In a three-part series this week, Scott and I will be taking stock of the 2008 Cleveland Indians: Part 1 will look back and recap the 2008 season; Part 2 will look at the Indians compared to other teams in a “bang for buck” fashion; and Part 3 will look at what’s ahead this off-season and into 2009.
Part 1 – A Tale of Two Seasons
On July 9th, the Tribe lost. They fell to 37-53, 16 games under .500. They had just traded 2007 Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia, they were in last place in a weak division, and through 90 games—or, just a smidge over half the season—they weren’t playing much better than .400 (.411) baseball. These were the 2008 Cleveland Indians: World Series contenders when they broke camp in March, ready to take the next step. And they were 16 games under .500 and had just traded the Cy Young winner from the previous season. Things were grim.
On July 13th, the Tribe finished a four-game sweep of the first place Tampa Bay Rays heading into the All Star Break. After the break, they took three of four from the Mariners. All of a sudden, they were only 10 games under .500, and were surging. But, again, they hit a wall, and floundered a bit. Through 113 games on August 7th, they were still 15 under .500. They started calling up some young pitchers, and, due to injuries and trades, began tinkering with their lineup with youngsters like Andy Marte, Ben Francisco, and Shin-Soo Choo. They parted ways with Casey Blake and Paul Byrd. They all but licked a stamp and mailed the rest of their season of high expectations in the rest of the way. But a funny thing happened on the way to the post office:
They stopped off in Toronto on August 8th and managed to go 32-17 the rest of the way. They played .653 baseball over the last two months. So, let’s look at this like A Tale of Two Seasons: How did they get to their low-point in July, and how did they get back out it to finish the season at 81-81?
The Worst of Times
It really started with the injury bug. At the beginning of the year, one could have objectively ranked six guys in some order as the team’s “best players”. Those guys were: Sabathia, Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez, Fausto Carmona, Tavis Hafner, and Jake Westbrook. The only two players on that list NOT to have a serious injury in the first two months of the season were Sabathia and Sizemore, and CC ended up only being with the team for half of the season. They lost Westbrook on April 22nd, and even though Hafner and Martinez didn’t go on the DL until May and June respectively, it was pretty clear from their hitting that neither of them was quite right for most of the early part of the season. They lost Carmona toward the end of May, as well. So, in the first six or seven weeks of the season, four of arguably the six best players on the team were out or struggling for significant periods of time.
As we will discuss later on, the starting pitching didn’t suffer too badly because (after a few rough starts) Sabathia regained his Cy Young form from 2007, and from out of basically nowhere Cliff Lee ended up having a Cy Young-caliber season himself. The two things that really ended up killing the team in those early months were the hitting and the lack of any dependability in the bullpen.
Obviously, when a team loses the three- and four-hitters in their lineup—or those guys are struggling—the offense is going to suffer. And, at first, no one really stepped into that vacuum. Casey Blake was really the best hitter other than Sizemore on the team, which is never really what you want as a GM or a fan. David Delucci has been a two-year bust as a free agent. Ryan Garko’s batting average slipped tremendously throughout most of the first half of the season down to where he was batting in the low .200s for a long period of time. Asdrubal Cabrera had the dreaded sophomore slump and was sent back to AAA for a stint. The team suddenly had guys who had never played everyday in the major leagues playing everyday in the lineup… guys like Ben Francisco, who spent some time in the clean-up hole for awhile; Franklyn Gutierrez, who had never shown any kind of consistency at the plate; Kelly Shoppach who wasn’t really known for his offense as much as he was for his defense; and Jamey Carroll, who was signed to be the utility infielder. Really, other than Sizemore and maybe Blake while he was still with the team, they just didn’t have that calming, stabilizing presence in the lineup without Martinez and, to a lesser extent, Hafner.
Then there was the bullpen, which was a house of cards. Joe Borowski struggled early as the team’s closer, had some mysterious arm problems, and ended up getting designated for assignment. And, without that one guy as the every-day closer, the roles in the rest of the pen sort of imploded. They tried Rafael Betancourt at closer, whom a lot of fans and pundits had wanted as the closer as far back as the 2007 Playoffs; he stumbled and didn’t pitch nearly as well for most of the 2008 season. They tried Masa Kobayashi, whom they had signed from Japan in the off-season, and he was streaky. Edward Mujica came up, and he wasn’t able to hold anything down. Rafael Perez was all over the place. It was a lot like 2004, when you never knew who exactly Wedge was going to bring in when they were protecting a lead.
And frankly, when you look at those two problems—the offense and the bullpen—it really makes what Cliff Lee did this year that much more impressive, because he didn’t get a lot of run support until later in the year, and the bullpen actually blew a couple of leads for him along the way.
With all of that on the table, the team bottomed out right around the time they traded CC in early July. Even with the four-game sweep of the Rays heading into the ASB and then winning three of the first four after the ASB, from July 10th until August 7th they treaded water at 12-11, to leave them still 15 games under .500 with 49 left to play.
The Best of Times
It was the Toronto series that started on August 8th that became the rebirth of a new mini-season, if you will. It was at that point that the Tribe hit the gas and never really let up. Starting there in Toronto, the team won 16 out of 19, including 10 straight, to get things headed in the right direction. They had a couple of hiccups along the way—like getting swept at home by the Mariners after winning those 16 out of 19, and losing 3 out of 4 at home to the Royals—but even right after that last disappointing series against Kansas City they turned around and won 7 in a row to finally get back over the .500 mark for the first time since early May.
