Recently the Cleveland Indians were able to salvage their four-game series against the Seattle Mariners with a 5-3 victory, thanks to Tyler Naquin. In the top of the 8th inning with teammate Rajai Davis on first base, Naquin again found himself in an 0-2 count. Once again, it seemed that the rookie would strike out…especially because he was facing an excellent reliever in Joaquin Benoit. Going into the game, Benoit found himself with a respectable 3.27 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and a BAA of just .154. But when Naquin came to the plate all of that was about to change. On an 0-2 pitch, Benoit threw Naquin a changeup down and in that he promptly golfed into the stands of Safeco Field giving the Tribe a 4-2 lead in the late innings. This advantage would end up sticking for the Tribe as they went on to split the four-game series and remain in first place in the AL Central.
Naquin is no stranger to hitting homers in the big leagues. In fact, at the time that was his fourth homer in his last six games. Before his most recent recall on June 1st, Naquin hadn’t yet hit one out of the park in the bigs. But now it appears that he has found his power stroke, and his team couldn’t be happier. Naquin always had a great swing; even looking back on his days at Texas A&M, that was more than apparent (he won two Big-12 batting titles). It appears now that he’s beginning to develop power. In the minors, Naquin managed just 22 homers in his 1542 plate appearances, a modest 70.1 PA/HR. In his short time in the majors this number has dropped significantly down to 22.3 PA/HR. In other words, around 27 HR in a 600 plate appearances. The power that he’s shown thus far has been quite impressive, and there’s a chance that it’s sustainable.
Naquin has shown the ability, throughout his minor and now major-league career, to possess a great swing with the ability to make good, solid contact which has translated well to this point. Naquin has a 41% hard-hit rate. Qualified players who have a hard-hit rate above 39% this season include the following list:
From the chart, 20 of the 26 players listed are in double digits in homers. If you take their ratio of HR/PA and multiply by 600 you find that they range anywhere from 27 HR to 48 HR potential. There’s no guarantee that any of these power hitters will keep their current pace, but one thing’s for sure, players who have a relatively high hard-hit rate are more likely to hit home runs and extra-base hits, and ultimately are more likely be more productive for their team. If we go back even further now, say the last three seasons (2013-2015), we get the following group:
The chart says it all: the average HR% (HR/PA) of this group is 4.8%, or in other words about 29 HR per 600 PA. The average OPS of this group is an impressive .876, and even more impressive the average wOBA is .374. If Naquin can continue to make solid contact in his plate appearances, as he has proven throughout his career, he could be a very special player.
In the case of Tyler Naquin, he has: 99 PA, 41 Hard%, 4 HR, .870 OPS, 136 wRC+, and a .371 wOBA. His numbers correlate quite well to the rest of the group; in fact, his OPS, wRC+, and wOBA are all above or around the average in comparison. Obviously this is kind of a small sample size for Naquin. It’s nearly impossible to tell what kind of player Naquin will become with less than 100 major-league plate appearances, but there is definitely hope.
The Indians have signed veteran third baseman Juan Uribe to a one-year deal. On the outside this looks like a very modest move, but looking more in depth it’s quite the improvement to the Indians lineup. Uribe will most likely take the lion’s share of at bats at third, taking over in place of youngster Giovanny Urshela. Urshela became the Indians everyday third baseman last year, after moving Lonnie Chisenhall to the outfield. Urshela’s defense was pretty good at third — he had a total of one defensive run saved, and his FSR was a +5, ultimately grading him as an above-average defender. However, his bat never was quite up to major-league caliber. He performed nothing like the player who slashed .302/.350/.503 with 21 homers in 155 minor-league games in 2014. For starters, his wRC+ was just 68…in other words he was completely abysmal at the plate. In 81 games Urshela barely hit his weight, hitting a measly .225 to go along with a miserable .608 OPS and just six homers. All things considered, the Tribe had to make a move at third. With their only other options being Chisenhall — an absolute fielding liability at third (-7 career DRS) — or Jose Ramirez, who has not been a very effective hitter either (.631 OPS, 75 wRC+ in 2015), Juan Uribe makes a ton of sense.
When looking at Uribe, the first thing that should be considered is his experience. He has a total of 14 seasons and 89 days as a major-league ballplayer. Uribe, who will be 37 on Opening Day, could be a great mentor for youngsters Urshela, Ramirez, and of course Francisco Lindor. Next, consider Uribe’s defense at the hot corner. Over the last three seasons alone he has 33 DRS, making him one of the very best at fielding his position. Uribe’s defense could even be considered an upgrade over that of young Urshela’s. Combined with Mike Napoli (the new Tribe first baseman) and Lindor, the trio have a total of 63 DRS since 2013 (Lindor had 10 in 2015, his only major-league season). His contributions to the Tribe defense, a defense that ranked third in all of major-league baseball in 2015, could be a major factor going forward. With the pitching staff already looking very solid, the upgrade Uribe provides to an already stellar defense could put the Tribe among the very top teams in the league at preventing runs.
Aside from defense, Uribe’s bat is a big upgrade from that of Urshela. Uribe has had fairly respectable numbers at the plate over the last three seasons. Since 2013, he has slashed .281/.329/.432 and has a combined WAR of 10.5. When comparing his previous season to Urshela’s, the upgrade becomes more evident. Urshela’s wRC+ was 37 points lower than Uribe’s (105), and his OPS was 129 points lower. Though Uribe’s offensive output is only slightly above average (as evidenced by his wRC+) it’s still a big improvement over any other option the Indians had at third.
