When a team with 90-win aspirations and hopes of a playoff
berth run starts slow, there is going to be some consternation and concern. Last week, I talked about the Indians pitching, and the need to get their walks under control (which, as it happens, they have not done); today I want to take a look at the offense.
I have heard (and read) a lot of other fans voicing concerns about the "slow start" by the offense: Asdrubal Cabrera is struggling, Carlos Santana is in an ugly slump, Nick Swisher is somehow hitting even worse. I wish the team had picked up a few more hits at the right times, but things are not as bad as many seem to think.
The Indians have played three games in Oakland, six in Cleveland, four in Chicago and now two in Detroit. That's nine games in some of the top pitchers' parks in MLB (Oakland and Cleveland... only one AL park - Tampa Bay - is better for pitchers than Progressive Field), two in a fairly neutral park (Detroit), and four in one of the better hitters' parks (Chicago). So far the Tribe schedule has favored pitchers, which isn't a major point, but is worth mentioning.
When you look at an offensive statistic that weighs in park factors, the Tribe doesn't look bad. Their wRC+ (wRC+ is like OPS+, only better, because it more properly weighs OBP and SLG) so far this year is 106, 6th-best in the AL. In 2013, their wRC+ was 107, which was 6th in the AL. If a wRC+ of 107 can get you to 92 wins, I am willing to bet that a 106 can get you awfully close.
But wRC+ doesn't account for batted-ball luck. If you ain't hitting 'em where they ain't, your wRC+ suffers right along with your runs scored. So far the Indians have had some rotten luck. After posting a .300 BABIP (11th in MLB) last season, the team is currently sitting at an unhappy .276, good for 25th in MLB. Meanwhile, the Indians' line-drive rate of 21.7% is tied for 11th in MLB. Line drives fall in as hits more frequently than any other type of ball in play, so a team with such a high rate should be above average in BABIP, not below.
Only four players on the team have a BABIP over .300 right now: Yan Gomes, whose .303 is barely over that line (and lower than his 2013 BABIP); Ryan Raburn, whose .310 is only mildly above average; Nyjer Morgan, whose .400 BABIP isn't even on the roster anymore; and Lonnie Chisenhall, who is hitting just about everything. His .632 BABIP is insane (and set to fall substantially, so prepare yourself).
That leaves us with ta number of regulars who are likely to either improve or stay about the same: Santana, Swisher, Cabera, and Jason Kipnis are all at or below a .250 BABIP. That's most of the heart of the order, but they cannot seem to buy a hit, even when making solid contact. Their numbers are due for positive regression.
What does all of this mean? This team is hitting as well this year as it did last season. When you dig beyond the surface numbers, they may even be hitting better than a year ago. They are certainly having much worse (likely unsustainably worse) luck. Chances are, the best is yet to come for this offense, and we shouldn't be worried about them.
Be aware though, that starting Friday night, the Indians will play 23 games in a row in parks that favor pitchers, so it's unlikely we're going to see huge offensive numbers from the team over the next three and a half weeks. If their luck turns even a little though, they should look fine through the middle of May, and then have a chance to really take off as temperatures warm and the ballparks become more friendly.
Don't fear, Tribe fans. The 2014 offense should be just as good, if not better, than the 2013 edition.