Free Time to Recover from Injuries
A clear beneficiary of the four month hiatus is 40% of the starting rotation. Mike Clevinger underwent minor knee surgery in February and was given a timetable of six to eight weeks before returning to baseball activities. This would likely have impacted his readiness for the start of the season. Then, just over two weeks later, Carlos Carrasco, who has had some rotten news the past eight months with injuries, and ill-health, had his preseason shelved after revealing elbow soreness following a Spring start on March 3 against the Angels. At the time, Francona said it would be a stretch to expect Cookie to be ready for the original start date of the regular season. Disaster!
But now it is July 28th and not a single regular season game has been missed by either player due to those injuries. Clevinger is 22 weeks removed from the operating table and Carrasco is fully recovered from his elbow discomfort, as the MRI in March showed only minor inflammation and no structural damage. This is a significant boon to the franchise. The Indians did not have to struggle to make up the innings left on the field due to Cookie and Clev’s injuries by trotting out young, inexperienced hurlers. In their first starts in 2020 they combined to hurl thirteen innings, stikeout sixteen batters and allowing just one walk and four earned runs. Safe to say they have put those injuries behind them.
Aces in the Hole
Any road back to playoff contention has to be paved by the starting rotation. It is the Tribe’s undeniable strength. Sustained injuries, especially in a season of a mere 60 games, will open up giant pot holes in Cleveland’s season so big that the team could install a hot tub. Therefore, beginning the campaign with a fully stocked and healthy rotation puts Cleveland in prime position to compete. The first three games have given Tribe fans a delicious appetizer for things to come. Bieber, Clevinger & Carrasco have combined for nineteen innings pitched and 30 strikeouts, which is obscene.
Last season Clevinger was on Cy Young award-winning pace, but injuries plagued his 2019 campaign. He finished with a 2.71 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 126 innings, but would only make 21 starts. Shane Bieber, on the other hand, managed to cruise through his first full season with a 3.28 ERA, 259 strikeouts in 214 innings over 33 starts. Finishing fourth in Cy Young voting, he has already picked up where he left off last season with a dominating display on Opening Day. Both pitchers figure to be among the league’s best during this unique season.
There are also high expectations for Carrasco returning to his previous Cy Young calibre, so long as his injury woes are behind him. Between 2014 and 2018, Cookie avergaed 171 Innings Pitched, a 3.31 ERA and 192 strikeouts. At age 32, he is still solidly in his prime years and fans should see Sunday’s outing as a precursor to a stellar season.
With three Cy Young-calibre starters anchoring a rotation that will not have to undergo the vagaries of a 162-game season, the Indians are in an enviable position. The impressive emergence of Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale last season to round out 2020’s starting five is an added luxury that most teams just do not possess.
Warm Weather; Hot Bats
As for the Indians’ lineup, not much has changed from the 2019 campaign as the Indians front office had a very quiet offseason. However, there is reason to believe Cesar Hernandez is a noticeable upgrade over the lacklustre production that Jason Kipnis had been posting since 2016. The new man at second base has a career slash line of .277 AVG / .352 OBP / .733 OPS compared to Kipnis’s .261 / .333 / .811. Those numbers get much worse for Kipnis when averaged over just the previous three seasons. Hernandez had a strong opening series against the Kansas City Royals both defensively and with the bat as the Tribe’s table-setter.
Aside from the overdue change at second base everything else largely remains the same outside of a couple of tweaks in the outfield with the acquisitions of DeLino DeShields – currently out due to Covid-19 diagnosis – and Domingo Santana. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, this was an offense last year that helped secure 93 wins in 2019.
Where the real opportunity presents itself is in the hitters taking their first swings at the plate in July and not the bitingly cold nights of late March/April. The ruts the offense have been mired in over the last few seasons are well documented.
Quality pitching was often wasted as position players walked up to the batter box seemingly armed with wet newspapers. But once the season rolled into a balmy June and July, the Indians would hit their stride turning weak ground balls into line drives. The inimitable Tom Hamilton would finally have reason to rouse the fans into a frenzy with his euphoric commentary.
Just how bad have the Indians been in April and May? In 2019, the team hit twelve points higher after the All-Star Game while raising both their OBP and OPS. The last time the team had better first half splits versus second half was the 2014 season. However, when just looking at the first two months of the season, where the Indians hitters have been especially inept, the gulf in performance between April and May and the other fourth months is stark.
2019 Team slash lines for April & May
2019 Team slash lines for June, July, August & September
One would have to go all the way back to the 2013 season to see the team turn in their worst batting performance for a calendar month that wasn’t April or May. In a 60-game season another typically sluggish start with the bat from the Tribe will quickly extinguish all hopes for a winning season. It took until just game three to see what the offense can do when the weather is warm. In the rubber match against the Royals, the Tribe recorded thirteen hits to go with nine runs scored and went 4-9 w/RISP.
The later start gives opportunity to buck the trend of early-season hitting funks. Cold north-east Ohio months are removed from the baseball calendar. Thus, we can expect a stonger showing at the plate to back up a pitching staff that traditionally starts off in scintillating form. And with only 60 games in which to earn a playoff berth, a strong start is a must to rise above the competition.
Francona’s Indians have owned Major League Baseball, post-All Star Break, for the past four seasons with their second half runs and heroics, such as their record-breaking 22-game win streak. But they cannot rely on that kind of magic to see them home in this bizarrest of seasons. Luckily, with everything in its right place for the Indians to succeed, they won’t have to.