Here we are on 4/20 and somehow, the Cleveland Indians are not only leading the AL Central, but the entire American League at 12-5. No, that's not a misprint just because it's 4/20, it's actual fact. You may think it to be a fluke, but they also lead the entire major leagues in run differential at an impressive +32. So, the logical question must be... where the %$#! did this come from?
Coming into this season, not many franchises were in such a desperate state as the Cleveland Indians. In fact, I'd argue that outside of Pittsburgh, they may have been furthest from reaching the World Series. This is a team that hasn't been able to crack the 70 win mark the last two seasons and hasn't been above .500 since they were one win shy of the World Series in 2007. Unfortunately for Indians fans, the franchise traded away several of its top stars after that ALCS run. Oh well, at least fans are used to seeing their franchise rebooted and top stars move away. The list of former Indians who are All-Stars is staggering. NINE players from the 1997 team that lost Game 7 in the World Series to the Florida Marlins went on to be All-Stars with other teams. NINE!! Already, three players from the 2007 ALCS team have been All-Stars other places, and that includes two Cy Young winners with the Indians - CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee.
Coming into the 2011 season, this may have been an upgrade for Cleveland...
If possible, even less was expected of the Indians this year than that lovely Major League montage. Vegas had their over/under win total at a pathetic 71, only surpassing Seattle and you guessed it, Pittsburgh (sorry Pat). The Indians got off to a predictably depressing start to the season, two five run losses to the White Sox while allowing 23 runs in the process. A whopping 9,853 people showed up to watch the second game of the season by the lake. 9,853! MLS matches regularly outdraw that! Remember, this is a franchise that sold out 455 straight games from 1995 to 2001! Clearly, a majority of Indians fans had given up on this team for the time being. An arduous rebuilding project was on hand. Cleveland came into the season counting on the likes of youngsters Matt LaPorta (who hadn't looked anywhere near a top prospect yet), Michael Brantley, and Carlos Santana, and injury-prone vets like Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, and Fausto Carmona. In other words, hope was fleeting.
And yet, somehow, even after getting blown out in their first two games, the Tribe is 12-3 since and winning by 2.8 runs per game. It's certainly the biggest surprise of the baseball season thus far. I'm not a sabermetrician, but I can tell you one stat that I know holds true. Scoring runs is a good thing. (About time I put that math degree to use...) Last year, Cleveland was 26th in the league in runs scored at 3.99 runs per game. This year, Cleveland is T3 in the bigs and T1 in the AL in runs scored at 5.29 rpg. Progressive isn't exactly a bandbox, and this also includes a series at cavernous Safeco Field. Take a look at some of the other offensive team numbers from Cleveland in 2010 and at the start of 2011:
Cleveland has had several of those players with question marks step up in a huge way so far. The revival of Travis Hafner may be the biggest shock. From 2004-2007, Hafner had 100+ RBIs every season. He hasn't played a whole season since and had been largely ineffective due to injuries. In 118 games last year, he had 50 RBIs and slugged .449 (he slugged a career high .659 in 2006). And yet, Hafner has found the fountain of youth in 2011. Through 15 games so far, Hafner is 5th in MLB at a .625 slugging % and 3rd in OPS at 1.040. Most encouragingly for Indians fans, Hafner looks stronger and healthier than he has at any time the last three seasons. As Jim Ingraham puts it, he looks like Pronk again.
The presence of Hafner playing at an All-Star level makes the Indians a completely different beast. Other players have stepped up as well with Brantley (.400 OBP) and Asdrubal Cabrera (4 HR) hitting out of their minds. On the pitching side, Justin Masterson is showing ace-like potential at 3-0 with a 1.33 ERA. While Cleveland's pitching numbers won't blow you away quite like their offense, the Tribe leads the majors with 13 quality starts and sits 7th with a 3.26 ERA. Also, Chris Perez (5 saves) and Tony Sipp (6 holds) haven't allowed a run yet out of the pen.
So, the question remains... can Cleveland keep this amazing start going? Why not! Travis Hafner will be the key player - if he remains healthy and productive, the Indians can win the Central... especially considering the problems in Minnesota with Joe Mauer's health and the underwhelming starts in Detroit and Chicago. I mean come on, right now the Royals are their main competition! Perhaps even more encouraging though for the Indians is that one of their top young players, Carlos Santana, and their top returnee from last year, Shin-Soo Choo, haven't started to hit yet. More good news comes in the full return of former All-Star outfielder Grady Sizemore, who has looked inspired since his return to the lineup.
When you look over the Indians roster, and look beyond the disappointment of the last three seasons, there is still plenty of talent left on this team and an intriguing mix of veterans and young players. The Indians may have found just the right mix in 2011 as their young players continue to grow and Hafner and Sizemore return to All-Star form. If Cleveland can stay away from the injury bug and not suffer a complete collapse from this early form, the Indians can make a legitimate run at a division title this year. The test will come near the trade deadline to see if management believes in aggressively supporting this team after being sellers in the recent past. Nevertheless, it's a great ray of hope in a sports city that desperately needs it. At least Cleveland fans can now have something to do beyond this.