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Surprise, surprise

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.

The offseason makeover of the team was hardly radical, bringing in Stephen Drew, Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, David Ross, Ryan Dempster, Joel Hanrahan, and Koji Uehara, as well as manager John Farrell. The team’s offense is arguably not yet hitting on all cylinders, with Will Middlebrooks, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Gomes starting the season cold. The pitching staff has benefitted from a Cy Young-worthy opening from Clay Buchholz and strong performances from Jon Lester and John Lackey.

But Dempster has been middling, no one has taken hold of the fifth starter’s spot (add up the starts by Felix Dubront, Alfredo Aceves, and Allen Webster and you get a six-armed chimera who has allowed 71 hits and 39 runs in 59 innings and spends most of its summer in Pawtucket), and Hanrahan and Bailey have been hopscotching on and off the disabled list all season long, with the former landing there for good after Tommy John surgery. Strong pitching and reasonable health has allowed this team to do a 180, something that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone given their overall depth of talent.

Players to watch

by Steven Goldman

Dustin Pedroia

Your mom has a better mustache

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.

David Ortiz

Heyyyy papi

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.

Jon Lester


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.

Carlos Santana

So smooooooooth

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.

Mark Reynolds

Baseball player

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.

Justin Masterson

Jamaican immigrant

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.

History's Greenest Monster

by Steven Goldman

Fenway: State of the art in 1912 included the Titanic, Woodrow Wilson and William Howard Taft, D.W. Griffth films, songs like "Hitchy Koo" and "Daddy Has a Sweetheart, and Mother is Her Name," and women’s hats with ostrich plume feathers (69 cents at Gimbels!). There isn’t a whole lot from 1912 that we’re desperate to hold onto, except perhaps for Fenway Park. There is a certain irony in Fenway’s status as a living heirloom, as it very easily could have gone the way of Ebbets Field or New York’s original Penn Station.

It’s convenient to forget it now, but longtime owner Tom Yawkey pushed Boston hard for a new ballpark, and failing that, permission to knock down the Green Monster and build stands out to the street. When he didn’t get it, he descended into a sullen, alcoholic withdrawal which coincided with the miserable trough of the late 1950s and early 1960s now broadly remembered under the heading, "The Don Buddin Years."

More recently, in 1999 then-owner John Harrington proposed that Fenway Park be replaced with a larger replica. Fortunately, this plan too died unmourned. Whatever the merits of the current ownership and management team -- and with two rings, they seem to have quite a few positives -- perhaps their biggest service to Boston and the game is their decision to rehabilitate Fenway Park rather than continue to campaign for a new stadium. Amazingly, revenue-adding innovations like the Green Monster seats have increased the building’s charm rather than detracted from it.

When the Red Sox made changes to the roofline of the ballpark in the late 1980s, there was a good deal of talk about how they had altered the wind patterns and thereby diminished its status as a hitter’s haven. Whatever the effect of those alterations (or the 2003 renovations which replaced them) Fenway is still one of the best hitter’s parks in the game, particularly for right-handed hitters who get to blast away at the 310-foot right-field line.

It’s a far harder park for left-handers to homer in despite the relatively short 302-foot line to the Pesky Pole in right; the fence rapidly drops away to 380 feet in right-center and 420 feet in deep center field. Still, all of that distance means that although it’s hard for a left-hander to hit a fly ball over the wall, there’s also a ton of space for outfielders to cover. As such, the park still boosts batting average for left-handed hitters.

In the 1940s, fans enjoyed talking about how Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams were playing for the wrong teams. The right-handed DiMaggio had to contend with old Yankee Stadium’s left-field Death Valley, while the lefty-swinging Williams had cope with that endless left-field power alley. (In 1939, when he first came up, the right-field line was also a huge poke at 332; perhaps not coincidentally, the Sox dropped it to 304 in 1940.)

There is even a story, possibly apocryphal, that in 1947 Yawkey and Yankees front man Larry MacPhail, like Yawkey a problem drinker, got smashed together and agreed to trade the two players, both backing out once they had sobered up and considered the likely backlash. This was a good thing for the Splinter and a bad one for the Yankee Clipper: DiMaggio was a career .315/.391/.546 hitter at Yankee Stadium, with a home run every 23 at-bats at home; on the road he hit .333/.405/.610 with a home run every 16 at-bats, and at Fenway he hit .334/.410/.604 with a home run every 16.4 at-bats.

