By Mike Lopresti
For the Indians, 2016 was like a Rorschach ink blot test. Look at the season and what do you see?
A boffo year in player development, as one prospect after another took the express lane to Pittsburgh?
Some truly exhilarating individual performances, especially among the pitchers?
Or in the end, a late summer swoon from the pennant race and the first losing record in six years?
In other words, there was good, and there was bad, and occasionally there was ugly. Victory Field’s 20th anniversary season saw variety –- not to mention 636,888 paying customers, the most this season in all of Minor League Baseball. The last home game drew 15,134 in a ballpark that holds 14,200 — more that night than the Tampa Bay Rays-Toronto Blue Jays game.
This season could have been called the Book of Exodus. Of the 25 players on the Indians roster on opening day, 15 eventually appeared in the major leagues by Sept. 1. All five pitchers in the original rotation –- Tyler Glasnow, Wilfredo Boscan, Steven Brault, Chad Kuhl, Jameson Taillon (pictured above) — spent time in PNC Park. That, after a remarkable first month in Indianapolis, when they allowed more than two runs only three times in 28 games, with four of the five in the top 10 of the International League in earned run average. Taillon and Kuhl – who combined for a glowing 127:22 strikeout:walk ratio in Indianapolis — became key starters for the Pirates in their wild card stretch drive.
Meanwhile, Adam Frazier arrived from Double-A in the spring, a man of many positions who sizzled at the plate for the Indians in 68 games, then was gone to Pittsburgh and never came back. After an MVP-caliber first half in Indianapolis, Josh Bell made a noisy cameo with the Pirates in July –- hitting a grand slam against the Chicago Cubs in his second major league at-bat -– returned to Indianapolis, then was called back to help Pittsburgh playoff hopes.
So the road between Indy and Pittsburgh often looked like 96th Street. But then, watching your best players pack and leave town . . . isn’t that what a Triple-A team is here for?
“I think you have to look in the sense of the guys that have gone up there and made an impact. I think that’s how you have to look at our season,” Manager Dean Treanor said. “When you reflect, it’s about Taillon and Kuhl and how well they’re doing. Now looking ahead, I’m anxious what the starting rotation in Pittsburgh is going to be next year.”
Broadcaster Howard Kellman: “From a development standpoint there’s been some real positives, and that starts with the pitching staff.”
Catcher Jacob Stallings, who was briefly with Pittsburgh himself: “We’ve come up through the system with all of them. They’re some of my best friends in the organization, so it’s been fun to see so many guys go up and help the Pirates.”
Meanwhile, back in Indianapolis, there were numbers to savor.
Trevor Williams’ 1.50 earned run average from June 28 on, best in the IL; a summer pitching clinic that came after hurting his shoulder nine pitches into his first start in April, and being lost for seven weeks. His nine wins and 2.53 overall ERA earned him the team MVP.
Danny Ortiz’ six game-winning RBI.
Alen Hanson’s first Triple-A grand slam, which was good for a walkoff victory in August.
Stallings’ seven RBI on May 31, a Victory Field record, and 25 percent of his season total.
Max Moroff’s 90 walks, a Victory Field era record and 24 more than anyone else in the International League. He struggled with a .230 batting average, but played a nifty infield and obviously still found a way to get on base. He had only eight fewer walks than he had hits.
The Indians’ 6-0 record in games with Jose Osuna homers. He hit .321 in August.
Indianapolis’ 110 stolen bases to lead the league — Hanson the master thief with 36.
Willy Garcia’s league-leading 17 outfield assists. The man with the howitzer for an arm has a staggering 53 since the start of 2014.
Gift Ngoepe’s seven errors, to go with a highlight reel of great plays, giving him the best fielding percentage among IL shortstops.
So it wasn’t that the baseball was chronically bad. “There wasn’t one person who didn’t want to get better every day,” said Moroff, who was an example of that, turning into a walk machine rather than letting a low average lure him into chasing bad pitches. “Butch (hitting coach Wynegar) always tells me, `You learned so much this year going through what you’re going through. You’ll learn more than you did last year just from struggling a little bit.’ I agree with that.”
And there was maybe the best feel-good story of all, Frank Duncan. He started the season as a reliever in Altoona and ended it 9-6 with a 2.33 ERA. In between, he was named to the International League All-Star team and had a shutout streak of 23.2 innings. This with a fastball that sometimes looks like it is traveling under the yellow flag at the Speedway. As the rotation steadily leaked towards Pittsburgh, Duncan was the stabilizing force in Indianapolis.
“If you would have told me at the beginning of this year this is where I’d be pitching, and this is how it would have gone, I don’t know if I would have believed you,” he said. “Not to say I didn’t believe in myself, but that opportunity, I didn’t see coming this year. But I’m glad I was able to take that opportunity and run with it.”
He thrived on location, changing speeds, a sinker. In other words, pitching, without the margin for error that the fireballers take for granted.
