by Steven GoldmanBeginning in 2004, we heard a great deal about teams breaking long championship droughts. That was the year the Red Sox finally shattered the so-called "Curse of the Bambino" (in actuality the Curse of Tom Yawkey), and the following year the White Sox won their first title since 1917, having tanked the 1919 World Series and lost the 1959 Fall Classic (despite giving it their best effort this time) in the interim.
Crossing those two teams off the list of the long-term ringless leaves four teams that have been waiting for over 50 years to pick up a trophy. Two of them, the Astros (52 years) and the Rangers (53 years), are expansion teams that aren’t looking for their next World Series win, but their first. The Chicago Cubs, now an incredible 105 seasons removed from the winning days of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, Frank Chance, and Three-Finger Brown, are the Official Team of Lost Causes (and Applebee’s!), but they also haven’t always been trying very hard. Among teams that have made a game effort -- at least some of the time -- the Cleveland Indians, at 65 years, have had the longest wait.
As "at least some of the time" suggests, the Indians have endured quite a few periods of incompetence (enduring Frank Lane, possibly the worst general manager to have a long career) and outright disinterest on the part of ownership in the years 1960-1986. That all came to an end with the great run of 1994-2001. Alas, that team was unable to convert two World Series. The Indians are on at least their third rebuilding since then, but this one seems to be taking. That the Indians are succeeding comes as a bit of a surprise given their rough start. The team finished April with a .489 W% (11-13) which was a victory in itself given that they were 5-10 after 15 games. In 30 games since that low point, they’ve gone 21-9 (.700). The pitching staff has posted a 3.85 ERA over that span (4.01 RA), while the league-leading offense has bashed to the tune of .281/.344/.485 and an average of 5.7 runs per game. The offense may really be this good, but as a recent spate of rough games suggests, the bubble could burst on the pitching staff at any time -- the off-brand starting rotation, already carrying a 4.51 ERA (league average is 4.38) might still have further to fall.
This proposition will be tested immediately: the near-term schedule is a harsh one. Having just completed two games against the division-rival Tigers, the Indians will play four at Boston, split a four-game home and away series with the Reds, face the Rays at home, and then take a long road trip to the Bronx, Detroit, and Arlington.
Around the time Dustin Pedroia won his MVP award, a reader wrote in to complain that Pedroia was nothing but a product of Fenway Park. To date, he’s hit .322/.387/.501 at home, but just .286/.357/.418 elsewhere. That’s no reason to dismiss him; being able to exploit your home park is a skill. Of the 84 players who have amassed over 1,000 PAs at Fenway since 1915, how many have had an OPS as high as Pedroia’s 888? A: 21, some under vastly easier hitting conditions. Change the time frame to the last 40 years and the answer becomes 12 of 39. Of those, how many were middle infielders? A: One, Nomar Garciaparra. How many of them fielded as well as Pedroia: A: Dude, Mo Vaughan and Manny Ramirez are on this list. Pedroia is signed through 2015. If he stays with the Red Sox, he’ll go to the Hall of Fame, and not because of Fenway Park gave him advantages, but because he took advantage of Fenway.
With yet another great season in the offing, David Ortiz will someday make for a fascinatingly non-factual Hall of Fame debate somewhat resembling Edgar Martinez's. The main difference is that Ortiz's postseason heroics led to two championships, just as his regular-season hitting is helping to sustain Boston's resurgence this year. Against that, we'll have his designated hitter role, a bogus argument because (1) it's a legit position, (2) while it prevents a player like Ortiz from adding to his value by fielding, it also prevents him from subtracting from his value by asking him to do things he can't do, and (3) don't you think if there was no DH, Ortiz would still be playing somewhere? And then there's (B) PED McCarthyism, about which the less said the better.
The list of great left-handers in the history of the Boston Red Sox is brief, so short that it still retains Babe Ruth in a place of high prominence 94 years after the fact. The rankings start with Lefty Grove and Mel Parnell, with Lester is arguably third. Lester's 2012 brings to mind Rudyard Kipling's (in)famous poem, "If": "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs..." Well, not everybody can, especially if you're a pitcher and the team behind you includes Pedro Ciriaco and Scott Podsednik instead of Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury. As well as Lester has done to this point, he’s also surfing on a career low BABIP, an incongruity given a defense that has been fairly average on balls in play -- some regression could be in the offing.
