Recently, David Schoenfield had a couple of great posts at the SweetSpot about the best teams that never won it all (or even managed to reach the World Series). I completely agree with the choice for the best team to never win it all – the 2001 Seattle Mariners. (They won 116 games and conquered the Indians in the ALDS and went on to lose to the Yankees in the ALCS). In a separate post, there were six additional great teams listed that failed to reach the World Series.
I thought I would add my thoughts on the best Indians teams to never reach the World Series, and decided to pick 6 since that’s what they did on the SweetSpot, and also because I couldn’t decide which team to cut in order to make it a round 5 teams. I decided to list them chronologically, rather than in any kind of order, so feel free to rank them if you like. If you have thoughts on other teams not mentioned, add them in the comments.
1921 – Record: 94-60, place finished: 2nd. The 1920 season was one of both tragedy and triumph for the Indians. Shortstop Ray Chapman died on August 17 after taking a pitch to the head, but the team still managed to finish with a 98-56 record and defeated the Brooklyn Robins in the World Series. The team remained quite good in 1921, but still finished 4 games behind the New York Yankees (98-55). Some of the stars of the team included Tris Speaker (Hall of Fame outfield/manager), Bill Wambsganss (2B – turned an unassisted triple play in the 1920 World Series), Stan Coveleski (Hall of Fame pitcher), Jack Graney (outfielder, would later become the team’s radio announcer), and Joe Sewell (Hall of Fame shortstop). The 1921 Indians scored 925 runs and allowed 712 runs, for a run differential of +213. Not only is that an incredible run differential, but to score 925 runs in a 154 game season is pretty impressive as well.
1953 – Record: 92-62, place finished: 2nd. Between the years of 1948 and 1956, the Indians finished in first or second place every year except for 1949 and 1950. I should add, that even though the Tribe finished 3rd in 1949, they had a record of 89-65; in 1950 they finished 4th, yet had a record of 92-62. This was an era dominated by the New York Yankees; the Indians reached the World Series (and won) in 1948 and went again in 1954 (where they lost to the Giants, despite a 111-43 regular season record). Otherwise, every other year from 1948-1956 the Yankees were the AL representative in the fall classic (they even won 5 straight from 1949-1953). So even though there were some very good Indians teams during this period, they were blocked in many cases by some of those tough Yankees teams. Manager Al Lopez led the Tribe through a great season in 1953, but they still managed to finish 8 ½ games behind New York. Despite that, Al Rosen won the MVP award, the first AL third baseman to be named MVP. Future Hall of Famers on the team: Larry Doby, Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Al Lopez. Scored 770 runs and allowed 627, for a run differential of +143.
1955 – Record: 93-61, placed finished: 2nd. I decided to include one more team from that era of Yankees dominance, just because it’s a period in Indians history that rivaled those great teams from the 1990s. The Indians managed to finish just three games behind the Yankees this season and also saw Herb Score win the Rookie of the Year award. The Indians had seven All-Stars this season – Bobby Avila, Larry Doby, Al Lopez, Al Rosen, Herb Score, Al Smith and Early Wynn. They scored 698 runs and allowed 601 for a run differential of +97.
1996 – Record: 99-62, place finished: 1st; lost ALDS to Baltimore Orioles 3 games to 1. I was really torn on whether or not to include 1996 or 1999 on this list (or even 1994) and just decided to give up and make it a list of 6 instead. This was the second straight year the Indians had the best record in baseball (can you believe the 1995 Indians had already clinched by this point?) Even though it was the Orioles that knocked the Indians out of the playoffs, much like the 1950s, the Yankees took home the title that year. The Indians sent 5 players to the All Star game that year Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Sandy Alomar, Jr., Jose Mesa and Charlie Nagy, while Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel won Golden Gloves, Jim Thome won the Silver Slugger. They scored 952 runs and allowed 769, for a run differential of +183.
1999 – Record: 97-65, place finished: 1st; lost ALDS to Red Sox 3 games to 2. Even though the Indians had a slightly better record in 1996, you can’t ignore the fact that this is a team that scored 1009 runs (the first team in the modern Major League era to do so). Unfortunately, their run differential was just +149 since they allowed 860 runs. I remember at the time that I was completely convinced that *this* was the season. I don’t even remember exactly why I was so certain; maybe it was the new double-play combo of Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar. Perhaps it was because they made the World Series in 1995 and 1997 and I figured they were due for another trip in 1999. Perhaps it was just due to the insane offensive production – they were only shut out 3 times all season; Manny Ramirez had 165 RBI and they had 5 players score at least 100 runs (Jim Thome, Roberto Alomar, Omar Vizquel, Kenny Lofton and Manny Ramirez) and 4 players with at least 100 RBI (Jim Thome, Roberto Alomar, Manny Ramirez and Richie Sexon – and he was considered a utility player!) Unfortunately, despite that ridiculous offense, the Indians did not have superb pitching stats. There were a number of people on the pitching staff with ERAs north of 6 and only 3 with ERAs under 4 – Bartolo Colon (3.95), Paul Shuey (3.53), and Steve Karsay (2.97).
2007 – Record: 96-66, place finished: 1st; lost ALCS to the Red Sox 4 games to 3. I put this one on the list because I’m still completely convinced that if the Indians would’ve gotten past Boston, they would’ve beaten Colorado in the World Series. The Indians had a record that was identical to the Red Sox during the regular season, but the Red Sox just seemed to have so many “big game” players on that team – guys like Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and Josh Beckett (and even J.D. Drew to a certain extent). The season started off with a bizarre snow-out, and included several “home” games in Milwaukee. The Indians battled with Detroit for much of the summer, but (somewhat eerily) took over the division for good around the anniversary of Ray Chapman’s death (this is the season they rediscovered his lost plaque). I moved back to Cleveland just a couple of weeks before they clinched and couldn’t help thinking, “This is IT! I move back, they win it all.” Once the Indians couldn’t close out the ALCS at home, I just knew they weren’t going to end up going to the World Series. After the season, CC Sabathia was awarded the Cy Young, Grady Sizemore won a Golden Glove and Eric Wedge won Manager of the Year. The team scored 811 runs and allowed 704 for a differential of +107.