Remember all those glorious feelings we had at the start of spring training? Everything was a reason for optimism. The Dolans had finally clipped the padlocks off their bank account. GM Chris Antonetti had stepped up his game and become a precision head hunter, buffing up his résumé with the Choo-Bauer trade and some major free-agent signings. Our desperate longing for a big names in Cleveland had finally arrived in the form of Terry Francona, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. I, for one, was excited to the point where I had lost all skepticism and was willing to believe in breakout years for Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, and even Ubaldo Jimenez.
It’s taken nearly 20 percent of the season, but the current 13-3 stretch has given me reason to believe that the 2013 Indians are capable of making the playoffs. It’s possible that we can even begin to revisit the golden days of the 90’s that led to 455 consecutive sellout crowds. But before I get even further ahead of myself, it’s time to take a look at what needs to happen for this success to continue.
There are a number of reasons why the Tribe is kicking butt right now, and those things need to keep happening in order for them to stay hot. Additionally, there are a number of things that need to improve for them to ensure a place ahead of the Tigers in the standings. Here’s an analysis of the upkeeps and the tweaks.
1. The Long Ball
Perhaps the most awesome improvement for the Tribe this year is their power. Shockingly, they are currently second in the American League with a whopping 49 home runs, a .465 slugging percentage, and a .800 OPS. The ability to put runs on the board with one swing of the bat has been a huge part of them getting at least 6 runs on the board in many of their most recent wins. With nearly a quarter of the Tribe’s homers, Mark Reynolds is making his contract look like the best deal in baseball right now. If the Indians keep this up, their torrid offense is likely to continue its pace.
2. Success from the Starting Rotation
The biggest surprise during this winning stretch has been the starting pitching. Each starter has logged at least 5 innings, except for Corey Kluber. Ubaldo Jimenez has shown much more of his Jekyll side lately as opposed to the Hyde we saw in his three outings prior to the Indians hot streak. If Ubaldo continues his transformation process, maybe we can finally see the ace we were supposed to get from the Rockies 2 years ago. Fun fact, if he had turned half of his losses into wins last year, the Indians would have only been 5 games below the .500 mark. Success from Ubaldo, and the rest of the rotation, must continue at this pace.
The Wahoos have played very close to error-free baseball over their current stretch. Now perfection can’t last forever (as we learned with Masterson’s 19 inning scoreless streak), but we can hope that the defense will remain solid enough to keep unnecessary runs off the wrong side of the board. It’s a good sign that the outfield had only committed one error so far this season. But it needs to stay this way if this team has plans on staying competitive.
4. Hitting with Clutch Situations
This was a big problem for the Tribe early in the season, but during this stretch they have hit well over .300 with runners in scoring position, and are batting above .350 with runners on base and 2 outs. It appears that the veteran leadership acquired this offseason has helped take the pressure off some of the younger guys, just as Tito had hoped. Even role players such as Ryan Raburn and Jason Giambi have gotten into the act. This level of clutch hitting is the key to putting up crooked numbers when baseballs aren’t leaving the park.
5. Production from the Bench Players
During the Tribe’s hot stretch, they have gotten incredible performances from Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn, and even solid showings from Yan Gomes. Mike Aviles broke a short losing skid for the Indians with a 5 RBI performance against Kansas City, his former team. Ryan Raburn was hitting .560 on week going into last Monday’s game with four home runs, including a 12-for-14 stretch, which led to him being named the American League Player of the Week that week. The bench players have really stepped it up to make us forget about the “longer than we thought it would be” absence of Michael Bourn and, for a shorter time, Nick Swisher. If they can do this for the rest of the season, injuries will be less likely to have a devastating effect on the team, as they have in the past two years.
1. Production from Jason Giambi
The main reasons for bringing Jason Giambi onto the team were his veteran leadership ability and his drive. He has showed us both so far this season (anyone remember his dive into first base against the Phillies?), but has continued to flirt with the Mendoza line. A particularly disturbing thing happened in last Monday’s game when the A’s intentionally walked Carlos Santana to load the bases in order to get to Giambi. Now we don’t ask Giambi to play the field anymore, but we do need to get some intimidating left-handed power out of him, especially in late-game pinch hit situations. I personally am one of Giambi’s biggest fans. I admire his work ethic and the stories I hear about him in the clubhouse. But if we’re giving him a roster spot and only asking him to hit, he needs to be hitting at least .250 with a better slugging number. Yes, he made the A’s regret walking him by driving in two runs with a single to center, but it’d be great if he were hitting more consistently.
I’m not talking about swings. Well, actually I am, but probably not in the way you’re thinking. The Indians have hit a multitude of home runs during their recent tear, but almost all of them have come with either nobody on base or just a single runner. Now it seems silly to complain about something like this when they’re hitting plenty of home runs, and me choosing to pick on something this lame is a real testament to how few weaknesses the Indians actually have right now, but there’s something to this. Think about how many times the Tribe has had multiple runners on base lately. And if you can’t remember or haven’t been watching, let me tell you that it’s happened a good number of times. It’s great that they’re punishing the baseball, but if we saw them do more frequently with two or three runners on base, the number on our side of the scoreboard would go up a lot more quickly.
3. Comeback from Justin Masterson
Masty was unstoppable early in the season. He won his first four starts while compiling a 0.41 ERA over his first three, which included a scoreless streak of 19 innings. He also had a very good outing against the White Sox recently, in which he gave up only two runs over seven innings. However, in his other three starts, he’s given up at least four runs and driven his ERA up to 3.64. During those showings he allowed nearly a run per inning. Fortunately, it appears as if that was a minor slump, especially when you consider how well Masterson pitched against the Yankees on Monday. If he can keep that up, and he must, the Indians can go a long way.
4. Plate Discipline
We all knew that plate discipline was going to be an issue this year for the Indians. The good news is that hasn’t been as bad as we all thought it would be. Mark Reynolds has cut down his strikeout rate significantly, and Drew Stubbs has a much better batting average now than in recent years. But many Indians players, particularly the recently demoted Lonnie Chisenhall, continue to be impatient at the plate. As of tight now, only the Astros, Dodgers, and Angels have been as poor at avoiding strikeouts and working walks. Not a good category to be stuck in. If the Tribe can improve their patience in the batter’s box, they’ll see a chunk of those strikeouts turn into walks. And turning an out into a baserunner could really be an advantage with the Tribe’s home run power.
5. Treat Every Pitcher Like a Cy Young Award Winner
This is kind of a joke, but there’s a moral behind it. The Indians have faced 6 winners of the Cy Young award so far this year. They have handed humiliating losses to four of them. Jake Peavy managed to stump the team and Justin Verlander had somewhat solid start, but David Price and Roy Halladay were both charged with 8 runs, Cliff Lee was tagged for 5, and R.A. Dickey watched the Tribe cross the plate 4 times on opening day. The Wahoos have done some damage to reigning Cy Young champions, and if they can do that to pitchers like Price and Dickey, think about what would happen if they bring that level of game when they face pitchers like Mike Pelfrey in the future.
The Indians have a chance to do some great things this year. Lately, they’ve had just about everything in the right place. But it needs to continue, especially once we start facing teams like the Tigers and the Rangers. With a couple of small tweaks, Cleveland baseball has the potential to run away with our first title in 65 years.