At the beginning of the day, the Indians were sitting at the .500 mark (71-71) 4.5 games back of the second wild card spot. There are currently three teams ahead of them (the Angels, the Twins, and the leaders for the second wild card spot, the Rangers). The Indians looked as if they were done for the season around the all star break. There was a slim hope that if they came out of the break on a tear, they could make a late run for the wild card. They came out of the break in a slog, more than a tear. So how did they get to a point where they are actually considered contenders for the second wild card? It shouldn’t be a huge surprise for anyone that has watched this team all season; their poor offense and overall zombie-like performance started to improve once certain players began to depart via trade.
Let’s look at the folks who were traded, along with their stats at the time of the trade (and I threw in post-trade stats just for fun):
David Murphy traded: July 28 (pre-trade) .296/.344/.437, 0.2 bWAR (post-trade) .264/.283/.391, -0.2 bWAR
Brandon Moss traded: July 30 (pre-trade) .217/.288/.407, -0.8 bWAR (post-trade) .218/.325/.386, 0.3 bWAR
Marc Rzepczynski traded: July 31 (pre-trade) 2-3, 4.43 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 1.62 WHIP, -0.3 bWAR (post-trade) 0-1, 7.94 ERA, 4.03 FIP, 1.50 WHIP, -0.9 bWAR
Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn traded: August 7 (Bourn pre-trade) .246/.313/.294, 0.4 bWAR (Bourn post-trade) .181/.263/.217, -0.2 bWAR (Swisher pre-trade) .198/.261/.297, -0.7 bWAR (only 101 at-bats) (Swisher post-trade) .235/.368/.388, -0.4 bWAR (only 85 at-bats)
Here are the corresponding records and position in the standings in conjunction with those trade dates (I just merged Moss and Scrabble into the 31st)
July 28 record: 45-54, 7 games back of the second wild card, 9 teams ahead of them
July 31 record: 48-54, 5 games back of the second wild card, 7 teams ahead of them
August 7 record: 49-59, 8.5 games back of the second wild card, 8 teams ahead of them
You probably remember that the Indians kept approaching .500, and every time they’d get close, they’d fall back again. It was like they took two steps backward for every step forward. Just in the week-and-a-half period of those trades, they moved closer, and immediately fell even further behind. August 7 was game 108 – so with 54 games left in the season, things looked pretty bleak. It’s not even the 8.5 games back that was so intimidating; it’s the fact that 8 different teams were ahead of them.
Since that date, the Indians have gone 22-12 and gained 4 games in the standings. They’ve managed to leapfrog 5 of those other teams. They started playing like the team we anticipated coming into the season, rather than the mess we saw for the first four months of the season. While it may be a case of “too little, too late,” for now, hope is still alive for the Indians. And there are a few specific players we should thank for that fact.
- Indians defense – As I’m sure you remember, the Indians finished last season as the worst defensive team in baseball. Prior to the all star break, they were hovering in the mid-20s as far as rankings go…no longer the very worst, but still only 5-6 teams behind them. They’re now ranked 13 in all of baseball, thanks to replacements at a number of positions that under-performed defensively.
- Lonnie Chisenhall – Chisenhall got off to a very slow offensive start in 2015 – he was hitting just .209/.241/.345 prior to his trip to Columbus on June 7. Since his return on July 30, he’s hit .333/.393/.457. Overall this year, he’s worth 2.6 bWAR. Last year Chisenhall was dreadful defensively at third base; during the first half of this year he at least played respectable defense at third. However, after his shift to right field, he’s been amazing from a defensive standpoint. And not just for a player that switched positions mid-season, but for any right fielder in baseball. His performance earned him the SweetSpot Defensive Player of the Month for August. (Check out the link for more on Chisenhall’s excellent outfield defense).
- Abraham Almonte – Another reason that the defense is doing better is thanks to Almonte’s presence in center field. He’s been a major improvement over Bourn, both offensively and defensively (he’s hitting .277/.333/.518, 1.3 bWAR). At the time of his trade, Bourn was essentially at replacement level; Almonte’s provided improvement across the board.
- Francisco Lindor – Along with Geovanny Urshela, Lindor is credited with the vast improvement in defense on the left side of the infield. Offensively, he’s been on fire as well. I knew that he was major-league ready when it came to his glove, but I have to admit that I’m surprised by how good he’s been offensively. He’s hitting .309/.351/.462 and is worth 3.4 bWAR.
- Josh Tomlin and Cody Anderson – I had slim hopes the Indians could still contend, but when I heard that Carlos Carrasco and Corey Kluber would miss time due to injury, I was ready to write them off for the billionth time this season. But Tomlin and Anderson have pitched well in their absence and made their departure a bit less painful.
It doesn’t take a genius to realize that if you pull out guys who are severely underperforming, like Moss, Bourn, and Swisher, and replace them with people who are producing, it’s going to have a positive impact. So now we know *how* they’ve managed to pull themselves out of the gutter…do they actually have a chance of turning this resurgence into a wild card berth?
One of the things that should concern Indians fans is that they don’t completely control their own destiny. They could go undefeated over the last 20 games of the season, but if Texas goes undefeated as well, it’s completely meaningless. This isn’t like a division race, where you face the team directly in front of you down the stretch. The only team in front of them that they’ll see head-to-head is the Minnesota Twins; other than that, they just have to hope that the Rangers and Angels beat up on each other. It’s unfortunate that everyone let the Royals get such a solid lead in the AL Central; they’ve been slumping lately, but are pretty bulletproof thanks to their huge cushion at the top of the division.
Speaking of division leads, the Rangers are now just a half game behind the Houston Astros. While we’ve been cheering for the Rangers to lose, it’s feasible they could overtake the Astros in their series this week. After their hot start, the Astros went 15-13 in August and are just 4-8 so far in September. If they collapse, it could still end up being beneficial to the Indians.
Looking back to 2013 when the Indians won the first wild card spot, it wasn’t necessarily a done-deal with 20 games left in the season. They went 20-6 to finish off the year, including 10 wins in a row to round out the season. I looked at games played as opposed to dates (since the season started a week later in 2015) – the Indians played game 142 on September 8 in 2013. At that point they were 77-66, 2 games back of the second wild card, with 2 teams ahead of them. Just a week before, they’d been 4.5 games back of the second wild card, with three teams ahead of them. So while they were a bit better off in 2013 (even before they rattled off 10 wins in a row) they still managed to overtake everyone and win the first wild card spot.
In 2013, I had absolutely no faith the Indians would go anywhere if they managed to make the playoffs. I thought they may get lucky and get through the one-game wild card, but that they were never going to make it past Boston in the ALDS. After they were forced to use their best starter, Ubaldo Jimenez, on the last day of the season to ensure they clinched the wild card, they were left at a disadvantage against Tampa Bay. With Justin Masterson hurt and unable to start, they were left with the young Danny Salazar, who had only made 10 major league starts prior to the wild card game.
This year, I feel a bit differently about the wild card game. Even though I’m less optimistic the Indians will actually get a chance to play in it, I actually like their odds if they manage to find a way in. With Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and a much more experienced Danny Salazar at the top of their rotation, they can burn one or two of them and still have an elite pitcher start the wild card game. Having those three at the top of the rotation in any kind of playoff series would be huge.
I have no idea what will happen the rest of the season, and whether or not the Indians will find a way into that wild card game. If nothing else, I’m thankful that they gave us watchable, enjoyable baseball for the last two months of the season. After watching the mess that took the field from April through July, we deserve it.