Indians Will Bounce Back

Last season the Cleveland Indians started the year 8-10 and, despite winning one contest by a 19-6 count, had been outscored by six runs in the process. This April, the Indians have started 8-10 and, despite winning one contest by a 12-6 count, have been outscored by seven runs in the process. Last April they were mired in the 20s in the ESPN Power Rankings all month, and this week they have slid back to 22.

Last year, the Indians turned things around and earned a postseason berth. This year, the Indians will turn things around, and are still on the short list for earning a trip to the playoffs. Let’s consider why.

Unlucky rotation
The starting rotation has had its fair share of bad luck in the early going. The batting average on balls in play against their starters is a league-high .362, which is 27 points higher than the D-backs, the No. 2 team. In fact, the difference between first and second place is roughly the same as the difference between second and 12th place. Now, sometimes that just means your pitchers aren’t very good, but the Indians’ starting pitchers also have sixth-best strikeout rate in the majors. Overall, the numbers bear out in the difference between their ERA (4.25) and FIP (3.47), which is the second-highest in MLB.

Aside from the BABIP problem, the Indians’ rotation has two issues at the moment. They are not stranding enough runners (third-worst in the majors) and they are walking too many hitters (fifth-worst). The former should clear up as the season progresses. In particular, Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar have been victimized.

Masterson and Salazar currently have a LOB rate at least 5 percent below their career averages (in Salazar’s case, that includes all of his innings as a professional, since his major league résumé is too thin to be reliable), and Carrasco’s LOB rate is nearly 14 percent under his career average. Over the course of the season, that should even out based on the law of averages/regression.

The walks for these same three have been an issue, but it’s not all bad. Masterson’s zone percentage (percentage of pitches he throws in the strike zone) is 48.3 percent, his highest in three seasons. And his swinging strike percentage (11.5) and contact percentage (73.5) would be career bests if he maintained them all season. His walk problems, in other words, appear to be a blip.

Bourn is hitting just .118 in three games since coming off the DL.
Salazar’s plate discipline numbers have essentially been league average, but they are down from his brief time in the majors last season. Salazar is working in more two-seam fastballs and changeups this season, and taking that in combination with his lack of big league time, and it seems reasonable that he will turn things around once he gets his feet under him more, particularly when you consider his promising stuff.

The same cannot be said for Carrasco. He doesn’t have a ton of big league service time either, but he is three years older than Salazar. Carrasco has been inducing enough swing-and-misses to be effective, but he is not putting the ball in the zone. The league average first-strike percentage is 59.9 percent, and Carrasco is at an alarmingly low 30.7 percent. Only two pitchers in the majors have been worse.

The end result is that he has not yet progressed past 5 2/3 innings in any of his three starts, and he has allowed at least four runs each time out. It’s just three starts, but if he doesn’t improve soon he may lose his rotation spot to Trevor Bauer, who appears to have regained some of his old velocity, averaging 94.1 mph in his one start this season. So even if Carrasco loses his job, the Indians have a legitimate replacement.

Surprising slumps
Of course, those three starting pitchers are not the only culprits. Carlos Santana has started in a bad slump. He is hitting just .145/.329/.226, which is good for a lowly 73 wRC+. That’s 53 percent worse than his career average, and 62 percent worse than he hit last season. Nick Swisher has hit just as poorly. His 60 wRC+ is 59 percent worse than his career average and 56 percent worse than he hit last season. And Ryan Raburn, who was a revelation last season, has started out even worse than those two. Now, Raburn certainly isn’t expected to hit on par with Santana and Swisher — who will be fine as the season progresses — but he needs to do better than the .205/.234/.227 line that he has posted to date.

It isn’t just them. Michael Bourn missed the first couple of weeks, and when he returned he slumped. That wasn’t unexpected, since he needs time to work himself into a rhythm, but the player he replaced in the lineup — Nyjer Morgan — had been hitting really well (154 wRC+), so it was a bit of a double whammy for the Indians’ offense.

In fact, of the team’s regular starters, the only two players who are hitting better than expected are outfielders David Murphy and Michael Brantley. Overall, the team hasn’t been awful or anything — they’ve been right in the middle of the pack with a 101 wRC+ that ranks 15th in the game. Last season, those numbers were 107 and eighth, respectively, so there is definite room for improvement, especially when Santana finds his groove.

The Indians haven’t been bad, but with expectations heightened following a great 2013 run, an 8-10 record feels like a letdown. But if you’re not playing well, one of the more enviable situations to have is that your team’s best players are the ones pulling up the rear. In Masterson and Santana, and to a lesser extent Swisher and Salazar, that is exactly the situation in which the Indians find themselves. As they round into form, so too will Cleveland, just like it did in 2013.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.
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