MLB news: Can Indians keep their hot start going?

USA TODAY Sports

The Tribe is on fire, but after seeing hot starts in 2011 and 2012 fall apart, does this team deserve our faith?

The Indians have won 10 of their last 11 games, something they'd not done since August of 2008. Their record sits at 18-14, which may not seem overly impressive, but over the course of 162 games, that works out to 91-71, a fine record, usually good enough to make the playoffs in the wildcard era. Their run differential (runs scored minus runs allowed) is +33, second in the AL only to the Tigers. They're just one game out of 1st place heading into their weekend series in Detroit.

But...

Almost every Tribe fan recalls that the team also had a good record in mid-May of 2011 and again in 2012 (and was in 1st place each time), only to fall far back over the rest of the season. The wounds left by those disappointments are still fresh. Are there reasons to believe this year might be different?

The 2012 Indians

The high water mark last year was 26-18. 17 of those first 26 wins came by just one or two runs though, which works out to 65.4%. That's a very high percentage of close victories. I don't know what the league average is, but looking at the last Indians squad to make the playoffs, only 47.9% of the 2007 team's wins were by just one or two runs and of the 2013 team's 18 wins so far, only 38.9% have been that close.

To give more of an apples to apples comparison, let's look at just the first 32 games of 2012. The Indians were 18-14 at that point, same as right now. Was there writing on the wall to say this wasn't a 91 win team? Yes. For one thing, they'd actually been outscored 147-145. A team's run differential is a better predictor of how they'll do going forward than their record and a negative differential does not predict success.

Here are the key members of 2012's early season lineup, with their numbers through 32 games. The last column shows each player's BABIP since 2009, to give a sense of whether he was 'lucky' at this time last year:

Player

BA

OBP

SLG

BABIP

2009-13 BABIP

Carlos Santana

.257

.390

.413

.308

.284

Casey Kotchman

.194

.279

.286

.200

.276

Jason Kipnis

.278

.352

.492

.293

.284

Asdrubal Cabrera

.333

.426

.524

.344

.317

Jack Hannahan

.305

.380

.463

.356

.297

Shelley Duncan

.213

.330

.363

.264

.308

Michael Brantley

.262

.306

.357

.289

.280

Shin-Soo Choo

.240

.371

.344

.306

.352

Travis Hafner

.255

.400

.439

.269

.307

While individually there's variance, on the whole, it doesn't look like the lineup was particularly lucky or unlucky. They were 6th in the AL in runs per game at that point, which seems about right.

Here are the key pitchers from 2012 through 32 games:

Player

IP

ERA

WHIP

BABIP

2009-13 BABIP

Derek Lowe

43.2

2.47

1.51

0.317

0.326

Justin Masterson

42.1

4.89

1.56

0.287

0.314

Ubaldo Jimenez

40

5.17

1.78

0.281

0.294

Josh Tomlin

34.2

4.67

1.24

0.308

0.277

Jeanmar Gomez

29

4.66

1.21

0.275

0.299

Jairo Asencio

18

5.5

1.28

0.26

0.306

Joe Smith

15.2

2.87

1.28

0.256

0.258

Vinnie Pestano

14

1.93

1.07

0.286

0.266

Chris Perez

13.2

3.95

1.17

0.244

0.248

Here you see a bit more evidence of some luck (a collective BABIP of .284, compared to a league average somewhere in the .295-.300 range, as every starter but Tomlin was below his established BABIP and Lowe had a sparkling ERA but an awful WHIP, meaning he was stranding an awful lot of runners. The scary thing is, even with that bit of luck, the Indians were just 11th out of the 14 AL teams in runs allowed through 32 games. Their luck soon regressed and the pitching was even worse than this start. The weak run differential and mediocre (even with good luck) pitching should have made it clear that last year's Indians weren't a good club.

The 2011 Indians

This team was a different story. Through 32 games their record stood at 20-12 and their run differential was +49, the best in baseball. The strong start continued beyond 32 games, reaching a high point of 30-15, at which point even a sports-pessimist such as myself began to think the Tribe might be headed for the playoffs. After all, between 1995 (the first season with wildcard teams in the playoffs) and 2010 there had been 20 teams that won at least 30 of their first 45 games, 18 of them made the playoffs. At the very least, a winning record seemed assured, for in MLB history there had been 150 previous teams that started a season that well and only two had failed to finish the season with a winning record (the 1905 Cleveland Naps and 1940 New York Giants). The 2011 Indians of course became the third.