Based upon this analysis alone, the impact Uribe will have on the Tribe will be quite significant. Given, of course, that his current offensive and defensive performance continues to be just as solid as it has been the past few seasons. In closing, Uribe will provide the Indians with something they’ve lacked consistently at the hot corner: a very good glove combined with solid offensive production. It’s likely, considering his age, that he will only be a short-term solution at third. But hopefully his experience will rub off on the younger generation of Indians players behind him, and leave them with a much longer lasting impact.
Justin Upton is a star outfielder, and recently he has joined fellow sluggers Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, and Victor Martinez on the Detroit Tigers. However, will pure offense be enough to fuel the Tigers’ run at the AL Central? Looking at the Central, there are many strengths and plenty of weaknesses for all five teams. For starters, the Tigers appear to be greater offensively than any other team. Upton, Cabrera, J.D. and Victor Martinez have all combined for 202 HR since 2014, meaning they each averaged approximately 50 HR each over the last two seasons. The four sluggers also have a combined WAR of 28.4 over the last two seasons as well. Upton, despite being a major factor in that group (7.6 WAR, 55 HR since 2014) has struggled greatly against the American League over the last three seasons. Over the last three seasons Upton has played a total of 58 games against the AL, and in that time he has managed a miserable .205/.262/.338 slash line. His BABIP is a meager .252 over that stretch, and his OPS is just .600. It goes without saying that one of the bigger question marks for the Tigers will be whether or not Justin Upton will be able to adjust to American League pitching.
Ultimately, the Tigers offense should be solid, and the potential is there for it to be among the best in all of baseball. Upton should be a decent addition, however he needs to find a way to jump out of his three-season slump against the AL. That could prove very difficult. For starters, he will have to face the likes of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Chris Sale, and Carlos Rodon at least a handful of times in the AL Central. Those five are just the tip of the iceberg, since the Central features several other solid pitchers as well. Not to mention the strong bullpens possessed by both the Royals and Indians (2.72 ERA and 3.12 ERA respectively; 1st and 2nd in the AL).
Sticking with pitching, the Tigers still have big question marks in their own pitching staff. The Tigers were the 28th-ranked pitching staff overall in terms of ERA. The biggest question for the Tigers pitching staff is whether or not Justin Verlander can return to his previous self. Verlander improved a bit last season. In 15 starts after the All-Star Break, Verlander posted a 2.80 ERA, with a 4.5 K/BB ratio, and a 1.00 WHIP. Verlander will be extremely helpful to — potentially — another Detroit postseason run if he can continue with his recent trend. This does not solve the rest of the rotation’s problems, and the Tigers will need great performances from young pitching talent Daniel Norris, a bounce-back season from Anibal Sanchez, and at least some solid outings from veteran Mike Pelfrey. Pelfrey has been less than stellar his last three seasons; in 64 starts he has posted a record of 11-27 with an ERA of 4.94. Sanchez was nowhere near himself in 2015, as he posted a miserable 4.99 ERA, averaged 1.7 HR/9, and had an FIP of 4.73. Compared to his outstanding seasons in 2013 and 2014 (where he had a combined ERA of 2.92, and averaged just 0.4 HR/9) Sanchez was a completely different pitcher. The one bright spot, perhaps, is newcomer Jordan Zimmermann. Zimmermann was not quite as sharp in 2015 as he has been previously in his career, but he’s still an extremely solid addition nonetheless. Hopefully for Detroit he can return to his previous form, as he was dominant in 2013 and 2014 going 33-14, with a 2.96 ERA and a 5.0 K/BB ratio.
Quite possibly the most important upgrade the Tigers made was to their bullpen. Last season the Detroit bullpen was less than stellar, posting a 4.38 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, and a meager 1.95 K/BB ratio. There was no argument needed to show that their bullpen was clearly the worst in the AL Central. However, the 2016 outlook looks a lot brighter. The Tigers brought in Mark Lowe, Francisco Rodriguez, and Justin Wilson to bolster their ranks. Combined, the trio posted a 2.44 ERA and 1.02 WHIP in 2015 (K-Rod also had 38 saves in 40 opportunities). It goes without saying that these three will be a big boost to an otherwise abysmal bullpen.
2016 will be a defining year for the Tigers. Will their offense really be all that it seems? Will the bullpen be good enough to keep them in games? Can Verlander and Zimmermann carry the starting rotation? Will Anibal Sanchez be able to bounce back? Will Justin Upton be able to adjust to the American League? All these questions will be answered soon enough. Detroit has quite a bit of talent and for their sake everything needs to work like a clock if they want to have any chance at contending for the Central title and make another pennant run.
Last year, many Indians fans anguished over the so-called “SI Cover” curse. The prediction that the Cleveland Indians would win the 2015 World Series, however, was not their downfall. The downfall of the Indians once again was highlighted by mediocre offense, and the unfortunate decline of their biggest free-agent acquisitions in over a decade, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. Swisher and Bourn ate up over 1/4 of the Indians’ total payroll and their sedentary production was an absolute killer in their lineup. Things improved offensively with the promotion of Rookie of the Year runner-up and budding star shortstop Francisco Lindor. Lindor produced way above what was expected of him and figures to be a key piece of the puzzle in 2016. Also the trading of both Bourn and Swisher to the Atlanta Braves was the equivalent of a one-thousand pound anchor being lifted from the Tribe’s lineup. Ultimately, the Tribe finished with a respectable, yet disappointing (based upon previous predictions) 81-80 record. However, there are five key things that will be the difference-makers in 2016 and will lead the Tribe to winning their first AL Central title since 2007.
So there it is, the keys to the Tribe winning a 2016 division title. Obviously on top of all this, several other things need to go right for the Tribe. But these five factors alone will be among the leading reasons why the Indians win their division.
All stats referenced, or used for statistical analysis for this article are courtesy of mlb.com, baseball-reference.com, and fangraphs.com.