The Indians are coming to Target Field this week, which is fun because the Indians are in first place. They weren’t earlier in the year, though, despite the fact everyone expected them to be. So what happened?
To brush up on the Indians season, I exchanged some questions and answers with SB Nation’s Indians site, Let’s Go Tribe. Those guys are so amazing I got answers from both Matt Lyons and Matt Schlichting!
So without further ado...
Q: The Indians started off 2017 slower than expected. Why?
Lyons: We're still trying to figure that out five months later. The team isn't anymore consistent than they were at the beginning of the season, yet somehow they are staying way above .500. Probably the biggest reason was Corey Kluber's injury. He was dealing with a few different things early in the season, went on the DL, and since June 1 he's been the best pitcher in baseball. Having a pitcher like that start the season injured never helps.
Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, and Josh Tomlin (especially the later two) faced some horrendous differences between xFIP and ERA for the entire first half of the season. Take a quick look at what The Salad Czar and Bauer are doing since then, and it's much more indicative of their actual talent level. Tomlin had two and a half tremendous outings before his leg ligament betrayed him.
Hitters struggled early on as well. Carlos Santana never plays particularly well until August, it seems; this year was especially bad. Jason Kipnis not being himself certainly didn't help either. That, combined with the worst BABIP and BA with RISP in pretty much all of baseball early on made them look like a pretty lackluster offense. Balls are finding gaps now; Santana and Edwin Encarnacion are heating up; and despite Kipnis's lost year, the Indians deploying Ramirez at 2nd as needed certainly helps out.
I wish Gio Urshela could hit, or that Yandy Diaz didn't have a negative average launch angle.
Q: What has been the single biggest factor to the Indians' turn-around?
Lyons: There seems to be a new factor every week, again because of the team's inconsistency. Up until recently it had been Jose Ramirez, but he's struggled. For a time it was Edwin Encarnacion, but he's struggled at times. Bradley Zimmer has been a great rookie in center field, but he's hardly been the biggest reason for the turn-around. I guess if I had to name one thing, it's the rotation getting it's crap together. When Kluber, Carrasco, Salazar, Bauer, and Clevinger are going it leads to a whole lot of wins.
Schlichting: I guess I accidentally touched on this already. It was really the pitching normalizing and the sequencing finally returning to normal, I think. There wasn't "flip the switch" moment. 538 also touched on the fact that by pythag they were expected to be a bit better, and every other AL Central team was expected to be quite a lot worse, which made their start seem more lackluster than it was, I think.
Q: What expectations do you have for the rest of the Indians season?
Lyons: The Indians have a brutal schedule, but I'm going to be optimistic and hope they hit their stride any day now. Either way, I don't think winning the AL Central is very difficult right now (sorrynotsorry).
Q: Were you aware of Derek Falvey (the Twins' new Chief Baseball Officer) when he was working in the Indians front office, or was he just kind of one of those vague front office guys? If you were aware of him, why?
Lyons: Just kind of vaguely aware of him. But anyone that comes from this front office is probably going to do great things. I know that sounds homerish, but there is so much forward-thinking going on in Cleveland right now that it makes me happy to be a fan, especially with an eye on the future. If he learned anything from Chris Antonetti and the rest of the front office, then I expect the Twins to be pretty good in the future. Unless he absorbed all his knowledge from Mark Shapiro, then have fun holding onto every single prospect until they bust.
5. What's your personal opinion of Terry Francona?
Lyons: Love him, but he can't set a lineup to save his life. Luckily, that's one of the least important things about being a manager so I let it slide in my personal opinion of him. Everything else is great and I think he's the perfect fit for this team.
Schlichting: To the extent that he manages player personalities, motivates the clubhouse, and ensures that younger players get the appropriate kind of mentorship and playing time, he's a genius. On a strategy level, he's probably average; I'd guess a lot of the defensive shifting is coming from the front office, and Mickey Callaway is the wizard conjuring up aces out of nowhere. It's tough to tell how much responsibility to assign him for that stuff. If he stopped all the bunting, I'd feel even better about him.
He won't stop all the bunting.
Q: Who is your personal favorite player on the Indians right now?
Lyons: I'm terrible at picking a consistent favorite, but I'm loving just about everything Bradley Zimmer is doing right now. I also just love speedy center fielders and dingers, which is the dictionary definition of "Bradley Zimmer." Look it up.
Schlichting: Jose Ramirez. He's a feisty, lovable Omar Vizquel who shits doubles.
7. Who is your favorite Indians player of all time?
Lyons: As far as just looking at a player's career as a whole, Kenny Lofton. This is the worst reason for liking a player, but he was also great in Ken Griffey Jr.'s Slugfest, the N64 game that initially sparked my love of baseball. As for players I watched and fell in love with in a normal human baseball fan kind of way, Grady Sizemore. For at least those few seasons of greatness, he was my favorite.
Schlichting: Kluber. I know that sounds bizarre given the answer to the last question. If you looked at a rolling two-year "likability" chart, Kluber would be way ahead of everyone on the team right now, and rivaled by only Kenny Lofton and Grady Sizemore, may His passing cleanse the world. J-Ram is like a fun and exciting fling. I'm deeply committed to Kluber.
That doesn't sound weird at all.
Q: Does the drum annoy Indians fans, or is that just an opposing teams' fans thing?
Lyons: Indians fans love it. The only thing Indians fans love more than John Adams' drum is how much opposing fans hate it. Honestly, I don't even notice it at home games anymore, the only time I'm made aware of it is seeing other fans get angry about it on Twitter.
Schlichting: The drum is one of the coolest traditions in all of professional sports. Few things are as exhilarating at a sporting event than someone smacking a go-ahead double while the entire stadium claps along with the Rally Drum. There's even a beer named after it.
9. What is one question I should have asked but didn't, and what is your answer?
Lyons: Q: "Why is Max Kepler the worst."
A: Because he is.
Schlichting: Q: What's the deal with Yandy Diaz?
A: If he raised his launch angle to a reasonable level he'd threaten to hit the first 50 double 50 homer season since Albert Belle. He's hitting .350 in Columbus right now and is an average glove at worst, but he hits like 70% of his batted balls on the ground. I honestly believe he would be a superstar if he could just make the necessary changes to his swing. At 26, the clock is ticking...
Thanks again to Matt Lyons and Matt Schlichting for taking the time to answer these questions! You can follow both Lyons @mattrly and Schlichting @MattSchlichting on Twitter, and read more of their writing at Let’s Go Tribe.