The unexpected first half of the 2014 Cleveland Indians

Progressive Field

The Indians opened the unofficial second half of their season last night with a comeback 9-3 win over the Tigers. The Indians started the second half at 47-47, and despite the fact that 47-47 is only .500 and only good enough for third place, I think I’m mostly relieved, if not pleasantly surprised, at what the Indians have managed to make of their season so far. The Tribe aren’t out of it by any means, and if they’re able to reverse some of the problems they’ve had in the first half, we’ll be well on our way to another October run.

Something to build on

A preview of the 2014 Cleveland Indians

The Indians at Progressive Field

This past Christmas, my parents gave me a board game called Ticket to Ride. The game begins with you choosing up to three route cards, which become your mission for the rest of the game: it becomes your job to build a network of railroads across the United States that fulfill each of your route cards. You can only build track between certain cities, and your opponents may be competing for similar sections of the same route. But at the beginning of the game, everything is wide open and you’re starting from scratch. It’s a little intimidating at first because it’s not clear which segments will be in most demand and what your opponents are trying to do. But as the game progresses, you start to build your own little rail network. Most of the time, you’re able to finish your initial route cards and so you take more. But with your new routes, you usually have something to build on. For example, you might have had New York to Los Angeles as an initial route and a new route is Chicago to Boston. If you built your New York-LA route through Chicago, then you only need to connect New York and Boston and you’ve fulfilled another route, and you get the same amount of points even though you had to do very little additional work.

At the end of the game, everyone shows the routes they’ve fulfilled and the ones they failed to fulfill, and they add up their points. And then you declare a winner, and the game just sort of…ends. For me at least, it’s sort of a letdown. Playing again seems exhausting, because you’d have to start all over again, and you feel like you’d rather have kept going with the network of tracks you already have built.

That’s the same feeling I had at the end of the 2013 Cleveland Indians season. The Indians had made an improbable run, capped off by a ridiculous September where they went 21-6 and ended the season on a 10-game win streak. It was enough to capture the top Wild Card seed, and earn home-field advantage for a one-game playoff against the Tampa Bay Rays on October 2nd. But baseball is a tricky game, and even though the Indians were as hot as any team in the league going into that game, they came out flat against the Rays and failed to advance to the division series. Just like that, the season was over. Back to an empty board.

A lot went right for the Indians last year. The 2013 Indians had a Pythagorean win expectation of 0.553, which was only slightly below their actual win percentage (0.568) and means the Indians should only have won 2 less games (although it should be noted that those 2 wins were the difference between a Wild Card spot and not). But they were 10-2 in extra innings, which is somewhat indicative of a strong bullpen but mostly just means they got lucky. And outside of those basic statistics, the Indians got better-than-expected production: from Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, who were were both as good we could have hoped; from the bullpen, who proved to be remarkably durable despite some bad performances by Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez; and from the offense, with contributions from journeymen like Mark Reynolds and Ryan Raburn as well as the ageless Jason Giambi.

In 2014, the Indians won’t have Jimenez or Kazmir, they won’t have Chris Perez, and they’ll be relying on bounceback years from Vinnie Pestano and Asdrubal Cabrera as well as repeated success from Ryan Raburn and Jason Giambi. After that ridiculously long introduction, I’ll break down the Indians’ chances after the break.

Home stretch

The sun sets on the 2013 season at Progressive Field.

The sun sets on the 2013 season at Progressive Field.

Last night I went to my second Indians game of the year, the last home game of the season for the Tribe. Indians games are always a good idea, but ever since moving to South Carolina I try to get to a game every time I’m in town. I planned this visit home about a month and a half ago, but as the weeks passed and the trip got closer, the American League Wild Card race got closer and more interesting, and it became more and more evident that it’d be important to be at Progressive Field sometime this week. I decided it was important enough to leave a day early to give myself time to get to the stadium before the Tribe wrapped their home schedule.

I should mention that the night before last, the Indians led for most of the game before giving up a one-run lead in the top of the ninth on two White Sox solo home runs. But then in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and a runner on second, Jason Giambi, who is 42 and earlier this season slid head first into first base to stretch out at infield single, hammered a 1-1 pitch into the lower deck to give the Indians a 5-4 win. (Reason #1,425,241 why I love baseball: plays like this. Did I mention the score was 14-2 at the time?) It was the Indians’ 11th walk-off, which means that for any given home game this season, you had almost a 15% chance to see a walk-off win (want to see them all?). But it was last night that seemed to say, hey, you know what? We might actually pull this off. And it was for that reason that the Final Day crowd numbered 30,942, not a sellout, but a pretty good night all the same.

