Marlon Byrd smoked a two strike pitch into the deepest part of Progressive Field on Friday night, plating two runs and giving the Indians a come from behind eighth inning lead that they would preserve (just barely) in a back and forth battle to open the weekend series with the Minnesota Twins. The 7-6 victory over the Twins put the Indians at 17-15 for the season, five games behind the streaking Chicago White Sox in the American League Central.
The Indians and Twins came into the game dead last in the American League in home runs (27 for the Indians, 28 for the Twins), but both teams quickly put the scouting reports to bed and started banging long home runs to the bleachers in left field from the very first inning. Minnesota’s 23-year-old right fielder Miguel Sano got the slugfest started with two out in the top of the first with a mammoth 464 foot shot to left center field off of Tribe starter Josh Tomlin. Sano’s blast was the 4th longest blast in baseball this season, and was quickly followed by another no-doubter by Twins’ DH Byung-ho Park to lead off the 2nd inning.
Yan Gomes answered with his own moonshot off of the beer hut in the left field porch in the bottom of the 2nd, plating Jose Ramirez and tying the game at two. Byung-ho Park wasn’t finished, however, and he mashed another towering drive into the bleachers in left in the top of the 3rd to stake the Twins to a 4-2 lead. It was Park’s 9th home of the season and interestingly, the first that wasn’t a solo home run. Jason Kipnis then hit his 4th home run in the bottom of the 3rd to bring the game to within a run, and capped off an incredible first three innings that saw five home runs combined by the two teams.
After allowing four runs in the first three innings, however, Josh Tomlin really settled into a groove by retiring the last 12 batters he faced. His final line – 6 1/3 innings, 4 hits, 4 runs (3 earned), 2 walks and 4 strikeouts – was vintage Tomlin right down to the long ball proclivity, but he took the most uneven approach to that line possible tonight. Tomlin maintained his perfect 5-0 record as the offense took a breather through the middle innings before rallying for the lead in the final act.
Marlon Byrd tied the game with a sacrifice fly in the 6th off of Twins starter Ricky Nolasco on a deep drive into the right field gap with the based loaded. It was a true adventure in outfielding tonight and Byrd got a glimpse of his defensive doppelganger in right field as the 6’4″, 260 pound Sano lumbered after fly balls and disregarded cut-off men all night long. Sano nearly played Byrd’s fly into extra bases, but he took a creative route to snag the fly, limiting a bases loaded situation to just one run and a tie game.
Bryan Shaw continued his own firework show in the top of the 8th by allowing a lead off home run by Eduardo Nunez and then loading the bases and leaving a mess for Zach McAllister. The 6’6″ righty came through in a big way by striking out the Twins’ Oswaldo Arcia and Kurt Suzuki to limit the damage to one run. In the bottom of the inning, the Indians put two men on for Byrd who followed with his biggest hit as an Indian – a drive deep off the center field wall plating two runs and wrestling back a 6-5 lead. Juan Uribe followed with a single for a much needed insurance run as the Twins threatened in the bottom of the 9th but left the tying run 90 feet away when closer Cody Allen struck out Park to end the ballgame.
Tribe manager Terry Francona has proven himself to be a very patient manager when it comes to slumping players, and he’ll once again be tested by the Indians late inning bullpen challenges. Bryan Shaw struggled again tonight in a tie game, allowing a go ahead home run and only retiring one of his five batters faced. Cody Allen then wobbled through the 9th, allowing one run to score and putting two more aboard before a strike out ended it. Allen’s ERA is 5.17 and he’s walked 10 in 15.2 innings. His strikeout rate is also down, but it’s early. Shaw’s ERA sits at 6.46.
Who’s done well in the bullpen? McAllister has a 2.08 ERA and averages a strikeout per inning, but his WHIP is still at 1.46. Joba Chamberlain, incredibly, has a 0.79 ERA and has allowed just 7 base runners in 11.1 innings with 9 strikeouts. Will he soon receive more high leverage innings? Otherwise, no one has yet stood out in their very small sample sizes, but it remains to be seen how far Shaw, and to a lesser extent Allen, will continue to be put in prime situations.
Legendary Leadoff Hitters
Some men were born to be leadoff hitters. Kenny Lofton played parts of ten seasons in Cleveland and was a true game changer with his disruptive speed and on base ability. Lofton led off 1,705 games in his 17 year career and had a career slash line of .299/.372/.423 with 622 stolen bases (15th all time) and 1,528 runs scored (61st all time). The standard bearer for leadoff men may well be Rickey Henderson who batted leadoff his entire career and hit an incredible 81 home runs to open ballgames. Henderson is baseball’s all time leader in runs scored (2,295) and stolen bases (his 1,406 is 50% better than the next highest total).
This is 2016, however, and Friday’s night game featured the Indians’ Carlos Santana and the Twins’ Joe Mauer in the leadoff role. It was Santana’s 11th time leading off a game in his career and Mauer’s 3rd. The modern emphasis is clearly on reaching base rather than speed, however. Santana’s career .364 OBP compares very well with Lofton’s .372 career mark, although his 32 career stolen bases put him well off the pace. Mauer’s clearly not the same player he was in his MVP season of 2009 when he hit .365/.444/.587 with 28 home runs and a league leading 1.031 OPS. He has yet to top 11 home runs since that season. But his career OBP of .395 far exceeds Lofton and is just behind Hall of Famer Henderson’s .401 mark. Mauer, incidentally, has 49 career stolen bases of which 13 came when he was a 22-year-old catcher in 2005.
What does this mean? Sabermetrics has temporarily muffled the stolen base. In 2015, there were 2,505 stolen bases across the Major Leagues which was the lowest total in a non-strike year since 1974. 2015’s total is also 30% off of the recent high in single season steals in 1987 (and at the height of Henderson’s power, incidentally). Teams certainly seem to be eschewing convention to put their top OBP players at the top of the order with little consideration for speed.