Months ago, shortly after the Cleveland Cavaliers ended the Cleveland championship drought by coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to defeat the Golden State Warriors, I wrote a post for Cavs fans. It was meant specifically as kind of a guide to get them up to speed on the Cleveland Indians if they were hopping over mid-season after the Cavs’ playoff rush.
Now, three months later, it’s almost the Tribe’s turn to make a playoff run of their own, and that probably means a lot of “bandwagon” fans will begin watching. And I do not mean that as a derogatory term in any sense. Unless your parents are Indians fans, or you have some other strange connections to the team, you likely started following — and loving — the Indians when they were good, perhaps during their two World Series appearances in the ‘90s. At that time, you were a bandwagon fan yourself. There’s nothing wrong with it.
But with that said, there’s a chance a lot of newer bandwagon fans who might not know much about the Indians. Or, God forbid, they have been getting all their information from local radio. Well, if you are one of those people who happened to find this post: Read it. Then turn off WKNR and try as hard as you can to forget what channel it’s on — they’ll be talking about nothing but the Cleveland Browns for the next six months, anyway.
Here are some universal truths you can keep in mind while watching the Indians play out their remaining games of the 2016 season:
The Indians magic number is shrinking every day
Baseball fan or not, everyone with a cursory knowledge of sports watching should know about their team’s magic number. Essentially, it’s how many games they have to win to clinch a playoff spot. It can be entertaining to joke about magic numbers in mid-July, but around this time — in September — is when it starts to really get interesting.
As of this writing, the Tribe are currently six games up in the American League Central. The magic number for the Indians to win their division currently sits at 17. If the Indians win 17 of their remaining 22 games, there is nothing the Detroit Tigers can do within the realm of known mathematics to win the division. Winning 17 of 22 seems like a tall order, but keep in mind the number shrinks the closer we get to the end of the season, especially on nights where the Indians win and the Tigers lose.
We obviously want the Indians to win the division, because Wild Card games are the basic definition of a crapshoot, but barring some kind of collapse, the Indians could still sneak into the playoffs without winning the AL Central. Their magic number to clinch a Wild Card currently also sits at 17, over the Baltimore Orioles.
Danny Salazar has a lingering injury and you should be kind of worried
Depending on how much you paid attention to baseball in the early parts of the summer, you may remember hearing about how awesome Danny Salazar was. That’s because he was awesome.
The 27-year-old was an early candidate for the American League Cy Young, carrying a 2.36 ERA and just shade over 10 strikeouts per nine innings through his first 16 starts. His stellar start to the season even earned him his first spot on the All-Star team, but he ended up missing the opportunity due to shoulder fatigue. It looked like nothing at first, or even an excuse to not have to pitch in the ultimately useless Midsummer Classic, but things just got worse.
From July 9 to August 23, just six starts and 23.1 innings, Salazar was atrocious. He had a 10.41 ERA and was walking more than five batters per nine innings while bouncing off an on the disabled list. Nothing ever appeared to be structurally wrong, and one point there was even a hint that maybe Salazar just did not have a great routine on his off-days.
He recovered nicely in a couple recent starts, but on Friday night he struggled and was pulled after just four innings. And again it seems like the same lingering shoulder/forearm issue. So, we really do not know if we will get a fully healthy Salazar for the postseason run, or how effective he will even be when he does return.
It’s not he end of the world by any means, but the playoffs would be a lot easier with a fully-healthy Salazar ready to go.
You can safely ignore the “Indians only beat bad teams” nay-sayers
There’s a fun little narrative running around that the Indians only beat up on bad teams, or teams in their own division. While it’s true that they do beat a lot of bad teams and teams in their own division (gasp), that doesn’t automatically make them a bad team.
If, say, the Indians were terrible against the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers this season, they would be in the AL Central basement instead of on a path to winning it. Narratives are fun like that — they rarely point to anything of substance, but they sure do fill up space in a newspaper or on a website.
Francisco Lindor is still amazing
If you were impressed by Francisco Lindor, 2015 Edition, you will love the 2016 version even more. His incredible defense is right on par with what it was last season (if not better), and he is getting more base hits at the expense of some power.
The shortstop position is stacked in the American League, but Lindor is still second among them in FanGraphs wins above replacement (fWAR) at 6.0. He is third in weighted runs created plus (wRC+) behind the excellent Manny Machado and Carlos Correa, and he has the highest on-base percentage (OBP) thanks to his 176 hits — also tops among AL shortstops.
You can usually count on Lindor to have a hit in a game, if not more than one. He leads the entire league in three-hit games this season with 23, including a four-hit game on August 3.
You love Andrew Miller and his impact on the Indians bullpen
The Indians dealt a boatload of prospects to the New York Yankees to acquire Andrew Miller at the trade deadline, but you don’t have to worry about that for now. The only prospect to make it to the majors thus far has been Ben Heller, and he will probably be the only one until next season.
The important thing for you, the bandwagoning Indians fan, is that Andrew Miller is absolutely incredible. He makes grown men look like wobbly toddlers with his nasty slider, and he can be completely unhittable for long stretches of a time. Unfortunately, he has had a couple bad games recently, but that does not mean you should feel completely confident every time it’s #MillerTime.
If the Indians make it to the playoffs, and if the Indians are in a close contest late in a game, expect Andrew Miller to trot out of the bullpen in the most important situation. That might be the ninth inning, or it might be the seventh inning with a one-run lead and two runners on base. Terry Francona has been great about using Miller in high-leverage situations, and you can bet he will have the ball with a game — or a season — on the line.
You shouldn’t count out the Tigers, but don’t lose sleep over them
The Indians themselves seem to recognize that they control their own destiny and are embracing it. No matter what the teams behind them do, as long as they keep winning they have a shot at the playoffs. Unlike recent seasons where the Indians were chasing the likes of the Tigers or Royals in September, the Indians are in the driver’s seat now.
For a time, it looked like the Royals would be the team to challenge the Indians towards the end of September and into October, but they quickly faded — the biggest intra-divisional challenger remains the Tigers. But as previously stated, they are a full six games back. That does not sound like much, but the Indians could kick back and forfeit an entire series, at least, and still have a lead. Scoreboard watch the Tigers just to watch them fade if you want, but don’t worry too much.
If anything, keep your eyes on the Texas Rangers, who currently hold the best record in the American League. The Indians are just two games behind them, and overtaking the Rangers could be huge. If the Tribe can enter the playoffs with the best record, and thus the No. 1 seed, they would face the winner of the Wild Card, instead of the Boston Red Sox, who are arguably the best overall team in the American League.
So, there you go. This does not cover every single aspect of the Indians in-depth, but much like my Cavs guide, this should get you up to speed as we head into the final stretch of the regular season and, hopefully, into a long playoff run.
If you are new to Let’s Go Tribe, specifically, we hope to see in Game Threads during games!