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Who is the Indians’ biggest rival?

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Whomping the Tigers so thoroughly brought some thinking about.

Detroit Tigers v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

As the Cleveland Indians took the Detroit Tigers to the woodshed this week, beating them in every way you can beat a team at baseball, I got to thinking about the rivalries of the game, and specifically of the Indians.

Rick and Matt were talking about Jose Ramirez’s battering of the Tigers the last year or so, and how that compares to what Miguel Cabrera has done to Cleveland the last decade (it doesn’t). There’s a general assumption that the Tigers are the Indians biggest rival — they’re closest geographically, they were good not too long ago, and, I don’t know, it seems right, right? But what makes a rival? Do they even need an arch rival, an ultimate nemesis?

If we stick with just the AL Central since they play each other the most, perhaps it makes sense to look at overall standings of the division. Since 1994, the current AL Central, which look like this:

AL Central records since 1994

Team Wins Losses Winning%
Team Wins Losses Winning%
Indians 2031 1798 .531
White Sox 1925 1907 .502
Twins 1844 1987 .481
Tigers 1783 2049 .465
Royals 128 2102 .451

I didn’t realize how far ahead the Indians were against the rest of the division, but with solid plus-.500 runs in each of the last three decades without any lengthy rebuilds while every other division-mate has wallowed in misery at one time or another certainly helps. As for how they’ve done just against the AL Central since ‘94:

Indians records vs, AL Central

Opponent Wins Losses Win%
Opponent Wins Losses Win%
Royals 225 171 .568
Tigers 229 179 .555
Twins 218 186 .540
White Sox 209 195 .517

I wonder how much self-reflection the Indians as a franchise do. You can’t help but look at that and wonder, “are we the baddies?” Between the commanding records and the nine AL Central titles — most in the division — they’re basically the mark that the other teams have to set themselves to, aren’t they?

Anyway, rivalries. What makes a rival? In baseball the most famous ones are the Red Sox and Yankees, Dodgers and Giants, and I suppose the Cubs and Cardinals. These are teams that have ruined each others’ championship dreams, battled in epic games and series, and have some ties with each other. They’ve also all been around for a long time, and been some kind of good. The thing about the Indians is, there’s a massive hole in their history where, from the late ‘50s to basically 1994, they were just the worst. Well, the third worst. From 1960 to 1993 there were only two teams with a winning percentage worse than the Indians’ .462, the Senators that became the Rangers at .461 and the Mariners at .437. And the Mariners debuted in 1977. So all the Tribe’s rivalry forging can only really be considered post-1994. An era that has been dominated by Celandine in division play, even if other teams have gotten the true glory.

DETROIT TIGERS: 4 Divisional Titles, Last 2014; 2 World Series Appearances since 1994

Biggest Heartbreaker: Miguel Cabrera

As said before, Detroit is nearby, and had the longest run of sustained success in the last decade. They didn’t get the title, but they’ve been in two World Series in the last 15 years and have spent money like a Northeasterner. Due to the star power they’ve had — Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer among others — and their major splashes in free agency, they’re probably he most high-profile team in the Central right now. They were the juggernaut when the Indians were rebuilding to this current run they’re on, the giant that had to be slayed. So in a sense they were the greatest block between Cleveland and postseason glory, mentally if not actually so. They’re bad again so it almost feels mean to really crush them, but after almost a decade of getting crushed it’s nice to see the universe balance itself out.

Then there’s Miguel Cabrera, a man who has seemingly made it his duty to break Cleveland hearts in his career. His numbers against the Indians are legend — a .981 OPS with 45 home runs in 181 games as a Tiger against Cleveland. More astounding though, is that aside from the two career walk-off hits he has against Cleveland, there are another 34 times he’s gotten a hit that drove in a run to give the Tigers the lead; and another three that tied it. Of those 39 hits, 24 came at Progressive Field! He killed the dreams of so many Tribe fans, young and old. He has more hits against Corey Kluber than any other pitcher, and even with how the they’ve bottled him up the last two years he’s still fearsome. I feel like the reports of his decline are premature. And is there another player that causes fear in a generation of Cleveland baseball fans when he steps into the box than Miguel Cabrera?

KANSAS CITY ROYALS: 1 Divisional Title, Last 2014; 2 World Series Appearances since 1994, 1 Championship

Biggest Heartbreaker: Mike Sweeney

This is the team that actually reached the summit the Indians are pursuing, and employed the streak-hating Eric Hosmer. But they’re terrible again, and are probably going to be terrible for a while. They’re more irritating than anything, a gnat that won’t die that also happens to own a big gold trophy. They’ll surely win games that frustrate the Indians from time to time, but unless a whole bunch of things go right — Jorge Soler, Danny Duffy and a third guy flip the switch to superstar maybe — they’re going to be just a central casting team for a while.

