Cleveland Indians: 5 Reasons Why Travis Hafner Is Key to AL Central Race
It wasn't long ago that the Cleveland Indians looked like they were going to run away with the American League central division title.
However, their once-distant lead evaporated as they have traded first place with the Detroit Tigers several times during the past few weeks. The Chicago White Sox have added to the AL central congestion by storming back into contention, sitting only 4.5 games out of first place.
But now designated hitter Travis Hafner has returned to the Indians' lineup, and it looks like they have stopped the bleeding. They have won two out of three games in each of the last three series and have regained the top spot in the division.
Hafner's performance during the rest of the season will have a direct impact on how the central division race plays out. Here's why:
5. Right-Handed Pitchers vs. Left-Handed Hafner
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
13 of the 20 starting pitchers the Indians could face in the central division are right-handed, and Hafner tends to hit better against right-handers. More than half of the Indians' games for the rest of the season will be against the central division, giving him plenty of chances to take advantage of right-handed pitching.
4. The Indians' Starting Pitching Can't Carry the Team
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
The Indians' bullpen has been outstanding this season, and the overall starting pitching has also been adequate. But they don't have the kind of starting rotation that can win low-scoring games on a regular basis.
Josh Tomlin, Carlos Carrasco and Justin Masterson have been solid, but Mitch Talbot and Fausto Carmona have had forgettable campaigns in 2011. The starting rotation may be in for a shake-up with Zach McAllister ready to debut for the team.
The team's total ERA ranks seventh out of the 14 American League teams, while the Indians' offense ranks seventh in runs scored. They're going to need strong support from the offense to compensate for their average pitching, and how well they hit will depend on Hafner.
3. The Indians' Other Hitters Haven't Stepped Up
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Most people didn't think the Indians would contend this season, but most people didn't think that Carlos Santana, Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore would struggle at the plate, either. None of them are hitting more than .250, Sizemore has been injured throughout the year and Shin-Soo Choo will be on the disabled list for 8-10 weeks with an injured thumb.
The Tribe's most consistent hitters other than Hafner have been Asdrubal Cabrera and Michael Brantley, and neither are hitting more than .300. The team's inconsistent overall hitting makes Hafner's bat that much more important as the central division race intensifies.
2. Hafner Hits Well Against Central Division Pitchers
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Hafner has feasted on most of the pitchers he's faced this season, hitting .338 with a .423 on-base percentage. He's done especially well against pitchers in the central division, hitting .354 against in 13 games this season.
The Indians have 47 games remaining against the central division this season, and Hafner needs to continue the success he's had against those pitchers if the Indians are to stay in first place.
1. The Indians Don't Win Without Him
Jason Miller/Getty Images
Overall, the Indians are 22-26 in games that Hafner didn't start, but they nearly collapsed during his recent stint on the DL, going 10-18 and falling out of first place in the Central division.
Not surprisingly, the offense was the weakest link during that span, struggling to offer consistent run support for their pitchers.
Hafner is the heart of the Indians' lineup, and his hitting has compensated for the disappointing numbers from Carlos Santana, Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo thus far. Without him the lineup undergoes ineffective batting order changes because their depth is limited.
Hafner doesn't have to play every day, but the Indians will be in trouble if they lose the oft-injured Hafner for extended periods of time.