The surging, first-place Indians

Jason Miller

The Tribe has erased all traces of their poor start with a few weeks of dominance over contending clubs, but will it continue?

A bit over two weeks ago, you'd have been forgiven... well, not for writing off the Indians, necessarily, but certainly for forgetting about them. Coming off a dreadful 68-94 season and a handful of off-season moves that, while largely steps in the right direction, seemed a long shot to make them a contender right away, the Indians lost to the Royals and Jeremy Guthrie 9-0 in game one of a doubleheader on Sunday, April 28, and fell to 8-13 on the year and into last place in the division. They'd been outscored 104 to 87. They were, at the very best, decidedly uninteresting. A centerpiece of the team, the Jason Kipnis/Asdrubal Cabrera middle infield (even after a three-hit game from Cabrera), was hitting .196/.255/.297. Scott Kazmir's ERA was over eight, Ubaldo Jimenez's over 10. There wasn't anything to see here, unless you like a good train wreck.

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Since then, starting with game two of that doubleheader, the Indians have lost twice: on May 5 to the Twins and May 10 to Detroit. They've won by scores like 9-0 and 14-2 and 4-3 and 1-0, and won in 10 innings twice. They swept the had-been 18-14 Athletics in four games (with some help) and took two of three from the Central-favorite Tigers, capping it off by tying for the division lead on Sunday. In all, they're 12-2 in their last 14, and have outscored their opponents 91-45 in those games. If they'd put up those rates of runs scored and allowed all season long, they'd be leading the league in runs by more than one per game (at 6.5) and allowing the fewest by more than a quarter-run (at 3.2).

The biggest contributor to Cleveland's recent success is pretty easy to see from those numbers above: they're hitting the hell out of the ball. From the nightcap on the 28th through Saturday, six of the club's nine regulars slugged at least .550, including what had been the Indians' two weakest spots through those first 21 games: Kipnis (.275/.321/.627, with two triples and four homers) and Cabrera (.289/.360/.556), plus Mark Reynolds (.304/.389/.587), Carlos Santana (.341/.471/.610), Ryan Raburn (.444/.474/.861 with four homers in only 38 PA), and Nick Swisher (.297/.357/.649). Michael Brantley had just one home run, but did brilliantly anyway (.358/.375/.472). Even Drew Stubbs, with just a .283 OBP during that stretch, managed to slug .444; among all regulars, only third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall (.185/.214/.296) did not absolutely crush the baseball over that two-week-and-one-game stretch.

As a team, in that same span, Cleveland hit .311/.359/.551, which is just a bit shy across the board of Ryan Braun's career line (.313/.375/.569). They hit 24 home runs in those 13 games (none on Sunday). Over 162 games, 24 homers in 14 games comes out to 278 for the season, setting the record by 14, and that slugging percentage would establish a new team season record with 60 points to spare.

Photo credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

There's no reason to think they can do anything like this over the long haul, of course. Only Reynolds, currently tied for the AL lead with 11, is likely to finish the year with 30 or more home runs; by and large, they just don't have anyone who is that kind of a hitter, as even Swisher has just crossed the threshold once in his career. They're a lineup of hitters who by and large are better, though, than they were through those first 21 games, and they've all seen their luck catch back up with them at roughly the same time. It's a lot of fun to watch, for however long it lasts.

While the offense is the most visible part of Cleveland's recent success, though, the pitching has been markedly improved as well, allowing nearly two fewer runs per game, and that might offer more of a reason for optimism going forward. In particular, two 29-year-old former stars who have fallen on very hard times are suddenly (albeit in a tiny sample) looking a bit like stars again. Scott Kazmir, whose last productive season was in 2008 at age 24, and Ubaldo Jimenez, who finished third in the Cy Young voting in 2010 and has a 5.08 ERA in his 400 innings since, have made five starts in the Indians' 12-2 run; all five have been quality starts and wins for Cleveland (and the pitchers). After very rough starts, they've combined during this run to throw 30 ⅔ innings and allow just six runs (a 1.76 combined ERA), with 37 strikeouts, seven walks and four home runs allowed. Those five starts came against Oakland (twice), Minnesota, Detroit and Kansas City; all but the Royals (who aren't that far off) have scored substantially more runs than the league average so far this season.

This is a big deal, or it at least could be. Kazmir and Jimenez had become, depending on one's perspective and disposition, a tragedy or a running joke or something in between. It's just five games, just 12 innings for Kazmir and just under 19 for Jimenez, but they were better innings than either had put together in years. If that's just even a little bit real -- forget all-star teams and Cy Young Awards, but if both are, say, just slightly above-average starters again -- then the rotation starts to get interesting. It's still basically staff ace Justin Masterson, three question marks (Zach McAllister hasn't really established who he's going to be yet, either), and I Don't Know in the fifth spot, but it could be one with four really pretty good starting pitchers. That didn't seem remotely feasible when this season started, and especially not without one of them being Trevor Bauer.

I wonder whether, altogether, this might be a case in which two parts that individually are lies combine to tell the truth. There's no way the Indians are (or anyone else is) this good, but it was never likely they were quite as bad as they were to start the season, either; altogether, right now, they're 20-15 (a 92-win pace); they've scored a bit under 5.1 runs per game (third in the league and more than half a run above average), and allowed 4.3 (about a tenth better than average). Their pythagorean expectation supports their actual record more or less exactly.

It'd be overly simplistic to say simply that the combination of the two distinct parts of the Indians' season so far represents what the team really is, and looking at that offense, it's hard to believe they're really that good (Raburn isn't likely to bat .320 or slug .550, for instance), but might it be pretty close? Looking at the lineup, there's plenty of reason it could be at least a little better than average (I see them as better than average at catcher, first, second, short, center if Michael Bourn is healthy, and possibly left), and we've just discussed reasons to think the pitching might be a bit better than average, too (without even mentioning the bullpen, which has looked brilliant).

No team is going to keep winning 80 percent of its games for long, but it sure is fun while it lasts. Even 60 percent from here on out would seem pretty unlikely for Cleveland, but it's not unthinkable. They've been awful for 21 games and great for 14, and I don't think anybody knows where in between the truth lies, but it may just be good enough to keep them in this thing.

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