The Indians were the sexy preseason pick before the season to not only win the Central Division, but the pennant and possibly even their first World Championship since Harry Truman was President. Preseason publicity doesn't win games though, and the Indians have stumbled out of the gate badly, dropping 11 of their first 17 games to sit in the Central Division cellar. Worse yet, most of those games have been against Central Division opponents, with Cleveland dropping five of six to the rival Tigers.
I asked Jason Lukehart, editor of Lets Go Tribe, why the Indians have gotten off to such a slow start.
The Tribe offense has been anemic, ranking in the AL's bottom five for runs per game, OBP, and wRC+. The defense has looked better than it did last year, but that's not saying much, and they've still been below average. The bullpen has had multiple meltdowns already. The starting pitching has largely been pretty great (including an MLB-best 11.4 strikeouts per 9 innings), but they've been snakebitten on balls in play, with a ridiculous BABIP against of .377, which is 47 points higher than any other team. Yan Gomes had his knee injured on a sloppy slide by Detroit's Rajai Davis and is out until sometime around Memorial Day, Michael Brantley has missed some time with a sore back, and Carlos Carrasco has struck in the face by a line drive.
Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?
The Indians came into this season hanging their hat on a lineup that featured three hitters who hit 20+ home runs last season, but they are just tenth in home runs with last year's All-Star outfielder Michael Brantley yet to hit a home run. The lineup is lefty-heavy and have struggled against southpaws, hitting just .212/.288/.297 with two home runs this season against lefties. In addition to missing last year's Silver Slugger-winning catcher Yan Gomes, the Indians are without outfielder Nick Swisher, out with knee injuries. Swisher may return some time this week, although the team may not be in a hurry to see him come back after a disastrous season last year.
Note: 2014 statistics
Manager Terry Francona has begun tinkering with the lineup recently to try to jump-start the lineup. Michael Bourn was recently demoted from the leadoff spot to the ninth spot in the order after hitting just .169 over his first 16 games. Shortstop Mike Aviles and designated hitter Ryan Raburn could begin to see more starting time against left-handed pitchers. The Indians are hitting just .234 as a team, and Michael Brantley (.341) and David Murphy (.278) are the only regulars hitting over .250 this season.
The Indians as a team, are tremendous at missing bats. They led the league in strikeouts last season, and lead in strikeouts per nine innings by a healthy margin this season. They are led by last year's Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber, who will start the opener. Kluber gave up just four runs in four starts against the Royals last year with 36 strikeouts in 33.1 innings, but the Indians went just 2-2 in those starts, losing one game because of this play.
I never get tired of that.
The Indians surprised many by not bringing starter Danny Salazar north at the end of spring training, but he was quickly promoted and has struck out 21 in his first two starts back. Trevor Bauer has gotten off to a fantastic start, giving up just eight hits and two runs in his first three starts, with 26 strikeouts and a 0.95 ERA.
Note: 2014 statistics
Closer Cody Allen was fantastic last season with a 2.07 ERA and 24 saves in 28 opportunities, but has struggled this year with a pair of four-run outings already. The Indians pen is sixth in the league in ERA and fourth in strikeouts per nine innings. Former Twins reliever Anthony Swarzak is off to a good start with 10 strikeouts per nine innings, and Nick Hagadone has been effective from the left side.
Note the early start times for the games - the Indians are experimenting with earlier game times this year to boost attendance. The Royals took just 9 of 19 games from the Indians a year ago. The Indians are struggling, so now would be a good time to take advantage of a team that is down and get some wins against a division rival.