The fact that Corey Kluber won the American League Cy Young Award this season is incredible enough on its own. What Cleveland has here, though, is a tremendous story of identifying a prospect, maintaining patience and developing him into one of the best pitchers in the game.
Now, no one in the Indians’ organization will tell you that they knew they had a Cy Young-caliber pitcher on their hands. What they will say is that Kluber always demonstrated a strong desire to improve, and was willing to work and tweak and listen and experiment and implement. The work ethic and willingness to be open to changes helped a raw Minor Leaguer develop into a fine-tuned rotation leader.
“I think it goes beyond pitching,” Indians GM Chris Antonetti said. “It’s human development, especially in athletics. It’s not always a linear path. You’d like it to be, OK, level to level, every year, get better. It doesn’t always work that way. It doesn’t always play out on typical timeline. I think the one thing that Corey deserves a ton of credit for is he is that guy that constantly looks to improve every year.
“He’s already got a list of things going into the offseason that he wants to be better at for next year, despite the incredible season he’s had. That’s been his mind-set since he came into the organization. He’s always that guy that will put in the work to get the results. Whether that’s working with coaches to improve his mechanics, or working in the weight room. He sets a pretty good standard for the rest of our staff.”
ICYMI, here are clips from Kluber’s Cy Young win:
Developing a Cy Young winner: Kluber’s trek to stardom
Kluber edges out King Felix for AL Cy Young Award
Kluber took over as leader during Cy Young season
Kluber, deGrom bring pride to Stetson University
Castrovince: Kluber was right pick for Cy Young
Within those clips, you’ll find thoughts on Kluber from San Diego’s former farm director, his college coach and plenty of others. Castrovince also has a great analysis column on why voters leaned in Kluber’s direction when comparing the extremely-close race between him and Seattle ace Felix Hernandez.
One of the best parts about this whole situation is that Kluber is still under contractual control for Cleveland for at least the next four years. Plenty of fans of written in bemoaning the Cy Young win, groaning that the Indians will surely trade Kluber now. After all, that’s what they did with CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee. Such low-hanging-fruit replies are from those who really don’t understand the landscape now vs. then.
You could see the writing on the wall in both the Sabathia and Lee cases, as they each were nearing free agency at the time of their respective Cy Young victories. With Kluber, Cleveland has found itself in an opportunistic position. Kluber is in his prime years, but is still in the early stages of his service-time years. The Indians have an elite talent under control for the league minimum, if so desired, for the 2015 season.
“The thing we’re most encouraged about,” Antonetti said, “is we will have Corey continuing to lead our staff for the foreseeable future.”
This also puts the Indians in position to explore a pre-arbitration extension for Kluber this winter. That said, there isn’t a sense of urgency on that front. Cleveland could easily wait until next winter — giving Kluber the chance to put two strong seasons together consecutively — before looking more seriously into a multiyear deal. The Indians have a history of locking up its young position players (Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana, for example), but pitchers are a different story given the risk and cost involved.
What makes Kluber’s situation even more unique is his age in comparison to his service time. He is entering his Age-29 season, but is only in the 2+ rage for service. There have been long-term contracts for 2+ pitchers in recent years in the Majors (Chris Sale, for example) or just 1+ (Julio Teheran and Madison Bumgarner), but the big difference there is they were much younger at the times of their respective extensions.
I did a search of pitchers since 2000 who had 30+ wins, an ERA of 3.50 or better and at least 425 innings in their Ages 25-28 seasons (also Years 1-4 in the Majors). It’s an extremely short list, and the only two pitchers who really fit that criteria are Josh Collmenter and Doug Fister. Collmenter signed a two-year extension prior to 2014 and Fister has gone year to year in the arbitration process. So, neither case really apply to Kluber in terms of finding a comparison.
Between the 2006-09 seasons, pitchers Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright and Scott Baker signed four-year contracts (each around $15M before any club options) while in the 2+ service-time range. More recently, five-year deals have been a trend, ranging between $21-42. Jason Lukehart had a good breakdown of some of these during a July post on LetsGoTribe.
Due to his age, and now the fact that he’s got a Cy Young Award under his belt, there isn’t one singular case that can really relate directly to Kluber’s situation. That said, statistic carry more weight than age when determining possible salaries during arbitration years. Where age would become more of a factor would be in determining potential salaries for free-agent years (2019 is the first for Kluber, who will be entering his Age-33 season at that point).
If the Indians looked at a four-year contract to assume Kluber’s arbitration years, a price tag of $22-25 million seems realistic. If you begin looking at the five-year range, you’re probably looking at a deal approaching the $35-million range. Team options are a common practice for these types of contracts, so it might make sense for the Indians to explore a four- or five-year deal that includes an option or two. Given Kluber’s age, one option might be the way to go.
I’m sure the Indians will explore an extension with Kluber’s camp this winter, but I’m not convinced that there is a pressing need to get something done right now. Cleveland has shown plenty of times that it is not reactionary in its thinking, and I wouldn’t expect the front office to rush into a long-term situation for a pitcher who has one good season and one incredible season on his short Major League resume.
Either way, Kluber is under control for the next handful of seasons for a Cleveland club that suddenly has a promising young core group that is built around Brantley, Gomes, Kipnis, Santana, Cody Allen and solid young starting pitching.
Indians outfielder Michael Brantley, who took home a Silver Slugger Award on Thursday and will find out where he falls in voting for the American League MVP next week, met with Cleveland reporters via conference call on Friday afternoon. Here are some of his thoughts on the awards, the Royals’ playoff run, Cleveland’s chances next season and more…
Q: What does it mean for you to not only receive a Silver Slugger, but to be one of the final three candidates for the MVP?
Brantley: “It’s a great honor. It really is. When I sit back and kind of reflect on the season, from the coaching staff, teammates, to the trainers, to my family’s support, just everybody that helped me get through the season, and the season we had together, to be recognized for these awards, it’s a blessing and an honor.”
Q: Is is special to share the Silver Slugger honor with Yan Gomes?
Brantley: “It’s very exciting, because you see all the hard work that he puts in each and every day. He’s a great teammate. He’s one of the leaders on our team. He’s in the cage with me side by side and he works hard each and every day. As a catcher, it’s not easy to catch as many games as he does. To be his teammate and to watch how hard he worked this year, I couldn’t be more happy for one of my teammates. He deserves it.”
Q: What was the key to not only taking the next step offensively this past season, but to maintain your consistency all year?
Brantley: “One of the biggest things was I changed my mental approach. I wasn’t up there just trying to walk or work counts. I was really trying to get a fastball early and put a good swing on it. In the past, I never tried to do that before, really. I used to try to work counts, get on base, making sure I was getting the perfect pitch. This year, I wanted to be more aggressive. I figured, maybe there’s a good first-pitch fastball to hit early. I was ready to swing and try to put a good swing on the ball.
Q: Did you watch any of the postseason?
Brantley: “I did not. I’m a family man. Family comes first. My daughter and step-son keep me really busy and I enjoy being a father, so I didn’t get a chance to watch as much as I would’ve liked.”
Q: What was your reaction to seeing Kansas City — a team you were chasing — reach the World Series?
Brantley: “Anybody that gets to the World Series, it’s a great season and it’s a great honor. It’s something I look forward to participating in — hopefully next year. Any time a team gets a chance to play in the World Series, it’s a lot of hard work. You’ve got to tip your cap to them.”
Q: Does Kansas City’s playoff run make you feel like your team isn’t that far behind?
Brantley: “Absolutely. We made it to the postseason the year before, even though no one really gave us a chance to that year. And now we have the same group of guys and it’s fun coming to work every day. We have a great group of guys that work hard and care about one another. All it takes is getting hot at the right time, making sure that we’re all working hard and pulling on one chain.”
Q: What did it mean for you to see Terry Francona sign his contract extension?
Brantley: “It’s exciting, because it’s somewhere that he wants to be and he’s happy being here coaching us. And we’re happy playing for him. He’s a player’s manager, as everybody always says. He allows you to go out there to play the game of baseball, have fun and enjoy it. A 162-game season is a long season, but when you enjoy coming to work every day, enjoy your manager and you enjoy a group of guys that you’re with and are your teammates, it’s awesome. It’s awesome to be a part of and something special is going to happen.”
Q: With Corey Kluber being in the Cy Young mix and you being in the MVP race, do you feel like you guys have the makings of a yearly contender?
Brantley: “Well, I hope so. The more time that you have at the Major League level, the more you grow. The harder you keep working and always push yourself to get better, the more success you’re going to have. We have group of young guys that are coming together. Now that we’re all starting to be established Major Leaguers, it should be fun to watch. I know I’m very excited for next year and I hear from a lot of my teammates in the offseason that they are as well. A lot of guys are working hard already and are looking to come to Spring Training and work together as a team, and make it to the playoffs and hopefully win a World Series.”
