Welcome to Tribe Talk, where Bleacher Report's Tribe fans weigh in on the ups and downs of the Indians each week throughout the season.
This week, we compare the Tribe's performance to our expectations for them after the one-month mark, point fingers at our chosen scapegoats, and volunteer our baseball playing services to the Tribe, in case they're so desperate that they're looking for walk-ons with no professional experience.
I would like to thank this week's participants: Dale Thomas, Scott Miles, and Jon Sladek for their contributions. This discussion is open to all, so please feel free to comment below and pitch in your thoughts on the questions we're addressing this week.
1. This week we officially pass the one-month mark of the 2010 season. Everyone had their opinions during Spring Training about whether the Tribe would be good, bad, or ugly this year.
At this point, where is the Tribe relative to where you expected them to be? Is this team better, worse, or exactly the same as you predicted?
What player or group of players on the Indians is better than you had expected, and which is worse?
Finally, how indicative do you think the Tribe's current level of play is of how they will fare over the full season ?
Samantha Bunten: Looking just at the Indians record, they are only a little worse than I expected. Unfortunately the overall caliber of play I've seen has been much more disappointing. The things that strike me most are the preventable mistakes made by players with enough experience to know better, and the glaring power outage this team is having.
While the defensive blunders and pitching woes aren't good, much of that has been as I expected. To me, the element of this team that is far worse than I imagined is the offense. This team was supposed to, if nothing else, be able to put runs on the board.
Right now they're having an appallingly difficult time moving runners and even more difficulty showing any power or any speed. You expect a struggling team to lack either speed or power, but you don't expect it to come up so short in both areas.
As for who is better than I expected, Kearns and Carmona are the stand-outs. I'm also generally okay with how the rotation is faring.
I think this team will get better as the season progresses because the young guys on the squad will surely continue to learn and grow as players. What is more uncertain is whether our veteran guys can improve enough just to play the way that they should have been playing from the start.
Dale Thomas: By win/loss record as of Tuesday night, the Tribe is just a little worse than I expected them to be. I expected them to be next-to-last, but alas....they are in last place by a game. Looking at Chicago and Kansas City, I would expect the standings to continue to waffle around as each game is played.
Kearns has been a pleasant surprise, as he is better than I expected him to be, and appears to be our best hitter at .333 with a whopping two dingers. Cabrera and Choo are performing well, each hitting over .300, which I expected, but then you get to the entire remaining roster which is under-performing even by my extremely low expectations.
Sizemore is at .221 with 26 strikeouts. Hafner is at .208, Branyan is at .207, and Valbuena is at .167...I mean Jeez! This lineup couldn't even hit Indians pitching. It's horrible for a team that was supposed to be all about offense.
And Pitching? Holy cow...Talbot is our leader? I didn't expect this at all, but he has the best ERA and is tied for most wins with Carmona. I've actually switched my thinking from focusing on winning games to just scoring a run.
Jon Sladek: Just fair warning, the gloves are coming off this week.
I'm appalled at what I have witnessed the first part of this baseball season. Nobody expected the Tribe to contend for the Central, but the brand of baseball we have witnessed is unacceptable. Mitchy Talbot is about the only guy who has exceeded expectations. The list of underachievers is too long to name here. The current level of play is indicative of a long, uninteresting season.
Scott Miles: Though the record is probably about what I figured, maybe a shade or two worse, the season has been full of individual surprises for me.
First, three unpleasant surprises:
1. Grady Sizemore: .220 average, zero HR. Not comfortable in two-hole?
2. Valbuena and Brantley: They should be young cornerstones of team. Both are batting below .175, with Brantley already back in Columbus and Valbuena single-handedly murdering Wednesday’s game.
