Power game defining Indians early on
Mark Reynolds' 460-foot home run Monday night landed just shy of the scoreboard that sits atop the left-field bleachers at Progressive Field -- a prodigious poke lacking only the satisfying smack of advertising signage that accompanied a blast off Mark McGwire's bat in these parts back in 1997.
Even in batting practice, you simply don't see many baseballs hit in that area. But what you do see, thus far in this 2013 season, is plenty of balls leaving the yard when the Indians are at the plate. They hit four of them in Monday's 7-3 series-opening victory over the A's, and they've averaged 1.52 per game this season (44 in total), more than any other team in the Majors.
"That's a good category to lead," manager Terry Francona said.
Indeed, hitting a home run every 23.05 at-bats, as the Indians are, stands out at a time when the Major League average is one per 32.64 at-bats.
But what also stands out about Cleveland's offense is the way that profound production has come not necessarily in a steady flow, but in a series of flamboyant bursts.
"If you look at our games," Reynolds said, "we've either been getting blown out or blowing people out."
If we define a "blowout" as a game decided by five or more runs, as Baseball Reference does, then the Tribe has been involved in 12 of them -- seven wins and five losses -- in 29 games. It's made for somewhat erratic work for the back-end relievers, and it's also ensured that the Indians are either as entertaining and enticing an offense as exists in the game today or, well, a bit on the dull side, depending on when you happen to tune in. They've scored 7.8 runs per game in their wins and 2.29 runs per game in their losses.
It is difficult, then, to get a real sense of what kind of team the Indians are, especially when their prized leadoff pickup, Michael Bourn, has been limited to just 10 games played because of injury.
But if these outbursts of offense are any indication of the Tribe's capability as the weather warms, then this could be a club that outhits the deficiencies in a starting staff that, while showing improvement, has a 4.85 ERA on the season. That's not a great equation, of course, but Cleveland will take whatever works.
For now, the offense seems to work on a "boom or bust" cycle, though Francona doesn't see it that way. What he sees, he said, is a team that is not totally reliant on the long ball.
"I think we have a team that has a lot of speed," Francona said. "We swing and miss sometimes. I think we knew that [going into the season]. I think the last week or 10 days, we've done a really good job of extending innings, then taking advantage of it. We've been a little better situationally."
You saw that, notably, last Friday, when Jason Kipnis caught the Twins off-guard with a perfect bunt single to the left side of the infield, scoring Yan Gomes from third. But when 41 percent of your games are decided by five runs or more (and more than half are decided by four or more), such situational skills don't always shine through. The Indians' offseason acquisitions brought them two things that were obvious in their absence last season -- power and speed -- but thus far only one of those elements has made many headlines.
"There hasn't been a lot of opportunity for bags," Reynolds said. "Once the sample sizes get bigger and we play in closer games, especially with Bourn back [possibly later this week], I think you'll see the speed and the little things play out."
In the meantime, the Indians survive largely on the big things, with Reynolds' 460-footer (one of 10 homers he's hit in what has been a sensational start) chief among them. And they survive with what has been a productive bench. With Bourn out, Ryan Raburn slid into starting duties and turned in the hottest stretch of anybody in baseball last week (13-for-22 with four homers, one double and nine RBIs, earning American League Player of the Week honors), and Mike Aviles (.744 OPS in 56 plate appearances) and Jason Giambi (.821 OPS in 36 plate appearances) have also made positive contributions in limited time.
"That's how your team starts to get personality and form its identity," Francona said. "We've used everybody on our ballclub."
The Indians have largely hovered around .500, and that might wind up being the identity of a team with so much unproven on the pitching staff. Twelve of their 15 wins have come against clubs that currently have a losing record. But we've said all along that if that starting staff can just be league average (and Ubaldo Jimenez's last two starts have been a particularly encouraging step toward that direction), Cleveland's bats could make this an interesting season.
Thus far, the bats have done their damage in bunches, equal parts fascinating and frustrating, depending on the day. When they connect, they take this team a long way.
Up to 460 feet, in fact.