Welcome to Tribe Talk, where Bleacher Report's Cleveland Indians fans weigh in on the ups and downs of the club each week throughout the season.
This week, we fret about the Tigers nipping at our heels, discuss the firing of Joe Nunnally and give a shout to the fearsome Bullpen Mafia.
I would like to thank this week's participants (Dale Thomas and Jim Piascik) for their contributions. This discussion is open to all, so please feel free to comment below and pitch your thoughts on the questions we're addressing this week.
1. Last week the Indians had a brush with disaster when they briefly dropped out of first place and fell behind the Detroit Tigers. Fortunately the Indians, as of Thursday, found their way back and regained their tenuous lead in the AL Central.
A lead of just one game is always nerve-wracking, no matter what point in the season it is, but given the current situation, exactly how much is this fraying your nerves? Does having a lead of just one game worry you more when that team is Detroit than it would if it were, say, Kansas City?
Just how much of a lead over the Tigers would you need to feel relatively comfortable at this point in the season, and why is that number the magic one for you?
Dale Thomas: When so much of the season is yet to be played, I don't get terribly kinked-up, but I'll admit that when they get shut out, I get testy about it.
At this point in the season, due to the lack of hitting, I'm not exactly brimming with confidence, so if we get to the break with any lead at all, I'll be feeling good.
I'll go on record now as saying look out for the Twins down the road in the second half. The division is soft enough to let them back in.
Samantha Bunten: It isn't just the Tigers that scare me. The bottom line with the AL Central is that for the first half to three-quarters of the season, it's often a four-team race. Obviously the Tribe, the Tigers and the White Sox are in the mix, and with the way the Twins have been playing lately, you have to wonder if they won't jump back into the race as well.
Still, you've got to focus on the enemy right in front of you (or in this case, one game behind you) and, for now, that's the Tigers. If you want to quantify the lead we need, the answer at this point in the season is, sadly, either "something like 12 games" or "no lead is big enough."
It's tempting to say that if we got eight or nine games up we could all relax, but we've already lost our lead once this season after being eight games up. Really though, it's just about staying out in front. At the end of the season, the margin won't matter; a team that wins the division by one game makes it to the same playoffs as a team that wins the division by 10 games.
Jim Piascik: I'd like to see the lead get back to around three or four games. That way if we have a couple of bad games back-to-back, it won't mean dropping out of the division lead.
While the Tigers do scare me more than the Royals, before the season I didn't think (and I still don't) that the Tigers could win the division. I still feel the White Sox will end up being our biggest threat. But that's just me.
2. A big reason why the Tribe still has a lot of folks worried about whether they can hold off the Tigers, despite having recently regained first place from them, is that many feel that this had more to do with Detroit playing poorly than Cleveland playing well.
In other words, many feel that the Indians are not playing well enough to lead their division and now occupy first place because the Tigers lost it, not because they won it.
How much, if at all, do you agree with this line of thinking? Do you think this is an indication that Detroit will ultimately bypass the Indians?
If that reasoning for the Indians' current status is true, does it really matter if the Indians are only in first because Detroit has played poorly, rather than because they've played well? Or, is who has the better record really the only thing that matters?
And the million dollar question—who is ultimately the better team: Cleveland or Detroit? How so?
Dale Thomas: It seems to me that both Cleveland and Detroit go from playing well to being downright embarrassing. I'd say both teams have opened the door to the other.
Regardless, I still think the Indians are a bit better because of a stronger bullpen. I'm told that pitching trumps hitting. It doesn't look like this division is going to be contending for a wild card, so since the best record wins the division, I'll go with that.
Samantha Bunten: It's strange how many people are willing to say that Detroit is the better team, despite the fact that they've been in first place in the division for about a day; the Indians have been there for pretty much the entire rest of the season.
I know this paranoia is somewhat justifiable since this is Cleveland after all and, generally speaking, if it can go wrong, it does. Still, when it comes down to it, we've seen both teams play well and both teams play poorly. Whether the poor play of one has allowed the other to sneak past them doesn't really matter much in terms of the end result.
No matter how you swing it, the better team is the one in first place. Right now that's the Tribe—and it has been the Tribe for the majority of the season. Let's give them credit for that instead of spending all of our time predicting their demise.
Jim Piascik: I don't agree at all. It doesn't matter how you get there, just so long as you do. We're in first place because we've played better to this point. The Tigers have their flaws and so do we. For now, though, we're the better team.
3. With Tribe hitters slumping very badly as a group over the last few weeks and showing no real signs of coming back to life, some sort of action had to be taken. And indeed it was last Sunday, when the Indians fired hitting coach Joe Nunnally.
Do you think firing Nunnally was a good move? Why or why not? Do you think minor league hitting coordinator Bruce Fields was a good choice to replace him, both in an interim and potentially permanent capacity?
Dale Thomas: Firing the hitting coach was just weird. The guys came out of spring training on fire. They were really patient, forcing starters to throw a lot of pitches and giving themselves a chance to get their pitch to hit. They also had a knack for cranking their focus up a notch in the clutch.