Going back to the first 32 games, here's where the lineup stood at that point in 2011:

Player

BA

OBP

SLG

BABIP

2009-13 BABIP

Carlos Santana

0.217

0.333

0.396

0.228

0.284

Matt LaPorta

0.266

0.336

0.479

0.284

0.276

Orlando Cabrera

0.277

0.302

0.353

0.301

0.284

Asdrubal Cabrera

0.265

0.338

0.432

0.283

0.317

Jack Hannahan

0.263

0.346

0.432

0.3

0.297

Michael Brantley

0.287

0.366

0.357

0.314

0.308

Grady Sizemore

0.265

0.324

0.574

0.304

0.28

Shin-Soo Choo

0.226

0.305

0.355

0.255

0.352

Travis Hafner

0.352

0.412

0.538

0.424

0.307

The collective BABIP was .302, basically right in line with the league average and the established level of these particular players. The run differential and lineup luck don't point towards the 2011 team as having been playing too far over its head, but that team came apart after the 30-15 start, playing to a record of just 50-67 the rest of the way, with a run differential of -105.

How did the pitching look through 32 games in 2011?

Player

IP

ERA

WHIP

BABIP

2009-13 BABIP

Justin Masterson

47

2.11

1.17

0.299

0.314

Roberto Hernandez

44.2

4.43

1.19

0.259

0.296

Josh Tomlin

40.2

2.43

0.81

0.157

0.277

Carlos Carrasco

29

4.97

1.45

0.344

0.318

Jeanmar Gomez

18.1

4.91

1.8

0.37

0.299

Tony Sipp

15.2

1.72

0.96

0.19

0.248

Chris Perez

15

3

1.13

0.239

0.248

Vinnie Pestano

13.2

1.32

1.02

0.25

0.266

Rafael Perez

12.2

0

0.87

0.176

0.326

Now you can better see the team's collapse coming. The three pitchers responsible for the most innings were all carrying a BABIP below their normal levels, Josh Tomlin dramatically so. All four key members bullpen had been lucky too. The staff's BABIP was .275, unlikely to be sustained: In the last 20 years, only 11 AL teams have kept that up for a full season). The Indians were also allowing just 0.64 home runs per 9 innings, ZERO American League teams in the last 20 years have maintained that over a full season. The Indians allowed just 3.47 runs per game over the first 32, but by season's end that figure had climbed to 4.69.

The 2013 Indians

Finally, here are figures for the 2013 team right now. First, the hitters:

Player

BA

OBP

SLG

BABIP

2011-13 BABIP

Carlos Santana

.329

.455

.674

.409

.281

Nick Swisher

.257

.363

.457

.278

.306

Jason Kipnis

.221

.272

.413

.253

.290

Asdrubal Cabrera

.221

.290

.416

.263

.299

Lonnie Chisenhall

.235

.270

.388

.270

.294

Michael Brantley

.301

.363

.382

.346

.311

Drew Stubbs

.264

.311

.382

.360

.323

Ryan Raburn

.329

.380

.575

.417

.301

Mark Reynolds

.291

.367

.645

.300

.276

The team's BABIP is .309, which is a little above average. Santana and Raburn are both due to cool off especially, but it doesn't seem as though the team is in for a major course correction there. The HR/FB rate is at 14.6%, which is high, pointing to a likely drop off in the power department, which isn't such a surprise, given that the Tribe leads MLB in home runs right now. The team is scoring the second-most runs per game in the AL (behind Detroit). That seems likely to dip a bit, but they should remain above average.

The 2013 pitchers:

Player

IP

ERA

WHIP

BABIP

2011-13 BABIP

Justin Masterson

54

3.67

1.24

.346

.307

Zach McAllister

37.2

2.63

1.12

.250

.305

Ubaldo Jimenez

29.2

6.37

1.32

.240

.308

Brett Myers

21.1

8.02

1.59

.275

.291

Scott Kazmir

20.1

4.87

1.43

.346

.361

Corey Kluber

17.2

3.06

1.19

.327

.344

Cody Allen

15

2.40

1.27

.289

.319

Bryan Shaw

14.2

1.23

1.09

.270

.315

Chris Perez

12

0.75

1.08

.241

.253

Joe Smith

11.2

0.77

0.77

.269

.258

The pitching staff's collective BABIP is .265, which is a red flag, because it's not going to stay that low (the average is ~30 points higher). Masterson and Kazmir have been unlucky, but the rest of the starters and most of the bullpen will likely see their figures climb (and maybe cool your jets on the "2010 Ubaldo is BACK!" campaign). On the plus side, a higher percentage of the team's fly balls have been turning into home runs, so that figure should drop with time. The Indians are allowing the 6th fewest runs per game, but probably won't keep it up. They ought to be better tan last year's dismal staff, but ultimately below average.

One factor left out of all that is Michael Bourn, who's due to return today having played in only 10 games so far. Bourn projected to be the team's best player, and his return could counter-balance some of the drop off that's to be expected from players like Raburn and Jimenez.

The current record says 91-71. The run differential says 96-66. Looking at other factors like BABIP and HR/FB rate, I'd say the team is going to be better than in either of the last two seasons and finish with a winning record, but don't get your hopes quite as high as that run differential might tell you to.

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