CLEVELAND (92.3 The Fan) – How were the Cleveland Indians so good offensively despite such low expectations for the group entering the year?
For starters, the Tribe proved their legs can be just as valuable as their bats.
Aggressive base running was at the heart of what made the Indians so special this season. And they won’t look to change what worked so well when they begin postseason play on Thursday at Progressive Field.
Why would they? After all, it’s their efficiency on the base paths which helps them make up for some of their offensive shortcomings and create more scoring opportunities.
Cleveland’s second-place standing in runs scored in the American League, despite not being one of baseball’s top home run-hitting clubs, proves there is more than one way to put tallies on the scoreboard.
An aggressive and smart mindset on the bases is something the Indians looked to establish early in Spring Training and have carried into a successful regular season. That sort of emphasis extended to taking an extra base on fly balls, base hits and balls in the dirt — not just simply stealing more bases.
But they certainly had no issues in the stolen base department, leading the American League with 134.
“We play the way we play,” manager Terry Francona said prior Cleveland’s workout at Progressive Field on Thursday. “One, you’ve got to get on base. There’s usually less of that in the postseason because you’re not facing all the team’s pitchers, you’re facing probably the top three… But it doesn’t mean the one time we’re able to go first to third or move up on a ball in the dirt, it can’t help us win a game.”
The Indians finished near the top of the leaderboard as a club in many base-running categories. Outside of stolen bases, Cleveland led the AL in stolen base percentage, BsR (via fangraphs), extra bases taken percentage, and the overall total of bases taken on sacrifice flies, wild pitches or passed balls.
“We don’t have to steal bases to be a good base-running team,” Francona said. “I think that’s one of our strengths, and I think it will continue.”
But certainly the steals have helped. And so does having the league’s leading base stealer, Rajai Davis.
At the age of 35, Davis, who was signed to a one-year free agent deal prior to the 2016 campaign, finished with 43 steals in 134 games and helped set an aggressive tone on the base paths.
“He’s probably done more than we anticipated,” Francona said. “When you ask him to be ready to run, he’s ready. When you put him in to pinch-run and the whole world knows you’re going to steal, he still can steal. And it’s not by luck. I get to watch him every day. He’s ready to run every day. There’s not been one day that he’s been slowed by something and that’s because he works so hard at it.”
Beyond Davis, who led the AL in BsR as a part-time player, several others had solid seasons in terms of steals.
Four finished in double figures, including Davis (43), Jose Ramirez (22), Francisco Lindor (19) and Jason Kipnis (15). A total of 12 different players stole at least one base in 2016 for Cleveland.
Chris Antonetti, the Indians’ President of Baseball Operations, also believes a great deal of credit for the team’s success on the bases should go to first base coach Sandy Alomar.
“Sandy spends a lot of time preparing for individual pitchers,” Antonetti said. “It’s ways again where we may be able to create a small advantage. He spends a lot of time doing that and impacts our players that way.”
Cleveland will likely need to create every scoring opportunity they can to keep up with the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS, the only club in the AL who managed to outscore the Indians this season.
But if taking an extra base separates winning from losing in the postseason, it certainly would be no surprise to see the Tribe using their aggressiveness and skill on the bases paths to their advantage in the upcoming best-of-five series.