I’ve been to over fifty games at Progressive Field. Three of those were Opening Days, two more were playoff games; another was a division clincher and every game I attended before 2002 was a sellout. But last night was unique. I learned that the people at a last home game of the season are a vastly different crowd than Opening Day or even the playoffs. Opening Day, in a lot of ways, is a national holiday. After all the preceding pageantry and ceremony, the game seems almost secondary. People are there because it seems like a place to be that day (and if you can use it as an excuse to get out of a half day of work, why not)? Playoff games are also different: playoff fans are intense, but not necessarily knowledgable; excited, but not necessarily invested. If the Indians were to make the playoffs, the stadium would sell out for each home game. But the odds would be that a good portion of those fans hadn’t been to a game in 2013, maybe longer. Many of them only tune in once things get really interesting (sort of like me and the NBA).

But the last game of the season crowd was really interesting. These were knowledgable fans, who knew when to cheer (I give them credit for the standing ovation for Giambi, but I give them even more credit for the standing ovation for Masterson). When the scores of the Rays’ and Rangers’ games were announced, and both were winning, the crowd knew to boo, because those are both teams that would help the Indians out a ton by losing. There were big roars of approval for strikeouts in big moments. I didn’t ask around, but I bet most people weren’t at Progressive Field last night for the first time in 2013. The difference between the Opening Day crowd and the Final Day crowd can be summed up with the following statement: the Opening Day crowd is glad to have baseball back, but doesn’t really notice it’s gone; the Final Day crowd is dreading the offseason, dreading the long, baseball-free winter.

Last night felt like a final number for the Indians, a band on stage playing their final song of the set. But the way we were roaring, the electricity in the building and the intensity of what wasn’t a particularly close game, it felt like the crowd was demanding an encore. The Indians won last night, extending their winning streak to six overall, fourteen against the White Sox (which is ridiculous), and running their home record to 51-30. It was a typical Indians win: not entirely clean, not entirely efficient, but effective, and it got contributions from everyone.

I remembered last night that the Indians are more than a team who plays in Cleveland. Back when I was a kid I liked all the Indians, but to me they were always part of a whole and if they weren’t on the Indians I didn’t necessarily root for them. I remember assuming that as the fan, I cared the most, that if they lost it wouldn’t bother them much and they’d just try again the next season. But as the 90s and the yearly playoff visits faded into memory, I came to realize that careers are finite, and chances like this don’t come around all the time. Which is why I want this not just for the organization, the fans and the city of Cleveland, but for the guys on the team. For Nick Swisher, who turned down money from big market teams to play the hometown hero. For Brantley, Bourn, Chisenhall, Kipnis and Santana, who have yet to play in the postseason despite being super talented. For Jason Giambi, who could have retired a long time ago but loves the game so much and just wants another shot. For Terry Francona, who passed up more talented and more wealthy organizations to manage the Indians.

For now, the job at home is done and done. The Indians took care of business on their final six-game homestand, annihilating two teams that they should have annihilated. Their hard work has paid off: the Indians control their destiny. It’s up to them to keep that control.

Four games left. Roll Tribe.

Some skin in the game

A preview of the 2013 Cleveland Indians

Progressive Field, Opening Day 2009

Opening Day 2009, after a much more subdued offseason. This offseason was a lot more interesting.

The Cleveland Indians, to say the least, had an atypical offseason. During most offseasons, Indians fans gaze wistfully and briefly through the toy store windows at high priced free agents who are being wooed by richer teams, before coming back to reality and settling for secondhand free agents who are longshots at best. To the credit of the Indians scouting department, some of those longshots actually do pay off (Derek Lowe in 2011 springs to mind), but many of them don’t (Grady Sizemore, Mark DeRosa, David Dellucci. I had abusive nicknames in mind for Dellucci, but in light of the coming baseball season, I’ll hold back). But this offseason was different. Not only did the Indians land Nick Swisher after a somewhat-touching, somewhat-pathetic courting process, but they also landed Michael Bourn (how long until the Indians PR team makes their first Bourne Identity joke?), Mark Reynolds, Drew Stubbs, and a plethora of other players on minor league contracts like Daisuke Matsusaka, Scott Kazmir and Jason Giambi.

It was really nice to see how Indians fans reacted to the Indians investment in their future. But will it be enough? Is this team good enough to contend? I’ll preview the 2013 Major League Baseball season, with particular emphasis on the Indians, after the break.

