Monday, April 11, 2011

The Indians' Fast Start

Manny Acta was never a favorite here in the FanDome, but you have to give the man some credit for the Indians' fast start. Not only do they sit on top of the AL Central, but their 7-2 record isn't a fluke. They are +15 in runs scored versus runs allowed and are winning with the long ball and with small ball (as their suicide squeeze bunt win the other day showed). Let's take a closer look at this team to see what's under the hood.

Offensively, the Indians are hitting the ball really well so far despite their best player, Shin-Soo Choo, off to a slow start. To be sure 36 year old, Orlando Cabrera is not going to hit .375. He is a career .274 batter with occasional pop and is playing second base, a move in response to his age. But by all mean, he seems to be a positive influence on shortstop, Asdrubal Cabrera. The younger Cabrera is off to a great start, but it's not a start out of line with his career. He's a .285 career hitter and him hitting .312 doesn't seem a stretch for a 26 year old hitting his stride. The three homers is a surprise. His lack of plate discipline is the only thing that brings up warning bells. He's struck out 10 times in 38 at bats and has only walked twice.

Travis Hafner isn't going to hit .370. But perhaps his shoulder is stronger than it has been in the last few years and he could return at least part ways back to the kind of killer he was five years ago. He used to be one of the most feared hitters in baseball and it's certainly possible for him to have an excellent year. It is impressive that he's only struck out five times against three walks. He's hit two homers so far. Is 30 out of the question? Not really.

Third baseman, Jack Hannahan, is hitting solidly at .286 with an OPS of .891. It's hard to quantify what Hannahan can do since he is 31 years old and getting the first solid playing time of his career. His nine years in the minors show a guy who should give you a .781 OPS with only occasional power, a decent eye and a few too many strikeouts. He'll come to earth a bit, and won't provide the kind of power at third that most teams like, but he seems solid enough.

Michael Brantley is only going to be 24 in May. He's been another nice surprise as he is hitting .303 with a .368 on base percentage. Those numbers are right in line with his minor league numbers, so it's not a stretch that Brantley can put up those kinds of numbers. He doesn't have any power, but he has good speed and he should be fine at the top of the order.

Carlos Santana isn't off to a blazing start, but the young catcher is going to hit. His current slash line of .268/.316/.353 isn't very impressive and he only has one extra base hit. But give him 500 plate appearances and he'll be fine. The same can't be said with any kind of optimism for Matt LaPorta. LaPorta's .231 average is right in line with his career line of .232 and his on base percentage is down. Maybe this is just who he is and is not, at 25, going to be the star the Indians hoped he would be.

One thing you can be sure of and that is Shin-Soo Choo will hit. His track record has been one of the better kept secrets in the majors. He isn't hitting yet, but he will.

There will be some regression in the Indians' current offensive production. That would be offset some when Choo and Santana get going. Sizemore will be back at some point but you have to wonder how he will do. The team is a little thin behind the starters. Austin Kearns offers nothing, but Lou Marson, Shelly Duncan and Adam Everett are decent spot players.

The nice thing about all of these offensive players is that they are good defensively (even Kearns is adequate). They have made only four errors all season and all of their starters are in the positive numbers for zone ratings. And so we've determined that the offense and defense can keep the Indians competitive. How about the pitching?

Of course, a lot of the Indians' season success will depend on the starting rotation. They have two very good members on the top with Fausto Carmona and Justin Masterson. Carmona was lit up his first start, but was really, really good his second time around. Masterson is 2-0 and really seems to have figured out how to be a successful starter. The Fan likes those two on top. The next three offer problems.

Josh Tomlin is 2-0 after his first two starts with an ERA of 2.68. But this Fan doesn't buy it. He's struck out seven batters against six walks. It's possible for him to be a league average pitcher and that would be fine if the top two do their jobs. But he isn't as good as he is showing early on.

Mitch Talbot has to find a way to keep his pitch count down. He seems afraid to attack the strike zone and the other day threw 102 pitches in four and a third innings. He has an excellent strikeout rate, but he needs to throw more strikes. Can he do it? Possibly, but we'll see. He certainly has a better chance at doing well than Carlos Carrasco, who seems destined to be a pitcher who finishes with an ERA in the mid-five range.

The Indians need three quality starts in every five appearances, and that is certainly possible with this rotation. Whether that will happen or not really will determine how far this Indians team can go in 2011.

The bullpen has been quite good. Chris Perez is a quality closer and hasn't given up a run yet in 2011. Tony Sipp hasn't given up a walk or a run in five innings of work. Rafael Perez walks too many batters, but so far has walked that tight rope and hasn't given up any runs. If you have those three at the end of the game, you're in pretty good shape. Chad Durbin has yet to show his usual form and could be a nice addition once he gets going. The bullpen has no depth beyond that, so again, the starters have to deliver the game to the back end of the bullpen for this to work all season long.

The Indians are currently third in the league in scoring and third in preventing runs. That combination has led to their 7-2 record. They really are improved from the horror of last year and it is conceivable for this team to win 85 games. It isn't conceivable at this point for them to stay as good as they are now, but it would be a fun story, would it not? The White Sox look like the team this year, but the Indians could surprise a lot of people.


Eric said...

Nice to see Cle doing well again. I just hope they can keep it going and make a run at the Central. Everyone here in SK loves Choo. He is a national hero and everywhere you go you see Indian's logos.

William J. Tasker said...

Thanks, Eric. Appreciate the comment.