As we near the All-Star break the Tigers will either have a slim lead on 1st Place in the AL Central or will be firmly entrenched in 2nd with the White Sox right behind. Given the expectations that existed before this season, one would think that most fans would be happy with this. However, that does not see to be the case and I believe there are couple reasons why. One main reason is the team that currently occupies 1st Place – the Cleveland Indians
If you would have told the collective baseball world that the Cleveland Indians would be in 1st place over half-way through the season, you would have received a mix of raised eyebrows, shaking heads and subtle laughter and the Indians fan, while thanking you of thinking so highly of their team would have wondered if their team had made some moves they were unaware of.
The Indians were not supposed to be this good.
They were a rebuilding team who had a collection of talented youth but were more likely to be the occasional spoiler (like Kansas City) rather than leading the division. This change from the initial expectation has Tigers fans out of sorts. If one looks at the Cleveland roster from top to bottom, nobody jumps out at you in the way it does if you look at the Tigers roster. Some must think if the Indians can be in 1st Place with a collection of relative nobodies then surely the Tigers, with their collection of talent, are a disappointment.
What has essentially occurred is that with the Cleveland Indians exceeding expectations it has caused a shift in the expectations of Tigers fans (as well as the rest of the teams in the AL Central).
The Indians’ offense, when looking at the individual players, is basically below average but they have seemingly “manufactured” an average offense out of it. If you look at their collective offense you see offense exactly one regular with an OPS over .800 – Asdrubal Cabrera. If you count the oft-injured Travis Hafner that gives you two hitters who could be considered “feared” this season.
They have a few promising young hitters who are contributing while having some ups and owns in parts of their game. Centerfielder Michael Brantley was solid in the first two months of the season but has cooled off since and Catcher Carlos Santana seems to be the second coming of Mickey Tettleton. Add in the under-performing Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore and you have the making of the Indians offense. You can see there is promise if the veterans come back to their career norms (and Hafner stays healthy) and the young guys start to have their hitting click, but you can also see the potential for disaster if Cabrera starts to slump and the younger guys get overwhelmed.
Tigers fans can look at this offense with bewilderment – how can a team with hitters like this be ahead of ours, a team with All-Star level performance at Catcher, 1B, SS, LF, and DH? Well, look at Cleveland’s pitching and you will see the rest of the story.
They have allowed the fewest runs, earned runs and walks of any staff in the American League Central while having the second lowest ERA and Batting Average Against (BAA) to only the White Sox. While the Tigers may have 2 All-Stars in Justin Verlander and Jose Valverde the Indians have seemingly an entire bullpen that could receive all-star consideration along with 3 starters with an ERA under 4 (Led by Justin Masterson who sports an ERA of 2.66). Compare that to the Tigers who have 4 (5 if you count the 4+ IP from Oliveros) pitchers on their entire staff with an ERA under 4.
When you combine the average hitting and outstanding pitching of Cleveland, it is easy to see why they have exceeded expectation, or perhaps more accurately, have realized their expectations earlier than…well…expected. Simple math tells us why the Indians are in 1st Place though – they have scored more runs than they have given up, something that cannot be said about any other team in the AL Central.
While we have complaints about certain players or groups of players (like maybe our starting pitching as of late) not performing, the reality is, the 2011 Tigers are pretty much where we expected them to be – solidly in the top 3 in the division with a chance to win it all. The only thing is, we all had our minds prepared for yet another dual with the Twins and these upstart Indians have caused quite a bit of confusion and consternation for us as fans throughout the first half of the season.