Indians April Recap

Well, here we are.  The Indians are officially 1 month into the season.  I guess that means we should take a look back at where they were when the month started, where they are now, and how the hell they got to where they’re at.

I had basically planned on these monthly recaps being the bulk of my Indians coverage for the season with a few things thrown in here and there for good measure.  Then a couple of really crazy unexpected things happened.  Mainly, I can’t get into the NBA playoffs, I don’t know enough about hockey as a casual fan to feel comfortable going in-depth with their playoffs, and the Indians have been better than advertised.  All of that combined has helped morph the past month or so into a lot of Indians heavy content.  Here’s to hoping it stays that way.

So here it goes… A look back at the April that was.

April 2011:

Heading into the start of the season not much was expected of the Cleveland Indians.  The fans, myself included, were still pissed about the previous season and all of the recent fire sale transactions we’ve seen over the past few seasons.  After what we had been forced to watch in 2010 it’s no wonder why this team was pegged for another 90 to 100 loss season.  One look up and down at the roster was all you really needed to support that prediction, or was it?

The starting rotation was questionable at best.  Fausto Carmona was slated to be the ace, but in all honesty that was a total crap shoot.  He had been such a head case throughout the years that there was no guessing what you could get from him on a regular basis.  Justin Masterson owned a big arm attached to a big body, but that was about it.  He had been mostly terrible.  Mitch Talbot was solid in 2010, but was that just a fluke?  Carlos Carrasco had zero track record as this would be his first full season in the bigs.  Lastly, the Indians were relying on Josh Tomlin, another wet behind the ears pitcher who was called up briefly last year for a cup of coffee.  That’s what were planning on taking into battle against the $1oo million juggernauts in the AL Central.  Woof.

From a lineup standpoint, this is where myself and a lot of other commentators thought the Indians had some real potential.  There was a lot of raw young talent with Brantley, LaPorta, and Santana.  A strong veteran presence up the middle with the Cabreras, and a budding super star in Shin-Soo Choo.  The biggest question marks were whether or not the young guns could perform on the big stage and whether or not the team could get anything out of Sizemore or Hafner, both of whom were coming off of miserable, injury riddled seasons in both ’09 and ‘1o.

The Bullpen was the only area of the team where there wasn’t really any question marks.  The Perez Boys had shown a history of performing well.  Rafael had seemed to regain his form in 2010 and Chris took nicely to the closer role.  Other bullpen additions via the farm system such as Vinnie Pestano, Tony Sipp, and Frank Herrmann were expected to make big impacts.  The tribe also went out and added a few pieces to help make sure things went smoothly.

When you added everything up and combined it with a manager with absolutely no success at the big league level it was no wonder why everyone was so down on this team.  Granted, Manny Acta has been stuck with some really crappy teams, but how much of it was lack of talent and how much was a lack of managerial leadership?  The Indians were expected to play better, but the best anyone was expecting was a .500 finish and possibly third place.

So what happened?

Things got off to the rough start that everyone envisioned.  They were mollywhomped in their first two games by a White Sox team that looked leaps and bounds more talented than the Tribe.  They would manage to save some face by saving the third game of the opening set.  Then something funny happened.  The Indians won again…and again… and again.  Next thing we had known, the Indians had won 8 straight, including sweeps over the highly touted Red Sox, and the lowly Mariners.

Of course they would lose 2 of 3 to the Angels in a very hard fought series.  Everyone thought that was the beginning of the descent back to reality.  Then they swept the Orioles and took 2 of 4 from the Royals (it should have been 3 of 4 if not for a blown save) but then lost 2 of 2 to the Twins?. That was it.  That had to be the signal that this was about to come to a crashing end.  Everyone was saying so on ESPN and CNNSI.com etc, etc, etc…

The Indians wanted no part of that.  This past week, all they did was close out the month of April by sweeping the Royals and Tigers at home (yes, I know the last Tigers game was May 1st, but for the sake of argument I’m including it in April since the series started in April).  When the smoke and dust had settled the Indians ended April on a 6 game winning streak, and had won 13 straight at home, something they hadn’t accomplished since the 1996 season.

For their efforts, the Indians found themselves in a place no one would have imagined them at the start of the season… First place.  And not just a game in first, they’re currently 4.5 games ahead of the Royals, 8 ahead of the Tigers, 9.5 ahead of the White Sox, and 10 up on the Twins.  Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, “experts.”

So how did the Indians get to be in this position?  Is this just a fluke and the law of averages will eventually take over and thus send them spiraling back to the bottom of the division?  If you read or listen to anyone on the  national stage or from a market within the Indians division they’d certainly be likely to think that.  That’s all you hear coming out of anyone’s mouth.  When they talk about the Indians it’s immediately followed with phrases such as “for now” and “this won’t last” and my personal favorite “it’s only a matter of time.”  Really?  Because you know this how?  Over 100 years of reliable baseball history tells us that the Indians have put themselves in an excellent position to win the division and do something special.

