Remember when we were all laughing at the Indians being on the cover of Sports Illustrated? The Indians promptly fell flat on their faces to begin the year and we kinda forgot about them for awhile as we battled the Tigers for the division lead, then watched in amazement as the Twins somehow took over first place.
Well the Indians have bounced back from a 13-24 start to win ten of their last thirteen. They have clawed their way back to respectability at 24-26, seven games out of first place. Fangraphs actually projects the Indians to have the best record in the league the rest of the season, and still have them with a 50% chance to make the playoffs. They're not quite back in the race, but they're not completely out of it either.
Cleveland's offense really picked up in the month of May, and overall they have scored the fifth-most runs in the league with 4.5 runs per game, compared to 4.67 runs per game from the Royals. The Indians are second in the league in on-base percentage at .331 and lead the league in walks. While they are second in the league in doubles, they are just ninth in home runs. Second baseman Jason Kipnis has been on a tear lately, hitting .429/.511/.706 in the month of May. They have also gotten catcher Yan Gomes and outfielder Nick Swisher back from injuries recently, but both have struggled to hit much this year.
Cleveland's Achilles' heel is still their defense, and they rank as the third-worst defensive team in baseball according to Fangraphs. Carlos Santana in particular, has been poor at first base with -6 Defensive Runs Saved, so the team has him serve as designated hitter frequently with Brandon Moss manning first base. Michael Brantley has begun shifting over to centerfield at times to get more offense in the lineup with Moss and Ryan Raburn manning the outfield corners, giving the Indians a very poor defensive outfield.
The Indians overall ERA is 4.02, fifth-worst in the league, but their starters lead the league in FIP and they blow away the rest of baseball in strikeouts-per-nine innings at 10.3. Carlos Carrasco's 4.24 ERA may not be impressive, but he's been hurt by a low left-on-base rate and a high BABIP with runners on base. Carrasco has done well with his changeup, which you can see here striking out Alex Gordon. Trevor Bauer is finally reaching his potential with a solid start to the year, but the Royals have handled him well in four career starts with 11 walks to just 11 strikeouts while Bauer has posted a 4.22 ERA. The Royals have already defeated defending Cy Young winner Corey Kluber twice this year, but since he last faced the Royals he has been on a tear, striking out 50 hitters in four starts with a 1.41 ERA. He currently leads the league in strikeouts with a fastball that averages 93 mph.
Indians relievers have the fourth-best strikeouts-per-nine innings, but also the fourth-most walks. Closer Cody Allen got off to a rough start, but settled down with a 2.35 ERA in May, converting all seven of his save opportunities. Former starting pitcher Zack McAllister has settled down into a setup role for the Indians, and they have gotten use out of released reliever Ryan Webb.
The Indians are coming into this series hot, and a successful series against the Royals could give them even more momentum to get back into this race. The Royals have taken four out of six from the Indians so far this year, but they'll need another strong series to keep the Indians at arm's length.