“It’s just knowing yourself and know what you have to do to get hitters out, sticking to your plan, not necessarily seeing what other guys are going. Because it’s really easy to fall into that trap,” he said. “It’s a different game I have to pitch. I’m not allowed to make as many mistakes. It’s not something I shy away from, I take that as a challenge.”
“Baseball is an art form. There’s not just one way to do it.”
Duncan grew up following Randy Johnson, among others. But not everyone was born with Randy Johnson’s heat.
“You see those guys later in their careers, they had to learn how to pitch without their velocity,” Duncan said. “It’s not always going to be there. For me, it hasn’t been there yet so I’ve had to learn quicker than others.”
Duncan and Williams were big reasons Indianapolis ended up third in the International League in staff ERA, even with so many of the guns gone to Pittsburgh. But that begs the question that made this team something of an enigma. If pitching is supposed to be so vital, how did the Indians finish 70-74?
“When you look at our roster at the start of our season,” Treanor said, “you’re thinking we’re going to have a pretty good year.”
Added Stallings, “Sure, we felt like we could have won a lot more games because of the talent we had, but it doesn’t always work out that way.”
Treanor knows just where to look on the stat sheet to find the reasons why.
The 17-27 record in one-run games. The 23 blown saves. The 14 games lost when leading after six innings compared to winning only four times when trailing after six. “That’s our season,” he said. “I think since I’ve been here you could total up the number and it wouldn’t approach 14.”
The poster game for blown leads was Aug. 4 at Columbus. With the chance to cut the Clippers’ division lead to three games, the Indians took a 5-0 lead in the first inning — but ended up losing 9-7. “No doubt, the biggest game of the season,” Kellman called it.
Indianapolis finished 11th in the league in hitting, and just when the Indians needed a hot streak to stay in the race in August, frost came at the plate. In the first 14 days of the month, they were shutout 1-0 three times, squandering great pitching. Bell, after his spectacular debut in Pittsburgh, hit only .211 in his second stint with the Indians, driving in seven runs in 109 at-bats.
Frazier’s confident do-everything talents that can glue a team together were obviously missed. The Indians were 40-34 before he left, and 30-40 with him gone. “Not an accident,” Treanor said.
Added Kellman of Frazier, “Confidence is everything. That means more than anything else because confidence levels waver in this game. It’s a hard game to play. He was so consistent from Day 1, the transition from Double-A to Triple-A was seamless; it was nothing to him.”
So the stretch run turned into a steady, relentless fade –- Indy was 24-34 in July and August — something particularly painful following 2015, when the Indians clawed their way into the playoffs and forced the Governors’ Cup to five games before losing at home to Columbus.
“That was a bitter taste,” Treanor said of how 2015 ended. “We thought, OK, we’re going to make a run at this again. And when you don’t, it’s very frustrating. And very frustrating about how we’ve lost games. We played with a lack of energy this month. I think it’s the aspect of August and knowing we’re not going to be in the postseason.”
Meanwhile, in the dog days, Columbus sailed out of sight and the Indians fell to third in the division.
“That is the perfect phrase for this club,” Treanor said. “They’ve gone through some dog days. That is disappointing, because there hasn’t been a team here that played like that.”
This was Treanor’s sixth season, the first below .500 or lower than second place. Not a habit he wants to get into.
“I think we’ve developed a reputation here that we come out and win every year, and I think it’s great for the fan base, I think it’s great for Max (Schumacher) and Cal (Burleson) and upstairs. I think there’s a lot of pride to be taken with that. For it not to happen, that’s the disappointing factor. Because the fan base here has been so great to us, so great to me.
“And then you look at the guys that have been in the room that have been here all year and didn’t go to Pittsburgh. Maybe the biggest dynamic is that; they’ve been here and now they’ll walk away from this season with that. I feel for those guys.”
One thing it did, though. Made Treanor eager for 2017.
“There’s a hunger to get back there. You want to keep learning and I’ve learned a lot of things this year. Could I have done more to get these guys through some of these spells? I reflect on that a lot. I talked to couple of people up in our organization, one of the things we need to talk about more is how guys, when they come back from Pittsburgh, how they respond, and what we can do to not let them fall into some of the traps they’ve fallen into.”
In so many ways, the Indians accomplished their mission in 2016. They kept the pipeline humming to the Pirates and remained an attractive downtown destination by any measure. If a pennant race could not be offered, dollar hot dogs and Darth Vader still drew the masses. Not a bad 20th birthday party for Victory Field at all. But a few more runs, a few more saves and a few more wins would have been nice.
2016 Mike Lopresti Indians Column Recap:
“All Aces“ (May 3)
“Seven Days In May” (May 23)
“Like a Box of Chocolates” (June 24)
“Next Man Up” (July 13)
“What to Watch for Down the Stretch” (Aug. 1)
Mike Lopresti is a Ball State University graduate and Richmond, Ind. native and resident. He was a sports columnist for Gannett newspapers and USA Today for 31 years, and covered 30 World Series and 33 Major League Baseball All-Star Games. He is a voter for Baseball Hall of Fame. When he retired he was 16th in the nation in seniority within the Baseball Writers Association of America. (Cover photo by Adam Pintar.)