Every spring, a rebuilding team expected to go through the motions gets off to a great start fueled by surprising performances and a little bit of luck. Sometimes it goes on to great things—see the 1991 Twins, who won the World Series a year after finishing in last place. Sometimes that team fights deep into the season and falls short at the end (see last year's Padres). All too often the early-season surprise turns out to be a mirage: See the 2003 Royals, '05 Orioles and the '08 Marlins.
No matter how the 2011 Indians end up, they've already provided a season's worth of memories for the sparse crowds at Progressive Field. When Travis Hafner blasted a mammoth walk-off home run last Friday, turning a 4--3 deficit into a 5--4 win, it was just the latest in a string of dramatic victories for a team with enough offense to make any opponent's lead a shaky one. Through Sunday the Indians, who didn't win their 24th game last year until June 11, were 24--13 and sitting in first place in the AL Central, 3½ games ahead of the Tigers.
Making the biggest surprise of the season's first quarter possible is a lineup that was sixth in the league in runs scored while waiting for its core to get on track. Neither catcher Carlos Santana (.220/.345/.382) nor rightfielder Shin-Soo Choo (.222/.301/.354) has hit as expected. In their stead the Indians have seen outfielder Michael Brantley blossom: The 24-year-old had a .372 OBP and has held down the leadoff and centerfield jobs when Grady Sizemore has been injured. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, 25, has bounced back from an injury-plagued 2010 to hit .288/.353/.484. Even first baseman Matt LaPorta, who arrived with Brantley in the 2008 trade that sent CC Sabathia to the Brewers, has chipped in with a .248/.328/.450 line that is impressive in this year of low offense. The brief return of Sizemore—he came back in April from microfracture surgery on his left knee and slugged .641 with 16 extra-base hits in 84 plate appearances before going back on the DL with a right-knee bruise on Monday—and the resurgence of Hafner bolstered a lineup that is in the top three in the AL in average, on-base and slugging.
The biggest surprise is that the Indians' pitching staff has matched that performance: It's fourth in the AL in ERA (3.49) with almost the same cast of characters that ranked 11th a year ago. Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin have anchored the rotation by cutting their walk rates. After finishing next to last in walks allowed and last in strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2010, Cleveland has issued the fewest free passes in the league in '11. It's 12th in the AL in strikeouts, so the lack of walks is key for a staff that is going to give up a lot of balls in play.
Those balls in play haven't been quite so damaging this year. For the first time since they won the AL Central in 2007, the Indians have a good defense. They're fourth in the league in defensive efficiency—their ability to turn balls in play into outs. In contrast to their counterparts in Minnesota, the Indians have backed a high-contact pitching staff with players who can get after balls, especially in the outfield.
These Indians are not going away. Having already called up 2009 first-round pick Alex White to bolster the rotation, they could also get internal reinforcements at their two weakest positions from top prospects Lonnie Chisenhall (third base) and Jason Kipnis (second base). The bullpen is a concern—Cleveland has a lot of relievers with mediocre strikeout and walk rates—but that's a weakness that can be addressed in the trade market cheaply. The Indians will be buyers this summer; in addition to starting fast, they play in the weakest division in baseball. The preseason cofavorites, the White Sox and the Twins, are among the worst teams in the game. Only the Tigers, winners of seven straight through the weekend, seem poised to push the Tribe.
Maybe this ends in the waning days of September. Maybe it stretches into October, with the Indians pushing to extinguish one of the great losing streaks in sports history—the city of Cleveland's. What seems certain is that this isn't a quarter-pole fluke. The Indians are relevant again.
Return of The Rays
• The Rays were expected to return to the middle of the AL pack this season in no small part because their bullpen disappeared over the winter. Tampa Bay lost the top six relievers from a pen that led the league in 2010 with a 3.33 ERA. Instead the team is in first place thanks largely to a rebuilt bullpen that had a 3.24 ERA (fourth best in the AL), with 80% of the innings coming from pitchers who weren't in the organization a year ago.
The Rays' success highlights a sabermetric point: Because the performance of individual relief pitchers, in their limited work samples, can fluctuate wildly from season to season, it's best not to invest too heavily in any but the very best of the class. The idea goes deeper than the math, however. Relievers often are in the bullpen because they're flawed, unable to master a third pitch or stay healthy throwing their first two. Often relievers having big years are maxing out both their effort and ability, making them poor bets to repeat at that level. You build a great bullpen by finding the next Joaquin Benoit—the righthander who anchored the eighth inning for the Rays in 2010 with a career-best 1.34 ERA—not by paying Benoit for his big year after the fact. Benoit has a 6.59 ERA for the Tigers in the first year of a three-year, $16.5 million contract.
The volatility of bullpens is affecting teams all over the league. The last-place Twins are the flip side of the Rays: They lost Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain to free agency over the winter and have been unable to replace the quality innings they provided. The Royals' surprising competitiveness comes from an influx of young power arms pitching in front of closer Joakim Soria. The Rangers, Dodgers and White Sox thought their strong pens from 2010 would return, but injuries or ineffectiveness have crippled all three.
The Rays have built another good bullpen by chasing skills rather than last year's statistics. Closer Kyle Farnsworth (signed for a year and $3.25 million, with a team option for next season) walked one man in his first 17 appearances. Journeyman Joel Peralta, who had a 49-to-9 strikeout-walk ratio with the Nationals last year, has 15 K's in 19 innings and a 3.32 ERA as Farnsworth's setup man. Under Joe Maddon the Rays have had strong bullpens loaded with castoffs. Last year's—with Benoit, Grant Balfour and Randy Choate—was no exception. Maddon and VP of baseball operations Andrew Friedman have once again shown that you don't need big dollars to get small relief ERAs.
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K's Are Not O.K.
One of the great stathead totems is that batter strikeouts aren't a concern, because they're usually a by-product of power. Historically, there has been about one homer for every 6.4 strikeouts, and rarely has that figure gotten higher than 7.5 or lower than 5.5. Strikeouts have moved in concert with home runs ... until now. In 2011 there have been slightly more than eight strikeouts per homer, the sixth-highest ratio since 1921 and a jump of roughly 20% over '09. Take 'n' rake hitting, the signature style of the 21st century, isn't paying off in an environment in which balls aren't leaving the yard the way they used to. With offense down, it may be time to encourage some of the contact-hitting approaches that were left behind in the 1980s, because the benefits of swinging for the fences are dwindling.
Photograph by CHUCK CROW/THE PLAIN DEALER/LANDOV
THE GRASS IS GREENER The Indians' surprising surge has been fueled by improved defense from the likes of Asdrubal Cabrera and a breakout year from Brantley (right).
JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES
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JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES (FARNSWORTH)
IN WITH THE OLD The new Rays relief corps is led by the 35-year-old Farnsworth, a closer for the first time in six years.
JEFF MOFFETT/ICON SMI (UMP)