3. Matt LaPorta: zero HR, one RBI…umm, what?
Now, the pleasant:
1. Mitch Talbot: 3-2 with a 2.88 ERA? If he could stop walking so many hitters, whoa. Very impressive.
2. Fausto Carmona: He’s baaaaaaaaaack. (Hopefully). And echo the comment about walks with Talbot.
3. Austin Kearns: Capitalizing on his playing time opportunity. Only consistent bat in the lineup besides Choo and Cabrera.
You’d expect Grady to bounce back, although off of an injury, who knows. The failure to develop young talent was probably the biggest knock on Eric Wedge, and Manny Acta is finding it a tough go as well. Maybe they’re not just as good as billed? I don’t know. And if Talbot or Carmona can’t keep up this production, the Indians might lose 100 games this year.
2. Like the rest of Eric Wedge's staff, Derek Shelton was let go from his position with the Indians when they made a management regime change last fall.
Shelton is currently the hitting coach for the Tampa Bay Rays, who as a team are 20-7, sitting atop the fiercely competitive AL East, and are one of the best hitting teams in the league.
The Rays have scored the most runs in the AL, the Indians have scored the least.
Perhaps this is merely the product of Tampa Bay having more offensive talent on its roster than the Indians, but is there any chance that perhaps the Tribe made a mistake in letting Shelton go?
How much credit do you give to Shelton for the Rays' success this season? Do you feel the Indians would be performing better offensively under the guidance of Shelton than they currently are under Jon Nunnally?
Samantha Bunten: If you have a lineup that includes Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, and Carl Crawford, I don't care who your hitting coach is—your team is going to score a lot of runs. Slider could coach that group and they would still be among the best hitting teams in the league. In other words, maybe who the hitting coach is isn't our problem.
Regardless, I really liked Shelton. I think he was good at guiding young hitters and at getting the most out of every player which that individual had to offer. He did it in Cleveland and now he's doing it in Tampa Bay. The only difference is that working with the Rays, the amount of talent the hitters each have to offer is far higher.
Shelton's dismissal was inevitable, as when the manager goes, generally his whole staff goes with him. Still, I would take Shelton back in a heartbeat, given the opportunity. That being said though, I don't blame Jon Nunnally for most of the Tribe's hitting woes. No matter how you swing it, the hitting coach is probably not the problem here.
Dale Thomas: First off, Derek is from Carbondale, Illinois. I grew up there. Go Salukis!
This of course has no bearing on anything, but with that said, each season since Derek Shelton arrived in Cleveland, the Indians have finished at least in the top half in the league in runs.
During his first two seasons, the Indians offense was among the best in baseball. Although he's had a couple misses (Josh Barfield, Jhonny Peralta), the rest of his record stacks up well, especially given the circumstances in 2008 and 2009.
Yes, I think the Rays are far better for having Shelton. Yes, I think the Indians are far worse for not having Shelton. As for Nunnally? I think his 2010 record is screaming at the top of it's lungs something like, "We suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck" (echo, echo, echo).
Jon Sladek: I could sit here and blame Jon Nunnally for the hitting woes, but at the end of the day, these guys are professionals, for goodness sake.
Is Jon Nunnally making Sizemore continually flail at strike three or Hafner look at the first pitch fastball right down the middle, EVERY AT-BAT? I doubt Nunnally is instructing guys to strike out with one out and the bases loaded.
Its beyond time to start holding guys accountable for their undisciplined approaches. Grady Sizemore struck out too much under Shelton and does the same under Nunnally. Perhaps the coaches aren't the problem here.
Scott Miles: The Rays have more proven hitters in their lineup. You could probably start and stop the conversation with Evan Longoria (.374, 7 HR, 20 RBI). Throw in Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Ben Zobrist, etc. and that’s a pretty potent order, even if some of those guys are hitting below their usual averages.
The Indians’ lineup doesn’t have that much margin of error. It’s a mixture of young, unproven guys and guys coming off injuries or prolonged slumps (in Pronk’s case, both).
