A mere two weeks ago, Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis was riding a dismal start to the season, hitting .218 with a .551 OPS through the first month of the season.
Indians manager Terry Francona bumped Kipnis up to leadoff in the lineup near the end of April to try and change his fortunes.
Kipnis has responded in such a way that "red hot" could not even describe it. Perhaps we could say Kipnis is "blue hot."
On May 4, Francona had already seen a change in Kipnis. "I think it has given us a boost, him being there," Francona said. Even Francona, one of the best baseball minds, could not have predicted what was to come for Kipnis.
Fast forward 13 days to May 17 and Kipnis is hitting .340. His OPS? An astounding .910. Kipnis has given the Indians more than just a boost. He has been perhaps the best player in the Major Leagues over the past week.
Yet, the Indians are 14-21, sitting in last place in the AL Central, owners of the second-worst record in the AL. What gives?
The Indians were a team that many thought could go deep into the postseason, with their "awesome" pitching staff and their young and promising offense. And despite their poor performance in terms of record, the metrics say the Indians best baseball is yet to come.
Cleveland's roster overall has posted a 30.9 fWAR, the fifth-highest in baseball, higher than all of their AL Central counterparts, and second-highest in the AL overall. Baseball Reference's simple rating system (SRS), which determines how many runs per game a team is above (or below average). Despite having the second fewest wins, they still have a 0.3 SRS. Changes will come.
Let's break down the Indians, starting with their offense. Coming into Sunday, their offense has been amongst the best in baseball, posting the fifth-highest wRC+, along with the 11th-best OPS. This all comes with a below-average BABIP, ranking 18th. The Indians offense, while good, will get better.
The Indians pitching, while seemingly terrible, is bound to get better. They have the fifth-highest ERA in baseball, but have the ninth-lowest FIP, second-lowest xFIP, second-highest K/BB rate, second-highest strikeout rate, and by far the highest BABIP allowed.
Basically, what those stats are showing is the Indians pitching has been arguably the most unlucky staff in baseball, as they've been burned when hitters have put the ball in play (possibly due to bad defense) and have done an excellent job getting strikeouts and limiting walks. Over the course of a season, those numbers tend to balance out. What I'm saying is that the Indians pitching will get better as time goes on. And we may already be seeing it before our eyes.
Take right-hander Corey Kluber, for example. Kluber is fresh off of a Cy Young award season, but came out of the gate slowly, pitching to an 0-5 record with a 5.04 ERA--but a 3.15 xFIP--in his first seven starts. People worried about Kluber. They began wondering if he was a fluke. They wondered whether his Cy Young was a fluke; whether his extension was a fluke.
Then, as the metrics predicted, Kluber began to settle down. Though it was one start, Kluber was brilliant on May 13. He was brilliant to the point where only some pitchers can go. Only elite pitchers can be as good as he was on May 13. He pitched eight shutout innings, striking out 18 (!!!) and walking none. Kluber gave up one hit.
Kluber was back.
In order for the Indians to contend this season, at least to the point of the postseason, they need guys like Jason Kipnis and Corey Kluber to step up their games and bring them to the next level. The Indians are only 7-7 in May, but I'm expecting them to heat up like the summer sun. The Indians will be quite hot, quite fast.