Not every team has an obvious "best" at all the positions. You ask someone, "Name the best catcher in Yankees history" and they can name two Hall of Famers and three other guys almost that good. Ask the same question about the Indians and you should eventually see this guy instead of Jim Hegan, Sandy Alomar, Jr., Victor Martinez, or somebody like that. Only two other Indians catchers have slugged over .450 in a season of 500 plate appearances (V-Mart four times, John Romano twice). Only three have had an OBP over .360 (V-Mart three times, Romano and Steve O’Neill once each). Only three have posted batting averages higher than Santana’s current .296 (the same three). Like Martinez, Santana is not a great defender and may eventually end up spending the majority of his time at first base of designated hitter. Let’s hope that day doesn’t come too soon so the Indians can have a definitive answer to this point of trivia. P.S.: Ned Colletti traded this guy for Casey Blake, is still working.
Still among the major league leaders in home runs, but going cold; on May 6 he was hitting .300/.376/.650, but in 15 starts since has hit .151/.250/.302 and his old nemesis, the strikeout, is getting out of control again. Reynolds was always the ultimate all-or-nothing hitter, and it was easy to wonder how well he would do if he could just rein in his swing a little bit and trust that his obvious strength would still launch a good number of balls. He seemed to be doing that in the early going, resulting in a low (for him) 27-percent strikeout rate (SO/AB) and an increased rate of home runs per fly ball. Now he’s up to 38 percent, about his career norms. Whatever Ty Van Burkleo said to Reynolds in the spring, he needs to say it again.
The lasting gift of the V-Mart trade with the Red Sox, Masterson altered his mechanics this spring, resulting in improved command and more bite on his slider. The result has been a slight decrease in his ground-ball rate, but a meaningful increase in his strikeout rate as well. Most intriguingly, he’s also keeping left-handed hitters honest at .226/.219/.302 -- they hit .296/.376/.450 against him last year, and .292/.367/.432 career entering the season. Since dealing Sabathia and Lee, the Indians have struggled to find starting pitchers with above-average strikeout rates. If Masterson’s transformation gives them one and Trevor Bauer provides another, then along with Ubaldo Jimenez… Well, never mind.
"With a full century behind it, baseball's oldest ballpark shows no signs of closing its doors anytime soon. Between the Green Monster in left, the triangle in center, and a right field with a foul pole that shows up a good 50 feet ahead of the corner, Fenway Park offers a unique baseball experience which, rather than reeking of gimmicks, instead acts as a reminder of a time when baseball parks were squeezed in wherever they could fit, back before the pristinely planned modern ballparks found throughout the league. The beer and food is expensive, the seats aren't always the most comfortable, and some don't even quite point the right way. But for all that, there's still no better place to watch a baseball game." -- Ben Buchanan, Over the Monster
Speaking of nightmares...
"You'd think there would be at least some simmering hatred for the Red Sox in Cleveland. The Red Sox beat the Indians in the 1999 ALDS, signed Manny Ramirez away from the Indians in 2000, and came back from a 3-1 deficit to take the AL pennant from the Indians in 2007.
The Red Sox would also be an appropriate choice to play the role of large-market villain for Indians fans, though the Yankees have filled that role admirably for over 60 years.
But thanks to the unbalanced schedule, Cleveland and Boston now meet just twice a season, so there's not much of a chance for fans on either side to gain much familiarity, never mind contempt, for the other club.
Seeing a team and its players 18 or 19 times a season will start the vitriol flowing if other prerequisites are there, but seven times isn't enough no matter how bitter the history is." -- Ryan Richards, Let’s go Tribe
Not eligible for rivalry. Yet.
"The Red Sox and Indians certainly have all the right ingredients for a rivalry. From Manny Ramirez leaving the Indians for Boston, to the 2007 ALCS, and now Terry Francona taking over in Cleveland, there's been plenty of opportunities for a rivalry to grow. Somehow, though, no enmity has really developed over the years, and it doesn't seem like the Terry Francona issue is going to change that.
Perhaps that should come as no surprise. If Francona holds any grudges, chances are they're against players who are already gone from the team, or members of ownership who are nicely detached from the action on the field. It doesn't hurt, of course, that Bobby Valentine was a complete bust and was promptly replaced by Francona's old right-hand man in John Farrell.
No, right now Tito has more old friends than enemies in the dugout, and the actual players have little enough reason to hate each other. Perhaps if both clubs keep winning, October will provide a spark." -- Ben Buchanan, Over the Monster