Now that Major League Baseball’s nationally televised company picnic is over, it’s time to get serious again.
It’s back to the grind.
Back to wondering, among other things, why the defending American League champions are having such a hard time pulling away from a Minnesota Twins team that lost 103 games last year, when they finished 35ﾽ games behind the Central Division champion Indians.
Back to wondering, also, whether the Indians should be worrying about Kansas City.
Back to wondering, first and foremost, why the Indians aren’t playing better?
The analytics crowd still thinks they are comfortable favorites to reach the postseason as Central Division champs, so it’s not like they are playing bad.
But why aren’t they playing better?
They come out of the All-Star break with a record of 47-40 (.540), but with a division lead of just 2ﾽ games over the upstart Twins. Last year at the All-Star break the Indians were 52-36 (.590), and leading the division by 6ﾽ games.
This year, they are somehow in first place despite having a losing record at home, and the worst record in the majors (3-11) in interleague play. That’s hard to do.
The Indians’ .467 winning percentage at home (21-24) is almost 200 percentage points worse than their .654 winning percentage at home last year (53-28).
The Indians are on a pace to win 87 games this year, which would be a significant drop from the 94 they won last year.
So what’s the problem?
Let’s start with what superficially doesn’t appear to be a problem, but is: pitching.
The Indians lead the American League with a 3.78 team ERA, and they lead the league with a 2.84 bullpen ERA. Therefore, the pitching must be pretty good, right? Wrong. Look closer.
The Indians’ starting rotation of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and three coin flips, is a train derailment waiting to happen.
Kluber and Carrasco have a combined 3.14 ERA. All the other starters: 5.05.
In games Kluber and Carrasco start, the Indians are 22-9 (.710).
In games anyone else starts, they are 25-31 (.446).
At the very least, they need to add one more dependable starter, preferably two. They may already be on the staff, but unless Josh Tomlin, Trevor Bauer and/or Mike Clevinger can take the bull by the horns, the Indians may be forced to get busy by the July 31 non-waivers trade deadline.
Offensively, the Indians’ best numbers are these: they’ve struck out the second fewest times in the league, walked the third most, are second in doubles and in the top five in the league in runs per game, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS.
But after leading the league in stolen bases last year, they are only ninth this year, which is not unexpected, given that the Indians chose not to re-sign Rajai Davis, who led the league in steals last year.
Being able to manufacture runs with speed is more important for the Indians this year because only three teams in the league have a worse batting average with runners in scoring position than the Indians’ mark of .244.
Baseball Reference has a measuring tool called Wins Above Average, which ranks the offensive and defensive production each team gets out of each position. The baseline is the league average at each position. You might be surprised at the Indians’ two biggest underachievers in this category: Francisco Lindor and Carlos Santana.
Last year, the Indians (i.e. Lindor) ranked second in the AL with a 3.3 Wins Above Average figure, when the average for shortstops was 0.7. This year, the Indians (i.e. Lindor) rank ninth at that position. The league average is 0.2. Lindor is at 0.0.
Overall, American League batters are hitting .256 with a .325 on-base percentage. Lindor is at the league average in hitting with a .256 average but below the league average with a .312 on-base percentage.
What’s most troubling about the switch-hitting Lindor’s offense this year is his batting average vs. right-handed pitchers, which is important since about 75 percent of the pitchers in the league are right-handers.
As a rookie in 2015, Lindor hit .308 against right-handers. Last year: .306.
This year: .235.
The Indians’ weakest position, according to Wins Above Replacement, is first base (i.e. Santana), where their figure is -0.6, which is the fourth worst at that position of all American League teams.
Only three teams have made fewer errors than the Indians, and Tribe pitchers have allowed the fewest homers in the league, the second fewest walks and have the second most strikeouts.
The Indians also have the best team ERA in the league while the Twins have the second worst, and in run differential the Indians are at +74 and the Twins at -60.
Yet the Indians can’t shake the Twins, much less think about taking down bigger game in the postseason.
On the other hand, things could be worse.
Just ask the Cubs.