Cleveland fans have a rough life. It seems like all their sports success is tainted with pain: the Cavs were good in the 2000s, but then LeBron James dissed them on national television; the Browns were good in the 1980s, but they consistently lost in heart-breaking fashion in the playoffs and have only had three winning seasons since; and the Indians were great in the late 1990s, but haven’t won a World Series since 1948. There are many markets in the running for the title of “most miserable fans,” and while I won’t go so far as to crown a winner, I think Cleveland has a case to be considered among the best (worst?) of them.
So it should come as no surprise that after the Indians’ hot start, which has included an eight-game winning streak and a sweep of the Boston Red Sox at home, some Cleveland fans are already talking about being buyers at the trade deadline and making a run for the playoffs. While obviously it’s waaay too early in the season to be making such pronouncements, is there reason for hope in Cleveland this season?
Entering 2011, the Indians were predicted by most projection systems to have a rather low win total: 70 wins by CAIRO; 73 wins, according to Las Vegas and the FANS Standings; and 74 wins according to PECOTA. Cleveland was ranked #26 in the FanGraphs Organization Rankings, and the team polled near the bottom of the majors in present talent. Considering that the Indians only have played 12 games this season, we don’t have enough information to change those opinions. Most likely, the Indians are still a mediocre team riding a hot streak.
That said, there is still some hope to cling onto for Cleveland fans. The Indians are a team full of young players with lots of upside, and the team’s early success has been driven by those players. Asdrubal Cabrera has four home runs (more than he had all of last season), while Mitch Talbot is striking out eight batters per nine innings and Justin Masterson has looked like an ace, with a 2.63 FIP through two starts. Carlos Carrasco is a young pitcher who could be a serviceable mid-rotation starter (4.47 FIP projected by ZiPS), and Michael Brantley has been hitting for average (.311, .350 BABIP) and walking at a higher rate (9.6%) so far this year.
Many of these early season performances are unsustainable. With young players, it’s difficult to untangle how much of a performance is talent-driven and how much is a result of variability. I don’t expect Mitch Talbot to keep striking out eight batters per nine, but it’s possible that he’s become a better pitcher than he was last season and will increase his strikeout rate from last year’s 5 K/9. Similarly, I don’t expect Michal Brantley or Asdrubal Cabrera to keep hitting at their current rates. But considering both Brantley and Cabrera are still in their mid-20s, who’s to say that their performances so far this season aren’t a result of them becoming better players?
Also, even if none of these players keep up their hot performances over the course of the season, the Indians haven’t yet begun to get production from their stars. Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana both have wOBAs around .245, while Fausto Carmona has allowed four homers this season and has a 6.11 ERA and a 5.34 FIP. The Indians are bound to get decreased performances from their young players, but they’re also likely to get better performances from this group. Right?
For the Indians to be in the AL Central race at the trading deadline would require everything to go right for the them. Not only would Cleveland need its players to outperform their projections and take significant steps forward, but the team would need things to go wrong for the other AL Central clubs. Look how things are shaping up so far: the Twins are in a slump and just lost Joe Mauer to the disabled list. The Tigers and White Sox were only projected to win around 82 games this season. The Indians have already banked a couple wins with their early streak, and if things continue to break in their favor….well, you never know.
I’m not about to put any gummi bears on the Indians maintaining their current pace, but that’s the beautiful thing about the early season: it gives hope — however slim — to all sorts of teams.