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Cleveland Indians' Biggest Early-Season Surprises and Disappointments

Tyler DumaFeatured ColumnistApril 15, 2014

Cleveland Indians' Biggest Early-Season Surprises and Disappointments

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    Tony Dejak

    Through their first 13 games, the Cleveland Indians have had their share of surprises and disappointments. The team's offense has been one of the American League's best, while the rotation, as a whole, has been downright terrible.

    Even so, the Tribe own a 6-7 record and currently sit at fourth place in the AL Central, behind the Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins, respectively. Despite a disappointing record, a few players have separated themselves from the pack—some in a more positive manner than others—and we'll profile them here in this piece.

    So, we'll kick things off with a second-year Indians player and a guy who's desperately looking to rebound and justify the big contract he was handed last offseason, Nick Swisher.

     

    All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com unless otherwise noted.

Disappointment: Nick Swisher

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    Mark Duncan

    Four years, $56 million; that's the contract the Indians gave out to Nick Swisher after the 2012 season. Swisher did little to justify that contract in 2013 with a triple-slash line of .246/.341/.423 over 145 games with just 22 home runs, 63 RBI and 74 runs scored.

    This year, Swisher is off to a horrendous start, posting a .185/.267/.315 slash line with two home runs, one double, seven RBI and seven runs scored over 13 games.

    To this point in the season, Swisher's strikeout rate is better than his career average, and his walk rate is just 3 percent lower than it was during the 2013 season. The missing piece in Swisher's 2014 season has been his paltry line-drive rate, which currently sits at 16 percent.

    Over the course of his 11-year-career, Swisher boasts a line-drive rate of 20 percent—23 percent between 2012 and 2013—and it's helped him carry above-league-average home run and extra-base hit percentages. 

    Given Swisher's track record, we'll likely see that line-drive rate creep up over the next week or two. Even so, despite his diminished presence in the lineup, the Indians still rank fourth in the American League in runs scored.

Surprise: Lonnie Chisenhall

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    Tony Dejak

    I pegged Lonnie Chisenhall as a breakout candidate, but the young third baseman has gotten off to arguably the quickest start of any player on the Tribe's roster in 2014. Over five games—16 plate appearances—Chisenhall boasts a strong stat line that includes a .400/.438/.600 slash line with three doubles, five runs scored and a 2-1 K/BB ratio.

    Chisenhall was a highly touted prospect as recently as 2011, but has failed to gain any traction at the big league level to this point in his career.

    With Carlos Santana starting to chip away at Chisenhall's starting time, the 25-year-old is in a make-or-break season. However, though the team's first few series, he's handled it better than just about anybody could have predicted.

    It will be interesting to see how Chisenhall fares after taking a brief hiatus to join his wife for the birth of their second child. But for now, he is one of the biggest surprises of the 2014 season. 

Disappointment: Vinnie Pestano

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    Mark Duncan

    Vinnie Pestano has gone from being former closer Chris Perez's heir apparent to being a guy who has now struggled to maintain a big league roster spot in successive seasons.

    Last year, Pestano struggled through the first four months of the season—allowing a 4.05 ERA through the month of July—and it all culminated in his being demoted to Triple-A Columbus for the entire month of August.

    This year, the Indians didn't wait as long to pull the trigger, and for good reason. Through his first three appearances, Pestano got absolutely bombed, allowing six runs—four earned—on eight hits and one walk while striking out four.

    Pestano is now a member of the Triple-A Columbus team again for the second time in a year.

    To this point, he's appeared in just two games, but the right-hander already looks like a totally different pitcher. Over just two innings pitched, Pestano has logged two strikeouts to just one walk and one hit.

    Though Pestano has looked better in his two Triple-A appearances, it's to be expected given the downgrade in opposing talent levels.

    Even though he has shown notable improvement in his statistical output, it should be a huge cause for concern that the 29-year-old is partaking in another stint with Triple-A Columbus due to performance issues.

Surprise: Zach McAllister

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    Jeff Chiu

    Leading up to the 2014 season, Zach McAllister looked like a prime candidate for regression. The 26-year-old posted a 3.75 ERA last season, but allowed a 1.36 WHIP, a .295 BABIP, a 4.03 FIP and a 4.53 xFIP.

    McAllister wasn't a very big strikeout guy—6.8 K/9 in 2013—and averaged nearly half as many walks—3.3 BB/9—leading one to wonder whether or not he could maintain a sub-4.00 ERA over the course of another full season. However, over his first two starts, McAllister has done a lot to displace those concerns.

    Through two starts—11.2 innings pitched, the Illinois prep product looks like a significantly different pitcher, allowing a 2.31 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP with season averages of 8.5 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 2.75 K/BB and 8.5 H/9.

    It can be difficult to build an argument for a breakout season on two starts, but there are signs that McAllister could be headed toward a career-defining season as opposed to the regression I once saw for him.

