Nine Innings: On a big win and cleanup bats
1) Tuesday night’s 4-1 win in Anaheim perfectly illustrates why this season is not over. This Indians team won’t let it end. Tuesday they trailed most of the game, tied it on a seventh-inning home run by Carlos Santana and somehow escaped a bases-loaded-and-nobody-out situation in the bottom of the ninth to send the game to extra innings. In the 14th, Drew Stubbs won it with a home run. The game had a lot; it was played as if it had playoff implications, which it did. Asdrubal Cabrera engineered a key pickoff play at second, and later made a nice stop and play in the bottom of the ninth. Michael Bourn ran down the last out at the wall, and several relievers came through to give Carlos Carrasco the win. It’s the perfect example of the Indians at their best. The team has flaws. But it follows its manager’s philosophy and plays hard, and usually plays well. These Indians also don’t quit. And that’s why they’ll persevere the rest of the season, and why even if they don’t make the playoffs they should keep things interesting. “We just stayed with everything,” Bourn said in audio distributed by the team, “and we kept playing.” Which should be the mantra for this team — and which should be a very large and real reason to like this team.
2) Stubbs summed up the attitude the rest of the season, and it’s why these last six weeks have the potential to be a lot of fun: “Every game from here on out is equally important. Every one of them is a game we need to win if we want to try to make the playoffs.”
3) Stubbs called Tuesday’s win a “gut-wrencher.” He said both teams had to scratch and claw and “leave everything out on the field.” Then he referenced the first-game-of-the-series loss to Detroit earlier in August, when Chris Perez blew a save. Stubbs talked about how tough it was to come back from that deflating loss. Nick Swisher said the same thing when the team left on this extended road trip, how their struggles were exacerbated by the way that game went. Single games are not supposed to have that huge an impact in baseball, but clearly that one hurt — and lingered. Would the Indians have swept Detroit had they won that game? Doubtful. But it’s also evident that the hangover carried through.
4) It’s been said often that the Indians lack a true cleanup hitter, and that instead of plugging a big-hitting power guy in the fourth spot they kind of make do with what they have. Which seems pretty much true when watching Asdrubal Cabrera try to hit cleanup. The Indians hoped Nick Swisher could carry the cleanup spot, and he did hit nine home runs, but only had a .249 average. Eventually he was moved to second. Which is when Cabrera hit fourth, but he hit .198 with 16 strikeouts in 81 at-bats. Not exactly cleaning things up. Carlos Santana is the latest to hit cleanup (12 games), but Michael Brantley has done it 11 times, Ryan Raburn four, Mark Reynolds five and Jason Giambi once. Clearly the Indians lack the traditional “clean-up” hitter.
5) Some of the traditional attributes of the cleanup hitter may be changing, though. WAR — Wins Above Replacement — takes on more importance in some circles than simply looking at home runs and RBI. Same with the Bill James Runs Created” number. The No. 4 hitter should be able to get on base, help score runs and drive them in. He doesn’t necessarily have to be a 40 home run guy, though that sure helps. Miguel Cabrera might be the epitome of the cleanup hitter, but he hits third in Detroit. In reality, Cabrera would be the perfect hitter at any spot in the lineup. Because (especially in smaller markets) on-base percentage and slugging percentage matter more than simply being able to hit home runs. Because often a guy with a big swing who hits home runs costs a lot and also strikes out a lot. This is why, in theory, Swisher could have been a good cleanup hitter. He walks, gets on base and in his good years drove the ball for doubles and home runs — his career on-base percentage is .359, his career slugging percentage .461. But this season he’s simply struggled, with his second lowest career on-base percentage and lowest slugging percentage.
6) The Indians as a team rank low on the scale in terms of cleanup production. Heading into Tuesday night’s game, they were 25th in batting average (.238), 21st in home runs (17), 27th in RBI (59) and 23rd in OPS (.736). The best cleanup teams in the league, going by OPS: Boston, Colorado, Texas, the Dodgers, Washington and Baltimore. Also up there are Atlanta and Tampa Bay. The common denominator: They have that “guy.” David Ortiz. Troy Tulowitzki. Adrian Beltre. Hanley Ramirez. Adam LaRoche. Adam Jones. Evan Longoria. The common denominator of those guys: Salary. Ortiz makes $11 million, Tulowitzki $16 million, Beltre $17 million, Ramirez $16 million, LaRoche $12 million, Jones $13 million. Only Longoria is below $10 million, but he’s also playing after signing a six-year, $100 million extension — nearly twice Swisher’s record free agent deal in Cleveland. The average salary of those cleanup guys is $13.2 million, which is more than the Indians highest paid player (Swisher at $11 million).
7) For a city and fan base weary of money talk, this does not mean the Indians can’t find a cleanup hitter, or that they can’t win without a traditional one. Oakland cleanup OPS of .727 is lower than Cleveland’s, and the A’s do fine. It just means that the financial realities mean that the Indians have to find a cleanup hitter outside the traditional way of paying the guy big bucks. Maybe they can develop one, the way they did Victor Martinez (Clint Frazier?). Maybe they can surround Swisher with better hitters who will help him feel more comfortable hitting fourth in Cleveland as opposed to sixth in New York. Maybe Carlos Santana can do well enough — he does get on base and does produce runs. It’s just that not a lot of teams have the big run-producing cleanup hitter. It’s a lot easier to talk about finding one than actually finding one.
8) Seeing that Carlos Carrasco came in to pitch two shutout innings and strike out three in the win over the Angels on Tuesday again brings to mind that perhaps next season he could be converted to a short reliever. Tell him to focus on two pitches, come in and throw like mad. Pitch one, two innings. The guy is an Alleve distributor as a starter. But it seems like he could be an effective reliever.
9) After finishing the series in Anaheim on Wednesday, the Indians head home for a short three-game series against Minnesota. What follows are trips to Atlanta and Detroit and a home series against Baltimore that starts on Labor Day. Those nine games could go a long way toward making September an interesting month. There’s no reason to think the Indians will roll over (see Tuesday night’s win). But they can’t really afford a 2-7 stretch in those games. And it sure would help to have them go to Atlanta off a winning weekend series against Minnesota.