Q: If the team doesn’t make any major offseason additions, do you think the group in place achieve that goal?
Brantley: “Yes I do. We made it to the postseason once already. We’re still adding little pieces to the puzzle, but if we don’t, I just think just being with one another, knowing what you’re going to get out of your teammates to the left and right of you, especially the group here, it’s a great group of guys that we have in the locker room, it’s special. I really think it is. It’s a lot of hard work that we’ve got to put in, and we understand that. We’ve got to continue to push, push each other and work hard, and good things will happen at the end.”
Q: Will you do anything different with your offseason training this year?
Brantley: “Not at all. I really pride myself on just kind of working hard in the offseason. I’ve been kind of doing the same routine for the last couple years. I’m just making sure I stay consistent. I think it’s consistency and your workout routines and eating right and making sure that you come in healthy to Spring Training and ready to play. I’m not a position player that feels like I take Spring Training to get ready. I want to come into Spring Training ready to play, so that once the first game, I’m acclimated and I’m ready to go. Spring Training is short. It’s getting shorter and shorter every year, so you have to come into Spring Training prepared and ready to play baseball.”
Q: Did it mean more to you to make your first All-Star team or to be named an MVP finalist?
Brantley: “Really, it’s just an honor to be mentioned for both of them. That’s not something you take lightly. It’s a lot of hard work. Obviously, your peers and voters and everybody have their say as well. I’m just honored to be mentioned in that category of guys that I’m in. I don’t think one award is going to be special more than the other. I just think it’s a good tribute to a lot of hard work paying off.”
Q: Have you had a chance to reflect on your season with your dad?
Brantley: “Yeah, it’s funny. We were just talking the other day. After a couple awards came out and I was nominated for a couple things, I looked at him and I said, ‘Hey, Pops. I had a pretty good season, huh?’ He just laughed at me. He said, ‘Son, you had a great season.’ But I’ve never been that player that is really stat driven. I care about wins and losses and I care about my teammates. That’s what comes first and foremost for me. My goal, just like every other year, as soon as I step into Spring Training, is to get to the postseason and win the World Series. That’s a group effort, and we all know that in the locker room. That’s No. 1 on my list.”
Indians catcher Yan Gomes joined the Cleveland media on a conference call Friday to discuss winning an American League Silver Slugger Award, among other topics. Here are some of Gomes’ thoughts on MVP-candidate Michael Brantley, Cy Young-candidate Corey Kluber and more.
Q: What was it like to take home a Silver Slugger Award and me nominated for a Gold Glove after your first full season as the Indians’ starting catcher?
Gomes: “It really just sums up a pretty eventful year. From signing a contract to having my baby and even to some of the downs. … Oh my gosh. To end the year like that is pretty amazing. It’s pretty nice right now.”
Q: How happy were you to share winning a Silver Slugger with Michael Brantley?
Gomes: “Honestly, I’m so, so freakin’ thrilled for Mike, man. He had an unreal year and to be recognized as an MVP Award candidate and, to me, the Silver Slugger for him was just a hand’s down thing. He had an amazing year. I credit him a lot for me having the year I had. Seeing him in front of me, he kind of set the tone for the lineup. That helped me out a lot.”
Q: Did you learn from your early defensive struggles?
Gomes: ‘Absolutely. That was the point I made to you guys in the middle of the year, or at the beginning of the year when that was going on. I told you guys my aggressiveness wasn’t going to go away. Maybe I just needed to be a little smarter with my decisions and not be undisciplined. I think towards the middle and at the end of the year, I got a little bit more disciplined with my attempts and it definitely helped. I credit [first-base coach Sandy Alomar Jr.] and [bullpen coach Kevin Cash] a lot for that. They helped me out a ton with that.”
Q: What helped you stay so consistent offensively?
Gomes: “Definitely the more consistent at-bats, and [manager Terry Francona] telling me that I needed to just worry about my defense and carrying the pitching staff. I think that definitely helped me relax at the plate. There’d be times when if I struggled at the plate for a couple at-bats, I would be able to help the team out defensively, and then [help] that last at-bat. I’d let all the at-bats go and somehow I’d have a good at-bat and I’d try to make a difference. Just being able to relax and not worry so much about the hitting part, I think that helped.”
Q: Was there a point early on this season when you began to relax more?
Gomes: “It’s usually the other way around, I hear. You get a contract, you’re able to relax. I definitely put a little more pressure on myself early in the year and then my wife and I talked, we just relaxed. No matter what happens now, in a way, the contract’s still going to be there. They can’t take it away because I start to suck or something. So, I just started to relax and started to enjoy the game the same way I did before, and then just let that hunger stay in there. I told Tito, ‘That’s something I promise will never go away.'”
Q: Are you excited to find out where Corey Kluber falls in Cy Young voting next week?
Gomes: “Absolutely, man. I’ve been in touch with him a couple times this week and several times this offseason, just talking about how amazing his year was. You know what? If he doesn’t get the hardware, which I think would be [upsetting], I think he needs to be still really thrilled and honored with the kind of year that he had. I might be biased, I think it’s a hands-down thing for him. The way he carried that pitching staff, especially stepping up when they traded [Justin] Masterson, who was a big core guy in our [rotation]. I think he definitely helped out.”
Q: Is there an outing by Kluber that sticks out to you the most?
Gomes: “Even though it didn’t go his way at the end, that outing against Kansas City [on July 24]. You see they’re definitely a World Series-caliber team. He shut them out for nine innings, even though we ended up going to extras and losing it. I think that was definitely a great outing. And his last outings throughout the year. The Cy Young talk started getting a little louder for him. some guys will let the pressure hit them and they’ll go down. I think once the Cy Young talk started happening, I think he stepped up and did even better. He was pretty unreal his last three outings.”
Q: What was it like to see Kansas City in the postseason?
Gomes: “It was almost like I was so jealous. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, man.’ Not to take anything away from Kansas City. After we played them, and I think we were almost on the brink of being eliminated, I talked to a couple of their players and was like, ‘Look, you guys are the team to beat in the playoffs. You guys are going to be a tough team to beat,’ just because of the way they played. They had a pretty unbelievable bullpen and they got guys on and moved guys over and scored. Once you get to the World Series, those little runs count. I just felt like it showed that we’re right there, too.”
Q: Do you have hopes for what the team can do this offseason? Can the core group in place get it done?
Gomes: “Well, that’s kind of out of my job description. I just show up and be ready to play with whoever we’re there with. But I think the core group of guys that we have are guys that have had two- or three-year experience with each other, and I think we’re going to keep building from that.”
Q: What was your reaction to seeing Francona sign his contract extension?
Gomes: “That just shows the commitment that the guy has for us. It’s almost like he didn’t even have to do that. He was willing to. I talked to him after the extension happened and I’m just thrilled. I think he told me he’s going to be there for my whole contract. It’s exciting. That guy, he’s helped me a ton throughout the early part of my career. I’m very thankful for that and excited that he’s going to be there for a while.”
The Indians didn’t make the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean it was a season devoid of drama or fun moments. In fact, this was one of the more bizarre and entertaining seasons I’ve covered. There were elite individual performances, records broken and plenty of oddities experienced. Let’s take a tour of the Tribe’s memorable 2014 season. There are links to videos and stories throughout the events listed below. Enjoy.
Was there any doubt? The Klubot ended with 18 wins, a 2.44 ERA and 269 strikeouts. His 7.3 WAR (via Fangraphs.com) was the highest by a Tribe starter since 1972 (Gaylord Perry). Kluber’s 269 strikeouts were the most in a season by an Indians starter not named Bob Feller or Sam McDowell. Led by “Klubes” (as manager Terry Francona often calls him), the Indians set the Major League record for strikeouts by a team (1,450) in one season. The right-hander was a machine and now he’s a Cy Young candidate. CLICK HERE for a feature I wrote in early August on Kluber’s ascension to the top of Cleveland’s rotation.
Another no-contest in terms of Tribe picks. In fact, if it weren’t for some guy named Mike Trout, we might be sitting here arguing for Brantley as the American League’s MVP. He was named to his first All-Star team this season and then became the first Indians batter in history to turn in a 20-homer, 20-steal, 40-double, 200-hit campaign. His 59 multi-hit games were the most by a Cleveland hitter since 1999 (Omar Vizquel) and he joined Victor Martinez as the only batters in baseball this year with fewer than 60 strikeouts and more than 50 walks. Brantley reaching 200 hits in his final game of the season was one of the highlights of Cleveland’s season.