So, what happened? Lots of stuff. Film. Injuries. Batting order changes. Better pitching. Streaks. Slumps. Pride. Shame. Voodoo. Ah, what the heck, let's blame Nunnally. Pretty soon we can blame Fields.
After that maybe some of these guys will have to look in the mirror and count up the times they've been swinging at the first two pitches, then finding themselves 0-2 and swinging at ball three.
Samantha Bunten: If your team is terrible, you fire the manager. You remove the guy in charge if his being in charge isn't producing enough wins. I'm not sure it works the same way with an assistant coach, even if his hitters aren't producing enough hits. Especially when your team is, uh, in first place.
While there is evidence to suggest that firing a manager improves a struggling team's chances, there isn't much evidence to support that firing a hitting coach does the same for struggling hitters. Problems at the plate or not, this is a first-place team.
I understand the theory that you still have to proactively address problems even when you're in the lead in order to avoid complacency, but I'm not sure firing the hitting coach is going to fix the team's struggles at the plate.
They hit well for the majority of the season under Nunnally. They'll hit well again for a long stretch under Fields. Both men are clearly capable hitting instructors or they wouldn't have been hired in the first place. I don't like playing the blame game when the team is, overall, a success. It's a slippery slope. Does this mean we have to identify the person responsible for Fausto Carmona and fire him too, even though the pitching staff and the team continue to win?
Jim Piascik: I don't think these assistant coaching changes have that much of an effect, but I get why they're done. Maybe a different voice will help the Tribe more. I don't know anything about Bruce Fields, so hopefully he'll be what the Tribe hitters need.
Who is your favorite member of the Bullpen Mafia?
4. While the Indians offense and starting pitching have both had their moments this season, the most consistent part of the team and one of the biggest reasons they keep winning is, arguably, the bullpen.
Certainly, there are some members of the bullpen who have struggled with consistency this season, but overall the group has done their job well.
How much do you think the bullpen has factored into the Tribe's current first place standing this season?
Which members of the self-described "Bullpen Mafia" do you think have had the most positive impact for the Tribe this season? Are there any bullpen pitchers who, despite the group's good performance as a whole, are still disappointing or concerning you with their individual performances?
Dale Thomas: The bullpen has been a huge factor. We've been in a lot of close games, both high and low scoring. Our long relief has been the weakest link, and it's much improved over the last several games.
Overall, I think the entire pen is pitching well right now, so they all get the "most positive impact" award. Chris Perez, of course, gets the bonus sham-wow for being the best of the lot.
Samantha Bunten: I really just can't say enough good things about the Bullpen Mafia. Vinny Pestano, Tony Sipp and the Perezes have all been fantastic in most of their appearances, and the rest of the pen (with the exception of a couple of long relievers) has been outstanding as well.
At this point, they are the strongest part of our team. Plus, I love their unity and enthusiasm. I've never seen a group of relief pitchers who were so consistently fired up and visibly determined to win. That alone is worth a lot.
Jim Piascik: I think the bullpen has done a wonderful job, but I'm not sure how much they contribute to the overall winning. They only factor into three or four innings in most games. Maybe we're all selling our starting pitching and hitting short. I know I have been.
I'd say that since we expect greatness out of both Perezes and Sipp, Vinnie Pestano has had the most positive impact for the Tribe this season. When one of the last relievers to make the team emerges as an elite bullpen option, you're in good shape.
On the other end, I'd still love to see them get rid of Chad Durbin.
5. Fun Question of the Week: The fun of going to a baseball game isn't just about the ballgame itself, it's about the entire ballpark experience. That, of course, includes raiding the concession stands for your favorite ballpark treats.
Tell us, what are you favorite ballpark foods? Do you have a specific favorite thing to eat at Progressive Field? Regardless of location or the sport being played, what is, hands down, the best thing you've ever eaten in ANY stadium and where was it?
Dale Thomas: At the Jake, it's hot dogs—and I ain't talking about no "all beef" AKC-registered show dogs. I mean the original "have no idea what's in it" Sugardale dog that's been handed down the row by at least 15 people.
The burgers are good too, but at eight dollars a pop, they should be a steak. As far as other stadiums go, I'd have to say—umm—hot dogs. I really don't get why any of 'em serve the other stuff.
Samantha Bunten: I'm a big fan of the waffle fries at The Jake and, of course, if you know which stand to go to, the hot dogs are pretty darn good as well (yes, it does differ from stand to stand!).
If you really want the best hot dog that baseball has to offer though, you need to go to a minor league game in Brooklyn, New York and check out the Cyclones. Their ballpark is located on Coney Island and is directly adjacent to the world famous Nathan's Hot Dogs. That's what they serve in their park as well, and they're pretty much the best dogs you'll ever have.
Jim Piascik: I love the hot dogs and nachos. I went up to the second Rockies game and had a delicious plate of nachos that, while not quite worth $6.75, were still great.
I haven't had any of the Aeros cuisine yet, but I'd love to try it some day. They have a crazy amount of specialty foods now. The "Nice 2 Meat You Burger" is the first thing I want to try. If you don't know what that is, you should go look it up.