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Talking Cleveland Indians With Lewie Pollis

Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Justin Masterson (63) delivers against the Chicago White Sox in the first inning at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-US PRESSWIRE
Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Justin Masterson (63) delivers against the Chicago White Sox in the first inning at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-US PRESSWIRE

As I have done before here at OTM in preparation for the series against the Cleveland Indians, I did a little Q & A about the Tribe with friend of the blog and Indians expert Lewie Pollis, who covers them for Wahoo's On First and also writes at the former home of our own Marc Normandin, Beyond the Boxscore. The Indians are one of season's surprises, leading the AL Central by two games over the highly favored Detroit Tigers and Mr. Pollis tries to explain why it will stay that way.

1) The Indians have really surprised people jumping out to a three game lead over the heavily favored Detroit Tigers. Despite their record, the team has been fairly average at scoring and preventing runs. Do you think they can keep winning or are they bound to regress?

I reject the premise of the question. Entering Tuesday the Indians are averaging 4.6 runs a game. They're fifth in the league in wRC+ and third in OBP, and they have the best walk rate in the game. When their best team is on the field (granted, that's been happening less frequently since Johnny Damon got called up) you've got at least six or seven above-average hitters in the lineup. No one's going to mistake us for the Rangers, but this team can hit.

Granted, pitching is something of an enigma. The staff's been fairly average so far (99 ERA-, 101 FIP- entering Tuesday) but our pitching has still been pretty unpredictable. Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez were supposed to be our twin aces but neither can find the plate this year. Meanwhile Derek Lowe is on pace to win 22 games and Josh Tomlin and Jeanmar Gomez have both been successful thanks to improved strikeout rates. I'd expect we'll see some regression in both directions, though I'm not sure which way the balance will tip.

Anyway, the Indians are not going to win 98 games (as they're currently on pace to do), and while it's certainly not out of the question it's hard to see them as the favorites to win the division. That said, they were basically a .500 team in 2011 and on paper the roster looks much better than it did last year. I'm not sure why everyone seemed to assume that a young team that got hosed by injuries last season and improved over the winter would be worse in 2012, but it shouldn't be a surprise that the Tribe is doing well.

2) Jason Kipnis has been very good thus far. Do you see him being a breakout star this year?

Absolutely. To have expected a second-year player to replicate his stellar 150-PA debut would have been to ignore everything we know about regression to the mean and small sample sizes, but I've been bullish on Kipnis ever since he got called up. He has great wheels and surprising power, and he's shown more patience at the plate this year too. Combine that with his ever-improving defense (he's still learning second base) and he could be headed for big things.

3) Red Sox fans are always interested in ex-Sox player Justin Masterson. Last season was something of a break out for him, but it looks like he is struggling right now. What is going there? Do you expect him to rebound soon?

He just can't seem to make his pitches. His velocity is down across the board—Pitchf/x has his average fastball down more than 2 mph from last year, which is never a good sign. He's given up 25 walks in just 42.1 innings, a reflection of the fact that he's missing his spots and failing to get batters to chase pitches out of the zone. That he's going to his lackluster changeup at least a few times a game now also speaks to the fact that he isn't feeling as comfortable on the mound.

Whether he'll bounce back depends on whether he can rediscover his command. There are times when it seems like he has absolutely no control at all—last month in Seattle, he walked the unintimidating Brendan Ryan with the bases loaded, then hit John Jaso. Even when he seems to pitch well he's struggled with his control: he's had three straight quality starts now, but he still walked 13 in 20.2 innings in that stretch.

4) The Indians are 7-1 in one run games so far this year? Do you see any reason that they are so good in these close contest and do you think that will be a lasting quality with this team?

I don't know how well one-run winning percentage holds up as a consistent skill (I'd bet it doesn't do very well). That said, the Indians have made a name for themselves for their timely hitting over the last couple years——again, you could question how sustainable the clutch factor is, but it's held up thus far. It also helps that we have some great high-leverage relievers we can turn to to get big outs (Vinnie Pestano, Nick Hagadone, Chris Perez on a good day). So it makes sense that we've been able to hold onto the close ones.

5) Who's pitching for the Indians in this series, and what should Sox fans expect from them?

First up is Derek Lowe. I assume you know the book on him pretty well, but you may be surprised to learn that he has a 2.39 ERA and is on pace to go 22-6. Obviously that's not going to hold up (all the DIPS estimators have him in the low-to-mid-4.00's), but he's been the Tribe's most effective starter so far. The crazy thing is that he has only 10 strikeouts in 37.2 innings so far—I'm sure you'll remember that Lowe lost all pretense of being a strikeout pitcher once he moved to the rotation, but even for him that's ridiculous.

Next up is Ubaldo Jimenez. He's somehow managed to post a respectable 4.04 ERA this year, but you don't need SIERA to see that he hasn't actually pitched nearly that well. He's always made his living by missing bats, yet has just 20 strikeouts in 35.2 innings so far. Worse still, he's allowed 25 walks—he not "effectively wild," he's just wild. Between him and the struggling Clay Buchholz, we should see a lot of runs Friday.

Taking the hill in game three is Josh Tomlin. His 4.67 ERA isn't too far off what most people expected from him this year, but he looks like a completely different pitcher now. He's striking out over seven batters per nine innings after posting a 4.8 K/9 last year, and while he's still been relatively stingy with the walks (1.8 BB/9, up from an MLB-best 1.1 BB/9 last year) he's now allowed two or more free passes in three consecutive starts for the first time since his promotion to High-A. He's going to his cutter a little more this year at the expense of his changeup, but I haven't noticed any other major differences. Be on the lookout for whether his reputation as a pitch-to-contact hurler takes another hit Saturday.

You can find my answers to Lewie's Red Sox questions here.
Finally, you get Masterson. Dominant ace when he's on, but that hasn't happened very often this year. Show a little patience at the plate and you shouldn't have any trouble getting a rally going.