Nick Swisher's performance both at the plate and in the field epitomize the Tribe's early season woes. David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Indians Early Season Woes

The Indians Are What Their Record Says They Are

In football, the classic trope is “you are what your record says you are”, and if Bill Parcells was the manager of the Cleveland Indians, he would say the same thing about his team. And he would be right.

So far this season, the Indians have an 11-17 record through 28 games, which is in line with their -20 run differential and Pythagorean expectation. This isn’t exactly shocking. The hitting has been non-existent, the starting pitching has vacillated between excellent and terrible, and the fielding has been downright horrendous. The only unit that has met expectations so far has been the bullpen.

Sure, there may be reasons for optimism. Guys off to slow starts like Swisher and Santana won’t be this bad all season (it is nice to see Santana hit a couple long balls the last two games). The pitching staff is currently sporting a 3.40 FIP, which would have ranked third in baseball in 2013 and again underscores how terrible the defense has been. The team still has Francisco Lindor waiting down on the farm in case management finally grows tired of Asdrubal Cabrera, and Trevor Bauer could get the call to the majors at any time now that Carlos Carrasco has been moved to the bullpen

But the fact still remains: the Indians are what their record says they are.

Now, an 11-17 stretch doesn’t preclude a team from making the playoffs. As Grantland’s Jonah Keri points out, 25 percent of teams below .500 after 25 games go on to make the playoffs. This isn’t like the Arizona Diamondbacks starting out 8-22 despite their gritty grittiness. The Indians are nowhere near bad enough to consider this a lost season this early on.

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Apr 9, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera (13) reacts after being the final out against the San Diego Padres at Progressive Field. The Padres won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

But if you subscribe to the idea that it will take around 90 wins to make the playoffs, the Indians will have to go 79-55, a .590 winning percentage, the rest of the way to have a shot. It’s certainly doable, but only four teams reached that threshold in 2013 (the Indians posted a .568 winning percentage), so you have to be a pretty good ballclub to reach that mark over even five months. Are the Indians that good?

On the surface, this team isn’t that much different from the one that won 92 games in 2013 with a similar Pythagorean W-L record. Yes, they lost 340.2 innings from last year’s rotation*, but a full season of Danny Salazar was supposed to offset some of that loss. The lineup was supposed to be better with another year of experience under the belts of the younger guys and the addition of David Murphy instead of Drew Stubbs in right field. Defensively, moving Yan Gomes behind the plate was supposed to save the team oodles and oodles of runs ($), hopefully enough to make up for the fact that the Indians were one of the worst defensive teams in all of baseball in 2013.

*Which is NOT to say Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir would have matched that production this season. But the innings still need to be replaced.

But so far none of that has happened. Salazar still looks electric at times, but right now he’s a two-pitch pitcher, as his slider is one of the worst offerings in baseball, checking it at -4.1 wSL (slider runs above, or in Salazar’s case below, average). He’s not locating the fastball well this season (Sunday’s start notwithstanding), which means he’s falling behind in counts, which means hitters can eliminate the split-change and sit on the fastball. It’s difficult enough to get by as a starter with only two pitches. It’s impossible to do it with just one*.

*I’ll go on record as saying I’m not worried about Salazar’s velocity, especially as it pertains to an injury. He’s still sitting around 94 MPH with the fastball, which is plenty of velocity to get MLB hitters out, and I’m guessing if he were really injured the velocity would be even lower. It’s a command issue, not a velocity issue.

Ultimately this lineup should hit enough to be competitive, but the defense is clearly the big concern right now. This FanGraphs article says it all. The Indians are just flat-out giving away outs right now, and it’s frustrating to watch Nick Swisher boot a grounder rolling at him at the same speed as a Spencer Hawes dribble-drive. There’s not a team in baseball that can afford to give away outs and runs at the rate the Indians have thus far.

Baseball is a game predicated on sample size, and along with that comes patience. But right now, the Indians are a team with three-fifths of a starting rotation, a lineup with a 95 OPS+, a defense that couldn’t catch an STI at BGSU, and they may have just lost their best player for four to six weeks. It may be early, but every time the Indians lose the hole gets that much deeper.

Is it time to panic? Not quite yet. But so far, the Indians are exactly what their record says they are.

Tags: Carlos Santana Cleveland Indians Danny Salazar David Murphy Nick Swisher Yan Gomes

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