On Thursday night, May 24, the Cleveland Indians finished off a three-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers. The Tribe was a season-best eight games over .500 (26-18), and then the weekend happened, and they lost three straight games in Chicago to the White Sox.
After moving Detroit out of their way, it seemed that the Indians didn't remember that there were other teams that they needed to worry about, and now they are just a half-game ahead of Chicago in the AL Central for first place heading into Tuesday's game.
Luckily, or Cleveland fans can at least hope, the Indians get a "break" this week as they face the Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins at home before heading to Detroit for an important three-game series, beginning on June 5.
While the White Sox looked formidable while outscoring the Indians 35-16 in their three-game sweep, you can question how they will make it through the season healthy with John Danks already on the disabled list, Jake Peavy's always questionable shoulder and Chris Sale's potential innings limitations in the starting rotation. Not to mention a rookie manager in Robin Ventura and a bullpen that has had a revolving door at closer and many undefined roles, and the South-Siders may not be taken seriously much longer.
Regardless, this piece is designed to show why the Indians are better than the Tigers in 2012. The Tigers must be considered the class of the AL Central after winning the division in 2011 by 15 games. After finishing 95-67, the Tigers have a bullseye in 2012, and the following reasons will explain why the Indians can hit that bullseye and take control of the AL Central in 2012.
Last year, Jose Valverde was a perfect 49 for 49 in save opportunities. In 2012, Valverde has already blown two saves. His ERA is up to 4.66 in 2012 from 2.24 in 2011, his walk rate (14.6%) is the highest of his career, and his K-rate (19.1%) is the lowest of his career. At 34, Valverde's fastball is now down from 95.7 mph in 2009 to 93.6 mph this season.
Valverde had an excellent 2011 season and his excitement and determination on the mound generated those same attitudes in his teammates and fans, but he hasn't been as good as Chris Perez in 2012, which has cost the Tigers games already. Valverde's abilities look to be slipping with his numbers.
Closer A: 2.79 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 19.1 IP, 19:7 K:BB, 16 saves
Closer B: 4.66 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, 19.1 IP, 17:13 K:BB, 9 saves
Chris Perez and his numbers speak for themselves, as he is Closer A.
Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer are accompanied by the lone left-handed starter, Drew Smyly, in the Detroit Tiger rotation. Smyly has been very effective in his first nine starts, posting a 3.14 ERA in 48.2 IP with a 46:15 K:BB. But after throwing just 126 innings in 2011, his first professional season, Smyly will most certainly be on an innings limit with Detroit.
The Indians are also a team loaded with right-handed pitching, with Justin Masterson, Derek Lowe, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jeanmar Gomez and Josh Tomlin all being right-handed pitchers. However, with a lineup of Shin-Soo Choo, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera, Travis Hafner, Carlos Santana, Johnny Damon, Michael Brantley, Jack Hannahan and Casey Kotchman against right-handed pitchers, the Indians send nine left-handed hitters to the plate, as Cabrera and Santana are both switch-hitters.
The Indians have a team triple slash of .265/.345/.412 against right-handed pitching in 2012. The OBP is tied for first in the AL (third in MLB), while the OPS ranks sixth in the AL (ninth in MLB). The Tigers rank ahead of the Tribe in average and OPS, so the Indians may want to get a good left-handed starter to face the Tigers down the road.
But since they've won all three games against the Tigers so far, they may be able to beat them with what they have. The Indians are a mighty 23-12 versus right-handed pitchers in 2012, so it kind of matters.
Well, they weren't as bad until the Chicago White Sox series. Both teams have pretty awful bullpens. The Indians are 26th in MLB and the Tigers are 25th in MLB in bullpen ERA. But the similarities end at the terrible ERA stats.
The Tigers have blown six save opportunities, they have a .263 average against and a 1.45 WHIP. They have a 9-9 record in 44 games.
The Indians have blown four save opportunities, they have a .233 average against, and a 1.28 WHIP. They have an 8-5 record in 46 games.
The Tigers have Jose Valverde struggling in the closers role, as mentioned earlier, and they also have solid power arms like Joaquin Benoit (2.70 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 30:11 K:BB, 20 IP) and Octavio Dotel (2.87 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 22:4 K:BB, 15.2 IP), with a solid lefty in Duane Below (2.45 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 19:3 K:BB, 22 IP).
