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Surprise Tribe in Oakland

May 3, 2011

The Cleveland Indians come to Overstock.com Coliseum for a three-game set with the A’s riding high off a walk-off win coming from Hideki Matsui yesterday in extra innings against the Rangers. The Indians of course are hot at 19-8. No one expected them to be this strong this early, and I remarked about them in my preseason preview of the season that,

“the Indians are a mess, with a payroll that has been halved in the past three seasons, and well over half of their payroll committed to Fausto Carmona (who will be traded midseason), Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore (injured to start the year) they showed a complete reluctance to spend on anything this winter with the big additions being re-tread Austin KearnsTravis Buck and the inexplicable signing of a middle-reliever for a non-contending team in Chad Durbin. The Indians need Michael Brantley and Matt LaPorta to show they made the C.C. Sabathia trade worthwhile, but they won’t. Expect them to sell of any usable parts by July 31st but really there isn’t much for them to peddle to contenders anyhow.”

Evidently I was a bit off the mark on that assessment thus far. But I am far from believing that the Indians are real, and there are many other skeptics out there along with me. The Baseball-Reference.com Blog had a piece showing all the teams that started their seasons by winning at least 19 of their first 27 games – as the Indians have this season – since 1993. Of these twenty-six other teams, all but three finished with winning seasons (incidentally two of those finishing under .500 were in the strike-shortened years of 1994 and 1995 with only the 80-82 2006 Cincinnati Reds failing to hit .500 in a full season), eight failed to make the postseason, seven represented their leagues in the World Series and three teams won it all (the 1998 and 2000 New York Yankees, and the 2005 Chicago White Sox). So it looks like Cleveland is in for a winning season, frankly given the lack of quality in the American League Comedy Central they very well could end up in the playoffs because as this very good Dave Cameron piece in Fangraphs says, they could play .500 ball the rest of the way and still end up at 86-87 wins.

But that Cameron piece also highlights what I’ve discussed with friends a lot about this season, that Cleveland’s pitching is just unsustainable, Cameron writes,

“Their HR/FB rate is just 6.5%. Only the Mariners are giving up fewer home runs per fly ball among American League pitching staffs. Additionally, their BABIP is .272, fourth lowest in the AL, and fifth lowest in baseball. Neither of those numbers are going to continue going forward at the same rate, as the team’s ERA will almost certainly move more towards the 4.04 xFIP they are putting up. This just isn’t a great pitching staff, and while the results have been good, there’s a ton of room for regression there.”

Those numbers also come from their starters being healthy – Carlos Carrasco and Mitch Talbot are injured, so the Indians have to go from shallow rotation and have a bunch of pitchers best left hurling for the Columbus Clippers up pitching MLB ball. I think it is too much to ask the Indians to remain .500 for the remainder of the season, but for now they are a threat to deal with. This series is a big one for both teams, the A’s need to prove they can stay above .500 and further close the gap between them and the Angels and Rangers (the Angels lost yesterday in Boston so the A’s trail both by a game), while the Indians want to continue to prove they’re for real and not the 1994 Red Sox, 1995 Phillies or 2006 Reds. My guess is Oakland wins this battle of who is real or not – because former A’s and current Cleveland third-baseman Jack Hannahan‘s .273/.349/.481 slash line with a .368 wOBA and 135 wRC+ is certainly not for real.

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