Last night, the Tigers defeated the Indians in a 14-inning affair, the third consecutive loss for Cleveland in a crucial series against their division rival. To make matters worse for the Tribe, Detroit has rattled off 11 straight wins overall, and their AL Central lead now stands at six games. Dave Cameron is skeptical about Cleveland's ability to stick in the playoff race, citing a number of their role players producing above their talent levels:
Expecting [Ryan] Raburn to keep hitting like Trout just isn't realistic. Expecting [Corey] Kluber to keep pitching like an ace isn't fair to the youngster. Expecting backup catcher Yan Gomes to keep hitting bombs when he's put in the lineup is likely a path to disappointment.
Ryan Raburn, owner of a career 103 wRC+, currently has a mark of 162, sandwiching him between Trout and David Ortiz. Yan Gomes is slugging .522, and while he does own some power, that will likely regress. Since Cameron's article was published, Kluber pitched well against the Tigers, but now is out four to six weeks with a sprained finger.
Also since Cameron's article, the Indians have lost their number two spot in the Wild Card race, and are now sitting in fourth, a game and a half back of the Orioles.
Yes, the Indians might be done. But they also might not be.
No one is going to argue with Cameron's points -- that they've been helped by a few overachievers. But does this not happen all the time? Mike Carp has produced a 152 wRC+ for the Red Sox, based largely on a .412 BABIP, when for his career he sports a 118 wRC+. Wil Myers has batted cleanup for the Rays and has a 155 wRC+. He also has a .381 BABIP.
Francisco Liriano hasn't had an ERA below 5.00 in three years, and is a legitimate candidate for the NL Cy Young Award. Scott Kazmir's story is unbelievable, but the likelihood and extent of Liriano's revival isn't far off.
Caveats, caveats, caveats: the Pirates have a terrific defense, Myers is better than Raburn, the Red Sox lineup is very good even without Carp. But we should be doing more than just highlighting three or four players in a vacuum, who are in over their heads, and adjusting solely based on that. Cameron does consider this, but effectively rules it out:
Maybe some of these guys really have figured things out and are going to keep performing at a high level, but there are just too many guys on this team playing over their heads right now. Some of them will regress, and when they do, it isn't clear that there are enough players on the other side of that coin who can pick up the slack.
Given that, I thought to explore more of that "other side of the coin."
Nick Swisher signed on as a free agent, and has been largely disappointing, with a 107 wRC+. His power and fly ball rates are down from previous seasons, but he's striking out and walking at the same rates, and hitting more line drives. I don't think it'd be a huge shock if his last two months brought him closer to his career wRC+ of 119.
Same drill for Asdrubal Cabrera: career wRC+ of 106, but 95 this year. Cabrera is striking out more and hitting more fly balls, so there are negative indicators here. But he's 28 and have been no reports of injury, and has 1,283 plate appearances over the last two seasons with a 116 wRC+.
[Formerly had a spot for Mark Reynolds, who exploded in August last year for the Orioles despite looking toast up until that point. Turns out the Indians won't hold out for a resurgence, as they just DFA'ed him. Err, never mind...]
We'll save the most promising for last: rookie Danny Salazar has replaced Kluber in the rotation, and, despite the poor ending, was electric last night against Detroit. He struck out ten Tigers in 7 2/3 innings, fanning Miguel Cabrera three times. In his fourth at-bat though, Cabrera jumped on a first pitch fastball and hammered a two-out, two-run homer to end Salazar's evening, with the lead lost. For a GIF-filled breakdown of the four at-bats, check out Jeff Sullivan's post over at FanGraphs.
Salazar's talents were on full display, as you'd be hard-pressed to find a more fluid and easy 99 mile-per-hour fastball delivery. With his plus changeup and slider, he has top-of-the-rotation stuff, and also threw 73 of his 103 pitches for strikes. He's walked just two batters in his first two starts, over 13 2/3 innings. In watching the game last night, it did seem as though he got some help from home plate umpire Chris Guccione, but he was mightily impressive, regardless.
None of this is to say Cleveland doesn't face an uphill battle, that Swisher, Reynolds and Cabrera won't simply finish with down seasons or that Salazar won't face his lumps. But being 2.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot this late in the season is hardly a bad place to be. They need to play well, but have some margin for error. And they still have a great player in Jason Kipnis, and very good ones in Carlos Santana and Justin Masterson. However, from Cameron:
While the team has more established stars like Masterson, Jason Kipnis, and Carlos Santana, they had those players last year and won 68 games. Masterson and Kipnis are having better seasons than they did a year ago, but the team's success this year is due to a far better supporting cast, and unfortunately, those roles players probably can't be counted on to sustain these performances.
Unless Cameron thinks that Kipnis and Masterson will regress themselves, I'm not sure I follow his logic here. Those two players have made enormous improvements this year, and their contributions should be factored in even more so than the starring secondary players, who have been great, but in part-time roles.
Kipnis has over twice as many plate appearances than Raburn, and has already blown through his fWAR total from last year (3.8 versus 3.3).
I don't think Cleveland's 68 wins from 2012 should be used as a relevant baseline. This is a better team.
The Indians will almost assuredly lose Raburn's production, but so will the Rangers with Nelson Cruz. For the AL East teams, Chris Davis homered last night but has slowed since the break, and Wil Myers likely won't sustain his BABIP. The Indians aren't alone on having strong regression candidates.
Raburn's and Gomes' contributions are in the books. That doesn't mean the Indians' playoff chances solely depend on them.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference. Player stats not including last night's game.
Andrew is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. Follow him @AndrewShen_SF.