To invoke the legendary Dr. Seuss, “the three words that best describe [the Indians’ offense] are as follows, and I quote ‘Stink, stank, stunk!'” After an abysmal showing in Minnesota where the Tribe managed eight runs and sixteen hits over four games, the Indians found themselves 5-5 with a 2.5 game deficit behind the AL Central-leading Twins. Unfortunately for Tribe fans, the early season struggles from previous years have followed the Indians into the shortened 2020 season. Consequently, the Tribe will not have the cushion of a long season to make up for lost ground earlier in the campaign. Fortunately, the team at least pounded the Cincinnati Reds recently for thirteen runs in a single game. However, the overall body of work has been lackluster.
Prior to the series with the Reds, the offense had averaged an anemic 2.6 runs per game. They were batting .193 with an OBP of .285 and slugging .278, good for an OPS of .563. They were last in the AL in slugging and OPS and second-to-last in batting average. To top it all off, the Tribe is still last in runs per game in the majors. These numbers are simply terrible all-around. Normally, a ten-game stretch is nothing to get too worried or excited about in baseball. The normal 162-game marathon allows for a longer view regarding these issues. However, as has been stated ad nauseam, this is not a typical season. A ten-game stretch now represents nearly 17% of the season.
To complicate matters further, the Tribe has developed a reputation for getting off to slow starts. Looking at the numbers for March/April over the past couple of seasons reveals a worrying trend. The chart below shows the wide gap between the Indians’ bats in April versus the entire season.
March/April Numbers vs. End-0f-Year Numbers [in parentheses]
|2019||3.89 (4.75)||.215 (.250)||.301 (.323)||.340 (.432)||.641 (.756)|
|2018||3.78 (5.05)||.227 (.259)||.297 (.332)||.391 (.434)||.688 (.766)|
As the chart shows, the Indians are substantially worse in the first month of the season. Over the last two years, the Tribe have played 28 and 27 games in March/April, respectively. Seeing as this would represent nearly 50% of the regular season, a similar stretch would be devastating to Cleveland’s playoff chances.
The common refrain behind these sluggish starts has been the cold weather. Because the abbreviated season started at the end of July, this would not explain their slow start this year. This leads one to begin to wonder about the team’s approach to hitting, which means questioning hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo.
While it is true that it is typically colder in Cleveland in March and April, this by itself does not absolve the Tribe of their early-season struggles. Knowing the likely weather in early spring, the Tribe could change its approach during the colder games. In fact, this is something that needs to be considered if they are going to have late October/early November success. Again, the question is not about the weather’s impact as an explanation for these struggles, but rather, the ability to change approaches.
Early on, the fans are not seeing the Tribe make in-game adjustments. A glaring problem for the Indians this season has been too many at-bats that end in an out after only one or two pitches. Twice this season, the Tribe hitters have made nine outs in this manner. With teams using more and more pitchers, it is vital to get a quick understanding of what the pitcher is throwing, including how he is sequencing his pitches. This requires seeing more pitches.
So far, opposing teams are not overpowering the Tribe with fastballs. The Indians are seeing a steady stream of changeups and breaking balls. Sadly, Cleveland has not made the needed adjustments. Per Zach Meisel of The Athletic,
In 85 pitches, [Lucas Golito] tossed 41 fastballs and 40 change-ups, a fairly basic, two-pitch approach that the Indians never solved. The change-up caused ten whiffs on nineteen swings, plus five foul balls and four weakly hit balls in play.
It’s not as though the Indians faced a parade of hard throwers in Minnesota. Randy Dobnak’s hard stuff topped out at 92 mph. He offered Tribe hitters a steady diet of sinkers, curveballs and change-ups. Tyler Clippard threw twenty pitches, none of which reached 90 mph. Tyler Duffey threw ten sliders in fourteen pitches. Sergio Romo tossed twelve sliders in nineteen pitches, and he topped out at 85.2 mph.
Of his 83 pitches against the Tribe, Kenta Maeda threw 33 sliders, 24 change-ups and only seventeen fastballs. Clippard served as the Twins’ opener on Sunday, and he didn’t throw a pitch harder than 88.0 mph. Devin Smeltzer relied on a fastball/change-up combination and topped out at 88.8 mph. Matt Wisler threw seventeen sliders in 22 pitches. Romo shut the door with a fifteen-pitch ninth that included ten sliders and five change-ups, none of which eclipsed 80 mph.
It appears teams have found a formula for effectively quieting the Tribe’s bats. Now it is time to make adjustments before it is too late to contend for a spot in the expanded postseason. Their series against the Reds offers some degree of hope that this may happen.