Cleveland Hoping for 2013 Repeat

The American League Wild Card race has gone through significant changes over the last six weeks. The Minnesota Twins have moved in and out and back in again. The Los Angeles Angels, once division leaders and then seemingly secure owners of the second Wild Card spot, have faded yet still remain in contention. The Orioles moved close, but now seem far away. The Rays hover, never in the lead, but never completely out. The Rangers, seemingly out of the race as the trade deadline approached, have moved to leader of the race. And finally there appears to be in Cleveland, once sellers and swappers of bad contracts, a stalking horse which has emerged on the periphery of the race, with no other clubs looking likely to separate themselves from the pack.

After dropping a game last night in a tough extra-inning loss to the Toronto Blue Jays and falling five games behind the Wild Card-leading Rangers, Cleveland is still very much on the outside, but they are within range of the playoffs as we move to September. Cleveland has a lot going against them at this point. There are four teams ahead of Cleveland in the standings: the Rangers, Twins, Angels, and Rays (in that order). The five-game deficit, the four teams ahead of them, and the limited time left in the season all give the team just a 6.9% chance of making the playoffs, with almost all of that percentage devoted to the Wild Card with the Kansas City Royals a lock to win the AL Central.

On the surface, the Indians don’t appear to be much of a threat. At 64-67, the team has a mediocre record, and generally speaking, a mediocre record is indicative of a mediocre team — the sort, that is, that would have difficulty mounting the type of run necessary to qualify for the postseason. Cleveland’s record is a bit misleading, however. While the team has ninth-most wins in the AL, their underlying statistics all indicate that Cleveland has performed more ably than their record would suggest. Their AL ranks in a few significant statistics are listed below.

Cleveland American League Ranks
Value AL Ranks
OFF 5.9 4th
DEF -6.1 7th
Hitter WAR 17.4 5th
ERA 3.78 6th
FIP 3.65 2nd
Starter WAR 12.8 3rd
Reliever WAR 3.2 6th
TOTAL WAR 33.5 4th

While there is nothing they can do about their current record now, Cleveland has not played like a mediocre team. Base Runs, which strips out the luck involved in sequencing, has the team at 71-60, fourth-best in the AL behind only Toronto, Houston, and the New York Yankees. All teams suffer injuries, and Cleveland has been no different, missing Yan Gomes and Jason Kipnis and currently without Carlos Carrasco. The team is close to whole on the position-player side right now, and Francisco Lindor has provided a jolt since his call-up in the middle of June. Among team’s seeking the second Wild Card, the Indians’ projected WAR for the rest of the season is around a win higher than the Rays, Angels, and Rays and two wins higher than the Twins.

As noted above, being better than the other teams is not likely to help Cleveland take the second Wild Card spot. They’ve even been better by record for quite some time. Since finishing their first month 7-14, they are 57-53. At their low point, they were 14-23, and have been 50-44 since that time. Among a group of teams hovering around .500, Cleveland has been right there with those teams for most of the season. There is probably too much distance, too many teams, and not enough time for Cleveland to make up the gap. Cleveland is not out of the race, however, and greater comebacks have been made in recent history. The prime example is 2011, when both the Tampa Bay Rays and the St. Louis Cardinals sat 8.5 games back in Wild Card. At the time,, whose work can now be found at FanGraphs, placed both of their chances at under 5% for making the playoffs.

The last team to make the playoffs with a losing record at the beginning of September was the 2008 Los Angeles Dodgers, who were 68-70 at one point, but were only 2.5 games back and had a 29% chance of making the playoffs. The 2009 Twins were in a similar spot, barely over .500, but with a decent chance to make the playoffs due to only have a single team to chase.

Perhaps a decent approximation for Cleveland’s chances are the 2007 Colorado Rockies. On September 1, the team was 69-66, six games back of the Wild Card with four teams ahead of them. That team rode a hot offense — behind Matt Holliday, Todd Helton, Troy Tulowitzki, and Garrett Atkins — to the playoffs. That team won 21 out of its last 28 and used that surge to make the World Series. That team did not have to contend with a play-in game, but Cleveland fans should be more familiar to an even closer analogue: the 2013 Cleveland Indians.

After the games played on August 31, 2013, the Indians were 71-64, 3.5 games behind the second Wild Card-leading Rays and six games behind the Rangers for the top spot. The team had virtually no chance of winning its division and just a 12% chance at getting a Wild Card spot. This is how the team’s top hitters performed in September.

Cleveland Hitters: September 2013
Yan Gomes .309 .367 .457 130
Nick Swisher .263 .353 .515 139
Carlos Santana .271 .393 .438 133
Jason Kipnis .287 .367 .394 114
Michael Brantley .345 .364 .464 130

Those are very good performances, but nothing out of this world — and the current team retains four out of those five players. Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis have played all season at a higher level than they did two Septembers ago. Carlos Santana has put together a solid season, and Yan Gomes appears to be recovering from his injury with a .228 ISO in the second half. The hitters are certainly capable of a run, but in 2013, the team received great pitching performances.

Cleveland Starters: September 2013
Ubaldo Jimenez 41.1 1.09 1.09 2.2
Scott Kazmir 28.0 2.57 0.98 1.4
Danny Salazar 25.0 2.52 2.17 0.9
Corey Kluber 25.1 5.33 3.96 0.4
Zach McAllister 25.2 3.51 4.88 0.0

Ubaldo Jimenez pitched brilliantly down the stretch, with strong performances as well by Scott Kazmir and Danny Salazar. Is the present staff capable of the same? Corey Kluber, playing a minor role two years ago, is clearly able to dominate. Danny Salazar is probably a better pitcher now than he was several years ago as seen by his performance against Toronto two night ago. Trevor Bauer could step up his game, but whether the rotation can really get on a roll likely depends on the health of Carlos Carrasco. Getting him back lengthens the rotation and provides the team with three pitchers who have shown the ability to dominate this season.

Nobody can blame Cleveland for selling at the trade deadline, moving Brandon Moss, David Murphy, and Marc Rzepczynski, and then moving the bad contracts of Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn for Chris Johnson’s bad contract. They were 45-54 on July 27, were seven games back of the Twins, and had a 6% chance of making the playoffs. The team has performed better over the last month, and their chances of making the playoffs are still pretty low, but they are not out of the race yet. After seven more road games, the team plays 18 of their final 24 games at home, and 20 of the final 30 games are against the Twins, Tigers, and White Sox. If they can beat up on their AL Central foes, who’ve posed a problem this season, they could find themselves in the mix as we move to October. Most of the players on the Cleveland team have experience making exactly the type of run that they will need to make the playoffs, and for the team to still have a shot is surprising given the way they started the season.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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7 years ago

It’s certainly within the realm of possibility. I’d love for Cleveland to go on a tear and make things interesting in the AL Wild Card race.