A new optimism

How the front office can fix the Indians this offseason

The Major League Baseball playoffs started over the weekend, which means that despite the fact that the Indians season has been officially over for a little less than a week, you could say that the Indians have been in offseason mode for months now. So rather than review this season, I’ll just jump straight into what the Indians should do in the offseason, after the break.

In defense of Chris Perez

Day 1 of the Lake Erie Baseball Odyssey

Progressive Field on May 17, 2012, where the Indians hosted the Mariners and a controversy began

This past weekend, I went to three different baseball games in three different cities featuring six different teams. There’s a story with all of them, and since my trip took me around the perimeter of Lake Erie, I’m making this a series of posts called the Lake Erie Baseball Odyssey.

Last Thursday afternoon, I went to my first Indians game at Progressive Field in more than a year and a half. I had vowed that 2003 would be the last time I missed a game. But as they often do, things happened, and last year, I never got to see the Indians at Progressive Field last year (although I did see them in Minneapolis). So I was happy to see the Indians at home, and I was even happier that they managed to come back from a 4-0 deficit and walk off with a win.

But last Thursday was also the start of a controversy. Chris Perez, the Indians closer, entered the game in the top of the 10th with one out and immediately allowed a single and a walk. The fans that remained of the 12,894 tickets sold booed him, before Perez found the strike zone and got the last two outs of the inning. On Saturday, after a much less eventful appearance which resulted in a save, Perez ripped the fans that booed him, saying:

I don’t think they have a reason to boo me. They booed me against the Mariners when I had two guys on. It feels like I can’t even give up a base runner without people booing me. It’s even worse when there’s only 5,000 in the stands, because then you can hear it. It p****s me off.

And you know what? I agree with him.

Good news, bad news

The Indians offense got rolling this weekend in Kansas City. Credit: AP/Charlie Riedel

Since it’s been almost two months since I last blogged, I thought I’d take a few minutes on this Jackie Robinson Day to talk about the Indians after eight games.

Don’t call it a comeback

Nobody expected the Cleveland Indians to do much in 2011. Before the beginning of the season, I think most Indians fans were cautiously optimistic about the offense, assuming the offense stayed healthy, Travis Hafner produced more, Grady Sizemore came back at 100% from his microfracture, and a hitting fairy paid a visit to Matt LaPorta (or really, any right-handed batter in the Indians organization). I think Indians fans were cautiously optimistic about the bullpen, assuming everyone stayed healthy, Chris Perez continued his strong showing as Indians closer, and a couple of veterans like Joe Smith were able to guide the young Indians ‘pen. But I think Indians fans were decidedly lukewarm about the Indians starting pitching, even if everyone stayed healthy, Fausto Carmona kept his mind, and Justin Masterson grew some hair.

In short, there were a lot of things that could have gone wrong. As Indians fans, we’re accustomed to everything that can go wrong going wrong, so no one predicted the Indians riding a 9-game winning streak and a 14-game home winning streak to a 30-15 start. No one predicted them hanging on to first place for much of the summer, and then staying competitive until early September. The Indians fell short of the postseason this year, but there’s no doubt there was tremendous improvement. My year-end grades for the Indians, plus playoff predictions, after the break.

Baseball in the Twin Cities

A review of Target Field

Last weekend, I flew up to Minneapolis, Minnesota to meet up with two college roommates and friends and take in some baseball. As it happened, the Indians were in town, so it turned into an opportunity for me to see them in person for the only time this year. As it further happened, when we planned the trip and bought the tickets in July, Jim Thome was playing for the Twins, but by the time we arrived in Minneapolis on September 16, he was a Cleveland Indian again. This was also the first time I’ve visited a stadium that wasn’t Progressive Field more than once, so I was able to get a great look at Target Field, the newest stadium in baseball until next April. My review of Target Field, after the break.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose

Jim Thome

Last night, Jim Thome clubbed his 600th career home run into the bullpen at Comerica Park. As he rounded first base, the man who has almost 100 more home runs with the Indians than any other Indian, the man who is tied for the all-time lead in walk off home runs, the owner of the 17th- and 34th-best career OPS and OBP, respectively, and the man with the eighth most home runs in baseball history, Jim Thome simply pumped his fist in the air and ran around the bases. As he got to home plate, it was tough to tell who was happier: his teammates or his family. Thome smiled too, but it was one of his trademark, humble smiles that really embodied his chase towards 600 home runs: just a great guy who happened to be a great hitter that stuck around for a while.