    First, McAllister has boosted his strikeout rate while subsequently decreasing his walk rate and hits allowed. McAllister's strikeout percentage has increased by 5 percent while his walk rate has decreased by 0.3 percent.

    What's most impressive about these improvements is that they have all taken place while his BABIP has skyrocketed from .295 last season all the way to .324 in 2014. Because of these changes, McAllister has seen his FIP and xFIP decrease by 1.75 and 0.22 points, respectively. 

    McAllister's 2.28 FIP puts him in the "excellent" category in FanGraphs.com's explanation of FIP and marks a stark departure from last season's mark of 4.03. In fact, to this point, the young righty has been worth 0.4 fWAR, the highest mark of any pitcher on the team's active roster—per FanGraphs.com.

    Whether he can maintain these improvements has yet to be seen. However, the metrics he's posted to this point suggest that he may have turned a major corner in his development as a starting pitcher.

Disappointment: Corey Kluber

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    Nam Y. Huh

    Corey Kluber was supposed to step right in and become the team's No. 2 pitcher for the 2014 season. However, after his first three starts, Kluber is off to a very poor start.

    Over 16.2 innings pitched, Kluber is the owner of a 5.40 ERA, a 1.68 WHIP and averages of 8.6 K/9, 1.6 BB/9, 5.33 K/BB and 13.5 H/9. 

    It's not so much that Kluber has been pitching poorly, but more so that he's been incredibly unlucky. The 28-year-old has been slapped with an ungodly high .418 BABIP through his first three starts, and it's resulted in opponents batting .347 against him. 

    Kluber's velocity is right in line with his average from last April—per Brooksbaseball.net—so it's hard to look anywhere other than bad luck when attempting to analyze his early-season struggles.

    Kluber showed last season that he has the ability to pitch like a top-tier starter, and although his actual performance hasn't been surprising, the stats produced as the result of said performance are beyond surprising.

Surprise: Nyjer Morgan

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    Mark Duncan

    Of all the players on the Indians roster, Nyjer Morgan has absolutely been the biggest surprise.

    After flopping out of Major League Baseball, Morgan played in Japan last season, working to a .294/.361/.434 slash line with 11 home runs, 50 RBI and 57 runs scored over 371 at-bats. His performance in the NPB was enough for the Indians to take a flier and sign him to a minor league contract for 2014.

    After injuries to Michael Bourn and Jason Giambi left the team short two position players, the club decided to purchase Morgan's contract and have since given him a chance to start on a semi-regular basis.

    Through nine games this season, Morgan has rewarded the team with an impressive start. Over 23 at-bats—33 plate appearances—Morgan carries a .348/.484/.348 slash line with four RBI, four runs scored, three stolen bases and a 4-7 K/BB ratio.

    Morgan has flashed impressive plate discipline early on in 2014 and sports a gaudy 21.2 percent walk rate to support that claim. Though that number will certainly decrease over the course of the 2014 season, it's worth noting that he's been incredibly patient and willing to get on base in whatever way he can.

    Morgan isn't guaranteed a roster spot once Bourn and Giambi return, but the man they call T-Plush has gone a long way toward earning additional roster consideration when the two do return.

Disappointment: Carlos Carrasco

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    Andrew Nelles

    The Indians starting rotation has been one of the worst in all of baseball. The group ranks among the game's five worst in ERA, batting average against, OBPA, OPSA and WHIP. In short, they've been pretty bad.

    The team's rotational woes are a huge reason for the team's current 6-7 record, and Carlos Carrasco has been one of its worst members.

    It's rather unsurprising given his track record, but over his first two starts, Carrasco has been downright terrible. Through 10.1 innings pitched, Carrasco owns a 7.84 ERA and a 1.74 WHIP to go along with ratios of 10.5 K/9, 4.4 BB/9, 2.40 K/BB and 11.3 H/9.

    Carrasco is slated to start again on April 19 against the Toronto Blue Jays, and given the struggles the team has experienced with its starting rotation, Carrasco will need a huge performance in order to stave off calls for his job, especially after Trevor Bauer's most recent start.

    Speaking of Bauer...

Surprise: Trevor Bauer

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    Tony Dejak

    Generally, I'd reserve this slide for some negative account on Trevor Bauer's recent appearances, but this time the 23-year-old has gone out and surpassed nearly all expectations for his early-season appearances.

    Between his first start at Triple-A Columbus and his most recent start with the Indians, Bauer has combined to allow a 1.50 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP with averages of 12.8 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 4.25 K/BB and 4.5 H/9.

    Though his lone big league start came against the offensively inept San Diego Padres, it was a surprising change of pace to see Bauer outpace his walk totals with his strikeout totals. However, he did just that and struck out eight Padre hitters in comparison to just two walks allowed.

    Bauer was another of my breakout candidates for the 2014 season, and although he's already been removed from the 25-man roster, a few more starts like his first two could propel Bauer into the big league starting rotation.

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