The Indians have Chris Perez posting solid numbers in the closer role with a powerful lefty in Nick Hagadone (1.93 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 14:6 K:BB, 14 IP), a new addition to the pen who has pitched well in Jeremy Accardo (2.84 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 6:3 K:BB, 6.1 IP), and quite possibly the best setup man in baseball in Vinnie Pestano (2.29 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 26:6 K:BB, 19.2 IP).
While Benoit and Dotel have a veteran presense that Pestano can't reach at the age of 27, Pestano has become one of the most feared late-inning arms in the game. In 94 appearances, Pestano has a 2.39 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 118:35 K:BB, in 86.2 IP. If the Indians get through six innings, the bullpen looks legit with Hagadone, Pestano and Perez pitching the final innings to win games. When they go to Tony Sipp or Jairo Asencio (who they just Designated for Assignment), you know it is time to start doing laundry.
Cleveland is 10-2 in one-run games in 2012. They are winning close games due to the back-end of the bullpen and solid production from the likes of Jason Kipnis and Shin-Soo Choo (since he moved to leadoff on May 14).
Clearly, much of this revolves, once again, around the bullpen. Chris Perez, while booed at times due to his somewhat adventurous save opportunities, really gets the job done. Luck can also come into play here, and the Indians could start losing these games with another injury or two to the club.
On the other hand, the Tigers are 8-10 in one run games. Their lineup is fourth in MLB (second in the AL) in batting average from the seventh inning on, so it boils down to getting pounced on early, much like what happened on Sunday at Boston, when Doug Fister was lit up for five runs in the first three innings.
The Designated Hitter in the AL leaves for some interesting roster developments, especially when you have a player or two who should really only be DH at this point. When the Indians signed Johnny Damon, it was an intriguing acquisition due to his poor arm and aging body, especially with Travis Hafner, a long-time DH-only player, already on the roster.
Damon has handled left field about as well as could be expected, handling all 38 chances without an error to this point. The Indians, though, seem to have loaded up on some versatile castoffs from other rosters.
Jose Lopez is just 28 and he is in his 43rd year in the league, or it feels that way. He was an All-Star in 2006 for Seattle and once ripped 25 home runs in a season for the Mariners in 2009. He had a poor 2010 and has been on the Rockies, Marlins and now the Tribe since being traded to Colorado by Seattle.
He can handle first, third, and possibly second in a pinch, though his body has filled out a bit since he arrived in 2004 as a shortstop. He could be the odd man out, with Lonnie Chisenhall up, once Jack Hannahan returns from the DL, but the Indians could really use his right-handed bat off of the bench.
Aaron Cunningham has been traded from the White Sox to the Diamondbacks, the Diamondbacks to the A's, the A's to the Padres, and the Padres to the Indians, and he is just 26. Cunningham can handle all three outfield positions and is another right-handed bat. He hasn't really fared well at the Major League level, but he only has 407 at bats in parts of five seasons.
Jason Donald is another super-utility type of player, as he has played short, second, third and left this season. This type of player is very valuable with a short bench, and Donald showed he could be useful in 2011 when he hit .318/.364/.402 in 132 at bats. He hasn't done as well in 2012, but he has only had 45 at bats.
The Tigers bench doesn't feature nearly the pedigree of the Indians' bench. Ramon Santiago is the super-utility man off of the bench, having played second and short this season. Don Kelly has played all three outfield positions, as well as first, second and third.
Danny Worth has only handled second when he has filled in. The outfield has been weak with Clete Thomas and Brandon Inge already getting dumped this season. Quinton Berry looks solid since taking over in center with Austin Jackson's injury, but the Tigers may want him to get more regular at bats once Jackson returns.
The Indians bench is much younger and wouldn't look as awful on paper if it were asked to fill in for an extended period of time. While they aren't perfect, Donald and Cunningham were considered top prospects for their teams before being traded (Cunningham by the White Sox and Donald by the Phillies).
Jose Lopez may have returned to All-Star form if he had been given regular at bats after faltering in 2010, so the Tribe looks like they can handle a disaster more than most teams in the AL Central.
