The Indians Look Like AL Favorites

There has been a changing of the guard in the American League as we have a new run differential leader: The Cleveland Indians (+155).

The Indians, thanks to an outstanding August, have jumped the Houston Astros (+153), the AL’s top club of the first half, and have possession of the game’s No. 2 run differential, trailing only the Los Angeles Dodgers (+209). The Indians completed a 19-9 record for August with a sweep of the Yankees on Wednesday, and posted a plus-58 run differential for the month.

In August, the Indians led baseball in WAR from starting pitchers (5.1), and I wrote about how the Indians’ rotation has separated itself from the pack last month. Corey Kluber is on a historic strikeout spree, Trevor Bauer has reached a new level by relying on his best pitch — his curveball — and is now bringing back his slider, as T.J. Zuppe of The Athletic notes. Carlos Carrasco might be getting back in a groove, Mike Clevinger has become more than just a depth piece, and — if Danny Salazar can stay on the mound — he had been pitching the best baseball of his career, thanks to increased usage of his four-seam fastball, which is a swing-and-miss pitch, along with his split-changeup.

The Indians’ rotation, at the moment, appears to be a formidable — if not the most formidable group — entering the postseason tournament, even after Houston’s acquisition of Justin Verlander.

The Indians also finished August fourth in the majors in reliever WAR (1.3), and they did so without having relief ace Andrew Miller for much of the month. Indians general manager Mike Chernoff told MLB Network Radio recently that Miller should be back in a few weeks.

The Indians added Joe Smith prior to the deadline to bolster their bullpen and they might have found a useful lefty specialist in Tyler Olson, who has held lefties to a .167/.208/.217 slash line to date in the majors this season, and had held lefties to a .127 batting average at Triple-A Columbus. Assuming Miller returns, and returns to form, Olson could give Cleveland a second crucial lefty arm for its bullpen. (Boone Logan is likely out for the season with a back injury).

While the Indians’ pitching was expected to be a strength, the Indians offense also ranked fourth in the AL in runs in August (145). And that is more impressive when considering the team was without positional player regulars Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley due to injury.

The Indians offensive fortunes might also be turning. As Jeff Sullivan noted in mid August, the Indians had been one of the least clutch teams — or perhaps most unlucky — offenses in the game. Typically we expect such an outlying performance like this to correct itself, as it is not thought that clutch hitting exists, and according to the Clutch metric the Indians luck has improved over the last two weeks.

Cleveland also added Jay Bruce to the group, who has become a more efficient player since rebuilding his swing to try and pull balls into the air. Bruce is on pace for career-best slugging and home run marks.

Defensively, Bradley Zimmer has provided a dramatic defensive upgrade in center field from Tyler Naquin a year ago, the equivalent of 20 runs saved at a per-150-game rate. The team also called up another speedy center fielder in Greg Allen on Thursday, who could help the club in a number of ways and late-inning roles. Francisco Lindor is a reigning Platinum Gold Glove winner — though his ratings are curiously down this year — and in Roberto Perez and Yan Gomes the Indians have perhaps the best defensive duo at catcher in the league.

Francisco Lindor anchors a commendable Cleveland defense. (Photo: Erik Drost)

All this leads us this point: the Indians are playing as well as any team in baseball at the moment, and seem to be as positioned as well as any team in the American League for the sport’s postseason tournament. The Indians have perhaps the top staff top to bottom, an improving offense, above-average defense at crucial positions, and they should become healthier as player like Kipnis, Brantley, Salazar and Miller return from the DL.

Of course, the outcomes of games, division races and postseason seeding are not determined by run differential. They are determined by wins and losses. And in this category, while the Indians have jumped the Red Sox for the No. 2 seed by a game entering play Friday, they remain three games behind the Astros. The FanGraphs projected standings have the Indians finishing three games behind the Astros.

With the No. 1 seed come some important luxuries including home-field advantage, and earning the right to play the winner of the Wild Card play-in game, a team that has likely employed its top starting pitching option.

Can the Indians catch the Astros? Houston landing Verlander will certainly make that more difficult. But the Indians will benefit from the easiest schedule in September in the AL.

Remaining Strength of Schedule
Team Remaining Opp Winning %
1 Rays 52%
2 Mariners 52%
3 Orioles 52%
4 Blue Jays 51%
5 Yankees 51%
6 Angels 51%
7 White Sox 51%
8 Red Sox 50%
9 Tigers 50%
10 Athletics 50%
11 Rangers 50%
12 Astros 49%
13 Twins 48%
14 Royals 48%
15 Indians 47%

The No. 1 seed typically helps any clubs’ chances, but with or without it, the Indians enter September playing as well as any team in the AL. They have perhaps jumped the Astros as the favorite to emerge from the American League, and have positioned themselves for a run at another World Series appearance.

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Kevin
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Member
Kevin

The big draw for the #1 seed is that the Indians would get to face the WC winner and then the winner of HOU/BOS, rather than presumably facing BOS in the first round and HOU in the second round.

Sonny L
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Member
Sonny L

Yeah it’s really difficult to take a series off both of those teams. The team that only has to face one of them is at a significant advantage.

Lost in this is how each of these three teams represent a station on a linear team construction timeline. Cleveland is pitching/defense heavy with solid offense, then Boston matches the top of rotation but no bullpen with a better offense, then Houston is a downgrade in rotation but huge upgrade offensively. Maybe it’s not linear but points on a circle.

Either way they’re all fighting for the title of 4th-ish best team in baseball behind LA, DC, Chicago. But! If one of these AL teams puts it together come through that 2 or 3 position they will have shown enough to say they can beat any type of team and win four out of seven of any game.

isavage
Member
isavage

You think the Cubs, with 12.7 pitching WAR and 22.2 position player WAR, are better than the Indians, who have 24.6 pitching WAR and 19.9 position player WAR? That’s an interesting opinion.

Tom Jitterbug
Member
Tom Jitterbug

FWIW, Fangraphs (via Depth Charts, I assume?) RoS projected WAR totals are:

CHC Pitchers: 3.3
CLE Pitchers: 3.7
CHC Non-pitchers: 3.9
CLE Non-pitchers: 3.5

If you believe RoS projections are a more reliable measure of talent than season-to-date stats, it would seem foolish to say either team is better than the other.

jlewyckyj
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Member
jlewyckyj

I get that you’re high in Chicago, but they’re probably a few years away until Eloy and Kopech are ready

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

IMO, the “power rankings” of teams looks something like this.
1. Dodgers
2. [this page intentionally left blank]
3. [this page intentionally left blank]
4. Nationals, Astros, and Indians
5. 26-way tie. Not because it’s correct, it’s just to annoy you

david k
Member
david k

Dodgers have certainly distanced themselves from the pack this year, but this latest slide of theirs has given other teams, particularly the Dbacks, a lot more confidence that the Dodgers are beatable.