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April 11, 2011 at 10:01 AM

Eric Wedge no stranger to poor Aprils

wedgedugout.jpg

(Photo by Associated Press)

When Eric Wedge managed the Indians, their annual slow starts became something of a hot-button issue, much discussed by Cleveland fans.

The Associated Press story from Oct. 1, 2009 on Wedge’s firing includes this passage: “The Indians were plagued by slow starts throughout the 41-year-old’s tenure and this season they couldn’t overcome some early injuries and an atrocious bullpen that blew games in April and May.”

Here are the numbers: In seven seasons with Cleveland, Wedge had a combined 73-96 record in March/April, for a winning percentage .432. In all the other months, he was 488-477, for a winning percentage of .506. Overall, Wedge was 561-573 (.495), so clearly his teams under-achieved in March/April.

In his first three years at the helm, 2003-05, the Indians went 7-20, 9-13 and 9-14 in April. Overall in those seasons, they went 68-94, 80-82, and 93-69. Particularly in 2005, the slow start killed them as they finished two games behind Boston for the American League wild card. In a story in the Akron Beacon-Journal on March 26, 2006, prior to the start of the 2006 season, Wedge and then-GM Mark Shapiro addressed the issue of the Indians’ slow starts:

Indians deep-thinkers are tired of seeing their team dig themselves a deep hole early in the season.

In 2003, the Tribe stumbled out of the gate with a 12-27 record. In 2004, it was 12-18, and last year, it was 13-19 after 32 games.

So who does General Manager Mark Shapiro see about eliminating April and maybe part of May from the calendar? OK, so that’s not a viable solution, but Shapiro and manager Eric Wedge refuse to trust things to chance.

“There have been a lot of conversations about that among us and outside,” Wedge said. “There are pretty good reasons why it’s happened, but I don’t like to talk about it. It’s like making excuses.”

Not really, but Wedge apparently has his reasons for being reluctant to discuss the club’s painfully slow starts. Maybe he doesn’t want his players seeing negative references in the newspaper.

Regardless, playing poorly for a month or more the past three years arguably slowed the team’s development and certainly cost them a berth in the 2005 playoffs.

In 2003, the slow start was of little importance, because the Tribe didn’t pick up the pace much as the season wore on. That came as no surprise. A substandard record was inevitable, as Shapiro already had begun jettisoning proven veterans for prospects who would become the first building blocks of the club’s resurrection.

In 2004, when the rebuilding Indians were 80-82 overall, they compiled a 68-64 record for the last 132 games. In both 2003 and 2004, the tepid starts probably were a product of young players still acclimating themselves to the big leagues.

In retrospect, last year’s 13-19 start was the costliest. This was one occasion when a plodding start was at least as significant as a lousy finish.

Granted, had the Tribe not lost six of its last seven, it could have beaten out the Boston Red Sox for the American League wild card, which it lost by two games. Winning half of its first 32 games would have served the same purpose.

Consequently, it’s no surprise that Shapiro and Wedge examined possible reasons for three losing Aprils in a row.

“There really isn’t any one reason,” Shapiro said. “Every year it’s been something different. That first year, we had too many young players using their energy to make the team instead of just preparing for the season.”

Shapiro might have added that several of those players — Coco Crisp, Casey Blake, Ben Broussard, Jody Gerut, Travis Hafner, Jake Westbrook — were just learning how to be major-leaguers. That process went on for the entire season.

In 2004, a similar process continued as Victor Martinez and Cliff Lee became regular contributors and the other young players continued to find their way.

Shapiro thinks that there was another reason.

“That was the first year we had any kind of expectations,” Shapiro said.

Expectations became much higher last year, partly because Shapiro and owner Larry Dolan had vowed 3 ½ years earlier that the Indians would become contenders by 2005.

“Last year was the first that we went through those kinds of expectations,” Wedge said. “When you don’t know what’s coming around the corner, you have to handle it in real time.”

It took awhile for the Indians to find the handle, but when they did they couldn’t stop winning. Despite the lagging start and horrid finish, they won 93 games, including 18-of-22 beginning in early September.

“I think in 2005, the guys tried to do too much early and it snowballed,” Shapiro said.

So can anything be done to avoid a slow start? Much of the problem might resolve itself without a complex strategy.

“Eric has a plan (which he is keeping to himself),” Shapiro said. “But I think the natural maturation process of the players is the biggest thing.”

One thing that Shapiro would like to change is the schedule. The Indians begin the season at home about once every eight or nine years to avoid the frigid weather at Jacobs Field.

“That’s something Eric expressed, and I think it would be a welcome change,” Shapiro said. “It doesn’t matter if you open at home on April 3 or April 8.”

Apparently, slow starts aren’t something that Wedge has chosen to talk about with his players.

“No, there’s been nothing about that,” Indians top pitcher C.C. Sabathia said. “We know what we need to do. If we’d had a good start last year, we would have been in the playoffs.”

Obviously, every team wants to win as many games as possible, whether it’s at the beginning of the season, the middle or the end.

But leaving the gate quickly is no guarantee that a team will have a successful season. In 2002, the Tribe started 11-1 and finished with a 74-88 record.

The Indians did slightly better in 2006, jumping out 13-12, actually out-performing their overall 78-84 record. And in their breakthrough 2007 season, in which the Indians won 96 games, they were 14-8 in April.

But the Tribe struggled out of the gate in 2008, the year after they came within one victory of the World Series. They were 5-10 and finished the month 13-15, en route to an 81-81 season.

In 2009, they went 8-14 in April, and Wedge felt compelled to call a team meeting in the middle of the month. They never got much better, however, losing 97 games.

If Mariner fans want something to latch onto — and trust me, they do — it’s that Wedge’s teams traditionally did well in May, compiling an overall 101-92 record, a .523 winning percentage.

Here is a more detailed look at Cleveland’s starts under Wedge:

2003: 7-20 in March/April (.259), 14-12 in May (.538), 68-94 overall (.420).

2004: 9-13 in March/April (.409), 13-13 in May (.500), 80-82 overall (.494)

2005: 9-14 in March/April (.391), 16-11 in May (.593), 93-69 overall (.574)

2006: 13-12 in March/April (.520), 13-14 in May (.481), 78-84 overall (.481)

2007: 14-8 in March/April (.636), 19-11 in May (.633), 96-66 overall (.593)

2008: 13-15 in March/April (.464), 12-15 in May (.444), 81-81 overall (.500

2009: 8-14 in March/ April (.364), 14-16 in May (.467), 65-97 overall (.401).

Overall March/April record: 73-96 (.432)

Overall May record: 101-92 (.523)

Overall record: 561-573 (.495)

Overall record, subtracting March/April: 488-477 (.506)

Overall record, subtracting May: 460-481 (.489)

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