Are the Indians For Real?
by Dave Cameron - May 2, 2011
April is over, and as expected, the Cleveland Indians have the best record in baseball. Okay, you’re right, not one single person on this planet expected that. ZIPS projected 71 wins for the Tribe, while the readership here at FanGraphs was a little more optimistic, penciling them in for 73 victories. They’re currently on pace for 114 wins, and would need to play .400 baseball the rest of the way in order for the crowd’s projection to come true.
It’s not just wins and losses, either. The Indians have the best run differential in baseball (+47) and they’re second in the majors in team WAR (+10.5), trailing only the offensive juggernaut in St. Louis. The Indians aren’t winning a bunch of nail-biters, but, instead, they’re pounding their opponents into submission. At 5.41 runs scored per game, they’re nearly keeping pace with the Yankees offense, and yet they’re simultaneously holding opponents to just 3.67 runs per game. Only Oakland and Anaheim are preventing runs at a better rate.
So, 27 games of excellent baseball later, we have to ask the obvious question: are the Indians for real?
On the offensive side of things, the answer might just be yes. They probably won’t score the 875 runs they’re on pace for, but this is a team with some real talent at hitting the baseball. Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana were expected to anchor the lineup, but both of them have scuffled during the season’s first month, and instead the Indians have been carried by Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner. Both have overcome significant health concerns to mash during the opening few weeks of the season, and while I wouldn’t expect either to keep up their current levels of performance, they have shown elite abilities before — getting production from those two isn’t exactly unheard of.
Perhaps more importantly, however, have been the quality of the younger role players. We talked about Jack Hannahan‘s crazy April on Friday, but beyond his performance, the Indians have also gotten high quality production from Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, and Asdrubal Cabrera. In fact, not one single position player on the Tribe has a negative WAR, as even Austin Kearns is off-setting his lousy hitting with decent defensive value.
Several of these guys are going to cool off, but Santana and Choo should take a step forward, and, overall, this offense should be above average at least — especially if Sizemore and Hafner can stay healthy. There’s some real talent on the position player side of things, and so I don’t know that I see a huge regression coming there.
On the pitching side, though, things are a bit different. Justin Masterson looks like he may have finally figured out how to get lefties out, but even if he’s taken a real step forward, he’s not going to sustain a 2.25 ERA. And, unfortunately for Cleveland, you can make a similar claim about nearly every pitcher on the roster.
Their HR/FB rate is just 6.5%. Only the Mariners are giving up fewer home runs per fly ball among American League pitching staffs. Additionally, their BABIP is .272, fourth lowest in the AL, and fifth lowest in baseball. Neither of those numbers are going to continue going forward at the same rate, as the team’s ERA will almost certainly move more towards the 4.04 xFIP they are putting up. This just isn’t a great pitching staff, and while the results have been good, there’s a ton of room for regression there.
However, even with a pitching staff that is due for a fall, this team certainly looks better than we thought headed into the season, and the rest of the division looks demonstrably weaker. In fact, the two teams most generally picked as the top contenders for the AL Central — the Twins and White Sox — are 10 games behind the Indians already. The Tigers are 7 1/2 games back. Whether it’s real or not, the Indians have amassed a huge lead over the three teams that were considered to be the cream of the division’s crop.
Yes, there are 135 games to play, but Minnesota and Chicago are now going to have to put it into another gear to take the division back from the Tribe’s hands. If we project the Indians at a .500 winning percentage going forward — which seems about right to me, assuming that Sizemore and Hafner can stay reasonably healthy — the Indians would end the season with 86 or 87 wins. To finish with 88 wins, the Twins and White Sox would each have to play .586 baseball the rest of the way.
That’s possible, but that’s better than either team was projected to play before the season began, and given what we’ve seen in the first month, it’s hard to argue that the preseason projections were too conservative. And remember, those respective records would result in the Indians losing the division on the final weekend of the season.
They’re not as good as they’ve played, and there is some real regression coming, but given how the first month has played out in the AL Central, the Indians are almost certainly going to be in this race in September. I don’t know if they’ll be able to hang on to their early lead, but it’s large enough where they certainly aren’t going to give it up without a fight.