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Sheldon Ocker: Indians’ offensive swoon magnifies need for feared run producer

By Sheldon Ocker
Beacon Journal sports writer

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DETROIT: For the past four weeks, the Indians’ offense has failed to hold up its end of the bargain, costing the team valuable wins in its quest to make the playoffs.

Between Aug. 2 and Thursday night, when the Tribe lost to the Atlanta Braves 3-1, the club averaged 3.16 runs per game and compiled an 11-14 record.

During that span of 25 games, the Indians scored three or fewer runs 16 times. In six of those games they scored one or no runs, making winning virtually impossible.

These are mostly the same players who averaged 5.0 runs per game in April, 4.9 in May, 4.8 in June and 4.7 in July. The team OPS dipped from .798 and .745 in April and May to .727 and .728 in June and July then to .654 in August.

Feel free to take note of the slight drop in production from month to month through July. These small declines didn’t put the team in a tailspin and are nothing like the plunge that occurred in August.

The roster of hitters has changed little over the course of the season with one big exception. In April and May, Mark Reynolds was the Tribe’s counterpart to Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers, though to a lesser degree. In the first two months of the season, Reynolds was the kind of hitter no pitcher wants to face, hitting 14 home runs and amassing 41 RBI.

Then he stopped producing runs. Totally. Reynolds’ home run and RBI output dropped to almost zero in June, July and the first few days of August, when he was jettisoned by the Tribe.

In his final 47 games with the Indians, Reynolds hit one homer and rang up seven RBI. As his slump deepened, Indians manager Terry Francona found it increasingly difficult to find a place for him in the lineup.

As the weeks of futility mounted and Reynolds’ playing time decreased, the strain on him became palpable. Usually affable and easygoing, Reynolds became dispirited and discouraged. The anxiety started to take its toll, and his body language betrayed his efforts to hide the frustration.

Whose fault was Reynolds’ precipitous slide? Probably his. That is not to say Reynolds could have snapped his fingers and magically emerged from the slump. I’m sure he did everything he knew how to do to help himself.

But neither can a hitting coach or manager prevent a player’s confidence from drying up, and without confidence no player can perform.

Reynolds’ departure happened to coincide almost precisely with the Indians’ offensive skid, but he hadn’t been a factor in the lineup for more than two months. Consequently, he had nothing to do with the club’s current dilemma.

Ryan Raburn is a bench player. He usually plays only against left-handed pitchers, yet his two-week absence from the lineup because of an Achilles injury has hurt the offense, because when he does play, he usually makes an impact.

But it would be foolish to lay the blame for the Tribe’s offensive failures at the feet of Raburn, particularly in light of the fact that nobody in the lineup had a hot August. In fact, it can be argued that every player in the lineup was in a slump last month to one degree or another.

What would cause every hitter to struggle? Probably only one thing aside from every player eating tainted food at the same restaurant.

The single most coherent explanation for the teamwide slump — and it doesn’t explain everything — is that the Tribe has endured a stretch of games against talented pitchers. Not just talented pitchers, but talented pitchers performing at or near their peak.

During the club’s 25-game hitting swoon, the Tribe faced seven starters with sub-3.00 ERAs (on the day they pitched) and eight more whose ERAs were 3.76 or lower. Only eight starters had ERAs of 4.00 or higher.

Among these starters: Jose Fernandez, currently with the third-best ERA in the National League, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Jered Weaver (twice), C.J. Wilson (twice), Doug Fister, Justin Verlander, Samuel Deduno (twice) and young phenoms Jacob Turner and Nate Eovaldi of the Miami Marlins, A.J. Griffin of the Oakland Athletics and Alex Wood of the Braves.

Teams can do two things to fix this problem: Force the starter to inflate his pitch count so he has to leave the game early (which the Tribe has done a number of times), or find superior hitters who can nullify some of the advantages that good pitching creates.

Remember way back in the first half of the season when Indians’ public relations operatives discovered that the Tribe had beaten a significant number of former Cy Young Award winners, guys like Verlander, Bartolo Colon, Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee?

In April and May in particular, it appeared that the Tribe lineup could give any pitcher fits. There was no Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome or Albert Belle in the middle of it, but positions one through nine were delivering important hits on any given day. Also, keep in mind that Reynolds was still beating up on pitchers.

Since then, we have discovered that Asdrubal Cabrera is having his worst season, and that third base remains a question mark, with Lonnie Chisenhall producing exclusively against right-handers and then only inconsistently. Nick Swisher has been a disappointment, possibly because he has been playing with a shoulder injury.

There should be no complaints about Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana, Michael Bourn or even Drew Stubbs, who has turned around the miserable season he had last year with the Cincinnati Reds. The Tribe might even have found a player who can help upgrade the offense in Yan Gomes.

But the rise and fall of Reynolds should serve an object lesson to General Manager Chris Antonetti. The Indians need a strong run producer, the kind of player who will hit at least 30 home runs and amass 100 or more RBI.

That should be Antonetti’s overriding priority in the offseason. Unfortunately for the GM, acquiring a power bat will be extremely difficult, because whether he trades for a hitter or signs one as a free agent, it’s going to cost lots of money.

But Antonetti took a major step toward revamping the roster last winter. One more productive offseason might produce a legitimate Central Division title contender.

It would be a huge mistake not to commit the resources necessary to finish the job.

Sheldon Ocker can be reached at socker@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.


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