Allen became the primary ninth-inning man by mid-May and was the clear-cut closer by the season’s second half. The hard-throwing righty was a force in the final frame and turned in a dominant campaign for Cleveland. An Indians pitcher has had at least 20 saves 24 times. Among those instances, Allen (24 saves) turned in the second-highest strikeout total (91) and the fourth-lowest ERA (2.07). His 76 appearances were the most among any Tribe pitchers with at least 20 saves in one year.
I’ll go with co-winners for this category. The Bauer backers will cite the fact that he logged 153 innings, shoring up the middle of the rotation The House homers will note his consistency and improvement down the stretch (2.53 ERA in the second half), giving Cleveland a solid fifth starter. As a duo, Bauer and House gave Cleveland only its fifth pair of rookies with at least 100 innings apiece in a season during the Expansion Era (since 1961). With apologies to Jose Ramirez and Kyle Crockett, this honor goes to two members of the stellar five-man staff that the Tribe utilized down the stretch.
On June 9, Lonnie Chisenhall became Lonnie Baseball. In not only one of the greatest games in Indians history, but one of the greatest individual shows in baseball history, Chisenhall delivered three home runs, five hits and nine RBIs in a romp over the Rangers. He became the fourth hitter in MLB history to have at least that many homers, hits and RBIs in one game, joining Boston’s Fred Lynn (June 18, 1975), Brooklyn’s Gil Hodges (Aug. 31, 1950) and Cincinnati’s Walker Cooper (July 6, 1949). Chisenhall was the only player in that group to do so in only five plate appearances.
As overpowering as Kluber was all season long (he was fifth in the Majors with an average game score of 62.6), it was Tomlin who turned in the greatest single pitching performance of the year for Cleveland. On June 28 in Seattle, the righty struck out 11, walked none and spun a one-hit shutout. For perspective, Tomlin’s 96 game score was the same as the rating for Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter. Tomlin joined Len Barker as the only Tribe pitchers int he past 100 seasons to have a shutout with at least 11 strikeouts, no walks and no more than one hit allowed. Barker did so in his perfect game in 1981.
If we were going with an in-season comeback player, I’d probably go with a different Carlos. Santana hit .159 (.628 OPS) through the first two months and then hit .266 (.872) over the final four, finishing with a team-high 27 homers and Major League-leading 113 walks. As for Carrasco, he was winless by the end of April, making him 0-12 with an 8.09 ERA in 17 starts across the 2011-14 seasons. He was banished to the bullpen and it seemed unlikely he’d return as a starter. That changed in August, when Cleveland gave him another chance. Carrasco seized his moment, spinning a 1.30 ERA with 78 strikeouts against 11 walks in 69 innings over his final 10 starts of the season.
Aviles has served mainly as a utility infielder throughout his career, but the Indians used him plenty in the outfield this season. On July 13, Aviles did his best Yoenis Cespedes impression, making an incredible throw from the side wall in foul ground down the left-field line to first base, doubling up a baserunner for a jaw-dropping double play. CLICK HERE to watch the gun show.
I hate to do this to you, Ray, but a season recap just wouldn’t be complete without the Royal Spike. With one out in the eighth inning of a scoreless game in Kansas City, Mike Moustakas sent a ball tailing down the left-field line. Raburn made a sliding catch attempt, missed and hustled after the baseball. When he retrived it, he accidentally spiked it to the ground, giving Moustakes a four-base double. Kluber’s expression as he watched from behind home plate said it all.
(To be fair, I present to you the runner-up for the defensive play of the year. Check out this spectacular diving catch that Raburn made in late August: CLECK HERE)
Yes, I’m making up categories now. With apologies to Roberto Perez’s first career home run (a double overturned by replay), Cleveland’s best replay moment took place in Chavez Ravine on July 1. L.A.’s Adrian Gonzalez flared a pitch from Crockett to left, where Brantley made the catch and threw out Dee Gordon at the plate. Yasiel Puig tried to move from first to second on the play, but Gomes fired a throw to Jason Kipnis for the third out. The plays at the plate and at second were each reviewed, both results in outs and Cleveland had the first triple-double replay-play in Major League history… or something like that. CLICK TO WATCH.
This is one I’ll be telling my grandkids about, if I haven’t lost my mind by that point. On Aug. 5 against the Reds, the Indians were on the wrong end of a truly bizarre turn of events. On a double to right field by Yan Gomes, David Murphy hustled from first to third base. At the exact moment that the cut-off man caught the throw from right field, Reds reliever Jumbo Diaz uncorked a wild pitch from the bullpen, sending the baseball to shallow right-center field. Murphy, confused upon seeing the second ball in the grass, drifted too far off third base and was thrown out. It was a crazy play, one that could not be examined by instant replay and one we are unlikely to see again.
Swisher’s season was a trainwreck due to knee issues that led to surgery on both joints in August. Still, the Tribe’s living, breathing energy drink delivered one of the best moments of the season. On June 19, in the bottom of the 10th inning, Swisher launched a pitch from Ernesto Frieri for a walk-off grand slam. Cleveland will be hoping for similar heroics from Swish come 2015. Swisher’s shot was one of seven walk-off home runs on the season for the Indians.
Never forget what King George did for Cleveland. On May 4, the catcher crushed two home runs, becoming the first player in Indians history to have two homers in his first two plate appearances with the franchise. By the time he left town, Kottaras had a .714 slugging percentage and 1.099 OPS in an Indians uniform (in 10 games). Oh, and Kottaras (Cowtaras?) successfully defended his cow-milking crown during Cleveland’s series in Texas in June. Multi-homer games and multi-milking championships. That’s the stuff of legends.
With the score caught in a 10-10 deadlock in the 13th inning on May 21, all Raburn had to do was stand in the batter’s box to help the Indians earn a win against the Tigers. With the bases loaded, Detroit’s Al Alburquerque balked, sending Cleveland to one of its wildest wins of the season. And, to go along with the quirkiness of baseball’s rules, Raburn does not get credited for a plate appearance for that clutch (cough) moment in extra innings.
The Indians had their Rally Chicken in 2013. One year later, the club had a Rally Squirrel pay a visit to Progressive Field. On May 21 against Kansas City, the critter caused a delay as it scurried around the infield and then headed to the outfield. It ran near the mound, avoided Swisher’s glove at first and was eventually led out through the center-field bullpen. Alas, the squirrel did not carry with it the same kind of magic as “Cody” the chicken.
During a game against the Tigers in May, Kluber was asked to do a TV interview. The pitcher obliged and his teammates plotted. He was hit with water, sunflower seeds and powder. And Kluber did not flinch. He sat there, answered questions and remained unflappable as the players tested his poise. It was just another reason why he has earned the moniker “Klubot” over the past few years.
Get Bauer in a non-game setting and the young pitcher will hold court with insightful and intelligent thoughts on pitching, analytics and approach. A small group of us chatted with the right-hander for more than a half hour before the end of the season (Q&A coming soon to the blog). But, catch him in a postgame scrum following a loss, and Bauer can be a little rough around the edges. Chalk that up to the competitive side a kid. That side of Bauer was on full display in Kansas City, where his responses to a local reporter were classic in their abrasiveness. Bauer: “We lost.” Reporter: ” Can you elaborate?” Bauer: “We lost, 4-1.” I wasn’t there, so CLICK HERE to read a great account of it by Cleveland.com’s Zack Meisel.
I used to keep a log of favorite on ad off-the-record quotes, just for my own entertainment purposes. Like the time Reed Johnson told me: “The last couple weeks, I’ve been struggling for pretty much a month.” My favorite from this season came from House during the final road series in Minnesota. With the Indians on the brink of elimination, the pitcher was asked what mentality Cleveland had to take in the final games of the season. House replied: “You’ve got to hit it right in the face. Just punch it right back in the face and hopefully get a knockout.” Hey, I’m not going to argue with a man with a Fu Manchu.
Rain delays and Cleveland baseball go hand in hand. It’s not a question of if it will rain, but how often, and how many doubleheaders we reporters will have to cover. On Aug. 13, Aviles made the most of it. When the game was postponed, he picked up the phone in the dugout, called the manager’s office and asked if he could do some tarp slides. Terry Francona did not necessarily say yes, but Aviles heard all he needed to hear, hung up and put on a show with Kipnis and Chisenhall.
It got ugly in late August, when a plethora of Indians players and staff decided to grow mustaches in an effort to start a hot streak. It was unfortunate that John Axford wasn’t around to see it in person. House went the Fu Manchu route, Kipnis had whatever it was that he had, while Chisenhall, Bryan Shaw, Marc Rzepczynski and Scott Atchison went with classic ‘staches. Aviles went thin, Tyler Holt tried his best, and Bauer and Crockett are still waiting for the first hairs to emerge. Even PR men Bart Swain and Curtis Danburg got in on the action, and it was not a pretty sight. All of that said, it was good entertainment and a fun part of a strange season.