I always thought Derek Shelton was pretty solid—the Tribe always had one of the top scoring lineups in the AL and wasn’t putrid at the plate last year even after trading Victor and with Grady and Pronk out—so the Indians might be a tad better with him back this year. But until the light bulb goes for some of the youngsters, it won’t matter who the hitting coach is.
3. Baseball is a team sport, and no single player's struggles can be blamed for the team's overall inability to succeed.
But the beauty of being a sports fan is we can assign blame to whatever individual we feel like anyway. If you had to pick one or two players whose performance you believe is personally responsible for the team's struggles, who would those player(s) be?
What position on the field (other than starting pitcher on a given night) do you feel has the most potential to impact the outcome of a game based purely on the individual at that position's performance?
(Note: The second part of the question is purely theoretical and meant to address baseball in general; it need not be the position occupied by a Tribe player who you believe makes the most difference to our team specifically, whether in a positive or negative sense).
Samantha Bunten: Aside from Sizemore and Hafner, both of who seem to be unable to make up their minds as to whether they're going to be power hitters or contact hitters and hence have failed at both, I feel I have to point fingers at the mess on the right side of the infield.
With Valbuena at second and either LaPorta or Branyan at first, the defense on the right side has been horrendous, and no one over there is exactly making up for it at the plate.
I'll give LaPorta the rest of the season to sort things out with his bat (though I think defensively, he's a lost cause), but Branyan and Valbuena are out of excuses. Sometimes I don't know why we even bother sending either of them out there.
The most important position on the field for any team is the catcher. This player has the hardest job on the field physically speaking, and is also expected to be the brains of the operation, the team's leader, and the in-game therapist for the unfailingly fragile psyches of pitchers.
It's a demanding, difficult, and thankless job that calls for an ability to multi-task that isn't required for other positions. Most first basemen can't even walk and chew gum at the same time.
Dale Thomas: Personally responsible for the team's struggles? The two players names are: Hafnersizemorevalbuenaperaltamartebranyanredmondbrantleymarsonlaporta AND Mastersonwestbrookhuffsmithperez.
I wish I could have mentioned more than two names here, but rules are rules.
The most impactful position on the field with regard to influencing the outcome of a game? The catcher. From calling pitches and defenses to working with pitchers and umpires, catchers have a wide range of responsibilities that require intelligence, tact, baseball sense, and above all, leadership.
Jon Sladek: Hafner and Sizemore. Simply put, these are two guys the team was counting on for the bulk of offensive production and they have both been abysmal. One is a DH that doesn't "H," the other somehow forgot how to hit home runs. Did anyone imagine Sizemore homerless a week into May?
Scott Miles: It would have to be Grady Sizemore, no? I’m not entirely sold he’s 100 percent healthy, but he either needs to start hitting or just sit and rest. For someone who was a 30-30 player two years ago, he can’t have a homerless, two-steal month. He just can’t.
I think there are three “dynamic” positions on the field—first base, third base and left field. These are where your premier hitters, particularly in terms of power numbers, play. LaPorta and Branyan have combined for zero HR and three RBI in 103 at bats. Peralta is hitting .216 with two HR and ten RBI. Only Kearns in left field is holding up his end of the bargain, but with a smaller sample size (.343/2 HR/12 RBI in 19 games).
4. In spite of our complaints that the Indians defense is awful this season, they're actually far from the worst-fielding team in the AL. As of Monday they had made just 14 errors this season, good for 4th place in the league.
Does this mean that the Tribe's defense is actually much better than we perceive it to be, or does the number of errors not tell the whole story?
Aside from Jhonny Peralta's notorious multi-error play against Detroit which cost us a win, how much do you believe the Indians' defense has impacted their success in either a positive or negative way?
Samantha Bunten: First, I think it is important to note that the above defensive stats come from just two days ago when I wrote these questions. Things have gotten worse since, with the error tally up to 17 and our ranking among AL teams significantly lower.
