How did an Indians team that was expected to break even at best (even by their own baseball executives) win 24 more games than the previous season and end up owning the No. 1 wild-card spot in the American League playoffs?
Simple question, though part of the answer is that the Indians raised their stature in an unconventional way.
Statistically, there wasn’t anything revolutionary about the club’s success. The most important element in the Tribe’s resurgence was the excellence of the starting rotation, the most suspect part of the roster when spring training began and ended.
Not even the most optimistic fan or team official could have reasoned that the six pitchers who made most of the club’s starts would compile a 3.62 ERA and an aggregate record of 59-45.
Even those strong numbers don’t really tell the story. Ask any manager or pitching coach about the primary function of a starting pitcher, and he will tell you that keeping the team in the game for six or more innings is the No. 1 goal.
How well did the Tribe’s rotation do that?
In the 153 games started by Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber, Scott Kazmir and Danny Salazar, the Indians posted a 92-61 record, winning 60 percent of the time.
And this statistic was not the result of the club winning 80 percent of the games started by one superstar. Four of the Indians’ six starters were at 62 percent or better (The Tribe won 66 percent of Jimenez’s starts).
The offense was nothing to get excited about in relation to the league in its entirety. The Indians were tied for fourth and fifth in runs and finished eighth in batting average, home runs and slugging percentage.
They had a relatively high on-base percentage and were better than average in extra-base hits in (fifth in both categories), were fourth in walks and stolen bases and second in sacrifice flies (don’t laugh).
Individually, no Tribe hitter was among the league’s top 10. Highest ranking were Jason Kipnis (31st in average, tied for 18th in runs, tied for 16th in RBI) plus Nick Swisher (tied for 25th in homers).
The unusual part of the Tribe’s success begins with the offense and the way manager Terry Francona manipulated his roster.
The impact of the bench already is a matter of Cleveland folklore. The contributions of Ryan Raburn, Mike Aviles, Yan Gomes and Jason Giambi were enormous, not just because of the raw numbers but the timing of their achievements.
Together, these four players combined to bat .256 with 45 home runs and 170 RBI in 1,082 at-bats. What does that really mean?
The total number of at-bats for the bench guys was about the same as two regulars would receive. Divide the numbers and each of these two fictitious everyday players produced 22 or 23 home runs and 85 RBI.
Most fans and media members view Francona’s greatest asset as the way he relates to his players. That’s probably true. But how he constructs his lineup and uses his bullpen separates him from most managers, as well.
The Indians’ extra players got the opportunity to be productive because Francona went out of his way to find spots for them in the lineup periodically, not just when there was a bad pitching matchup for an everyday player or someone needed a rest.
Of course, once the bench guys began to prove themselves at the plate, Francona stayed the course.
His use of the bench probably kept some everyday players from falling into prolonged slumps. Because the manager knew he could count on his reserves, he removed a struggling hitter from the lineup before the player’s confidence was totally shaken, enabling him to bounce back quicker.
Consequently, slumps remained relatively short for most players, the exception being Mark Reynolds, who ended up with the New York Yankees after fighting himself for months.
Incidentally, it would be a mistake to minimize the importance of Reynolds in the first six weeks of the season, when the Tribe needed someone to step up and carry the offense.
It has been widely acknowledged that the Indians beat the tar out of bad teams but couldn’t handle most of the good ones. Their record among clubs that finished first or second in their division was an aggregated 19-32. Against everyone else, they were 73-38.
But enough numbers. Every team rises and falls on its mental and emotional makeup. The roster of players assembled by General Manager Chris Antonetti with the help of Francona had their heads on straight. They didn’t hang their heads when they lost or make too much of a winning streak.
Every manager preaches one game at a time and keep the focus on the moment. Maybe Francona does it better than most, because the players bought in.
Moreover, the manager’s decision to bring in Giambi paid big dividends. Here was a 42-year-old icon who had been there, done that in every sense of the word, available to give counsel or just yuk it up. The best part: He still was one of the guys, one of their own.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.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.