Could 2014 have been the golden thong’s swan song? Before the start of the regular season, Jason Giambi’s famous undergarment hung in his locker in the University of San Diego clubhouse. Big G told of its magic powers and Swisher confirmed that he once donned the thong. As of this writing, I can’t confirm whether any Indians players wore it under their uniform this season. I’ll be sure to investigate in the spring. For now, we’ll just wait to hear whether Giambi is going to hang the thong up for good.
What a year, and I’m sure I missed plenty. Feel free to share your favorite moments from 2014 in the comments.
Michael Brantley just finished putting the final touches on one of the greatest all-around offensive seasons in the long, storied history of the Indians franchise. For his work, the Cleveland outfielder has been nominated for some hardware.
Brantley is the Tribe’s representative among Major League Baseball’s 30 nominees for this year’s Hank Aaron Award, which recognizes the most outstanding offensive performance in each league. The winners will be announced during the World Series after fan balloting and voting by a Hall-of-Fame panel that is led by Aaron.
“He’s a complete player,” Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. “And we think he’s deserving of MVP consideration with the year he had. He was a huge part of our success and we think one of the best players in the American League.”
Among the other AL candidates for the Hank Aaron Award are Mike Trout of the Angels, Victor Martinez of the Tigers, Jose Abreu of the White Sox and Nelson Cruz of the Orioles, among others. In each of the past two seasons, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera has taken home the award, which was first established for the 1999 campaign.
In 156 games this season, Brantley turned in a .327/.385/.506 slash line to go along with 20 home runs, 45 doubles and 97 RBIs for the Indians. The left-handed-hitting outfielder also finished with two triples, 23 stolen bases, 52 walks, 56 strikeouts, 94 runs scored and 200 hits for the Tribe.
Among his AL peers, Brantley ranked second in hits, third in average and doubles, fourth in on-base percentage, sixth in runs, seventh in OPS (.890), 11th in stolen bases and 12th in RBIs. His 6.6 WAR (Fangraphs.com) ranked second to only Trout in the league.
“I actually don’t need the stat line,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “I know that backs up everything, but he has had a remarkable year in every way, shape and form. To play the amount of games he played. He hit third all year. He made an All-Star team. He was one of the best teammates you’ll ever see. He cares so much. He knows his responsibilities to our team.
“You’re seeing a kid grow up, and he’s always been a mature kid. You’re seeing a kid grow up as a baseball player right in front of our eyes and go from being a good player to one of the better players in the game. That’s really exciting.”
Brantley became the first batter in Indians history to have at least 20 home runs, 20 steals, 40 doubles and 200 hits in one season. That has only been done 11 times overall in the past 100 years in the Majors. Brantley joined Jacoby Ellsbury (2011), Larry Walker (1997), Ellis Burks (1996), Chuck Klein (1932) and Babe Herman (1929) as the only players in baseball history to also have at least a .320 average and 90 RBIs on that unique stat line.
This season, Brantley and Martinez were the only AL hitters with no more than 60 strikeouts and at least 50 walks. Brantley and Martinez also joined Cabrera (2010-13), Trout (2012-13), Adrian Gonzalez (2011) and Josh Hamilton (2010) as the only AL batters in the past five years to have a slash line of .320/.380/.500 or better.
Prior to Brantley, the last Cleveland hitter to hit at least .320 with at least a .380 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage was Roberto Alomar in 2001.
Asked what he learned from his breakout season, Brantley said recently that staying mentally strong was the biggest challenge.”[You have to] stay in each and every at-bat,” Brantley said. “In a season, it’s not just the physical tired, but the mental as well — maybe giving up on a pitch or taking a play off. I was just making sure I was in each and every play. I don’t want to give up any at-bats, still scratching and clawing. I have to make sure I come in next year and do the same thing.”
Roughly 24 hours after Cleveland’s 2014 campaign was officially in the books, general manager Chris Antonetti and manager Terry Francona met with reporters to dissect the season, discuss the future and address a wide array of topics.
The bottom line: 85 wins was good, promising even, but it was also a disappointing finish. The Indians headed into the year with playoffs as the goal and the club fell short. In that way, this was a lost year for the Tribe.
That said, for all that went wrong, a lot went right. Corey Kluber emerged as a Cy Young contender, Michael Brantley developed into an MVP-type player and the rotation finished strong enough to breed optimism for the foundation that exists for 2015. MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince did an excellent job of summing up Cleveland’s situation over on his blog, writing that the optimists and pessimists both seem to be right at the moment.
Rather than post the entirety of the hour-long session, I’ll pull out the highlights on some of the more pressing topics and issues. Over the coming days and weeks, I’ll also be rolling out some analysis of the season that was and going in-depth on some individual players and elements from this past year. For now, here is what you need to know from the meeting with the Tribe brass:
General reaction to the Indians’ season:
Antonetti: “Obviously, we’re not playing today, so we’re all a little bit disappointed. Our goal is to win the World Series. To do that, you need to get to the postseason. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. But, I think if you reflect back, I’m incredibly proud of watching the way Tito, our coaches and our players came to the ballpark every day and competed and, regardless of what happened the night before — whether or not we won, whether or not we had a heart-breaking loss — we showed up the next day and went out there and gave our best to win.
“We had some pretty trying times this year. There were times where it would’ve been relatively easy to just let it snowball and say, ‘You know what? This wasn’t our year.’ But our guys, every day, showed up at the ballpark and found a way to try to compete and win that night’s game. When you’re able to step back and look at the view, and take a broader view, it was an incredible year in terms of progress. If you would’ve told me at the start of the year some of the things that transpired would’ve happened, I’m not sure I would’ve been optimistic that we would’ve won 75 games, let alone 85 games.”
What hurt the team’s chances at a playoff run the most?
Antonetti: “It’s hard to say any one thing, but obviously we had some injuries to veteran guys that had an impact. Obviously, with the year and things [Nick Swisher] went through this year, that had an impact on us, because he wasn’t able to perform up to the level he has in the past as he was battling through injuries. [Michael Bourn] missed a significant amount of time. And we just had a tough time with [Justin Masterson], getting him on track with us. So, guys that we were counting on pretty prominently to start the year, we just weren’t able to get the contributions that we may have hoped for at the start of the year.”
What about the poor defensive play?
Antonetti: “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about it over the course of the season and we’ll spend a lot more time talking about it over the next four weeks, five weeks, actually longer than that. The encouraging thing is it was much better in the second half than it was in the first half. As you look around the diamond, there’s reason to feel that we’ll be better moving forward, but we do need to look at it critically, because it needs to improve for next year. We’ll examine a lot of different ways where we can do that.”
Should Swisher have undergone surgery earlier than he did?
Antonetti: “We all tried to do the best we could. Swish tried to play through it. We were working through all the information we had at the time and everything pointed to trying to continue on the path we were on. Obviously, it didn’t play out exceptionally well, but hindsight is always 20/20. We had to deal with the information we had there, including how Swish was feeling. It clearly had an impact on him. How much and when, it’s really hard to pinpoint.”
How will Indians evaluate Jason Kipnis’ season in light of oblique issues?
Antonetti: “I think with a guy like Kip, our focus is on how do we help him be in a better spot coming into next year. He’s a big part of our team, our organization, and we expect him to be a cornerstone guy for us next year. So, rather than spending a lot of time dissecting what happened, our focus is how do we help him take advantage of the offseason, come into Spring Training ready to go and look at 2015 rather than dwell on ’14.”
Francona: “I think there was a little bit of everything. I don’t think it’s ever just black and white. I think he came back real quick, because players come back. They want to help. I thought he was pushing the bat through a little bit at the beginning to try to maybe compensate so he wouldn’t feel it. I think guys are so good at what they do that they can get away with it, and then that creates some habits where, even when he hit the ball to left field, it wasn’t that backspin ball that were used to where he’s hitting it off that wall. It was maybe a lineout to left or a single to left. I think that created some habits where, all of a sudden, he cheated to get to the fastball. He felt like when he hit the ball away to left, it didn’t have that same thump. So now all of a sudden, maybe the ball looks like it’s further away, so he’s working down in the count, he’s taking strike one, and then [comes] the changeup, because he’s trying to cheat to get tot he fastball. It’s a little bit of a cycle where one thing leads to another. It’s never just one thing. But I don’t think that [injury] helped and I think he played through a lot, and I think he’ll come back next year with a vengeance to be the player that we need.”
What did Indians think about Jose Ramirez’s play at short in second half?
Antonetti: “Jose did an incredible job. When he came back to the Major League level, I think he was more comfortable the second time offensively. He really did everything we could’ve asked. Offensively, he did his job trying to get on base as much as he could. I think he led the American League in sacrifice bunts and tried to get runners over, and then helped stabilize our infield defense and made some well above-average plays there. It was a really good year developmentally for Jose and it’s important to remember he’s only 21 years old.”