Still, I don't think that poor defense in general is the problem. The Tribe's issue seems to be that the errors always seem to come at critical points in the game. I would be willing to bet that while we currently rank in the middle of the pack in terms of the number of errors committed per number of chances, we are probably at the top of the list for games lost as the direct result of a defensive error.
Regardless, the bottom line is that the defense isn't as terrible as we think. The problem is that they have no margin for error because the team can't score any runs. If this team was consistently putting runs on the board the way it should, I'm guessing the errors wouldn't really be that noticeable at all.
Dale Thomas: Clearly the defense is better than perceived (by the comparative numbers), but let's face it, our blunders have been huge when we have them.
Last night I saw one of our guys move all the way around the bases due to errors and wild pitches from Toronto. The Jays still won that game. Errors can and will hurt a team, but they don't often kill a team in terms of wins and losses. Scoring the most runs wins games. Pitching shutouts positions teams to win games, such that the "most" runs might be just one. Everything else is the delightful drama in between.
Jon Sladek: The stats may say the Indians are playing decent defense, but the errors all seem to be at such crucial points of the same (see Luis Valbuena's 5-hole job Wednesday). I would love to find out how many of those errors came in the late innings of close games. It's just another example of a team that has no focus out there.
Scott Miles: The Tribe’s defense has been solid, apart from Peralta and Valbuena's butchering of two games. You have three legit stars in the field between Sizemore, Choo and Cabrera, and Lou Marson has settled down and thrown out 5-of-14 base stealers.
I think the overall defensive improvement can be attributed to the focus on fundamentals Acta stressed in spring training. Now, if only that could translate into the batter’s box…
5. Fun Question of the Week:
Every dedicated baseball fan has a dream of actually playing for his or her own team at the big league level.
If you truly had the chance to play for the Tribe, what position would you like to play? Where would you like to hit in the order?
Based on your own baseball skill set, no matter how much experience you have actually playing the game, what would be your greatest strength and greatest weakness as a player?
Samantha Bunten: During my mostly-mediocre career on the diamond as a kid, I always hit leadoff because my strengths were speed and being a decent contact hitter. Other than that, it always helped that I was left-handed, though I think I mostly got by due to being the kid on the field most willing to hurt herself to get the job done.
Like every kid, I called shots in pick-up games Babe Ruth-style, only to watch the towering home run I envisioned land somewhere between the pitcher's mound and second base. Suffice it to say my biggest weakness was a total lack of power, followed by a tendency to stop ground balls with my face. Hey, at least I stopped them.
Position-wise, I'm primarily an outfielder, though in my mind, I'm definitely a catcher.
Dale Thomas: I'd play lead guitar and lead vocal...oops, wrong forum...I'd play shortstop and hit in the one-slot.
Forget that my baseball career ended in the ninth grade; that still left me with a nine-year career at short, hitting .315 with two championships. My strengths were putting the ball in play and a solid glove between the bags. My weaknesses were arm strength (some close plays at first, that drove my coaches nuts) and I never hit one out...ever.
Jon Sladek: I would love to be a left-handed middle reliever because as Raffy Perez has shown, you don't even have to get people out to hold down a spot on the Tribe's roster.
Scott Miles: I was fortunate enough to pitch an inning at Jacobs Field in a high school game my senior year, and I’d die for that opportunity again.
I came out of the center field bullpen with the biggest grin on my face. It felt like it took five minutes to jog to the mound. My Solon Comets were up one on Euclid in the sixth when I came in, and I had so much adrenaline going I plunked the first kid in the head with my first pitch. Oops.
I gave up a hit and then our shortstop botched a double play ball, so I had bases loaded with nobody out. Somehow I settled down and after a sacrifice fly tied the game, I got a strikeout and a groundout to end the inning. We won it in the bottom of the seventh with a suicide squeeze play and everyone rushed the field. Just an incredible experience, and I’d give five years off my life to go through it again.