Going into the season, the Cleveland Indians were a preseason darling to make the playoffs. Last season, Cleveland took a major step forward by finishing 85-77, only three games out of a wild card spot. They came into 2015 with a similar roster and the reigning Cy Young king, Corey Kluber. This season however, has not gone according to plan ---- not by a long shot. The Indians sit in last place in the American League Central, nine games behind the sizzling hot Royals (who many thought would end up being one-year wonders). Cleveland has the worst record in the AL and the same number of wins as the lowly Phillies and free-falling Colorado Rockies. What has gone so horribly wrong and can the Tribe do enough to turn 2015 into something other than a forgettable bump in the road?
Using Baseball Prospectus' Adjusted Standings and ordered winning percentages, the Indians have underachieved slightly based on their numbers, but still come out as a below .500 team.
First order winning percentage is based on run differential, second order is based on how many runs ‘should have scored' in comparison to the sequenced hits that actually did score runs. Third order is similar to second order but is also adjusted based on the quality of the opponent.
|Actual Win Percentage||Actual Record||First Order Win Percentage||First Order Record||Second Order Win Percentage||Second Order Record||Third Order Win Percentage||Third Order Record|
|0.355||11 - 20||0.423||13.1 - 17.9||0.452||14.0 - 17.0||0.471||14.6 - 16.4|
Courtesy of Baseball Prospectus
In looking at the Cleveland pitching staff, they are first in xFIP (3.44), third in FIP (3.64) and fifth in Fangraphs pitcher WAR (3.5). Led by Danny Salazar in the rotation and Cody Allen in the bullpen, their pitchers are striking guys out at a league leading 9.62 per nine innings, a full strikeout better than the next-best team. All of this sounds good, except when you consider the earned run average; the Indians have the second-worst ERA in the American League behind only the Red Sox.
All five of Cleveland's starters are under-performing their FIPs, which is the biggest problem from a pitching perspective. Prior to throwing his gem on Wednesday night, Corey Kluber had a .385 batting average on balls in play against him, which is entirely unsustainable and will absolutely come back down to earth. Last season, Kluber's BABIP was .316, which is still on the higher end, but not completely out of line from league and career averages. Additionally, Kluber's current strand rate of 62.3 percent is ten percent lower than his career average, meaning not only are batted balls falling for hits more often, they are being sequenced together with men on base causing an inflated earned run average compared to his peripheral numbers.
Corey Kluber is not likely broken, as is evident from his eight inning, one hit, 18 (!!) strikeout performance against the MLB leading Cardinals. How about the rest of the staff?
We are still trying to figure out exactly how to view Carlos Carrasco. He's 28 years old and was a fairly forgettable pitcher prior to last season, when he threw 134 innings of 2.55 ERA good for an ERA 41 percent lower than league average. His 2.44 FIP and 2.66 xFIP seemed to confirm his numbers were not simply a matter of sequencing or a small sample size wonder. This season, Carrasco's ERA is sitting at an ugly 4.84 but his xFIP is a healthy 2.49. His strikeout rate is up an additional strikeout per nine inning compared to last year and his walk rate is only nominally above where it was previously. Another victim of a bloated BABIP, Carrasco currently sits at .371.
The two youngsters, Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer both have moments of brilliance and moments of ugliness when they pitch. Each flamethrower is still quite young (Salazar is 25, Bauer is 24) and have yet to harness their raw potential.
Salazar has 48 strikeouts in 33 innings so far this season, and a fantastic xFIP of 2.03. He has given up a home run in each of his starts, and depending on the situation, these home runs can be minor inconveniences (a solo shot against Detroit) or a blast that completely undermines his performance. The 20 percent home run to fly ball rate will likely be halved by season end, so Salazar's 3.27 ERA should actually improve as the season progresses, though he has never tossed more than 134 major league innings in a season.
Trevor Bauer has struck out 34 batters in 34.1 innings en route to a 4.19 ERA and 4.21 xFIP. Bauer's peripheral numbers have been the most aligned with his earned run average and performance thus far in 2015 and inconsistency throughout games has been the issue. Bauer has only pitched past the sixth inning once and is walking over four guys per nine innings. Bauer is currently the fourth best starter on the Indians, and they would be able to absorb the growing pains if their top three were pitching to their abilities.
The Tribe's bullpen is in the in the middle of the pack in the American League in ERA, FIP and xFIP. While the bullpen has not been a major strength, it also has not been as detrimental as the Tigers (who, as mentioned, have a much better record than Cleveland). Bullpens come and bullpens go, and the biggest issues related to the pitching staff are under-performing their peripherals and a struggling back end of the rotation.
On the offensive side, the Indians are ninth in batting fWAR (3.5) and seventh in wRC+ with 103. They have performed as a mediocre team at the plate, but have not been truly terrible (like the Angels / Rangers / White Sox, who all have sub 90 wRC+).
Most different so far this season has been the disparity in talent among the starters. Everything that Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana and Michael Brantley are doing well is being mitigated significantly by Lonnie Chisenhall and Michael Bourn. Chisenhall and Bourn are third and fourth in plate appearances, yet each has been abysmal at the dish. Chisenhall currently has a .265 on base percentage and a wRC+ of 81. Though third base is a position of strength for many other American League teams, the Indians have a black hole.
Additionally, 32 year old Bourn has turned what should be a productive power outfield position and turned it into a .212/.299/.260 slash line and 65 wRC+. Bourn has a .050 isolated slugging, and in 118 plate appearances has only five extra base hits and has yet to hit a home run.
Shortstop has also been a position of need for Cleveland. As they wait for uber-prospect Francisco Lindor to takeover the starting role at the major league level, Jose Ramirez continues to wallow up the middle. Ramirez -0.4 fWAR and 30 wRC+ has been atrocious through 24 games and is entirely unsustainable for the Tribe to keep playing him. His defense has been average at best but he is as close to having the pitcher bat as you will find in the American League. Francisco Lindor is putting up a respectable though not overly impressive .256/.343/.359 slash line in AAA. It's hard to imagine Lindor performing any worse
The Indians are under-performing their true talent, but even in Mid-May, they may have put themselves in a hole where a playoff run will be difficult. Michael Bourn will likely to continue to get starts, and it is tough a huge boost when LIndor gets called up from AAA, despite the offensive issues at short.
At this stage in the season, this far behind, the Indians would have to win at a .550 clip the rest of the way (an 89-win pace from post-to-post) to get themselves to 83/84 wins. Considering all four wildcard teams last year had 88 or 89 wins, the past six weeks may have already sunk the Tribe.
Steven Martano is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score and a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano.