The Indians were a sexy pre-season pick to win the pennant, but Sports Illustrated jinxed them by featuring them on the cover and the club has never recovered. They stumbled out of the gate with a 7-14 April record and found themselves nine games out of first place by mid-May. Here in September, the Indians are finally playing like a team capable of contending, clawing their way to the periphery of the Wild Card race, but it is likely too little too late. The team has been hot lately, winning 11 of their last 16 and they are 20-11 since August 7. However they still sit under .500 at 70-71, 4.5 games back in the Wild Card hunt.
The Indians better play in the second half may be largely attributed to improved defense. The promotion of star prospect Francisco Lindor has given the team a plus defender at shortstop. Moving third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall to the outfield has been a huge success. The club dealt away poor defenders like David Murphy and Brandon Moss. The once maligned-defense now ranks fifth in the league in defense, according to Fangraphs.
The offense is still underwhelming, with Yan Gomes and Carlos Santana putting up disappointing seasons, and a flurry of mid-season trades leaving many holes. The Indians rank eleventh in runs scored, despite drawing the second most walks and posting the fourth-best on-base percentage. All-Stars Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley continue to bright stars in an otherwise dull season, and Lindor has provided a solid bat in addition to his flashy glove.
Veteran Chris Johnson has hit very well since being acquired by the Indians in a swap of bad contracts, batting .348 in 14 games. The Indians as a team get on base much better at Progressive Field in Cleveland, with a .345 on-base percentage compared to .307 on the road. Their slugging percentage is also better at home, although they hit far fewer home runs in northern Ohio, with just 0.7 home runs per game at home with 0.97 home runs on the road.
Right-hander Carlos Carrasco has been very solid this year, with the sixth-best FIP in the league. He nearly tossed a no-hitter earlier this season, and has won both of his starts against the Royals this year. He is fifth in baseball in strikeouts per-nine-innings, throwing some of the best curveballs and sliders in baseball. Josh Tomlin has flashed a decent ERA, but has given up a whopping ten home runs in six starts. He hardly walks anyone at all with just three walks this year and he led the league in walk ratio in 2011.
Danny Salazar has bounced back from an early season demotion to have a solid season. His changeup has been the second-best in baseball this year, and he and Carrasco are both in the top ten in the league this year in strikeouts. The Royals rocked rookie Cody Anderson for seven runs back on July 27, but the right-hander has settled in and performed well in three September starts with a 1.93 ERA including a two-run, six-inning performance against the high-powered Blue Jays offense.
Indians relievers have the fourth-best ERA in the league at 3.18 and collectively strike out nearly a batter per inning. Closer Cody Allen has had an up-and-down season, but he has converted 30-of-34 save opportunities with over 13 strikeouts-per-nine innings, despite a lackluster 3.36 ERA. Right-hander Zack McAllister has gone from mediocre starter to big-time strikeout reliever with 11.3 whiffs per-nine-innings. Rejects from other teams like Ryan Webb and Jeff Manship have pitched well and Gavin Floyd has tossed some relief innings in his recovery from Tommy John surgery.
The Royals have taken seven of twelve games against the Indians this season, including four of six in Cleveland. The Indians are playing much better ball lately, but still show a lot of flaws. The Royals need to do their best to put the Orioles series behind them and get back on the winning side. With the Blue Jays in Atlanta for a series that looks like an easy sweep, the Royals will need every win they can get to hold onto home field advantage.