Before the season began, the Cleveland Indians were a popular pick to end the Detroit Tigers' four-year reign over the American League Central Division. Sporting a record-breaking starting rotation from a year ago and a lineup bolstered by one of the more underrated left-handed bats in the American League, the Tribe looked the part. Sports Illustrated even picked the Indians to end Cleveland's championship drought.
Then, as they have all too often over the past four years, the Tigers made a statement. Fresh off an opening series sweep over the Minnesota Twins, the Tigers rolled into Cleveland and rolled over the Tribe, scoring 25 runs in a three-game sweep. The Indians, sitting on a 2-4 record after the sweep, struggled to put things together over the next six weeks. They dropped two of three to the Tigers in Detroit, floundering their way to a 14-23 start that left them 9 1/2 games behind the Kansas City Royals.
The Indians are far too talented to be a last place team, though, and they have started acting like it lately. After an extra innings loss to the Chicago White Sox on May 18, the Tribe reeled off six consecutive wins. They have won 14 of their past 22 games, gaining 2 1/2 games on the first-place Royals in the meantime. They are still in last place, but have a chance to make up some quick ground with two series against the Tigers in the next two weeks.
As expected during preseason predictions, the Indians' strong pitching has spurned this recent run. The Indians pitching staff has allowed just 72 runs in the team's past 22 games, an average of just 3.27 runs per game. They have held opponents to three runs or fewer in 15 of those 22 games, and are 13-2 in those contests. Even journeyman Shaun Marcum has pitched well, putting together solid efforts in three of his four recent starts.
While the Tribe are somewhat shorthanded -- struggling infielders Lonnie Chisenhall and Jose Ramirez were both recently sent down to the minors -- they have three of their best starters scheduled to face a Tigers lineup that is still struggling to score runs. Meanwhile, Justin Verlander will make his season debut against an Indians team that has had no difficulty solving him in recent years. Verlander allowed 20 runs (16 earned) in 30 1/3 innings against the Tribe last season.
Game 1: Friday, 7:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: RHP Danny Salazar (6-1, 3.50 ERA) vs. LHP David Price (5-2, 2.70 ERA)
Danny Salazar was demoted to Triple-A Columbus after a rough spring training. It was a surprising but understandable move after Salazar scuffled his way to a 4.25 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in 110 innings last season. While Salazar's FIP was low thanks to a high strikeout rate, he struggled to work deep into games. Salazar worked seven innings or more in just four of his 20 starts at the MLB level last year, but failed to make it through the fifth inning on seven occasions. A strong finish to the season -- including a shutout of the Tigers in September -- left Tribe fans optimistic about 2015, but an 8.18 ERA in 11 Cactus League innings this season doomed him to the minors.
That demotion lasted all of one start, a dominant six-inning performance with seven strikeouts. Salazar was recalled shortly after and produced back-to-back double-digit strikeout performances to open his MLB season, including a win over the Tigers on April 24. Other than one real clunker of a start, Salazar has proven to be the dominant force that many Indians fans expected when he blazed through the minors. He has a 3.50 ERA on the season (3.00 if you remove that rough outing) and leads the major leagues with 11.82 strikeouts per nine innings. He has already matched his total of seven-inning performances from a year ago, and has been knocked out in the fifth inning only one time. An elevated home run rate is the only thing stopping him from moving into the upper echelon of American League starters, as his 2.66 xFIP attests.
Game 2: Saturday, 4:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: RHP Carlos Carrasco (7-5, 4.35 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (15-12, 4.54 ERA in 2014)
A lot was made of Carlos Carrasco's scalding finish to the 2014 season, and whether he would be able to sustain some level of that production in 2015. The short answer? Yes and no. Carrasco has maintained the excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio he had last season, even upping his strikeout rate slightly. His 27.1 percent strikeout rate ranks 10th among qualified MLB starters, yet only third on his own team. A slight bump in home run rate has elevated Carrasco's FIP from 2.44 in 2014 to 2.79 this season. Other advanced metrics indicate a similar but insignificant drop-off in performance.
This does not mesh with Carrasco's mid-fours ERA. After holding batters to a .209 average and .256 on-base percentage last season, opponents are hitting .254 with a .299 on-base percentage this season. Power is also up, as Carrasco has already allowed more extra base hits than he did in all of 2014. His line drive is nearly identical to last season, but opponents have a .333 BABIP this year, 59 points higher than the .274 BABIP they were limited to in 2014. This is bound to decline at some point, and should settle near .300 by the end of the season.
Game 3: Sunday, 1:08 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: RHP Corey Kluber (3-7, 3.53 ERA) vs. RHP Alfredo Simon (6-3, 2.76 ERA)
It's absurd to think that Corey Kluber, he of the 2.30 FIP and an MLB-leading 3.0 WAR, has a worse win-loss record than Anibal Sanchez. While Sanchez has been better lately, he has struggled for long stretches this season, and is currently sporting a 5.13 ERA. Kluber's ERA is much better at 3.53, but is still over a run higher than his FIP.
However, if we split Kluber's season in half, we find two very distinct performances. In his first seven starts, he allowed a 5.04 ERA in 44 2/3 innings with a 4.18 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Since then, Kluber has been dominant. An 18-strikeout performance against the White Sox kicked off Kluber's current six-game stretch in which he has a 2.11 ERA and a 10.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has worked at least seven innings in all of those starts, with three starts of 12 strikeouts or more.
The reason for the losses? A serious lack of run support. The Indians have scored two runs or fewer in nine of Kluber's 13 starts, including five of his six outings during this recent stretch. Despite the ungodly numbers, Kluber is just 2-2 since his near-record-breaking performance. Overall, the Indians are an astounding 3-10 when he takes the mound this season.
Hitter to fear: Jason Kipnis (.333/.410/.511 in 275 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Michael Bourn (.243/.315/.299 in 202 plate appearances)
After an All-Star season with 17 home runs and 30 stolen bases in 2013, Jason Kipnis fell flat in 2014. He hit just .240/.310/.330 and was never able to shake the oblique strain that sidelined him for most of May. After a slow start this April, Kipnis went nuclear in May, batting .429/.511/.706 with four home runs and 17 RBI. The breakout performance has thrust Kipnis into the All-Star conversation again -- or would have, if it were not for rogue voters.
Unfortunately for Cleveland, Kipnis' performance has mostly been a solo act. Michael Brantley is hitting .300/.379/.458, but no other Tribe hitter with at least 150 plate appearances is hitting above .250. A six-run outburst in yesterday's win over the Seattle Mariners pushed them into fifth place in the AL with 253 runs scored this season. They broke out towards the end of May with an impressive showing during the team's late run, but have fallen off in June, scoring just 3.11 runs per game.
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