Does Ramirez’s emergence help keep Francisco Lindor on a steady development path?
Antonetti: “They’re not necessarily intertwined. I think with each guy, we’re trying to look at what’s best for his development. When are they ready? Anybody can come up to the Major Leagues. We can bring anyone in our Minor League system up. It’s a question of, ‘Are they prepared to succeed when they come up here? Francisco had an incredible year developmentally. He’s still, at every level he’s been he’s been the youngest player at that level. The same thing happened in Triple-A and he had some challenges that he was working through there. He had a very good year developmentally for him and we’re excited to see where that goes over the winter and into next year.”
Thoughts on Corey Kluber’s season?
Antonetti: “It was an incredible year. He was, in our view, the best pitcher in the American League this year. His consistency, and his consistent dominance, was a big part of the reason we were able to win as many games as we did. It’s not an accident why that happened. It’s because of the work he’s put in. He put together an incredible season and the thing that excites us most is this is not a guy who’s going to be complacent with what transpired this year. He’s going to go out and try to do it even better next year, which is going to be really hard for him to do. But that’s what he’s focused on.”
Will you approach him about an extension this offseason?
Antonetti: “That’s probably a conversation for a little bit later in the winter. We’re right now just wrapping up this year. He’s a guy, I can tell you, we value incredibly high and are thankful that he’s going to be here for a while. That’s a good starting point for us.”
Is adding a “big bat” a priority this winter?
Francona: “I think that’s the easy. It’s, ‘Hey, go get a power bat.’ OK. What we’re really trying to do is see how many runs our pitching staff we think is going to give up and how many runs we’re going to score offensively, and then where does that fit moving forward. Do we think that makes us a team that can contend? I can tell you from personal experience, I’d rather win 3-1 than 8-7, because it’s a hard way to win consistently. I agree, there are times in a season when you have to win like that, but when your pitching gives you a chance… even the last couple months, as hard as runs seemed to be for us to score, we seemed to have a chance pretty much every night.”
With runs down across the board in MLB, how does that change the way you evaluate and construct an offense?
Antonetti: “If you look at performance, you always want to consider the context. I think that actually goes back to even the point of Kluber early. What he’s done in the context of our team versus what some other guys in the context of their team — probably if you look at it that way — he stands out far above any other candidate. Offensively, we try to do the same thing. We look at what is the run environment now. Who are the best players in that run environment and how can we acquire them? While the aggregate numbers may look a little bit different, what we try to focus on is relative to what’s available, relative to the context of the league, who are the players who can help our team. The absolute numbers have come down. Not nearly as many payers are hitting with the power and the home runs that they had 10 years ago. But the whole league was elevated, so now we’re looking at a little bit of a different context.”
Thoughts on Michael Brantley’s emergence this season:
Antonetti: “We’ve always felt Michael was a really good player. We were hopeful that he would stay healthy and just continue to do what he’s always done. … He’s that guy that’s also gotten better each and every year. He came into Spring Training this year more physical than any year in the past and was really committed to keeping his body strong. In the past, he had a little bit of a tendency, just because of the rigors of a season, to lose a little bit of weight and strength throughout the course of a year. He was pretty determined not to let that happen. He put in the work, going back to last offseason, preparing for the season and he stayed with it throughout the year. It was fun to see his continued development. He’s a complete player. And we think he’s deserving of MVP consideration with the year he had. He was a huge part of our success and we think one of the best players in the American League.”
On the unique nature of Lonnie Chisenhall’s season:
Antonetti: “I think if you were to rewind 12 months and they say, at the end of last year, ‘What would your hopes be foo Lonnie at the end of this year?’ I think Lonnie did more than we probably could’ve asked. Now, there was some inconsistency along the way to get there, but if you’d say, ‘Would you sign up for what Lonnie did this past year?’ Absolutely. So I think what we were able to see, it was actually pretty cool. … Even beyond maybe what you guys see on the surface, Lonnie’s development as a teammate, the way he improved as a baserunner, how important the little things were to him and how hard he worked at those things, was one of the developmental highlights of our year. You guys were able to see the results on the field, but there were a lot of other things underneath the surface that Lonnie worked incredibly hard at and made great progress with. So, we’re really excited to see how that continues, because he’s such a young player. If he continues the same path he’s on, next year could be a really good year for him.”
On potentially having the entire five-man rotation from second half back for 2015 and beyond:
Antonetti: “[The rotation] was one of the highlights of our year. To have the youngest pitching staff in the American League, maybe in baseball, and for them to be the best pitching staff in the second half, and know that they’re all going to be here for the foreseeable future, that’s really exciting and encouraging. But, we’re not going to be complacent with it. We still need more pitching. We’ll always be looking to add to both the rotation and the bullpen. So, as we go throughout the course of the offseason, we feel like we’re entering it with a position of strength that may be unlike any position we’ve had in recent offseasons, with the quantity and quality of pitching that we have. But, we’re still going to look to improve on it.”
Thoughts on Trevor Bauer’s strides in 2014:
Antonetti: “[He’s] another guy who had a great developmental year. He made incredible progress over the last 12 months. The thing that excites us most is, if he can make the same progress over the next 12 months that he’s made in the last 12, we’ll be in a much better spot next year. He’s committed to working as hard as possible. There may not be a guy who’s more committed to improving himself as a pitcher as Trevor is. He’s got a plan for the offseason already and the information he’s going to seek and put together and then come back and huddle with Tito and [pitching coach Mickey Callaway and bullpen coach Kevin Cash] to make sure that we have a plan that we’re all on the same page with going into the offseason. Hopefully he can make as much progress this offseason as he did last offseason.”
Will Indians pick up Mike Aviles’ team option for 2015?
Antonetti: “We have a little bit of time. We don’t want to short-change the process. We all appreciate Mike’s contribution to our team: what he means on the field, his versatility, the way he’s filled in really almost anywhere on the diamond when we’ve had injuries, the presence he has in our clubhouse, and the way he helps kind of unify our group and create the energy and atmosphere in the clubhouse every day. We don’t take those things for granted.”
On Yan Gomes’ season:
Francona: “The first week or two, he had a bunch of errors. He came out of the chute rushing some throws and that’s going to hurt his fielding percentage. Other than that, I thought he had a spectacular year. I think Salvador Perez is a really good player, because I don’t want this to come out [sounding wrong] in any fashion, because he’s really good. But if you look at Gomer’s year, Gomer outperformed him by 100 points in OPS. He threw out the same number of runners the last two years, playing 45 less games. So, I guess that kind of answers that. This guy is really a good player.”
Will Bourn need to change winter program in light of hamstring issues?
Francona: “He’s had a really solid offseason program. To your point about the hamstring, it crept up three different times, which doesn’t help us. We talked to Bourny [Sunday] about trying to come into camp, one, with health. That’s huge. And then the second one is being confident in that health so he can be a disruptor. I don’t think he’s lacking any [motivation]. He wants to go work. He wants to be that guy that can go do that. So that’s the goal, is to get him not only feeling really healthy, but have some confidence in those legs so he can go do what he does. I think disrupting the game is a really good way to put it, because guys like that can make it hard on the opponent. That’s a goal and he understands that.”
Do you have the kind of depth in the farm system that can help with trade talks this winter?
Antonetti: “We do. We have depth in our farm system to make a trade if there’s a trade there. It’s an area where we’ve made steady progress over the last three years and we want to continue on that path and continue to be in a better spot a year from now than we are today. But, we have the players in our farm system to make a meaningful trade if that’s a direction we decide to go.”
It sounds like you actually feel like you’re in a better position to start this offseason than you did at the end of last year:
Antonetti: “We were actually talking about that exact thing the other day. At the moment, we’re more disappointed, because at this time last year we still had games in front of us. But, as we start to transition to the offseason, we have virtually the entirety of our roster in place for next year. Again, there’s no complacency, we want to improve on that, but that’s a great position of strength going into the offseason. Last year, we had more questions going into the offseason than we do right now.”
Stay tuned for more…
Following Tuesday’s 7-1 loss to the Royals, a defeat that pushed Cleveland to the brink of elimination, center fielder Michael Bourn spent 10 minutes with reporters to discuss the game, the Tribe’s current situation and the season as a whole. Here is a portion of the interview:
You guys understood the landscape going into this series. You had to essentially win out, but have lost two key games to Kansas City. What’s the feeling in the clubhouse?
“Of course, it hurts. That goes without saying, especially when it’s somebody that’s inside your division. You never want to see them take over your spot, or be able to beat you out for a playoff spot. Right now, they’re doing that. We’re in a situation now where we have to win every game and they have to lose every game for us to make it, and we’ll just be in a tie. The probability of that happening is very tough. It’s still a probability, but it’s very, very tough.
