The Indians aren't as good as they look, but they may be good enough
Picked to finish fourth in the AL Central, Cleveland is off to an 8-4 start
Surprising hitting and significant improvement in pitching are key reasons
Cleveland is also catching some breaks, such as a low rate of home runs allowed
Though they haven't been the best team in the American League -- the Rangers have a better record by a game -- the Indians have certainly been baseball's most pleasant surprise in the season's first two weeks. Picked to finish fourth in the AL Central and as one of the half-dozen worst teams in the game, the Tribe has gotten off to an 8-4 start thanks to some surprising hitting and a significant improvement in their pitching staff.
This story could not have been foreseen during the season's opening series. On Opening Day, the Indians fell behind the White Sox 14-0 in the fourth inning on their way to a 15-10 loss. The next day they were down 5-0 before coming to the plate a second time, going on to an 8-3 defeat. It seemed like the preseason pessimism, focused in no small part on the pitching staff, was playing out in the early season cold by Lake Erie. The Indians allowed 23 runs in the season's first two games...and have allowed just 20 in the next 10, going 8-2.
During that run Indians pitchers have struck out 68 men and walked just 34 (two intentionally) for a K/BB of 2-to-1. This is a staff that just a year ago was last in the AL in strikeouts and had the second-most walks allowed in the league, with far and away the worst K/BB in MLB (10 percent worse than the Royals at No. 29). They're doing this with all the same guys, too: Of the 12 pitchers who have taken the mound for the Indians, only Chad Durbin pitched for another organization in 2010. Mitch Talbot had a 1.28 K/BB last year; it's 2.20 to start 2011; Fausto Carmona jumped from 1.72 to 2.50; Justin Masterson improved from 1.92 to 3.00. The Indians' starters, save for Josh Tomlin, are throwing more strikes and issuing fewer free passes. They're also allowing the lowest line-drive rate -- 13.6% of balls in play -- in MLB. These numbers reflect a change in skills that has shown up on the scoreboard.
Cleveland is catching some breaks as well. The Indians have allowed the third-lowest batting average on balls in play (.244) and sixth-lowest rate of homers allowed on fly balls (6.5%) in MLB. They and the Rangers are the only teams to be in the top quarter of MLB in both categories. The low BABIP is a combination of things -- the Indians defense is better this year, with Michael Brantley playing well in center field, Jhonny Peralta no longer around in the infield, and a healthy Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop. The low line-drive rate is also a factor; line drives become hits about 70 percent of the time, so cutting down on them helps your defense. The home run rate is more fluky, in part attributable to an early-season slate of games heavy on cold weather and cold offenses. With Carmona, Masterson and Talbot, the Indians do have the makings of a groundball staff that would help them keep more balls in the yard.
The offense, third in the AL in runs scored with 56, is also a mix of demonstrated skills and fluky performances. Asdrubal Cabrera, coming off a disappointing, injury-plagued 2010 season, has shown surprising early-season power, with four homers and a .612 SLG. That's unlikely to continue. Orlando Cabrera has chipped in with a .295 AVG and .386 SLG, also unlikely to be sustained. On the other hand, Brantley may be showing the leadoff skills that helped make him part of the haul for CC Sabathia, with five walks and a .373 OBP.
Perhaps the best news for the offense is who hasn't yet participated. The team's best player, Shin-Soo Choo, is at .200/.275/.267. Carlos Santana, a stud as a rookie before suffering a season-ending knee injury, is hitting .205/.280/.273. The player the Indians built around, Grady Sizemore, is still working his way back from microfracture surgery and has yet to play in the majors this year. The Indians are fifth in the league in runs scored, and may have some upside from that ranking even when the Cabreras come back to earth.
The Indians aren't a .700 baseball team, and projecting them as even a .500 club takes some doing. You can see the core of a fringe contender here, especially on offense, and the pitching has shown enough in the early going to engender optimism. Maybe the best news for the Tribe is how unimpressive their competition has been. Between the White Sox' woes in the bullpen, the Twins' problems scoring runs and the Tigers' rotation issues, none of the expected AL Central bullies have stepped up in the early going. The Indians' upside is a tick above .500, and suddenly, that upside comes with the possibility of contention deep into the season. The Indians are a story in April; they could end up a much bigger one in September.