It’s been a bit of a strange year in baseball up to this point. Though we’re two months into the season now, it’s still nearly impossible to tell the contenders from the pretenders, and several of the teams who have established themselves as potential playoff clubs were widely considered to be longshots as the season began. Similarly, many teams most agreed would be in the hunt now have a long climb to get back into the playoff picture. Over the next few days, I’ll go over some of the more surprising teams and attempt to figure out whether we should readjust our expectations or simply wait for things to even out over the balance of the season. First up, and almost certainly the biggest shocker of 2011 so far, is the Cleveland Indians.
Currently holding the best record in the AL, the upstart Indians are 31-20 and five games up on Detroit, their closest competitors. Despite the fifth-lowest payroll in the league, the Indians have been competitive on both sides of the ball, as they’re currently fourth in the AL in both runs scored and runs allowed, and lead their division in both categories. With just the right combination of breakouts, resurgences, and solid all-around play, Cleveland has shown no signs of letting up after a ridiculously hot start.
Offensively, Asdrubal Cabrera has been the star of the show. Cabrera has been something of a role player the past few years, as he followed his career high 3.2 WAR in 2009 with a weak 2010 in which he put up only 0.7 WAR in 97 games. This season, however, he’s up to 1.9 WAR in less than a third of the campaign, and has already topped his career high in home runs with 10 in the early going. Cabrera’s hitting the ball with authority, as his .229 ISO demonstrates (career .125), and his 155 wRC+ currently leads all shortstops. He’s hitting more fly balls than at any other point in his career, and 15.2% of those fly balls have left the yard thus far. I’d expect that number to come down, as his career 6.5% HR/FB is probably a more reasonable estimate for Cabrera’s true power. It seems very unlikely that he went from being on par with Jacoby Ellsbury (6.4% career HR/FB) to Ken Griffey Jr. (15.2% career) longball ability. Still, Cabrera seems to have turned a corner with the bat, and has become a premier two-hole hitter in a suddenly potent lineup.
Also in the midst of an impressive breakout is outfielder Michael Brantley. After two straight seasons of negative WAR values, Brantley is at 1.0 a third of the way through the season. Though his .110 ISO isn’t exactly impressive, it reflects a power surge compared to his .068 mark before this season, and he’s walking at a much higher rate than last year as well. If Brantley can continue to hit the ball hard and get on base enough to utilize his above-average speed (he stole 46 bases in two-thirds of a triple-A season in 2009), he could be a valuable part of Cleveland’s lineup.
Before his recent oblique injury, Travis Hafner seemed to have regained the form that made him the best DH in baseball from 2004-2006. That resurgence, however, was largely based on his AL-leading .415 BABIP. Though Pronk’s career .320 is higher than one might expect from a lumbering slugger, he’s likely to experience a sizable regression when he does return. However, there are reasons to think other Indians hitters may be hitting below their potential, meaning they could balance out Hafner’s fall by picking up the pace. Shin-Soo Choo is currently on pace for his worst year since his 2009 breakout, in large part due to a .308 BABIP well below his .355 career mark. Though it might be unreasonable to expect him to match his incredible career mark, I’d expect his OBP to rise closer to the levels that made him so valuable over the last two years. Similarly, Carlos Santana has been well below his prolific rookie-year numbers. He’s had almost exactly as much time in the majors this season as he did last year (same games, one more plate appearance), but has only 1.2 WAR after his impressive 1.9 before his season-ending injury (and his 141 wRC+ that led all rookies). Santana’s put up a pitiful .227 BABIP this season, and though it’s not surprising that he’d be doing poorly in that category given that he’s not hitting the ball with any sort of authority (12.0% LD rate), you’d have to expect that will pick up somewhat. He hasn’t had enough of a major league career to establish a baseline expectation in the category, but his true talent level is certainly better than his current rate, the lowest among all major league backstops.
On the mound, Justin Masterson has been extremely effective, putting up a 3.36 FIP. He’s more than halfway to his WAR total from last year in a third of the starts. However, this success is largely fueled by a puny 5.3% HR/FB rate, and Masterson’s taken a step back from his moderately decent strikeout rates and AL-leading groundball rate last campaign. Though there is some truth to his hot start, I wouldn’t expect him to maintain the sterling numbers he’s put up thus far. Fausto Carmona started out strong, but has cooled off over the past couple weeks, as he’s allowed 16 runs in his past three starts.
Cleveland’s bullpen has been a huge reason for its success, as their relievers are currently the best in their division. However, their underlying statistics suggest that they could soon fall back to earth, as many of the men at the back of the bullpen have been the benefactors of some very favorable luck in the early going. Vinny Pestano, Tony Sipp, Rafael Perez, and Joe Smith have been strong but figure to act a little more human over the balance of the season. Nowhere has this has been more evident, however, than in the numbers of closer Chris Perez. Perez’s 14 saves lead the AL, and his 2.66 ERA also sits among the league leaders, while he’s blown only one save thus far. However, his 5.31 K/9 and 29.3% groundball rate are far below both what he’s put up in the past and what you’d like to see from a dominant closer, as his ugly 5.18 xFIP demonstrates. Expect Perez to give up a few more ninth-inning leads as the season continues.
While the Indians will likely be able to continue scoring runs at a fairly impressive rate, I’d expect their run prevention to be slightly less successful for the remainder of the year. However, they’ve built up an impressive lead in the division, as their five game gap is the best of any division leader at this point. I’d be surprised if the Tribe continue to win three out of every five games, and they’ve cooled off a bit lately, as they’re only .500 in their last 10 games. However, they will attempt to maintain their advantage in the divisional standings, and at this point I’d have to say they’ll be at least in the mix for a playoff spot when September rolls around. One of the more intriguing questions for the rest of the season will continue to be whether the Indians are contenders or pretenders, and for now I’m saying they’re a little of both. Next time, we’ll take a look at a certain school of Fish who are impressing the baseball world by keeping pace with a couple of high-powered division rivals.