“For me, I just feel like it’s not just in September. I look at how Oakland played the last month and a half. Because they were taking care of business early on in the season, they had that padded lead where, if they did have a struggle like that, they still have a chance to make the playoffs, which they do. They’ve been playing way under .500 baseball for the last month and a half, but since they were going so well at the beginning, I feel like they still have a chance to make the playoffs, and they still probably will make the playoffs with that first Wild Card.
“For us, I don’t feel like we ever hit a stretch like that. I feel like we didn’t have a month where we played great baseball. We played OK at times, but I feel like last year we had stretches where we were playing unbelievable and we were winning 10 games in a row, 11 games in a row. I just think that Tito always puts the best team that he has on the field. I think he does a great job at it. I think it comes within us, within here, for us to take care of business. He does his job to the maximum. I just think it takes us to come together and do what we have to do. That doesn’t start just in September, for me.
“I’m a firm believer in that. I hear people say that all the time, that, ‘Well, you have to play well in September.’ Yeah, you do, but the whole season counts. You don’t want to put your back against the wall, especially with the kind of team we have. We have a young team, so you don’t want to put your back against the wall late, [where you have] to make that run, when you haven’t been in that situation. We were in that situation last year, but we had played good throughout stretches throughout the year.”
How can you change that in the future?
“I just think that we have to win early. You don’t want to put yourself in that situation. I don’t feel like we’ve played consistently enough — good baseball — to be in that situation at this point. Yeah, we had little stretches where we were OK, but I’m talking about where you roll off 10 in a row. Where you roll off where you sweep three series in a row. Then, you have that comfortable lead, just like Oakland did, where you might mess up, but hey, you’ve still got a chance to bounce back. We never had that chance to bounce back. Our back was against the wall from pretty much jump street. We played good here and then we’d go on a losing streak. We were playing .500 ball pretty much the whole way through, if you want to look at it how I look at it. Most teams that make the playoffs, they have a stretch in there where they’re playing 10 games over .500, 15 games over .500. They’ll have a 20-game stretch where they might go 17-3, or 16-4. That gives you that little comfort. In a season, you’re going to go through a bad stretch — I can promise you that. I promise you that. But usually you go through a hot stretch if you’re a good team. We didn’t have a hot stretch, I don’t think.”
So what steps can you take?
“Just play better baseball That comes within the team, I think. We have to make adjustments within ourselves — it’s simple as that. I can name you 10 different reasons. OK, hit with runners in scoring position, play good defense, don’t make errors. You can name all types of stuff, but that comes within, from us. That doesn’t come from coaches. That comes from the 25 men playing the game.”
Does it add to frustration when you imagine what this starting rotation might be capable of doing in a playoff series?
“That’s what I’m saying. Now, we’re pitching like we always wanted to pitch, but you want to click with all of it. You want to have good pitching, timely hitting, hitting with runners in scoring position, stuff like that. Yes, you’re right. I agree with you. Yes, it would be very tough, I think, to beat us in a series, the way our pitching has been going lately. With [Corey] Kluber and [Carlos] Carrasco. Danny [Salazar]. He pitched pretty good tonight. They had some good hits on him, but I still think he was OK. He had one little stretch where he might’ve went off a little bit. But, [Trevor] Bauer, he’s still learning. He’s looking good. T.J. House, I feel like he’s done good. Early on, we didnt have the pitching that we wanted to have, so our bullepn was having to work over. That hurts you later on in the season.
“You see their bullpen. What’s their record, 69-1 when they’re leading after seven innings? Something like that. That tells you. But their starters also go deep in the game. You look at [James] Shields, he goes deep in the game a lot. That dude tonight went seven innings. That’s what you want throughout the year, so then at the end of the year, when you can use your bullpen a lot, they’re not tired. You can’t blame them. [Bryan] Shaw and them, they’ve pitched a lot this year. There’s three or four of our dudes that lead the league in appearances. That’s a lot on them. Anyone who’s throwing the ball that much, that’s a lot on them. It tires them out after a while. They’re only human.”
Does it add to the frustration right now, being an offensive player?
“It does. I had a chance tonight and I felt like I missed a pitch. [Yordano Ventura] gave me a pitch to hit and I missed it. It was nothing more than that. I don’t blame anybody but myself on that. It was a pitch that I felt like I could hit and I missed it. Of course, he does throw hard, but I felt like I got there. I just didn’t execute the swing exactly how I needed to execute it. And it’s not just me. As a collective unit, we’re just not doing it. Granted, sometimes we have hit the ball hard, a lot of times, and it’s going right at people. That happens, but you have to continue to play baseball. Nobody likes this feeling when you’re at this position of the year. It’s all fine and dandy until you get to this position. Then you’re looking like everybody is looking crazy at that point.
“That’s why, to me, the whole year counts. I’m a firm believer. I don’t know how everybody else thinks about it, but that’s how I think about it, because you start from April and you go all the way ’til the end. Good teams play good throughout the whole year. They don’t just go through one little stretch. They’re usually going to play pretty good ball throughout the year. We played OK ball, but we didn’t play great baseball like I think we’re capable of doing. At the same time, I think we’re still learning and I think I like the caliber of people that we have and we’re all good to come back. It’s not over, but to be honest, they have to lose every game. We have to win every game. And that’s just to tie. You have to be realistic about the situation as well. I hope that it happens, but you know …”
Is there any satisfaction that you guys are still contending despite all the injuries and issues the team has gone through this year?
“Health is a big key. I felt like I battled injuries all year long with my hamstring. That’s part of it. I hated it. As much as I wanted to be on the field, I couldn’t get out there, because I was hurting. From the second time on, I was trying to make sure that I didn’t get hurt again. I stayed on top of it. Our training staff did a great job of staying on top of me and helping me stay on top of my hamstring. Hopefully, this season isn’t over yet, let me comment on that first, but hopefully, going into the future, I can be healthy, because I feel like if I’m healthy, I can help this team a lot.”
What’s the team’s mentality now going into the last few games?
“It’s tough. I’m not going to sit here and lie to you and say it’s easy, because it’s not easy. You have to win. There’s no other option. If we lose, we’re out. Because if they win, then they’re pretty much in, if Seattle loses one more game, too. We know what’s at stake. We knew what was at stake before we came here. We just have to hope for the best. It’s not going to be easy. It’s still a possibility, so we just have to continue to grind, play one game at a time and we have another tough pitcher in [Jason] Vargas tomorrow, but we’ll battle him, too. And we have a good pitcher going in Bauer tomorrow, so we’ll hope for the best with that and we hope that we win.”
Indians 4, Royals 3 (10 innings)
Royals 2, Indians 0
FIRST: This was a disappointing day for the Indians. There is no getting around it. Cleveland needed to essentially win out to have a serious shot at October baseball and Kansas City got in the way of that in an oddly-arranged evening at Progressive Field.
First, the Indians staved off a 10th-inning rally to win the conclusion of the Aug. 31 suspended game in Kansas City. Then, the Royals picked up a victory over the Tribe behind a strong start from lefty Danny Duffy, though there were missed chances at the plate and in the field that cost Cleveland.
“It’s not very often you don’t score and come away with a split,” Indians manager Terry Francona quipped.
The Indians’ season isn’t done in terms of mathematics. Ask the odds makers, though, and they’d advise you to push your chips to a different corner. The reality is that Cleveland has only five games left and they are now facing a 3.5-game deficit with the A’s, Royals, Mariners and Yankees are still in play in the Wild Card picture.
So, what is Cleveland to do now?
“We really need help from other teams,” Indians infielder Mike Aviles said. “We need Seattle to lose, we need the Royals to lose, Tigers to lose. The bottom line is we have to take care of what we can, which means winning some games and figure out how to win.”
The Indians have two games left in this series against Kansas City, so the potential still exists to slice the deficit to 1.5 games before the Royals head out of town. Then, with three games left against Tampa Bay, a heartbeat would still exist for this fading season for the Tribe.
Are they any positives for Cleveland’s fatigued fan base to pull from this? Definitely. The Indians have now pieced together consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 2000-01, and the future looks brighter with players liker Corey Kluber and Michael Brantley leading the way. Given all the injuries and issues this year, the fact that the Indians are still in this thing, even remotely, is pretty remarkable.
That said, no one around the ballclub is ready to look back at this season with games still on the docket.
“We’re so locked in in trying to win,” Francona said. “We can summarize when it’s time. Right now, we have to try to find a way to win.”
SECOND: Offensively, this game had a similar feel as the American League Wild Card Game a year ago. Well, except for the wild playing environment Cleveland had that night last October. The sea of red-clad fans packing Progressive Field was amazing for that game. For Monday’s critical games vs. Kansas City? The announced crowd was 10,458.
