During each day of the break we'll look at a different contender in the division -- sorry Royals, you're the only team left out. Let's take them in order of the current standings and start with the Indians.
I don't think anyone would argue with the fact the Indians' run at the Central Division title is a bit of a surprise. Maybe that's understatement. A big surprise. But standing around saying "This can't last" will do us no good. We should probably figure out how the Indians have been winning, how likely they are to keep winning and what might happen the rest of the year.
Just glancing at their year-to-date stats, I find their record doesn't surprise me greatly. Their place in the division doesn't surprise me either based on the fact no team has really run away with things. They enter the break five games over .500, with average batting, serviceable starting pitching and a good bullpen. Obviously their record has been bolstered by some late-innings victories, such as the recent five-run ninth helped by a Travis Hafner grand slam. But that comes from having a team that stays in the games and holds opponents down in the later innings.
So no, stats-wise, I am not suprised by the Indians. The real questions, then, are am I suprised by the Indians stats? And how likely are they to keep playing at similar rates?
The first few things that pop out to me:
Justin Masterson is pitching his butt off. We know he's a pretty good young player, but a 2.66 ERA? Strangely he's only won seven games. (Take that "pitcher wins matter" people!) His FIP is 3.08. His HR/FB rate is better than half his career norms. So I dont think he'll finish the season pitching this well. Stranger things have been known to happen, but I think he's bound to slide back a little bit.
Josh Tomlin is over his head. He has a 3.81 ERA while striking out about five batters per nine innings and throwing with a .245 BABIP. His FIP isn't much higher than his ERA but he's walking 1 per nine innings, way better than at any point in the minor leagues. That's a regression candidate if I've ever seen one. (Not that regression has to happen. Armando Galarraga got through 2008 with an inordinarily low BABIP before paying the piper in later seasons).
Fausto Carmona -- on the DL right now -- is probably not as bad as his 4-10 record, but he's suffering from having a poor stranded runners figure (less than 60%).
Jeanmar Gomez may take his place in the rotation, but he's at best a fifth starter with poor numbers in the majors and during most of his minor-league career.
The rest of the rotation stands to improve a bit on their numbers as well. All-in-all though, this isn't a real good rotation beyond Masterson.
I hesitate to comment too much on the bullpen. They are so fickle. You can spend all season shouting that the stats will even out without it happening. But if I were to point out a few players to keep an eye on ...
Joe Smith has an ERA below 1.00. His strikeout (5.40 K/9) to walk (3.13 BB/9) isn't exciting. He's stranding nearly 90% of the runners -- 13% above his career norm. For that reason ZiPS sees his ERA for the rest of the season coming in at 4.13.
Tony Sipp has a BABIP of .163, nearly 60 points better than his career norm. He's stranding 95% of base runners. Something tells me that's going to be hard to keep up.
Rafael Perez hasn't given up a home run. Is Vinnie Pestano really that good? Maybe. I don't know. He's an interesting story anyway. I wouldn't want to predict either player will make any big U-turns in performance, however.
Finally it's worth noting the Indians defensive stats aren't exactly great. Defensive efficiency, UZR, DRS, whatever figure you like to use, the Indians range between average and below average. So that's even more reason to believe those BABIPs aren't going to remain that low.
Pitching conclusion: They've got a good one in Masterson, but not quite that good. Tomlin is primed to slide back to the middle of the road. The rest of the rotation are basically No. 4-5 starters. The bullpen has been good, but there's definitely some guys pitching over their heads. I think we'll see a worse second half.
The Indians' offense is basically driven by three players: Hafner, Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana. Hafner is playing like it's 2005 or 2006 all over again. Cabrera is above his career norms, helped by a pretty good run early in the year. Carlos Santana is obviously just really good.
Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley and Grady Sizemore are producing at about average levels. And the rest? Well, they play baseball.
Looking closer, I'd have to say Haffner won't continue at this clip. His average is higher than any single season in his career. His OBP ranks near the top. His power is the most since 2006. I'm not saying he won't still be productive. He's healthier this season. But maybe not this productive.
Cabrera is having his best season overall too, helped mainly by a surge in power. His ISO is up .125 since last year and 66 points above his career high. His stats are pretty solid in every month, but driven quite a bit by a .947 OPS in May.
Looking at the second group, it's harder to project. Sizemore had microfracture knee surgery last year and it's caused some hiccups. So he's below his career norms but he was once a pretty good ballplayer. Brantley appears to be overperforming, but ZiPS actually sees a little room for improvement in the second half. So I wouldn't see a slide there. LaPorta is a bit of a confusing figure as well. At first glance you'd think he's overperforming, but his BABIP is pretty low so he should actually improve. He may finally have found his power stroke that was evident in the minor leagues.
Austin Kearns, playing in his first season in the AL, is doing pretty poorly across the board. He's below all his career norms and could bounce back. Orlando Cabrera, as well, is playing below both career norms and expectations. He could bounce back some.
Shin-Soo Choo was having a bad season even before he was injured by a pitch. So I'll just call him incomplete. But if he were to come back the same player he was in prior years, that would be a big step up.
Batting conclusion: I don't think that the Indians offense did substantially better or worse in the first half than it should do in the second. We'll see some guys fade a bit and other guys step up I think. It's a decent bunch overall.
One big reason the Indians were even in the conversation for the division is an 18-8 April. Since that point they've gone five games under .500. They went 14-12 in May, 10-17 in June and 5-5 so far in July. More likely than not, the team that has shown up the past 30 or 40 games is the real Indians.
Their second-half schedule isn't awful. They have the second easiest by winning percentage (.484) behind the Tigers. Cleveland's strength of schedule might be understated a bit because the Twins have been playing much better than their overall record and they face them 13 times. They also have 10 games at Boston and Texas remaining.
They are 13-12 vs. division opponents, but nine of those wins came in April (or May 1). They are 4-6 since then.
Whether or not the Indians go away completely is really up to the other teams in the division. I wouldn't expect them to start playing .400 ball. Odds aren't in their favor to play above.500 ball the rest of the season either. I do think they could play well enough to hang around if the Tigers don't get hot. The White Sox and Twins dug themselves at bit of a hole in the first half, so they'll have to sustain a hot streak for longer to first catch up in the standings.
At the end of the year they'll have a respectable record -- especially when you compare that to preseason expectations. They should be within two to three games of .500 -- who's to say which side of it. So I'd put them at 79 to 83 wins for the most likely scenario. They just don't have the horses to be a playoff team.
Some numbers (rankings are AL only):
Record: 47-42 (.528). Five games over 500.
From Baseball Prospectus:
Playoff odd: 15.6%
Expected win % rest of the season: .469
Simulated wins: 80.8
Defensive efficiency: .712 (8th)
Rotation ERA: 4.34 (11th)
FIP: 4.08 (11th)
Bullpen ERA: 3.18 (3rd)
FIP: 3.57 (5th)
AVG: .250 (10th)
OBP: .320 (7th)
SLG: .393 (9th)
wOBA: .316 (8th)
Baserunning: 3.2 (4th)
UZR: fielding: -3.9 (9th)
Defensive Runs Saved: -17 (12th)