Fresh off a volley of home runs that helped propel the club to a blowout 11-3 victory of the Detroit Tigers, the Indians now sit above .500 (4-3 record) and have sewn together amodest three-game win streak. The winning formula has combined a heavy does of incredible starting pitching, with solid innings pitched in relief, and capped off by the long ball. It’s a fun recipe for fans at Progressive Field who love a good flurry of fireworks. And a win, of course. The growing optimism is palpable on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
With just four percent of the Indians’ 2021 season in the books, it might seem foolhardy to try and extrapolate any season forecasts from the tiny sample of data available. However, there are some early trends emerging that look sustainable over the course of a full 162 games. As always, it starts with the pitching effort. The franchise has enjoyed a near decade and a half of great pitching that has kept the ball club a perennial contender. That looks set to continue if the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and the first seven games of the 2021 campaign, are anything to go by. Cleveland starters recorded more starts of 7+ innings, while allowing three runs or fewer, than any other team in baseball (45). The pitching, as a whole, allowed the fewest runs in baseball last season on their way to leading the team to a wildcard berth. That outstanding performance hasn’t waned. In 2021, as it currently stands, Cleveland has allowed the fewest runs in baseball (20), and has logged six quality starts out of seven. Expect this staff to be among the top staffs in baseball come season’s end.
The incredible run of pitching in Cleveland is a testament to the best front office, and scouting staff, in baseball. The club has drafted at a high rate of success for several years, while the Antonetti and has team have pulled off many an astute trade. This has been especially true at the starting pitcher position: three-fifths of the current rotation – Bieber, Civale and Plesac – were all selected in the same draft class (2016). All three have had stellar starts to their major league careers. Cleveland has also had three Cy Young wins in the last seven seasons (and five over the last 14). What’s more is that the crop of talent currently in the rotation will continue to pay dividends and provide a rock solid base for success, as none of the core pitching talent are close to free agency.
The other promising trend has been with the bats. A lot had been made in the offseason, and throughout spring training, of the Tribe’s dearth of quality, proven major league hitting. There appeared to be holes up and down the lineup outside of Jose Ramirez, Eddie Rosario and Cesar Hernandez, who have all had sustained success in the big leagues. Franmil Reyes was hovering on the cusp of that ‘proven major league hitter’ label, but was still only riding on the tails of one full season in his career; a season he launched 37 bombs. Thankfully, that 2019 campaign does not look like a fluke. Reyes already has four home runs this season and owns a 1.099OPS. Again, a small sample, but promising nonethless. The Indians are still around the bottom third in baseball in runs scored, but they’re crossing enough bodies past home plate, and stopping opponents doing the same, to win games.
But among the remaining position players, beyond Reyes, JRam, Hernandez and Rosario, the shortcomings are already on display. Catcher, Roberto Hernandez, has gotten off to a decent start – batting .267 with two home runs – but elsewhere things look dire. Jake Bauers is making the the coaches and front office look foolish for favouring him with a spot on the club over a talented young gun, in Bobby Bradley, who had an impressive spring. Luplow was looking awful as a leadoff man until he did wonders for his confidence with a five RBI night on Saturday, that will hopefully give him something to build on. But don’t hold your breath.
The plus side is that a lot of the underperformers are young guys with some promise. Amed Rosario and Andres Gimenez came over in the Lindor-Carrasco trade, and Josh Naylor is a young outfielder the Indians acquired from the Padres. With these considerations in mind, I at least expect Cleveland to be better than the pathetic showing the hitters put up in 2020. Even if they do, now, have a Francisco Lindor-shaped hole. One concern, early, to watch out for is how reliant the Indians have been on scoring via the long ball. 75% (24 of 32 total runs) have been score via the home run. That number shoots up to 27 (84%) when you acknowledge that Luplow was robbed of a second home run last night – which was a hair over the yellow line. The Indians will have to learn to play some small ball and string hits together to put up a rally, and not rely so heavily on the long bacll, if they want to avoid excruciatingly narrow 1-0, 2-1 style losses.
But for now, let’s focus on the positives: the pitching looks, from the rotation to the late-inning trio of Clase, Wittgren and Karinchak, look to set to be among the best in the game, once again. If that holds – and all evidence points to the fact it should – then the Indians are always in it with a chance to win game son any given day. And with the power they have shown with the sticks, they should be able to back up enough solid pitching efforts with a win, in order keep the team in contention for a playoff berth through September.