That’s a rant for another day. For now, I’ll just stick to saying it was as disappointing of a showing in the stands as it was in the batter’s box. Cleveland went 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position, stranding nine and having another runner thrown out in a pick-off, caught-stealing. The Indians loaded the bases with no outs in the first inning, and came away with nothing.
That missed chance came against lefty Danny Duffy, who is a solid starter, but one who hadn’t pitched since Sept. 6 due to a shoulder issue.
“It was upsetting more than anything,” said Aviles, who flew out to end the first. “We’ve got a guy, bases loaded, who hasn’t pitched in awhile. We’ve got him on the ropes and, if we can get some runs early, [maybe we] rattle his cage.”
The lack of offense made the fact that Chris Gimenez and rookie Tyler Holt were in the starting lineup at first base and in right field, respectively, more glaring. Francona was limited in constructing his lineup, though.
Jason Kipnis and David Murphy (both on the bench) have battled injuries in recent weeks and neither were presented with a great matchup with the left-handed Duffy on the mound. Platoon-advantage wise, the same goes for Jason Giambi. Carlos Santana, who has fought a quad issue in the second half, was in the order as the DH. Rookies Zach Walters (.157) and Jesus Aguilar (.143) were on the bench. Walters also recently dealt with an intercostal strain.
“We have to keep an eye on these guys a little bit,” Francona said, “[and] try to mix and match the best we can. … Our guys have done a really good job. Kip stretched the whole time, knowing he was probably going to hit at some point. Everybody’s a little banged up. You just do the best you can.”
In arguably the biggest game of the season for the Indians — then again, which game lately hasn’t fallen into that category — such depth issues hurt the on-field production.
THIRD: The absent offense spoiled another solid effort from right-hander Carlos Carrasco. The right-hander rejoined the rotation on Aug. 10 and has given Cleveland its surprise of the season.
Against the Royals, Carrasco allowed two runs on seven hits in 7.1 innings, striking out nine and walking one along the way. In his nine starts since returning to a starting role, he has posted a 1.32 ERA with a .80 WHIP and a .183 opponents’ batting average. Across 61.1 innings in that span, the righty has 68 strikeouts against eight walks.
“I thought he was really good,” Francona said. “This is the first game in a while where it’s been cold. He was having a tough time gripping the ball. You could tell. He left a couple pitches where they weren’t going where he wanted. Then, he dialed it in. The two runs he gave up, they were both hard-hit, but if we’re able to [make a few] plays, we’re still playing.”
HOME: Francona was referring to the fact that the two runs Carrasco surrendered came on balls that skipped off a defender’s glove. In the first inning, Gimenez had a line drive from Eric Hosmer bounce off his glove and into right field for an RBI single. In the fifth, Alcides Escobar sent a sharp grounder to the right of shortstop Jose Ramirez, who couldn’t corral the ball with a backhanded swipe.
“We should’ve made those plays right there. That cost me two runs,” Carrasco said. “I thought they had a pretty good chance of making them, but sometimes we don’t make those plays. That can cost us.”
Here was Francona’s take: “The ball Hosmer hit was scalded, but it hit the end of his glove. The ball to Jose, that would have been a really nice play. They’re makable, it just happened awful quick. They were both hit really hard, kind of do or die.”
Royals (85-71) at Indians (82-75)
at 7:05 p.m. ET Tuesday at Progressive Field
FIRST: Remember when there was some concern that Corey Kluber, who had crossed into uncharted waters in terms of innings in a single year, was possibly fighting late-season fatigue? Yeah, he’s feeling just fine. Just ask the White Sox, Astros and Twins.
In the four starts since Kluber surrendered five runs in 2.2 innings against the Tigers on Sept. 1 — never mind the defensive miscues that cost him dearly in that swiftly-derailed outing — he has returned to form in a major way. In the 32.1 innings during that span (that’s more than eight innings on average), the right-hander is 4-0 with a 1.39 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 43 strikeouts and only three walks.
“He’s pitching with confidence,” Indians center fielder Michael Bourn said. “But he’s also calm while he’s pitching.”
Minnesota wound up on the wrong side of history because of Kluber’s calm confidence. The pitcher racked up 14 strikeouts for the second start in a row. That has only been accomplished 15 times in the past 100 seasons and only by nine Major League pitchers. The last to do it? Some guy named Randy Johnson in 2004. The other names on that list include Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Jose Rijo, Dwight Gooden, Mickey Lolich, Bob Gibson and Sam McDowell. Pedro holds the record with three such outings in a row in 1999. McDowell did it twice for the Tribe in 1968.
Kluber shrugged off the historical footnotes.
“When the year’s over,” he said, “that’s stuff that you’ll take a second to look at and appreciate. But, right now, it’s not important. The important thing right now is that we got the win. That’s what we need to keep going. It’s a result of the hard work that you put in, but I think you wait until the end of the year to kind of step back and look at it.”
On the season, Kluber now has 258 strikeouts (most in the American League), which puts him 10th all-time on Cleveland’s single-season list. Before this year, only Bob Feller, Herb Score, Luis Tiant and McDowell had achieved at least 250 strikeouts in a season. Feller holds the record with 348 in 1946. Kluber also joins McDowell (four times), Feller (once) and score (once) as the only pitchers in team history to have at least 10 double-digit strikeout games in one season
Kluber has 20 starts with at least eight strikeouts and 13 with at least nine strikeouts.
“Those are a byproduct of a really good pitcher,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of all the strikeout feats. “I think you go through periods where those things happen. Coming into the game, the Twins have had a really good approach to him. You look at the matchups and they have guys that have found ways to get hits off him — they hit the ball the other way — but he established his fastball right away and then he had his breaking ball. He was just really good.”
The Twins agreed.
“He has great command of three of his pitches,” Twins second baseman Brian Dozier said. “He has electric stuff and is a high strikeout guy. If you get a pitch to hit, you can’t really miss it against that guy. He’s a big swing-and-miss guy. He threw me all sliders and cutters, and when he’s got that working, he’s pretty good.”
SECOND: Kluber also had a unique strikeout streak come to a close on Sunday afternoon. After striking out 14 in seven innings on Tuesday in Houston, the right-hander had 13 strikeouts through six innings against the Twins. What was unique about that was the fact that Kluber had at least two strikeouts in each of those 13 consecutive innings.
I don’t know yet where that streak ranks in terms of history (the Indians called the Elias Sports Bureau to hopefully get an assist with the answer), but I can tell you how it ended. In the seventh inning, Kluber induced a leadoff flyout off the bat of Chris Herrmann, who had two doubles earlier in the game. Jordan Schafer then followed with a popped-up bunt, which sent the ball arcing into foul territory.
Third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall hustled in, ran into foul ground and made a spectacular diving catch. Way to go, Chiz, you ended Kluber’s strikeout streak.
“I’ll take the diving catch,” Kluber said with a grin.
Kluber’s 14 strikeouts, combined with the one punchout registered by reliever Nick Hagadone in the ninth inning, also helped Cleveland extend its Major League-record streak of consecutive games with at least a dozen strikeouts to six games. Cleveland also has 1,391 strikeouts on the season overall, surpassing last year’s total (1,380) for a new club record. The AL and Major League record (1,428) was set by the 2013 Tigers. Cleveland should be able to chase that record down, but the Rays (1,385) are also in the running this year.
“I think it’s maybe a reflection on the kind of stuff we have on our staff,” Kluber said of the team’s high strikeout total. “I think we’ve got some guys with some good arms and some good stuff to put people away. A lot of times, when we get an opportunity to put guys away, we take advantage of it.”
THIRD: Kluber and left fielder Michael Brantley have provided the Indians with two elite talents and clear-cut candidates (at least worthy of a top-three finish) for some season-end awards. I’ll save Kluber’s Cy Young candidacy for a post at the end of the season, when we’ll have the final numbers. As for Brantley, they should create a Mike Trout Award for the MVP runner-up in the AL. Trout has that top spot basically locked up.
Don’t even worry about WAR of wRC+, just take a moment to consider and appreciate the basic numbers that Brantley is piling up right now. After Sunday, he’s hitting .325 with 20 homers, 22 stolen bases, 43 doubles, 93 runs, 97 RBIs, 193 hits and 300 total bases. That has Brantley on the cusp of finishing with one of the greatest all-around seasons not only in team history, but in AL history.
“He’s always hungry for more,” Bourn said. “He comes to work hard every day. I think that’s a plus. I think he’s focused on being one of the best players in the game. He’s having a tremendous year, but when you want to be considered in the top category, you’ve got to be able to do it year after year after year. I think he has that potential.”
In Cleveland history, there have only been 10 instances when a player ended with at least a .320 average to go along with at least 100 runs, 100 RBIs and 200 hits. Carlos Baerga last accomplished the feat in 199. Before Baerga, it hadn’t been done since 1953 (Al Rosen). If you add at least 40 doubles to that statistical line, you have to go back to 1936 (Hal Trosky) to find the last season of that kind. If you add the 20 stolen bases, well, you won’t find any player in Cleveland history with that kind of year.
