Over the past nine seasons, the Minnesota Twins have won the American League Central division six times. For that reason and nearly that reason alone—it does help to have Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, when both are healthy—many picked the Twins to win the AL Central again in 2011. Ron Gardenhire, while frustrating for many saber-slanted Twins fans, took the reins of the team in 2002 at the start of that nine-year run and has had the Midas touch for the duration of his tenure.
Along with the six division titles, the Twins have only once finished below .500 in those nine seasons, finishing just four games under and in third in 2007. And so, in March, the Twins were well on their way to an impressive seventh title in a decade. Then a really funny thing happened: They started playing the games on the dirt, clay and (sometimes artificial) grass-covered fields instead of on paper, as they always do come spring, and stuff got weird.
The AL Central, in 2011, is a wonderful example of why baseball fans love baseball, why spring is such a hopeful time— even for Royals and Pirates fans—and why Chicago Cubs fans keep on filling the Friendly Confines year after year, even after over 100 years of despair. Heck, it’s why people love every sport; anything is possible. Just ask the Cleveland Indians.
The Indians, almost unanimously chosen to be AL Central cellar dwellers, have been one of the best teams in baseball with a five-game lead on the Detroit Tigers and a positive 35-run differential to prove their legitimacy. Meanwhile, Minnesota is abysmal, sitting at 17-35 and sinking like a rock with a negative 90-run differential that’s 34 runs worse than the Houston Astros’ negative 56. So I’ll choose to focus on the 2011 Indians, who are the 2010 San Diego Padres and the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, a team that came out of nowhere.
I could focus on the Tigers, who are one game over .500, playing decently well and still very much in the race behind Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. Or the Royals, who are maybe a touch better than we expected, but are still very much waiting for the promising fruit of their farm to grow into something real and relevant (also, for their GM to start doing anything well that doesn’t merely relate to their farm and development). And, of course, I could drone on about the Chicago White Sox, discussing the latest blowup of their social-media frenzied manager, Ozzie Guillen.
But the only compelling stories in this division, the only real stories, are the Twins or the Indians, and most people prefer a feel-good story to one of doom and gloom, so that’s where I’ll head. Otherwise we might be focusing on less encouraging story lines, like Mauer’s bilateral leg weakness which has him currently out and limited to 38 uninspiring plate appearances so far this season—backup Rene Rivera, with an adjusted-OPS of 63, has done a monumentally better job of carrying the load than backups Drew Butera and Steve Holm whom have a minus eight and minus four OPS+ in 118 combined plate appearances. Or we’d dwell on how their main offseason acquisition, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, broke his leg before the home opener, or how, no-hitter notwithstanding, Francisco Liriano had been summarily disappointing before heading to the DL. Stuff like that.
Where did they come from?
That’s probably what a lot of people are asking. The Indians are in first place, performing as one of baseball’s best teams so far. Where did they come from? Well, that holds true on an individual basis for some of their players, too. One such player is shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. Coming into 2011, he had a career OPS+ of 100 with a line of .284/.347/.394 (average/on-base percentage/slugging). That’s not a bad line for a middle infielder, but it’s not particularly impressive. Well, Cabrera is hitting .302/.360/.532 so far in 2011, good for a .396 weighted on-base average (wOBA). The main difference in his game is the power, as he’s slugging nearly 150 points above his career average and leads the Tribe with 10 home runs.
It’s probably safe to assume he’ll cool down some through the course of the season, but then you’d expect that regression to be offset some by key performers that aren’t quite living up to their potential. Shin-Soo Choo is a fantastic player whose line over the past two seasons was a combined .300/.397/.486 for an OPS+ of 140, averaging 34 doubles, 21 home runs and 22 stolen bags. So you might expect him to improve upon his .250/.335/.380 line and .320 wOBA the rest of the way. Perhaps he will after he puts his DUI a bit further in his rear-view mirror.
Their phenom catcher, Carlos Santana, seems another safe bet to heat up. He currently has a .323 wOBA but perhaps luck hasn’t been too kind to him. His average on balls in play (BABiP) sits at .227 while his walk rate is fantastic at 17.6 percent. It seems probable he’ll start squaring up more balls eventually and providing additional value offensively, above what his tremendous ability to get on base is providing now.
