Monday, July 14, 2008

Tribe's first half offense - God awful but getting better

As some of you know, I've recently been asked to join MVN's Tribe Report, where a team of three writers - myself, James Pete and Brian La Shier - provide extensive and sophisticated (well the other two do any anyway) coverage of the Tribe.

Below is the first part (my contribution) of a three-part series which will look at the Tribe's first-half and a bit of what we might see the rest of the way. The other two posts will be coming over the All-Star break.

You should check out the site. You'll be glad you did.


I could sum up the Tribe's first-half offense with one five-letter word. S-U-C-K-S !!

But since you came to this Web site for info, I assume you are looking for a little more than that.

So here goes.

For much of the first half of the season, the Indians' offense was just plain dreadful. The team was last in the league in hitting - with a team BA in the low .230's. Those are 1968-like (Year of the Pitcher) numbers.

Watching the Tribe bat for most of the first half of the season was painful to the eyes - and the nose (the stink made it all the way through to my TV set).

Making it even tougher to watch was the fact that the Tribe had a stretch of games in late April and early May where the starting pitchers were throwing like it was 1968, but they could never get more three games above .500.

In a stretch from April 18 to May 15, Indians pitchers gave up three or fewer runs in 20 of 25 games - 7 of which were shutouts. The team was 22-19 at the end of that stretch - the high-water mark of the season.

With its low-.230's BA, the Tribe was last in the league in hitting and also at, or near, the bottom in runs scored for most of the first half.

Hobbled by injuries to, and ineffectiveness of, the three-hole and clean-up hitters - Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner respectively - most of the rest of the hitters (term used loosely) in the Indians' lineup uderpeformed. (Ryan Garko, David Dellucci, Franklin Gutierrez you know we're talking about you.)

Others - Grady Sizemore, Casey Blake and Jhonny Peralta - are performing at about expected levels .

Jamey Carroll is about the only Tribesman who is performing better than expected simply because he is now an everyday player, something no one had imagined during spring training.

No one really could say with any certainty they knew what Ben Francisco and Shin-Soo Choo would do. Choo started out hot after returning from Tommy John surgery but has been a bit of a disappointment after the hot start.

Ben Francisco is having a solid first full season and was on fire heading into the break.

But, the Tribe's offense has gone from unbearably bad to about average in recent weeks.

In the past 30 days the team has hit a more-respectable .263 and the team BA is now at .248 - still last in the league but lot's better than the low .230's and just behind 13th-place Oakland at .250.

The turning point seems to have come in a series in Texas at the beginning of June, when the high winds and hot temperatures helped both teams propel balls out of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington . Since the first game of that series, in which the Tribe scored 35 runs in three games, Cleveland has averaged 5.08 runs a game in 36 games. That's up from 4.03 average in the first 56 games of the year.

While the Texas series seems to be the jumping off point for the offense, some folks point to the insertion of Peralta into the clean-up spot as the a catalyst. But that doesn't seem to have been the difference, at least for the team overall. The Tribe is averaging 4.9 runs a game in the 17 games since Peralta was put into the No. 4 hole, virtually the same as their output since that memorable series in Texas.

The change has done Peralta a world of good though. He's hit an even .300 in those 17 games, with four homers, 11 runs scored and 14 RBIs.

To me, the key to the Tribe's offensive surge-ette has been the decision to correct two serious mistakes.

Hafner last appeared in a game on May 25, and Martinez on June 11 - both roughly around the time the offense started to pick up. It seems clear to me that the long-overdue decisions to put two hurting and hampered players on the DL instead of the middle of the lineup has made all the difference.

How can a team expect to score runs with their No. 3 hitter (Martinez: hamstring and elbow surgery) and No. 4 hitter (Hafner: shoulder) unable to swing a bat anywhere close to normal and making weak outs in the middle of the order? Of all the mistakes the Tribe deep thinkers have made this year, allowing these two to try to play through debilitating injuries was the biggest.

Other reasons for the offensive brownout in the first half include:

- The regression of Garko who at .237 is hitting nearly 40 points below his lifetime average

- The utter failure of Gutierrez, who is hitting only .215 with three homers and is now riding the bench

- The failure of the David Dellucci/Jason Michaels platoon (Dellucci .226; Michaels DFA'd)

- Literally no contribution from Asdrubal Cabrera (hit .184 before being sent to Buffalo in June)

On the other side of the ledger, the brights spot in the first-half were:

- Blake, who has hit so well in the clutch that he has 51 RBI on only 82 hits

- Sizemore - has 21 SB's and a league-leading 22 homers, making a 30-30 season very likely

- Francisco - .288, 8 HRs, 34 RBIs and 816 OPS

Kelly Shoppach is not exactly ripping it up, but he is hitting about .250 with a little bit power in his first full-time role, which are typical starting-catcher numbers.

Peralta, another Tribesman tearing it up heading into the break, is having his typical season overall - spurts of greatness and periods where he looks like he's never grabbed a bat in his life. That usually amounts to roughly 20 homers a year and a .260-or-so average. That seems to be where he is heading this year as well, with his .257 average and 15 dingers at the break.

Carroll is at .267, has taken over as the starter at 2B and plays an intelligent game. He's able to bunt, move a runner and slap a single when you need it, which is just what you want in the No. 2 hole.

While the offense seems to be hitting its stride as the teams take a three-day break, it's hard to say what to expect the rest of the way

Were Hafner's hitting woes a result of his shoulder injury, as seems likely? Or were they just a continuation of the deterioration that Pronk had started to show throughout most of last season? Will we even see Hafner - whose shoulder is at about 50% - again in '08.

Will Victor get his power back with his elbow repaired and his hammy rested? He didn't hit a single homer prior to his injury.

The team's second- and third-highest RBI men, Blake (51) and Peralta (45), are also the most-often-mentioned players in trade rumors, with the deadline looming.

Cabrera - now ripping up Triple-A - is likely to come back up in the second half. Will he resemble the confident, competent creative hitter of last year or the early-season disaster we saw this year?

Will we see the newly acquired Matt LaPorta? What can we expect from him given he's never played above Double-A and has the weight of fan expectations on his shoulders as the key piece in the CC Sabathia trade?

Unfortunately the answers to those questions won't matter much for the rest of this season. But they will make a big difference in the planning for '09, as the Tribe and its fans wait - once again - for next year.

(note to nit-pickers: The stats in this article are through Friday night's games and do not include Saturday or Sunday due to edit time requirements .)

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