First of all, please congratulate me for not becoming the 100,000th person to reference The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in a post like this. I’ll wait.
Thank you! Anyway, it’s the Third of July, the less-heralded little brother of the Fourth of July, and to date the Indians have played exactly 81 games, making this an excellent time to review their season thus far. As of today, the Indians sit at 44-37, three games up on the Royals and the Twins in the AL Central. Not a bad place to be, but not exactly what we fans were hoping for given that they, y’know, went to the World Series last year.
So what went right? What went wrong? What’s the outlook ahead? Let’s dive in.
What went right
- A lack of injuries. In a 162-game season, injuries tend to be the main thing that stops good teams from realizing their potential. Considering what happened last season (losing their #2 and #3 starters for the entire postseason, plus the lengthy absence of Michael Brantley), this went double for the Tribe. And yet this year has been relatively smooth sailing for injuries thus far [he said while knocking on all of the wood in the Amazon]. Corey Kluber missed some time, but robots aren’t affected by such things, and he has been excellent before and after the injury. The current DL consists of Austin Jackson, Abraham Almonte, and Danny Salazar (more on him later). Not a bad result for 81 games.
- Breakout seasons. Who would have expected Lonnie Chisenhall to have been the Indians’ best hitter (.963 OPS) this deep into the year? And furthermore, who would have expected Mike Clevinger to currently be, with a 142 ERA+, the team’s second-best starter? These are the kinds of surprise performances playoff teams need to stay ahead of the pack.
- Steady production from the stars. Start with Edwin Encarnacion, who has done exactly what the Indians needed him to do, becoming the middle-of-the-order power hitter this offense has badly needed for years. Jose Ramirez would have been in the “breakout seasons” category last year, but this year he has taken another leap, to the point of being one of the very best players in the league (and an All-Star starter!). Even Francisco Lindor, who has been underwhelming on offense so far, has more than made up with it with stellar defense at short. Kluber is still Kluber, Carrasco is still Carrasco, and Michael Brantley has re-emerged as a reliable contributor on offense.
- Andrew Miller. Do I need to elaborate?
- A terrible division. Despite all of these excellent individual performances, the Indians’ record isn’t what we could have hoped. The main reason they remain in first place is a simple one: no one else in the AL Central is good. Sure, the Twins have hung around at or near the top of the division all year, and the Royals have been surging lately, but a cursory look at the rosters and the stats reveals that these rivals aren’t as strong as your typical playoff contenders. In fact, no one in the division but the Indians has a positive run differential (with the second-best actually being the White Sox at -16), suggesting that the Twins (-59) and Royals (-27) have been lucky even to be where they are now.
What went wrong
- Salazar, Trevor Bauer, and Josh Tomlin. Two-fifths of the opening day rotation have done exactly what we would have hoped for. The other three? Not so much. Tomlin held his own in last year’s postseason, but has been so bad this year that a demotion may be in order. The ever-promising Bauer is starting to move past prospect stage and suggesting that he may never put it all together. And Salazar has been the disappointment of the year, his impressive strikeout rate offset by an astronomical amount of walks, necessitating a demotion to the bullpen. Someone in this group (preferably Salazar) needs to turn things around in the second half, or the Indians may be forced to go shopping on the trade market.
- Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana’s bats need to wake up. Santana’s patience is always welcome (46 walks so far), but he hasn’t been bringing his usual power (only a .398 slugging). And the usually steady Kipnis has just been bad. We’ve seen enough from them in years past to suggest that these starts are just aberrations; however, they’re not encouraging.
- Catcher offense. But what else is new?
- Just plain bad luck. See how much longer the positives section of this article is? That’s because, on an individual level, things have largely been great for the Indians this year. It just hasn’t translated into as many wins as it should. By Pythagorean Record (measured by runs scored vs. runs allowed) the Indians theoretically should be 47-34, putting them in a much stronger position. These things tend to even out over time (for the most part), so good things may be on the horizon even if everyone keeps up their current level of performance.
Optimism doesn’t come easily to Cleveland fans, especially since we’ve witnessed plenty of frustrating losses this year. But looking at all the facts laid out like this, it’s tough not to be excited for the Indians’ prospects. They’ve gotten great performances (which, crucially, don’t seem to be unsustainable flukes) and room for improvement from players with good track records. In fact, Fangraphs projects the Indians’ second half winning percentage at .579, highest in the AL (even beating out the Astros!). Not bad for a team that has struggled to hold off the Twins all year.