At the beginning of the season, I asked: Can Grady Sizemore save Cleveland? I think we’ve found that he can’t. At least not single- handedly. That being said, Sizemore had been a key contributor in the Indians’ lineup before heading to the DL with another knee injury. In 96 plate appearances, Sizemore was showing excellent power with six home runs and a .556 slugging percentage. Unfortunately, his OBP was poor at .292 with a well below-average walk rate of 4.2 percent. He’ll need to rectify that to get anywhere near where he was a few seasons ago—besides the obvious issue of staying on the field. And his seven strikeouts in 12 plate appearance since coming off the disabled isn’t exactly inspiring confidence that he’s totally healthy.
Questions remain about Travis Hafner, too. He was an offensive force from 2004-2006. He hadn’t been since, but through 127 plate appearances in 2011, he was the Pronk of old with a .410 wOBA—or maybe he was just being artificially elevated with a .415 BABiP despite similar peripherals to the few seasons previous. In any case, everyone will have to wait until his oblique injury is healed to see if he can keep it up.
Smoke and mirrors?
There’s no question the Indians have surprised offensively. But for every guy swinging over his head, it seems there’s a guy playing beneath his potential, too. So if I had to choose the main question about this team going forward, it’d be about the Indians’ arms.
Pitching-wise, the Indians have had a mix of some good and some bad. In the rotation, Justin Masterson has been very effective with a sinker sinking to the tune of a 55.7 groundball rate. He’s given up only three home runs, his ERA is at 3.07 and his field-independent pitching (FIP) is 3.36. (That’s good for a 123 ERA+.) Josh Tomlin has been good, too, with a 2.74 ERA and 137 ERA+. But one has to wonder if he can keep it up with a 4.40 FIP, 4.66 strikeouts per nine (K/9) and 37.9 percent grounder rate. You simply cannot ignore that his BABiP is .197. Then again, you can’t deny he’s doing a lot right with a .898 WHIP.
On the other side of the coin, Fausto Carmona has struggled with a 4.73 ERA and 4.05 FIP. That doesn’t sound too bad, but when you consider the average ERA in the AL is just 3.86 this season, you can see he hasn’t been fully on his game. He’s given up too many home runs, about one per every nine innings. Really, though, the problem is that his strand rate is terrible. He’s left only about 60 percent of those hitters who have reached against him on base, 10 percent worse than his career rate. He’d be in much better shape if he could just improve that with a solid groundball rate of 59 percent, especially if he continues to walk batters at a career-low rate of 2.49 per nine.
Perhaps where Cleveland has been most impressive is out of the bullpen. The relievers who have made 15 or more appearances for the Indians are Chris Perez, Tony Sipp, Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Joe Smith and Chad Durbin; their ERA+s read as follows: 144, 320, 269, 376, 204 and 78, with only Durbin pitching poorly to this point. But can they keep it up?
As good as they’ve been, the way they’ve done it has been odd. Most relievers survive by missing bats, but this bunch hasn’t. Only Pestano has an excellent whiff rate with a 10.42, while the others have been far less impressive. For example, closer Chris Perez has a strikeout rate of just 5.31 with an identical walk rate. That’s not good, and you have to wonder how long his ERA will hover around his current average of 2.66, rather than heading toward his 3.50 FIP, or higher.
And if you thought their ERAs and FIPs had large deltas, then you might take a peak at their xFIPs. Rafael Perez, Smith and Chris Perez have given up exactly zero home runs combined in over 50 innings, and Pestano and Sipp have home run per nine rates under 0.50. A skeptical onlooker has to wonder how long they can keep the ball in the park while striking out so few hitters.
There’s plenty of baseball to be played
It’s difficult to say for how long the Indians will keep it up. There’s little doubt they have a good team. But are they this good? For what it’s worth, they’ve already played the Royals nine times and have gone 7-2 in those contests, during which they have a run differential of plus 42. Take those games away, and they’re 24-18 with a negative run differential. What’s that mean, then? The truth is, I don’t know. You could probably pick apart any team using a similar method, even the ’27 Yankees. (Well, maybe not the ’27 Yankees.)
Perhaps the best thing to take away from this is that the Indians look fantastic so far, but there’s an awful lot of baseball to go. That, and the Minnesota Twins are highly unlikely to give them much trouble as the Indians do everything possible to fight off the Tigers and White Sox for the division crown.
It stands to be a fun summer in Cleveland, which is something in and of itself. I or anyone else could spend a lot of time trying to figure out why the Indians’ run might not last, but it might be a lot more fun to sit back, relax, and see how it all plays out… on the field. They’re hoping they won’t suffer the same fate that the surprising Padres did a year ago, ultimately suffering a terrible losing streak and losing the division.