Cleveland Indians still on warpath, but for how long?

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Without a doubt the biggest surprise of baseball’s opening month has been the Cleveland Indians.

Forecast by the odds makers to win perhaps no more than 72 games the Tribe is more than a quarter of the way towards that figure with their 19-8 start – a start good enough to be the best record in all of baseball.

The Indians have opened up a 4½ game lead over the only other team in the AL Central currently with a winning record, Kansas City. The Indians are 13-2 at home, winning 13 straight after dropping their first two. But Cleveland has also split their first dozen road games, perhaps signaling that they will indeed contend deep into the season.

Kansas City was forecast to win 69 games this season and has already won 15. The Royals appear to be the much more flawed of the two teams, especially when it comes to pitching. But in the short term both Kansas City and Cleveland will make for attractive plays while the public refuses to believe in either of them which allows the lines maker to not catch up too quickly.

St. Louis’ 16-12 is good enough to lead the NL Central by 2½ over Cincinnati while Colorado’s solid 17-9 mark has the Rockies 4½ ahead of the second place Dodgers.

While Philadelphia’s early 18-9 record is not a surprise given its outstanding starting pitching the fact that the Phils have only a half game lead in the NL East is. And that lead is not over Atlanta, a team expected to contend for the playoffs, but Florida. The Marlins have started 17-9 and have a very strong starting rotation as well, anchored by Josh Johnson.

Perhaps the biggest negative early season surprise concerns a pair of AL Central teams expected to contend for the post season after each has made several trip to the playoffs in recent seasons. Minnesota and Chicago are off to a combined 19-37 start and have the two worst records in all of MLB.

Both teams have struggled mightily at the plate with Minnesota also getting weak pitching. Entering this week Chicago had scored three runs or less in 14 of their last 17 games, having been shut out or limited to just one run 6 times!

Minnesota’s offense has been almost as futile, scoring 3 runs or less in 6 straight games entering this week and in two thirds of their games all season.

Baseball’s home field advantage – historically 54 percent – has been virtually non-existent in 2011. Through Sunday home teams had just a narrow 212 to 201 edge over their guests, or just 51.3 percent. This rate is worth monitoring in coming weeks as the “value’ in baseball, as in most sports, is in playing the road team, especially as underdogs.

Nothing says that home teams must start winning at a greater pace than they have thus far in order to catch up to that historical percentage. Statistics do suggest that they will but there’s always the possibility that 2011 could be that oddball season in which road teams enjoy above average success.

If so, road teams will make for even more solid value plays than they have in the recent past.

Here’s a look at four series this weekend.

Cincinnati at Chicago: The Reds have one of the more potent lineups but just average pitching but may actually have the edge in this series on the mound. The Cubs have had just 5 quality starts this season in 27 games, one of which was tossed by Randy Wells who is currently on the DL. Matt Garza and Carlos Zambrano each have a pair. Cincinnati’s starters have combined for 9 quality starts in 28 games with each starter having at least one.

The stats for both staffs suggest this should be a high scoring series provided the winds are not coming towards home plate at hurricane speeds. No Cincy starter has an ERA below 4.00 while Garza leads the Cubs’ staff at 3.95 (starters who’ve made more than 1 start).

PREFERRED PLAYS

Cincinnati as underdogs in any matchup or if favored by -140 or less against lefty James Russell.

• OVER 9 or lower in any matchup.

• OVER 10 or lower if both starters are lefthanded.

Colorado at San Francisco: San Francisco won two of three games in Colorado when these teams met two weeks ago. The Giants got solid outings from Tim Lincecum and Jonathan Sanchez but Matt Cain was roughed up. Cain has not been as sharp in his first half dozen starts as he was last season although his stats are still decent (3.53 ERA, 1.23 WHIP).

The Rockies have gotten solid starting pitching from Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge de la Rosa and Jason Hammel but last season’s ace, Ubaldo Jimenez, has struggled in 4 starts. Colorado has the better lineup but the Giants would still be considered to have the better overall pitching although the edge is not as great as is generally perceived.

PREFERRED PLAYS:

San Francisco as favorites of -150 or less in either a start by Lincecum against any Colorado starter or by any other Giants starter against Jimenez.

• Colorado as underdogs of any price in starts by Chacin, de la Rosa or Hammel not facing Lincecum.

• UNDER 8 or higher in any matchup;

• UNDER 7 or higher if Lincecum, Cain or Sanchez oppose de la Rosa or Chacin.

Minnesota at Boston: Only Brian Duensing and Scott Baker have posted decent pitching stats for the Twins while supposed ‘ace’ Francisco Liriano continues to have problems. Boston’s John Lackey has now had several solid outings following a pair of ugly starts while Josh Beckett and Jon Lester seem to be back in established form as well.

The Twins continue to be without injured catcher Joe Mauer while of the regulars only Jason Kubel (.354) and Denard Span (.284) are batting above .235! Boston’s bats are faring slightly better although stars Kevin Youkilis and especially Carl Crawford are struggling greatly.

PREFERRED PLAYS:

Boston as favorites of -140 or less in any matchup.

• Boston as favorites of -160 or less in starts by Beckett or Lester.

• Minnesota as underdogs of plus 125 or more against other than Beckett, Lackey or Lester.

• OVER 8 or lower in any matchup.

• UNDER 8 or higher if Beckett or Lester oppose Baker or Duensing.

NY Yankees at Texas: New York took two of three meetings when the teams met at Yankee Stadium in mid April in what was a relatively low scoring series as the teams combined for just 26 runs and neither team scoring more than 6 runs in any of the games. The Yanks are averaging 6.7 runs per game on the road although only 7 of their first 25 games have been away from home. Texas has been much stronger at home (5.8 runs per game) than on the road (4.2) and has played 16 of 28 games as hosts.

New York has gotten better starting pitching than expected coming out of spring training although a pair of veterans, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, are unlikely sustain their strong starts (combined for 4 quality starts in 5 outings) deep into the summer. Rookie Alexi Ogando has been the most effective Texas starter with the balance of the rotation having trouble keeping runners off the bases and only C.J. Wilson (3.12) having an ERA below 4.50 aside from Ogando.

PREFERRED PLAYS:

Yankees as underdogs of +125 or more in any matchup.

• Yankees favored by -125 or less in a start by CC Sabathia;

• Texas as underdogs of any price against any Yankees starter other than Sabathia.

• OVER 9 or lower in any matchup.

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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