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Key to the Indians second half might be a real surprise

Cleveland Indians Pitcher Mike Clevinger (52) delivers a pitch during the 2nd game of a MLB split-doubleheader between the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians on June 17, 2017 at Target Field in Minneapolis, MN.(Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire)
Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire

Who is the most important player on the Cleveland Indians?

That’s a pretty straightforward and simple question with an easy answer — Corey Kluber, the team’s ace starting pitcher. Forgive anyone who has forgotten Kluber, an impressive black hole of anti-charisma once the cameras turn on, still working in relative obscurity despite being one of the top five pitchers in his league. Yet, he should be easy to remember because he was incredibly important to the Indians’ World Series push last year.

Those who interpret “player” as job description might say Kluber (a pitcher) should be disregarded. In that case, the most important player on the Cleveland Indians becomes third baseman Jose Ramirez, who is apparently this year’s massive breakout Cleveland star. Year-to-year inconsistency is a fact of life for baseball players — being able to diagnose when a player’s inconsistency is meaningful and when it is isn’t comprises some 75 percent of being a good talent evaluator at the major league level.

Even then, there is something special going on over the last five seasons with the Indians, who have featured breakout performances by Yan Gomes, Ryan Raburn, Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Raburn again and Francisco Lindor, the only guy who has managed to pay that success forward (Santana’s bat didn’t fall off too much, but he experienced a free fall down the defensive spectrum); it’s probably wise to hold off anointing Ramirez and his 150 OPS+ anything until he shows he can do it two years in a row. And that’s excluding Lonnie Chisenhall, who had a .953 OPS in the first half.

Let’s interpret the question in a slightly different way, though, because the answer’s clearly Kluber, and that’s kind of boring. “Who is the key to the Indians’ second half?” Now that allows for some room to maneuver. What do the Indians have now that wasn’t known before the season began? Who can help them succeed in the second half?

If I’d been asked that question before the season, my guess would’ve been top outfield prospect Bradley Zimmer. He is contributing very well in lieu of Austin Jackson, who was off to a strong start before hitting the disabled list. Now Jackson is playing second fiddle again to a guy with long hair.

If the Indians plan to hold onto the lead in the American League Central and make a deep playoff run, a great part of the burden might rest uncomfortably on the shoulders of starting pitcher Mike Clevinger. He started 10 games for the Indians when needed last season but didn’t experience the success he’s had in 2017 — a 3.00 ERA (159 ERA+) in 60 innings. Clevinger hasn’t changed that much as a pitcher, though — issuing too many walks (4.7 BB/9) but managing so many more strikeouts (9.9 K/9) that his skill set still seems firmly rooted in late-inning relief.

There’s been a big drop-off in hits allowed — from 8.5 H/9 last year down to 5.7 this year — but there’s been no underlying change to the quality of batted balls put into play; no softer contact nor greater preference to grounders. So the most important key to the Indians’ second half won’t be “Kluber pitching well,” because he’s going to do that anyway, or have anything do with the hitters. It likely will involve managing Clevinger’s regression.

Maybe he won’t regress. Looking good enough in his outings this season, it’s conceivable he can continue to pitch steadily until the end of the year. His strand rate of 83 percent won’t last forever but the Indians should stay positive. Avoid approaching every start as a possible disaster waiting to happen.

While everyone else is a known quantity, Clevinger — whether overperforming or turning into a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter — is something of a wild card. With the Kansas City Royals charging up behind them and the Twins hanging around, the Indians might need him to be the key to winning the division.

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