In AL history, Jacoby Ellsbury (2011) is the only player in history to hit .320 or better with at least 20 homers, 20 steals, 40 doubles, 100 runs, 100 RBIs and 200 hits. Brantley could be the second to do that, if he gets three RBIs, seven hits and seven runs in the final six games. If you remove the 20-homer requirement, the others on the AL list with Ellsbury are Gee Walker (1937), Charlie Gehringer (1929), Geroge Sisler (1920, 1922), Ty Cobb (1911, 1917), Home Run Baker (1912) and Nap Lajoie (1901).
HOME: … is where the Indians are heading. If Cleveland is going to complete this miracle postseason chase, it’ll be over the next six games (seven, including the final three outs of the Aug. 31 suspended game with the Royals) at Progressive Field. Beginning Monday, the Indians have a crucial three-game, three-out series with Kansas City, which currently sits 3 1/2 games ahead of the Tribe for one of the AL’s Wild Card spots. The A’s, Mariners and Yankees are all in the hunt, too.
“We know what’s at stake,” Bourn said. “We’ve been going for it since the beginning — there’s just more at stake in September. That’s just what it is. You’ve got win at this time to extend your time to be able to play. We’re going to give it all we’ve got each day. We’re going to try and put ourselves in a good position and hopefully we win. We know this is pretty much our season, this last week, and we’re not going to run from it. We’re going to stand up to the competition.”
Here’s the landscape for the Wild Card contenders:
1. Oakland (up 0.5): 3 vs. LAA, 4 @ TEX
2. Kansas City (–): 3* @ CLE, 4 @ CWS
3. Seattle (1.5 GB): 4 @ TOR, 3 vs. LAA
4. Cleveland (3.5 GB): 3* vs. KC, 3 vs. TB
5. New York (4.5 GB): 4 vs. BAL, 3 @ BOS
“We’re looking forward to it,” Francona said of the upcoming set with the Royals. “We’ve worked hard to get to this point. Now we get to play one of the better teams in the league and it’s very meaningful. It’ll be fun.”
*plus the conclusion of the suspended game
Royals (84-70) at Indians (81-74)
at 6:05 p.m. ET Monday at Progressive Field
FIRST: Maybe it’s time to stop wondering when Cookie is going to crumble. Maybe what has been taking place on the mound is legitimate. Maybe a corner has finally been turned.
Years of inconsistency have conditioned Cleveland fans to anticipate a meltdown from pitcher Carlos Carrasco. Six starts into his latest return to the rotation, the big righty has finally looked like the kind of the front-line starter envisioned for several seasons by the Indians.
“I’ll tell you what, it’s been so nice,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “You put a guy in the rotation and you certainly hope for the best, but my goodness. He looks so strong.”
What’s interesting about Carrasco’s turnaround — one that now includes Sunday’s dominant showing against the White Sox — is that he has adopted the aggressive mentality talked so much about over the past offseason. Going from the bullpen to the rotation isn’t new for Carrasco. The righty spent time in the bullpen last year and then transitioned back to starting in time for Opening Day this season.
We heard about how aggressive he was out of the ‘pen, how he stopped overthinking and over-planning like he was prone to doing as a starter. And then, when he went back to starting, the same old problems arose. So, what’s been the difference? Why has Carrasco been able to embrace a reliever’s mind-set now, when he wasn’t able to do so out of the gates in April?
“That’s a great point,” said Carrasco, pondering that concept for a moment. “I figured it out after, why I couldn’t do it in the beginning of the season. They sent me to the bullpen and my mentality is way different right now.”
Let’s dive a little deeper into it than that by first looking at his season in three parts…
April 15-25 (four starts): 6.95 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, .286 AVG
In 22 IP: 24 H, 18 R (17 ER), 23 K, 9 BB, 61% strikes
April 30-Aug 5 (26 games): 2.30 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, .217 AVG
In 43 IP: 34 H, 11 R (11 ER), 39 K, 9 BB, 67% strikes
Aug. 10-Sept. 7 (six starts): 0.70 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, .179 AVG
In 38.2 IP: 25 H, 3 R (3 ER), 42 K, 4 BB, 71% strikes
On the surface, you immediately see an increased strike rate. What you can’t see in that basic breakdown is the change in pitch usage over the course of the season for Carrasco. What the righty’s done over his past six starts is nearly double the percentage of sliders thrown (compared to his April stint in the rotation), dramatically cut down on curves and shift his fastball usage to include more sinkers.
During his first four starts in April, Carrasco was throwing his two-seamer only 2.4% of the time. That held steady through his stint in the bullpen, but has jumped to over 11% since returning to the rotation. In Sunday’s outing (8.2 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 8 K), Carrasco threw 18.4% sinkers. His four-seamer usage was down to 35% (compared to 54.3% as a starter in April).
Along with that change in repertoire, Carrasco has stashed his curve in his back pocket. He used that particular offspeed pitch 16.6% of the time in his first four starts, decreased the usage to 9.8% out of the bullpen and had used it only 5.9% of the time in his last five starts, entering Sunday. Against Chicago, Carrasco used the curve twice out of 103 pitches (0.2%).
The diminished use of the curve has led to a heightened reliance on what has developed into a wipeout slider. Back in 2011, when Carrasco has his best full season with Cleveland, he used the slider slightly more (12.6%) than his curve (11.6%). He was at 12.3% with the slider in his four April starts, but increased the rate to 22% out of the bullpen and then 23% in his rotation return, entering Sunday. The White Sox saw the slider 28.2% of the time in his latest effort.
It also helps that Carrasco’s average fastball velocity has climbed to 96-97 mph in August and September, compared to 94.8 mph in April. In that regard, Carrasco has maintained bullpen velocity incredibly well over his recent starts (I’m sure the lighter season-long workload has helped). Carrasco has also tightened up his pregame routine and now pitches out of the stretch, as he did in the ‘pen.
“He just looks like he’s getting stronger,” Francona said. “And today, his ball had so much good movement on his fastball, especially to the righties, down under their barrel. And then he’s able to spin that breaking ball. That was really impressive.”
SECOND: What does good pitching do for a team?
“It makes everything look better,” Francona said.
Here were are, documenting a series sweep over the White Sox after the Indians scored seven whole runs as an offense. The continued success of Cleveland’s pitching staff pushed the anemic lineup to the background for another day, and that has been a theme throughout this second half for the Indians.
In the 32 games after Aug. 1, when the Indians scored 12 runs in a romp over the Rangers, Cleveland has averaged 3.3 runs per game. Over that same span, the Tribe’s pitching staff has turned in a 2.65 ERA. That’s not a large margin for error for the pitchers, but the staff has made it work more often than not in keeping Cleveland afloat in the playoff picture.
In the three-game set against the White Sox, starting pitchers T.J. House, Corey Kluber and Carrasco combined to go 2-0 with a 0.36 ERA, striking out 23, scattering 16 hits, allowing two runs (only one earned) and issuing no walks in 24.2 innings.
Asked if good pitching can be contagious, Francona said: “Well, I hope so. I think we’re going to need it. It’s been allowing us every day to have a chance to win. I think we scored seven runs this series, but we’re coming away feeling pretty good. It’s taken a little bit of a burden off the bullpen. You can just show up and you feel like you have a chance to win. That’s what we need.”
THIRD: Cleveland’s first run came in the opening inning, when Michael Bourn sent a pitch from Chicago’s Scott Carroll over the head of center fielder Adam Eaton for a leadoff triple. Two batters later, Michael Brantley made good on that hit with one of his own, delivering a single to center to extend his hitting steak to 11 games.
The triple was Bourn’s American League-leading 10th of the season. What’s remarkable about that is the fact that Bourn has only played 87 games this season due to his hamstring issues. The last Indians hitter to have at least 10 three-base hits in a season was Grady Sizemore in 2006, but the last to do so in fewer than 100 games was Ed Morgan in 1929 (10 in 93 games).
HOME: Francona does not typically give in to broad-stroaks questions about a series, especially if the question involves looking back or looking ahead. The manager prefers to keep the horse blinders on, focusing on each game as a singular task. That said, Francona strayed from his usual approach when asked how important this sweep was for the team, considering Cleveland dropped three of four in a tough series against the Tigers earlier this week.
“We’re running out of months. Not days, but months,” Francona said. “So, we need to make up some ground. I don’t know if you can go into a series thinking about a sweep, because I don’t think that’s a very productive way to play, but now that it’s over, it certainly helps. Now, it makes tomorrow that much bigger.”
Angels (87-55) at Indians (74-67)
at 1:05 p.m. ET Monday at Progressive Field