If, before the season, you said that the Indians’ staff would have a 4.48 ERA, 24th in the majors, I might not have believed you. The 2009 Indians finished with a 5.07 ERA, 29th in baseball, and that was with the benefit of 22 Cliff Lee starts. The 2010 staff would get back Jake Westbrook and had a maturing Justin Masterson, but that hardly seemed like enough to compensate for the loss of Lee. The Indians, it seemed, were in for another rough year.
While 2010 hasn’t been exactly pretty, it hasn’t been quite as bad as 2009. Fausto Carmona has realized a rebound year, Rafael Perez hasn’t been atrocious out of the pen, and Mitch Talbot has been a welcome surprise. Even Masterson has been death to righties. That doesn’t add up to much of a staff, but it’s certainly one better than the 2009 version. Yet this unit could be quite better if the Indians surrounded it with more compatible players.
The Indians lead the league in groundball percentage and have the lowest flyball percentage in the league. That’s good news for a staff that ranks last in the league in strikeouts and second to last in walk rate. The ground balls might lead to more hits, but not more hits for extra bases. To that end, the Indians have the sixth highest batting average against in the majors, but just the 19th worst ISO. To that extent, the plan is working.
At the shortstop position the Indians rank dead last, by no small margin, in UZR. They also rank dead last in DRS. They rank 26th with a -5.2 UZR at third base and rank 21st with a -4.2 UZR at second. The team outfield also ranks worst in the majors, though that’s not as big a problem because of the low flyball rate (though clearly still isn’t preferable). So while Masterson, Carmona, and Westbrook — who rank second, fifth, and 13th in the majors in groundball rate — serve up potential outs, the infield cannot convert them.
The Indians are no one’s idea of a good team. They’re 40-55, last in the AL Central and things don’t appear to be getting much better. Sure, they stormed out of the gate after the All-Star break and beat up on the Tigers and won the first two in a series with the Twins, but that’s hardly indicative of their long-term outlook. They face Tampa Bay and New York for their next six games, and we’ll likely see them knocked back down to earth. Chances are they’ll finish the season in last. Yet they can still take away something positive.
Like most small-market, rebuilding clubs, the Indians are placing their hopes on the strength of their farm system. While they wait for their lower-level prospects to develop, though, they can limit the damage by employing those groundball pitchers. They might even find a few mid-rotation starters for when they’re really ready to contend. The problem is that they don’t have the defense to make that scheme work. It’s baffling, really, because their infielders have all hit for below average numbers. If they’re already getting that low level of production, is it that hard to find similar offensive producers who can actually play defense?