Every season, there are two or three "Cinderella" stories, teams that are short on payroll and generally not expected to compete that end up playing better than expected and fighting for a playoff spot. Some get overlooked by pundits, while some simply get lucky over the course of the season. Sometimes they pull it off, like the 2008 Rays, and sometimes they fall a bit short, like the 2010 Padres, but either way it can be exciting to see if these teams can upset the established order before the luck dragons devour them once and for all. As a fan of a small-market team that's been terrible the last couple of seasons, sometimes it can be fun just to root for the underdog. It gives you hope for the future and, more importantly, at least it's not the damn Yankees again.
I bring this up because the two main Cinderella stories in 2011 are the Diamondbacks and the Indians. Sure the Pirates and maybe the Mariners have a chance, but for most of the season the two baseball teams that have caught America by surprise reside in Phoenix and Cleveland. The Indians roared out to a 30-15 record to start the season despite not having a winning record since 2007. A couple of their young position players blossomed at the same time and their inexperienced rotation did better than expected, thanks largely to a defense that has prevented runs at an exceptional rate and...voila! Instant contender! Baseball's a crazy game.
However, there are currently signs that the Indians' magic carpet ride of a 2011 season may stalled in the bad part of town. Since their torrid start, the Indians are only 10-20, they're close to being outscored on the season, their offense is scuffling and one of their few established "stars", OF Shin-Soo Choo had been struggling even before he broke his thumb in the last series. All is certainly not lost for Cleveland, as the team is still only a game out of first place in the AL Central. But at the same time, the team is going to have to adapt if they want to keep an exciting season afloat.
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs)
Arizona (43-36) Cleveland (40-35) Edge
Hitting (wRC+): 98 99 Cleveland
Pitching (FIP): 3.97 3.85 Cleveland
Fielding (UZR): 20.8 -6.6 Arizona
One reason for the Indians' recent struggles is the decline of their defense, which led baseball in UZR earlier in the season. Such is the variability of defensive stats, I suppose. Otherwise, they're fairly similar to the D-Backs statistically. The offenses are basically a wash, with Arizona holding the advantages in most of the basic stats, including Runs Scored, but being scaled slightly lower than the Indians due to park effects.
Their pitching has been perfectly average (15th in the league in FIP), though in all likelihood the Diamondbacks' pitching is pretty similar when one takes park effects into account again. Their bullpen has been the star of the show, with a stellar 2.95 ERA. The FIP of 3.45 suggests that it may be due for some regression, however.
Chances are we'll see DH Travis Hafner at some point or another in this series, but he really hasn't been a part of the Indians' National League lineup. This tells me that he's either a). suffering some unreported injury or b). an absolute sieve defensively. Either way, the less we see of Hafner, the better, as he's produced an OPS of .982 so far this season, by far the highest on the team.
This is also a lineup that's smarting from the loss of starting right fielder Shin-Soo Choo and first baseman Matt LaPorta. LaPorta's injury is particularly damaging, since it forces most of the infield to play out of position to accommodate. Journeyman infielder Jack Hannahan moves over to first from his normal position at third base to replace LaPorta, Orlando Cabrera shifts to third to fill the void, and rookie Cord Phelps takes his 42 career plate appearances to second. Also, this whole sequence of events would be a lot more inspiring if the players in question didn't have OPS+ of 81, 65, and 89, respectively.
However, there are still exciting hitters in the Indians' lineup to be wary of. Michael Brantley has been a solid leadoff hitter, with a slash line of .280/.342/.404 at the age of 24. Asdrubal Cabrera has blossomed into one of the best shortstops in the American League this season, as the 25-year-old has produced an OPS+ of 133 in his fifth season in the majors.
Moveover, Carlos Santana has taken a break from his electric guitar career to become one of the top young catchers in baseball, with an OPS+ of 121. Former star Grady Sizemore has been beset with injuries, but has started on the comeback trail in 2010. While he has struggled to get on base so far, he's also hit seven home runs in 170 at-bats. Also, he's supposedly dreamy, so the female contingent of the Snakepit might be in for a treat...
Monday: Ian Kennedy (8-2, 2.90) vs. Mitch Talbot (2-4, 4.91)
Insightful Commentary: The rest of MLB is beginning to take note of Kennedy, as his name has begun to surface for all-star consideration. He certainly has the base numbers to get there, and while his peripherals don't quite measure up to the best of the NL, he's still a solid dark horse for the position. Personally, I can't think of a better way to for him to cap off an amazing half season than to pitch in front of his home fans in the All-Star Game.
Mitch Talbot is 27, making him one of the elder statesmen in Cleveland's young rotation. He was installed as a starter in the majors for the first time in his career last season and was solidly adequate (4.5 FIP). Talbot has taken a step back this year however, as his 4.91 ERA belies his 5.54 FIP. He has walked too many batters, failed to strike out enough, and has given up a whole bunch of home runs (K/9: 1.64). This is a recipe for getting hit hard in the majors.
Insightful Commentary: In his last four starts, Daniel Hudson has an ERA of 1.86 and has held opponents to a slash line of .189/.235/.274. Obviously, this isn't going to continue for the rest of the season, as he has a BABIP of .218 during that time. But considering his terrible luck on batted balls earlier in the season, it's worth looking at the havoc he can wreak during a stretch of games where he gets a bit of luck on his side.
Josh Tomlin has a cool skill: he doesn't walk people. His BB/9 is 1.13, the lowest in baseball among qualified pitchers. No matter what else is going on, when you walk fewer batters than Dan Haren, Roy Halladay, and Cliff Lee, chances are you're doing something right. Sure, he doesn't really strike many people out either, as his K/9 of 5.08 isn't going to blow anyone away, but why let that get in the way? Josh Tomlin is probably the least-infuriating pitcher in baseball, and we should salute him for this.
Insightful Commentary: People need to cut Zach Duke a little bit of slack here. No, he hasn't gotten great results his last few times out, but he also has a BABIP of .385 despite having a line drive rate that isn't noticeably different from his career average. He isn't walking people, and his K-rate is on par with his career average. Duke is a better pitcher than he's looked in his past few starts, and I fully expect him to begin getting better results soon.
Carlos Carrasco was the centerpiece was the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade in 2009. And in his first full season in the majors, he's done pretty much everything that could be expected of him, as his 3.62 ERA is supported by an FIP of 3.30. He doesn't give up many home runs, doesn't walk many batters and his numbers in the minors (plus his impressive raw stuff) suggest that his somewhat paltry K-rate (5.48) will rise in the future. All of this almost makes up for the fact that the Indians could have a rotation with C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee at the top if they'd been a little more patient and willing to spend money.
Final Verdict: This fight between the Cinderellas (that makes this series sound sexier than it actually is) will likely come down to starting pitching, given that the offenses are fairly evenly matched. The Diamondbacks have a clear advantage in that department in the first two matchups, with Kennedy and Hudson going. I'll say Diamondbacks two games to one, and not just because I'm mad at the Indians for doing a whole lot of nothing while getting swept by the Giants in their last series. But it certainly doesn't help.
Visit Let's Go Tribe for the Indians' take on the upcoming series.