Right now the Indians have scored the third most runs in all of baseball (most in the American League), have the fourth highest team batting average in baseball (again tops in the American League), are second in on base percentage (again first in the American League), and are fourth in slugging (third to the Rangers and Yankees in the American League).  So offensively speaking we’re looking at a potential juggernaut.  Still not convinced?  They’ve hit the fourth most home runs in baseball, third most RBI, and fourth most total bases.  What’s it mean?  It means this team gets on bases, they take as many bases as they can through sheer hustle, and they score runs in a variety of ways extremely effectively.

From a pitching standpoint, the Indians are ranked in the top 10 in ERA, quality starts, whip, and batting average against.  The most crucial stat in there is quality starts.  A quality start is any time your starting pitcher makes it through 6 complete innings of work before coming out.  Right now they are tied for first with Philadelphia and Anaheim with 20.  Last I checked those were some pretty good starting rotations.  This stat is important because it means the Indians are saving their bullpen.  This will be especially helpful come the dog days of July and August when arms normally start wearing down from overuse.

So is this start a fluke?  Highly unlikely.  A for certain playoff contender?  Definitely at this pace.  Will they win the division?  Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.  There’s still a lot of baseball to be played.  The basic measuring stick for a baseball team is 40 games, roughly 1/4 of the season.  By then you are who you are.  The Indians aren’t quite at that 40 game mark yet, still 13 away, but with each and every passing day it becomes more and more apparent that something is going on with this team.  They’re only off to the best start in franchise history.  No Indians team prior to this year had ever won more than 16 April games… the 2011 Indians won 18 in April and are 19 and 8 overall.  What the hell is going on?

Honestly… I don’t know.  I just want to enjoy it.

The Good:

  • The pitching.  I outlined it above, but from start to finish the staff as a whole has been lights out.  Starters are going deep into games and the bullpen isn’t giving up squat.  Not to mention it doesn’t matter who they plug in.  Already, Jeanmar Gomez and Alex White have been called up to make starts and they too have pitched outstanding.
  • Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner.  Sizemore has comeback from microfracture surgery and has played like a man possessed.  He looks like the franchise player we had been used to seeing.  Hafner is finally turning on pitches and hitting the ball with both authority and a high average.  If both keep this up over the course of the year… look out.
  • Jack Hannahan.  What can you say?  He’s been a real steal.  Brought in as an invite he outplayed the competition and caught a break when Jason Donald got hurt.  All he’s done is hit for both power and average, both firsts for him, and display some sick glove work at the hot corner.  Thanks to his play, there was no pressure on Donald to get back and no pressure to call up Chisenhall.
  • Matt LaPorta.  He’s not hitting like Albert Pujols, but he’s not hitting like the Matt LaPorta of 2010 who was sent down to the minors to find his swing.  Batting in the 8th spot has taken pressure off of him and allowed him to take advantage of opportunities when they come to him.
  • The Cabreras.  Both have played solid defense and really fed off of one another.  Orlando looks rejuvenated and has brought leadership to the team.  Asdrubal seems to have found his potential at the plate, leading the team in most offensive categories right now.
  • The just win attitude.  The Indians have won games in every way shape and form.  They’ve gotten out to big leads in the first, come back late, outlasted other teams in extras.  No series better epitomized this than this past weekend.  A walk off grand slam for a come from behind victory, a gutty extra innings nail biter, and a gritty come from behind battle.  Simply outstanding.
  • The hot start.  It was crucial to get off to a hot start.  It’s something Eric Wedge was never able to get this team to do.  For their efforts this April, the Indians would have to be epically just as bad to come back to .500 or below.  They’ve built quite a cushion to rely on from this point forward.
The Bad:
  • Shin-Soo Choo.  He’s been better of late, but most of his April was spent floating around the Mendoza line.  Not good from someone expected to be the leader of the team.  Like I said he’s been on a tear of late, so he should be ok.
  • Carlos Santana.  He’s been awful on the surface batting well below .200 and going through large hitless streaks.  The one thing he’s still managed to do is get on base via the walk.  He also has shown instances where he’s ready to break it loose, for example his grand slam on Friday night.
  • The mounting injuries in the starting rotation.  Gomez and White have filled in admirably, but it’s not good to lose two of your top five one month in.  Granted neither is a serious injury and the performances of the fill ins have allowed them to take their time getting back, but still… I’d rather see the pitching staff at 100%.
  • Hafner’s ankle.  This became and issue this past weekend.  He was hitting great.  Next thing you know he’s a late scratch, then a game time decision, and now rumor has it he’s been in a walking boot.  Hopefully, it’s nothing serious and he can get back into the lineup.  He was finally healthy and hitting well. It would be a shame to see it all fall apart so soon.
  • Looming trade talk.  It’s the elephant in the room.  It’s been the Indians M.O. over the past few years to be sellers so naturally everyone wonders who they’ll shop around this year.  Will Grady make it to August?  we’ll have to wait and see.  It just sucks that in April we have to listen to that crap.
  • Attendance.  Let’s face it, with the exception of a few games, the attendance figures have been terrible.  Granted a lot of it is do to poor weather and lack of faith early on.  Once the weather breaks its a totally different story.  If the Indians keep this up you guys have to start going to games.  They need the support.  Get over your hatred of Dolan and go all in.  I have.  It’s time to forgive and stop boycotting because you’re afraid of who won’t be here three years from now.

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