However, Williams wasn’t affected by his home park in the same way DiMaggio was by his. He hit .328/.467/.615 on the road with a home run every 14 at bats. He hit .361/.496/.652 with a home run every 16 at-bats at home. Sure, the park cost him a few home runs, but he picked up a ton of doubles (one every 12 at-bats, versus every 19 on the road) and 33 points of batting average. Parenthetically, Yankee Stadium was one of his worst parks, although some of that might have had to do with the team’s good left-handed pitching. More recently, lefty David Ortiz, a career .292/.389/.574 hitter with the Red Sox, has averaged .316/.414/.600 at Fenway.

In short, it’s a good for everybody -- except pitchers. Among Indians who have played long enough to amass a body of work here, Nick Swisher has hit .286/.377/.532 in 50 games; Jason Giambi .263/.397/.512 in 85 games; Mike Aviles .271/.303/.411; Mark Reynolds .276/.364/.566 in 21 games; Asdrubal Cabrera .293/.368/.483 in 15 games. Two notable records by younger players: Michael Brantley has hit .357 in 10 games, but six of his 15 hits have been doubles; Jason Kipnis has hit .394/.444/.788 with four home runs in just eight games.

"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

Just Ask the locals!

from Let's Go Tribe and 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

One Key Stat: 9.2 and 8.6

by Steven Goldman

The latter is the Indians’ team strikeout rate per nine innings. The staff ranks third in the AL in this category. Last year, they were second to last with 6.8. The Indians haven’t been above league average in strikeout rate since 2005, and for the most part have dwelt in the basement alongside the Minnesota Twins, a primitive tribe that actually fears fastballs, believing that the velocity will carry their souls away in the pitch’s wake. The Indians’ reasons are far more prosaic: They traded two great pitchers in Sabathia and Lee and have yet to discover their replacements, whether through trades, free agency, or the draft. The former number is the Red Sox’ average in the same category. They’re second in the league. There’s good reason to believe the Sox can keep this up, but as the Masterson comment suggests, the Indians are in uncharted territory and may yet return to their pitch-to-contact ways.

Bottom Line: Indians 2, Red Sox 2

by Steven GoldmanIn Game 1, Zach McAllister pitches down to his peripherals. Let’s posit that Masterson’s new look takes the Sox by surprise in Game 2, and as Ortiz and Daniel Nava are the team’s only strong left-handed bats at the moment, they aren’t well-positioned to exploit him anyway. Game 3, started by Scott Kazmir and Jon Lester, goes exactly the way you think it would. Finally, Game 4: The Indians have hit left-handers fairly well, and Corey Kluber has pitched a little better than his 5.19 ERA suggests, but so has Felix Doubront. Still, we’ll guess that one goes Cleveland’s way and they salvage a split.
Please post your predictions below.

Game 1: Indians 12, Red Sox 3

Terry Francona returned to Boston like Napoleon marching on Paris. Trailing 4-3 after three innings, John Farrell pulled Ryan Dempster in favor of the bullpen, but the Indians tacked on eight unanswered runs over the next three innings to put the game out of reach.

Over the Monster recap: Ryan Dempster seemed ready to lose Thursday's game until the lineup pulled it back. In the end, though, that just gave Clayton Mortensen the honors.

Let's Go Tribe recap: After yesterday's rain-soaked loss, the Indians turned the tables, inflicting a rain-soaked blowout loss on the Red Sox

Game 2: REd SOX 8, Indians 1

It was the All-Lackey Show as the right-hander shut down one of the best offenses in baseball. The Sox were terrifically efficient on offense, getting eight runs out of nine hits and two walks.

Over the Monster recap: John Lackey pitched seven phenomenal innings against Cleveland's hot offense, while Boston's offense gets to the Indians' pitchers early and often.

Let's Go Tribe recap: John Lackey throttled the hot Cleveland offense, and the Red Sox pulled away late to cruise to a 8-1 victory.

Game 3: RED SOX 7, Indians 4

The Red Sox break out against the Indians bullpen, scoring four in the eighth for a come-from-behind win.

Over the Monster recap: A trio of backups carried the Red Sox Saturday afternoon, giving them a big come-from-behind victory over the Indians.

Let's Go Tribe recap: The eighth inning became a horror show, as Boston scored four off Vinnie Pestano to win in come-from-behind fashion.

Game 4: Red SOx 6, Indians 5

The Sox score four in the ninth for yet another come-from-behind win. In the aftermath, Indians' closer Chris Perez went on the disabled list with shoulder pain.

Over the Monster recap: The Red Sox mounted a furious four-run rally in the ninth, capped off by Jacoby Ellsbury's walkoff double.

Let's Go Tribe recap: That ninth inning was rather unpleasant, wouldn't you say?