By Sheldon Ocker
Beacon Journal sports writer
Regardless of whether the Indians win a wild-card spot and make the playoffs, this has been an encouraging season.
I understand this opinion won’t fly with fans who think that every year their team fails to win the ultimate championship is a failure, but that is nonsense. Success in sports is always relative.
Whenever the New York Yankees don’t win the World Series, it’s arguable that they let their fans down. Any team with the resources to reload every season always has a chance to win it all. But actually doing so defies reality.
And few teams have the capability to sustain the talent level it takes to contend for the top prize annually. Not the Pirates, Royals, Giants, Rangers, Indians or even the Angels, who have found a way to grow money on trees (or on satellite dishes).
The Tribe won 68 games in 2012. It was another miserable season. It’s difficult to say that expectations were not met, because there were no expectations.
But with the signing of Terry Francona as manager and a few notable players as free agents, the Indians enhanced their chances to climb in the standings. The smart money said they would not challenge the Tigers for the American League Central Division title, but that they might reach .500 and finish third behind the Royals.
We know that those expectations were more than realized. A .500 record should have been acceptable to the fans. It is not commonplace for a team to win 13 more games than the previous year. But the Tribe did that, and now 85-90 wins is within reach, a rather remarkable feat if it happens.
Given the Indians’ recent past, the fans should be excited about next year. This season has not been a fluke, as was the Indians’ playoff run in 2007, when Ryan Garko hit 21 home runs with 61 RBI and batted .289; Roberto Hernandez (nee Fausto Carmona) — in his first full season as a starter — posted a 19-8 record and 3.06 ERA; Joe Borowski saved 45 games with a 5.07 ERA, and Aaron Fultz came out of the bullpen 49 times to compile a 2.92 ERA.
The foundation for this year’s turnaround was a surprisingly sturdy group of starting pitchers, an area of the club that was forecast to be fragile at best. How do we know that this rotation — that showed both staying power and talent — is for real?
You never know for sure until the next season, but we do know there is depth. We also know these starters possess live arms and seem to have the good sense to know how to use them. No fewer than eight starters (if everyone is signed) will compete for the rotation next spring.
Does anyone out there feel the Indians are undermanned with Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Ubaldo Jimenez, Scott Kazmir and Josh Tomlin as viable options? Maybe Trevor Bauer will finally master that new set of mechanics he’s been tinkering with for two years.
In other seasons, the delay in Bauer’s development would be a key point of complaint among the media and the fans. But because of the emergence of so many other starters, Bauer’s problems are barely a blip on the radar screen.
There also is comfort in the guy who teaches the pitchers to pitch. This is not to say other Tribe pitching coaches have not been effective or made an impact, but Mickey Callaway seems to have been instrumental in the 180-degree turnaround of Jimenez, no small achievement.
For a year and a half after Jimenez came to Cleveland from the Rockies, he was either lost in his own inner turmoil or a pitcher with a passive-aggressive personality who yessed his pitching coach to death then did what he wanted. Whatever the case, Jimenez was a total flop after he stopped throwing 98 miles per hour.
Francona said last week that when Jimenez’s fastball fell to 92-94 mph, he was afraid to throw it in the strike zone, which explains why he threw breaking pitches and change-ups more than 50 percent of the time and used his fastball less than almost any pitcher in the big leagues.
Enter Callaway, who made two visits to the Dominican Republic over the winter to become acquainted with Jimenez. That was step one: somehow gain Jimenez’s trust and form a relationship.
Jimenez says that his previous pitching coaches emphasized one thing: throw hard. Not Callaway. “He told me not to worry about throwing hard but to get people out,” Jimenez said.
Callaway explained that Jimenez’s fastball remained a lethal weapon even at a reduced velocity because of its movement. But there was a catch: Jimenez had to locate the pitch in the strike zone but not down the middle.
It’s no secret that Jimenez always has had problems with command of his pitches. He threw a no-hitter for the Rockies in 2010 but walked six batters. Until his past 10 or 12 starts, he usually ran himself out of pitches by the fifth inning because he did not have control of the strike zone.
In contrast to other pitching coaches, Callaway didn’t think Jimenez needed to overhaul his mechanics.
“I’ll take a pitcher with confidence over a pitcher with good mechanics any day,” Callaway said.
Jimenez’s mechanics were unconventional, but they were effective enough to throw that no-hitter. Callaway decided that after a downward spiral that seemed to have no end, Jimenez was beginning to doubt himself.
He made only one major suggestion about Jimenez’s delivery. When he released a pitch, his front foot should be pointing directly toward the plate.
Seems simple enough in the telling. Executing the maneuver repeatedly was more difficult. Yet the more Jimenez concentrated on making the correction, the easier it became, and after awhile he didn’t have to think about it.
Callaway’s impact on Jimenez has been well documented and heralded by Francona. More than likely, the pitching coach has made other positive impressions, less dramatic but real.
Maybe that’s the key. As long as Mickey Callaway is around to fix pitchers and has reasonably talented athletes to work with, the Indians’ staff will do the job.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.