The Indians are fifth in MLB in steals with 37 stolen bases. The Tigers are 26th in MLB in steals with 21. In the bottom of the fifth inning on Sunday against Kansas City, Jason Kipnis had a bunt single, stole second base, then scored on a Jose Lopez single to left.
That, my friends, is what makes the Indians a legitimate contender. They get on base (fifth in MLB in team OBP, lead MLB in walks) and they create runs (tenth in MLB in runs scored). They have speed all over the lineup, from Shin-Soo Choo at the top and his typical 20-steal season, Asdrubal Cabrera in the middle of the order, to Michael Brantley towards the bottom of the lineup.
The Tigers can mash with the best of them, but Jim Leyland isn't going to sacrifice a runner when Miguel Cabrera or Prince Fielder are in the batter's box, and you can't blame him. The Tigers are third in MLB in the number of times their players have hit into a double play with 50 (Indians have 39), too, so they know how to kill a rally now and then.
If the Indians can continue to lead the league in walks and take free bases, they'll continue to win one-run games and be able to finish off teams by expanding leads.
The Indians are sixth in MLB in fielding percentage, while the Tigers rank 21st. The Indians have turned 54 double plays, good for third in MLB. The Tigers are last in MLB with 30 double plays. The Tigers are 20th in MLB in errors with 33, while the Indians are tied for sixth fewest with 25 errors made.
Miguel Cabrera moving to third and Jhonny Peralta (who wasn't cut out for short any longer when he was with the Indians) at short for the Tigers doesn't help anything. Prince Fielder may have been a free agent longer than many expected due to his weight, so you have to worry about his range and skills at first, though he is quite an agile fatty. Austin Jackson has solid speed and can make up for Delmon Young's struggles in the outfield, but he can't help his off-the-field struggles. The Tigers just aren't built to be a good fielding team.
The Indians sought out talented defenders, specifically by giving jobs to Jack Hannahan and Casey Kotchman on the corners. While third base should eventually become Lonnie Chisenhall's, Hannahan has shown himself to be very valuable to this point in the season.
While fielding statistics say that Asdrubal Cabrera isn't a good shortstop, I know what I see, and I see a guy who gets to balls and makes plays that other players can't. While UZR and all of those other statistical evaluations say that he is like a younger version of Derek Jeter, all name and no range, Cabrera and Kipnis clearly make a sexy double play combination.
When Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer have combined to give up 17 home runs in 111 innings and the Indians whole rotation has given up 26 home runs in 286.1 innings, you can wonder if the Tigers are really capable of competing with the Tribe.
The team ERA of the Tigers is 3.98 to the Indians 4.40, and the Indians have walked 126 batters to the Tigers 75, but you can't argue with the fact that Indians starting pitchers have won 19 games, while the Tigers starting pitchers have won 14.
The Indians have an interesting blend of starting pitchers. Derek Lowe is an old veteran at this stage in his career, and he can provide leadership as a sinker-ball pitcher on a rotation filled with sinker-ball pitchers. Hence, why the Indians don't give up many home runs... which is also why they don't strike many guys out...which is also why they walk so many batters.
However, the Indians take advantage of all of those groundballs with the defense that was mentioned previously. You have to wonder if they will take my advice and only start Ubaldo Jimenez at home, as he continues to give himself whiplash with all of the poundings he is taking on the road.
But, if the Indians weakest link is a man who once won 15 games before the All-Star break, they can pounce on the Tigers, especially when Verlander and Smyly look like the only starters who can be trusted.
If the Indians go on to beat the Tigers in their three-game series in Detroit, what do they do about those streaking White Sox? If Dayan Viciedo is tearing the cover off of the ball, Paul Konerko continues to hit around .400, Adam Dunn continues his rebound season and Jake Peavy's shoulder doesn't detach from his body, then beating Detroit and being better than Detroit won't matter.
The Indians ran into a buzz saw when Chicago beat up on them May 25-27. The White Sox have won 10 of their last 11 after beating the Rays on Sunday. The Indians certainly looked like contenders sweeping the Tigers, but they looked similar to the Twins and Royals in the AL Central when they were bombarded by the hot swinging South-Siders.
So, while they are a better team than many expected them to be at this point, the real question will be if they are going to be able to get better as the season goes on, like the White Sox look to have done.