs equals a win, that’s four wins the Indians’ defense has already cost them. It’s especially interesting that the outfield has been such a problem: As Rangers fans might have warned Cleveland, David Murphy is a left fielder stretched to handle right, but Bourn and Brantley are both athletic players you’d anticipate better results from afield.
The Indians’ pitching staff is doing what it can to control the damage by keeping balls out of play, striking out 22.7 percent of all batters through Sunday, good for the fourth-best rate in baseball. But even whiffing 2.5 percent more people than the average staff for near-automatic outs doesn’t compensate for being three percent worse than average at letting balls in play become baserunners.
5. The rotation needs to take shape. Yes, we just blamed the fielding for making life hard for the Indians’ men on the mound, but Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco have to own some portion of losing their jobs in the rotation. Zach McAllister has managed just four quality starts in nine turns, while presumed ace Justin Masterson has just five in 10, right at the league average. Corey Kluber is the lone bright spot.
To help fix this issue, Trevor Bauer returns to a major league mound on Tuesday night with high expectations for him as well as for his strikeout rate. Facing Justin Verlander, he will get anything but a soft landing, but the big-picture problem is that if he doesn’t cut down on the freebies that have undermined him in every one of his previous extended stints in the majors, he’ll just be putting that much more pressure on that defense, and he’ll pay a high penalty no matter how many people he overpowers.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that it looks like Terry Francona once again has a deep bullpen used to good effect. Last year, Francona’s pen made an MLB-leading 540 appearances, and it’s leading the AL this year with 150 appearances through Sunday. Last year’s crew was a little better than average, stranding 73 percent of baserunners (against 70 percent for all MLB). This year’s unit is doing even better, stranding 79 percent of baserunners (with MLB averaging 71 percent). Using Fair Run Average, and the bullpen has improved from last year’s 4.09 to 4.01.
So Francona’s pen men are once again better than most when it comes to preventing runs, and they’ll need to keep that going forward. The down note is John Axford’s perhaps predictable failure to hold onto the closer’s role, but as last year’s Red Sox proved, taking a few months to figure out who your team’s designated saves generator is supposed to be doesn’t necessarily keep you from doing big things.
Can the Indians get it turned around? It would be unusual for Santana and Swisher to remain this terrible, or for Bourn to post his worst season. It would be unusual to see them be the worst defense in history or even recent history, and if (or when) that starts turning around, life will get easier for the men in the rotation. The question is whether it’s going to happen in time for the Tribe to get back into the AL wild-card race, but considering they're just 3.5 games out now -- after all that's gone wrong for them already -- there is no reason to give up on them before the season even reaches the one-third mark.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.