Last week the Cleveland Indians strung together four consecutive games in which they scored five or more runs in a inning. If you’re a stat buff, it was pretty impressive, I suppose. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last time the Indians accomplished this feat was back in the year 1929.
After this four-game (or inning) explosion, the Indians' offense was on pace to score 1097 runs—the most in baseball since the Cleveland Indians crossed the thousand run threshold in 1999. Since then, though, the Tribe’s pace of scoring has taken a step back, as is to be expected.
For as great as the Cleveland Indians offense has been, however—it is third in baseball in terms of runs per game—we still haven’t seen much of anything yet. The two catalysts of this offense—and arguably the two most important Indians’ players—Michael Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera, have yet to make a significant impact.
Cabrera has missed the last six games due to a death in his family, and Brantley has been flat out unlucky at the plate.
As of right now, the Indians' best all-around hitter is probably Brantley. If you just look at his numbers, you’d assume I’m out of my mind for saying such a thing, as he’s hitting for a .196 average right now.
But if you’ve watched the games, you'll have noticed that Brantley is consistently driving the ball nearly every at-bat. It just so happens, though, that he’s driving the ball right at the collective gloves of the defense.
Of all the hitters in baseball who have accumulated 40 or more plate appearances this season, Brantley’s BABIP ranks in the bottom ten percent and well below the expected average. However, in terms of making pitch contact as well as putting the ball into play, Brantley is in the top ten percent of the league sporting a 90.5 percent contact rate. That leads all Indians’ hitters.
He also leads the team with the lowest strikeout rate, having only been fanned five times in 56 total plate appearances. The moral of this story is that Michael Brantley has been the recipient of some hard luck so far this season, but expect that to change soon. The odds are statistically in his favor right now.
Brantley entered Sunday’s game in Oakland riding a seven-game hitting streak. In those seven games where Brantley recorded at least one hit, the Indians were a perfect 7-0. On Sunday Brantley’s hitting streak came to end as the Indians lost to Oakland 5-1.
That’s just the way things have worked for the Indians; the offense feeds off of Brantley’s production from the leadoff spot.
Here’s what the Indians' two, three and four-hole hitters are batting...
When the Bases are Empty
Shin-Soo Choo: .188
Jason Kipnis: .161
Carlos Santana: .167
When There’s Someone on Base
Shin-Soo Choo: .318
Jason Kipnis: .320
Carlos Santana: .333
When a Runner is in Scoring Position
Shin-Soo Choo: .333
Jason Kipnis: .308
Carlos Santana: .385
When Leading Off the Inning
Choo: .000 (0-8)
It’s only natural that a hitter's average is higher when people are on base. However, the middle of the Indians line-up has made it a habit to drive that point home. The only one who has been able to do consistent damage (regardless of the hitting situation) is Travis Hafner.
The Indians' offense, more or less, begins with Michael Brantley and ends with Travis Hafner. Yes, Shelly Duncan and Jack Hanahan have contributed nicely thus far, but one through five, the Indians have a lineup that is capable of putting up All-Star-type numbers.
But perhaps only when the situation is right. And the situation is “right” when Michael Brantley is getting on base and hitting for average.
Allow me to go back to that four-game streak when the Indians tied their 1929 counterparts for the most consecutive games scoring five or more runs in a inning. In those games, three of their four inning explosions began with Michael Brantley reaching base to start the inning.
The other common variable in that four game (inning) offensive burst was that Asdrubal Cabrera was in the lineup hitting in the two hole behind Brantley. In the three games when the Indians combined for 41 runs, Brantley and Cabrera combined to go 13-38 (.342) while walking and striking out a combined two times, respectively.
Without Cabrera in the lineup and without Brantley getting on base, Santana, Hafner, and Choo have seen a fairly even tradeoff between walks and strikeouts. Opposing teams can pitch around them knowing there isn’t a ton of protection around them, or they can go after them because they’re aware of their high strikeout propensities.
Through 14 games, the Indians lead all of baseball with 76 total walks as Manny Acta appears to have made bat-on-balls the mantra of his team. But it is not as if this lineup is, or was, constructed of guys who pride themselves on having a good eye and patience at the plate; this is a lineup that has the potential to be downright lethal, but they’ve had to pick their times so far this season.
Cleveland’s gaudy walk total has them ranked fourth (as of Monday) in the league in on-base percentage (.345), while ranking 16th in team batting average (.242). That’s the largest discrepancy in baseball right now.
The Indians began the season 1-4 and couldn’t hit the ball worth a lick. All of that changed when the offense seemed to ignite themselves in Kansas City. That’s when we finally saw both Cabrera and Brantley come out of their winter shells and begin hitting, and that’s when the rest of the lineup began feeding off of them—whether psychologically, situationally or a blend of both.
For what it is worth, last season the Indians were 13-38 when Cabrera failed to get a hit and 28-13 when he got two or more hits. In a nutshell, that’s the simplified version of WAR (wins above replacement).
Last year the Indians began the season 30-15 only to finish the rest of the season 17 games under .500. The Tribe played their best ball in the months of April, May, and sporadically through June and July. Whether coincidental or not, Michael Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera were playing the best ball of their respective careers during this time.
The Indians had the Tigers in their sights as late as mid August. That was around the time that they shut Brantley down for the the year, as well as the same time Cabrera was in full post-All-Star-break “autopilot.” That’s also when Detroit took an overwhelming lead in the division and never looked back.
For Cabrera (age 26) and Brantley (24), 2011 was their first full season, really (aside from Brantley missing the last month and a half). In Kansas City, the two of them looked as if they were hitting their stride. Then Cabrera had to make an emergency trip to Venezuela, and Brantley caught a case of the batting-magnet.
Despite these minor setbacks, the Tribe was able to win their remaining two series—albeit against garbage teams—on the road out west. With the Indians' bullpen looking more dominant than we’ve seen in recent years, the Indians might have a good thing going for them right now.