How was this possible??
First, as we briefly touched on above, the starting pitching was very good in spite of the team’s struggles for most of the season. Cliff Lee should win the Cy Young after going 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA, leading the AL in both wins and ERA. He added to that a 1.11 WHIP and 170 Ks against only 34 walks (5.00 K/BB). In addition, Aaron Laffey stepped up in the middle months of the season. They brought Anthony Reyes over in a trade from St. Louis, and he pitched well before they had to shut him down. Callups Scott Lewis and Zach Jackson (who was part of the Sabathia trade) pitched well in limited duty. Carmona came back at the end of July.
Two other things happened, however, to really change the course of the season: first, Wedge tried Jensen Lewis out at closer—coincidentally, his first save opportunity came in that first Toronto game—and he was very successful. He finished 13 out of 14 in save opportunities from August 8th until the end of the year. As a closer he had a 2.91 ERA with 22 strikeouts against only 6 walks in 21.2 innings. Once they solidified the closer role with Lewis, it allowed them to fill out the rest of the pen and to settle the pen down.
Second, as they continued to get very good starting pitching and finally began to get better pitching from their bullpen, the offense was able proverbially to do more with less. The hitters seemed to have settled down a bit, and Wedge finally found a lineup that gelled to the point of promoting some stability. Let’s look at some of the highlights from the lineup:
Grady Sizemore was excellent in the leadoff spot most of the year, and finished with a 30/30 (HR/SB) season, with a legitimate shot earlier in September at going for a 40/40 run. He finished with 33 homers and 38 steals, and tied for the team lead with 90 RBI. He was second on the team in runs scored and OPS with 101 and .881, respectively. He had his consecutive games streak snapped, but still played in 157 of 162 games. Sizemore’s main issue this year was his strike out total, as he finished a close second to Kelly Shoppach for the team lead, fanning 128 times. Not what a team wants from its leadoff hitter, necessarily. He did, however, post almost identical defensive stats from his Gold Glove 2007 season, with the only difference being that his zone rating dipped from .916 to .908.
Jhonny Peralta ended up really stabilizing the middle of the lineup when they stuck him in the cleanup spot. Peralta has always been a lightning rod for criticism from fans, be it for his defense or his streaky nature at the plate. But, he very quietly turned in arguably his best offensive season, finishing above his 2005-2007 averages in the big categories: he hit .276 (average: .272) with 23 homers (average: 19), 89 RBI (average: 72), an .802 OPS (average: .788), and scored 104 runs (average: 84). Jhonny tied or set career highs in six big categories: hits, runs, doubles, triples, total bases, and RBI. Peralta was especially good from June to August, when he hit .303 with 10 HR and 55 RBI. His defense was again marginal at short: he posted the best full-season fielding percentage and error total of his career, but also the second lowest full-season range factor and lowest zone rating of his career.
Probably the biggest surprise was Shin-Soo Choo, who came off of the DL at the end of May and (as Scott likes to remind us) was a total machine the rest of the way. In 94 games, he hit .309 with 14 homers, 66 RBI (projects to 24 HR and 113 RBI over a full season), and an OPS of .946. Choo was especially dangerous in August and September, during which he hit .360 with 9 homers and 37 RBI. Most importantly, he showed an ability to hit lefties better, hitting .282 with an .811 OPS in 71 ABs versus left-handed pitching. Defensively, he more than held his own with four outfield assists and only one error in 77 games in both left and right field.
As we discussed above, Ryan Garko fizzled for a lot of the season, but hit .314 in August and September, managing to get his average back up to .273 for the year. Also, while his home run and slugging totals dipped a bit in 2008, he ended up finishing with 90 RBI, which tied him for the team lead with Sizemore.
Asdrubal Cabrera came back up on July 18th after his stint in AAA, and managed to hit .317 and contributed five of his six home runs and 30 of his 47 RBI after the recall. He also continued his excellent defensive play, combining for 111 games at both second base and shortstop (92 @ 2B, 19 @ SS). He combined for a .990 fielding percentage, with a 5.67 range factor and .825 zone rating (though he was slightly better at second than at short).
Finally, there were guys like Kelly Shoppach and Ben Francisco, who showed they could potentially play everyday and contributed more than anyone could have hoped with 21 and 15 homers, respectively.
And, while the Tribe missed their last chance to finish the season above .500 on Sunday while scratching Cliff Lee from his last scheduled start of the season, the fact that they got back to 81-81 at all is a testament to how well they played the last two months of the season. While there was a good deal of disappointment with a .500 season, the Indians could have easily been like their division-rivals in Detroit, who also not only fell short of lofty expectations but are now battling the White Sox today in the hopes of tying Kansas City to climb out of the division cellar.
2008 was A Tale of Two Seasons for the Tribe: a very bad four month season, and a very good two-month season. Falling short of their goal of going back to the playoffs and contending for a World Series title is disappointing; but, watching this team weather the storm and come on during the past two months has been a nice surprise, and hopefully bodes well for the off-season and beyond.
Up Next: Scott will bring you Part 2 on Wednesday, in which he will analyze the season from the standpoint of overall payroll as well as the team’s output-per-dollar compared to the rest of baseball.