With the Red Sox and Indians beginning a three-game set on Monday night, I took some time to chat with Lewis Pollis of Wahoo Blues, an Indians blog, to preview the series. I also answered some questions on the Red Sox for their site.
Gethin Coolbaugh (SB Nation Boston): First and foremost, what in the world has gotten into the Indians? They're 29-15 (best record in baseball) and are in first place in the AL Central in later May. What's been the root of their impressive start?
Lewis Pollis (Wahoo Blues): At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, there are three real causes of the Tribe's outburst. First: maturing hitters. Matt LaPorta was declared all but a bust after a year-and-a-half of struggling at the big-league level. Now he has an .821 OPS. Meanwhile, Asdrubal Cabrera is showing power that he'd never displayed before and Michael Brantley is becoming a great player thanks to improved plate discipline. Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore have been getting lucky, but that's cancelled out by Carlos Santana and Shin-Soo Choo's bad luck.
Second, the Tribe's pitching has been overperforming. The Indians have the seventh-best staff ERA in baseball (3.41) but they're 20th in xFIP (3.88). Finally, in much-improved defense (2.7 UZR/150, up from -5.2 last year) and you've got a winner.
GC: Now, much like the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, people are questioning whether or not the Indians can keep up their hot streak. Do you see Cleveland outlasting their critics or falling back into the pack?
LP: Obviously the Indians aren't going to play .659 ball all year, but with a seven-game lead in the division, even if they suffer a heavy regression, it will be hard for any other team to catch up. If the Indians play .500 ball the rest of the way, their closest competitor (the Tigers) would need to play .569 ball to surpass them in the standings. Even if the Indians go .459 the rest of the season and finish with just 83 games, based on the other four AL Central teams' current records, they'd still be in first place.
GC: How much of the Indians' success this season is attributed to their strong play compared to the extremely poor play of the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins?
LP: The Indians are 1-6 against the White Sox and Twins so far. That means the Indians are 28-9 against the rest of the league. I don't think they have anything to do with it.
GC: We hear a lot about your young catcher, Carlos Santana. He has six home runs on the season, but is batting in the low .200s. What's been causing his struggles at the dish?
LP: Make some chicken noises and you'll see what Santana's problem is: luck, luck, luck, luck, luck (I'll be here all week!). First of all, I reject the notion that he's "struggl[ing] at the dish." He's a catcher with a .720 OPS and 1.2 WAR. He might not look like an All-Star right now, but he's clearly producing like an above-average catcher.
The problem is his .222 BABIP. He's not hitting as many line drives as he did last year, but don't tell me a guy with his power and plate discipline deserves a hit rate that low. Last week, I plugged his xBABIP in for his BABIP and calculated an expected-OPS of .909. Them's MVP numbers for a catcher.
This guy is the real deal at the plate. He's got an .800 Power Factor and a ridiculous 17.5% walk rate. This kid is 25 years old and has yet to play a full MLB season. Have I mentioned he's a great defender? And that he's a catcher? As long as his body holds up, he'll be one of the best players in baseball for years to come.
GC: Lastly, former Red Sox and now Indians starter Justin Masterson leads the club in strikeouts (48), is second in wins (5) and has an ERA of 2.52. Do you see him sustaining that pace for the rest of the season?
LP: No, I don't. Masterson's is a great story because he got super unlucky last year and has been really fortunate in 2011-his ERA has dropped 218 points from 2010, but his xFIP is down by only 56. His 2.67 FIP is misleading because of his 2.2% HR/FB rate. That said, a 3.31 xFIP is pretty darn good, even if he's not really a Cy Young.
For more on the Boston Red Sox, visit SB Nation's Red Sox blog, Over The Monster.