We are roughly 20% of the way through the 2012 season now. The White Sox sit near .500, 3 games back of 1st place in the A.L. Central standings. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who had realistic expectations before the season began. What might surprise is the team sitting atop those standings, the Cleveland Indians. Even after dropping the last two games of their series with the Sox, 1st place is where we find the Indians today.
Is this likely to keep up? I’d argue that it’s not. Strange things happen over full baseball seasons, but even stranger things happen in smaller samplings. You may recall the Indians were 30-15 at one point last season, with a large lead in the division. They finished with a losing record and 15 games behind Detroit. My guess is they end 2012 a little closer than that, but well behind the Tigers (and perhaps others) nonetheless. Instead of simply saying “no” though, or “I’m not sure (which of course is true),” allow me to take a look at what’s been going on with the Indians, how they’re doing it, so to speak:
On the run prevention side, Cleveland’s pitching looks about league average; both their team ERA and runs allowed per game are middle of the pack (a bit below average, in fact). Looking closer though, we see that the Indians are not striking anyone out (12th of 14 in the A.L.). They are also walking a lot of guys (13th of 14). That is not a good combination. So far, Cleveland’s pitching staff is getting by with (probably) an unsustainably low HR/9 rate (HR/9 is how many HR per 9 innings they’re giving up). They lead the league at .80, is 11% better than other team in the league and which, if it were to hold up for the entire season, would be the lowest American League figure since before the 1994 work stoppage (the 1993 Royals, White Sox, and Red Sox were the last teams to best that mark, one way of looking at how baseball really did begin a new era in 1994).
Cleveland’s starting rotation has some ground-ball tendencies, which should suppress the team’s HR rate a bit. To a historically low level though? I think not. Instead, I expect we’re going to see them giving up more home runs just as soon as the law of averages catches up with them a bit.
Pitchers like Justin Masterson and Ublado Jimenez have recent successful seasons on their resume, and Cleveland’s bullpen was a legitimate strength last season, so there is room for improvement in places over the early 2012 performance, but if the Indians overall run prevention moves much in either direction, I think it’s likely to be for the worse.
On the offensive side of the game, the Indians look pretty solid; they’re leading the division in runs per game. Once again though, a closer look spots some potential red flags. For one thing, to say they’re leading the division in runs per game is somewhat misleading, even if it is entirely true. The American League’s best offense so far has belonged to the Texas Rangers. The next five teams on the list are the entirety of the A.L. East. The Indians are 7th overall in the A.L., just barely in the top half. They are also in the bottom half of the league in HR, AVG, and SLG. They aren’t hitting the ball very well.
What they are doing very well? Walking.
Yes, so far the Indians’ secret weapon has been four wide ones. BB% is just what it sounds like, the percentage of a team’s plate appearances that turn into walks. Right now, Cleveland leads all of baseball in walk rate, at 11.7%. To give that figure a little context, in the American League the median is 7.95%, the Rays are 2nd at 10.4%, and the Angels are last at 6.4%.
Here are the American League leading teams for the last five years:
2007: Red Sox, 10.7% (Indians 4th, 9.3%)
2008: Red Sox, 10.1% (Indians 6th, 8.9%)
2009: Red Sox, 10.4% (Indians 5th, 9.2%)
2010: Rays, 10.7% (Indians 5th, 8.8%)
2011: Yankees, 9.9% (Indians 7th, 8.0%)
2007-11 total: Red Sox, 9.9% (Indians 5th, 8.9%)
I hope that data helps to convey that the Indians current 11.7% mark is very high.
Looking at things individually, Carlos Santana (2nd), Travis Hafner (4th), Shelley Duncan (9th), Shin-Soo Choo (11th), Jack Hannahan (18th), and Asdrubal Cabrera (20th) are all in the American League’s top 20 in BB%. No other team has more than three players in the top 20.
I don’t expect Cleveland to finish with an 11.7 BB% (no team has finished with that high a rate since 2000), but they do have a lot of players who profile as high BB% types (when I say “profile,” I mean that in looking at their numbers from previous seasons and/or scouting reports, we can expect something of this sort from them), so unlike the incredibly low HR rate their pitching staff is putting up so far, I actually think the walks are somewhat sustainable.
Hits are nice, but baserunners are important no matter how they happen. Over 162 games, the team with the most talent on the field will usually win. In the 2012 American League Central, that’s almost certainly not Cleveland. Teams with less overall talent have to combine good fortune with good play, and exploit whatever advantages they can find. If Cleveland has actually found a way to have so many of its hitters showing such patience, it’s found one such advantage.