As for Sweeney in particular, he’s just too nice a guy to really loath and worry about like with Cabrera. He was great against Cleveland, owning an .897 OPS with 24 homers in 141 games. But he never had a walk-off hit against them, though he did have 30 hits that put his team in the lead against Cleveland or tied the game. He was like the Royals in general for most of the last 25 years — definitely there, a little bit of an irritant, but mostly harmless.

CHICAGO WHITE SOX: 3 Divsional Titles, last 2008; 1 World Series Appearance sinc 1994, 1 Championship

Biggest Heartbreaker: Frank Thomas

The White Sox have a championship that the Indians probably would like to have, and that whole early to mid-2000s Ozzie Guillien squad was quite the bugaboo for the Tribe. Ozzie also had that famous choking gesture in ‘05 when the Indians went from being Wild Card front-runners in the last week of the season to out of the playoffs after the Sox swept them to end the season. Which precluded that title of theirs. So that definitely qualifies as dream killing. They were also the team that caused Albert Belle to make Jason Grimsley break into the umpire’s room and steal back his corked bat, so the history is there. And there’s a villainous swaggerishness to them too, that rough and tumble Chicago brashness that comes through in their uniforms, their play style and their park. Plus they have the most potential to spend money of all the Indians division-mates with that Bulls piggy bank Reinsdorf has. And you know he’s getting desperate for some winning. Between that and the worrying prospect of them pulling an Astros and building a juggernaut, they could certainly be great. Whether that will come at a time when the Indians are contenders though, that’s the problem. There is no rivalry between the hammer and nail.

Thomas was simply amazing in every way. Him and Miggy are neck-and-neck for best offensive players out of the Central of the last, what, half-century? In 152 games facing Cleveland he really put a Hurt on them — 34 homers, a .983 OPS, and 30 go-ahead hits. Though he never had a walk-off hit. His 211 hits against Cleveland are the most he had against any team. He also recorded a hit against 78 different Indians pitchers. Compare that to 60 both Mauer and Cabrera — 62 if you include his Marlins years. He was a machine, through and through, and perhaps only his dazzling smile hid how he brutalized the Tribe.

MINNESOTA TWINS: 6 Divisional Titles, last 2010: 0 World Series Appearances since 1994 (an admittedly unfair cutoff for them, but that’s divisions for you)

Biggest Heartbreaker: Joe Mauer

The Twins are very Minnesota about the way they go about things — unassuming, not too in your face, just quietly succeeding at doing their business up north. But there they are, the second most successful team in the division by titles. It helps drafting and developing a pair of MVP’s including one of the best catchers ever (before he moved to first) along with one of the most dominant starters of the 2000’s. Johan Santana was fourth in fWAR from 2001 to 2010 with 43.2, and Joe Mauer was amazing for a while. It’s hard to call them spoilers of fun for the Indians though. Just as they started getting really good late last decade, the Indians fell off that 2008 cliff. The Twins’ first three divisional titles (2002-2004) came as the Indians were taking a step back in the wake of everyone good leaving, so even then there weren’t any battles. I suppose that abbreviated Sizemore/Martinez/Hafner run had the Twins in the background. The Central was surprisingly good in that period though. With a world champion, an AL champion and the very good Twins and Indians, they just punched each other and whomped the Royals. Hard to have one rival when everyone is just slugging away.

Between Minnesota’s current window timing coming when it has and the constant frustrating timeliness of Mauer at the plate, they’ve been quite a bête noire for the Indians. Plus they have employed a lot of pretty good players that happen to come through in big moments, at the wrong times for Cleveland.

Mauer’s damage to the Indians has always been quiet. He’s got the lowest OPS against the Indians of any of the four guys I listed at .876, with a mere 14 home runs in 181 games. A far cry from Cabrera’s all-time best 45. His 225 hits against Cleveland are his third highest total, and 16 of those are off Kluber, like Cabrera more than any other Tribe pitcher. Which is a bit surprising — he faced a lot of garbage at the turn of the decade when he was at his peak, you’d have though he’d feast on a Sowers type. Only one walk-off too, of course a single to center field, along with 20 hits that put the Twins ahead in his career. It just feels like he was more the rally starter, the guy who gets on base and ultimately scores when a teammate homers or something. He’s still a real bother at the plate though. Honestly, does he ever see less than like six pitches?

Everything I just wrote makes me lean Minnesota. It feels wrong to call the Twins the Indians’ greatest rival, though. They’ve never had the biggest single offensive threat — that’s always been either Miggy or Thomas — and that 2010ish peak (and the turn of the century one before that) came just after a sharp Indians decline. At the same time, outside of the mid-90’s whenever the Indians have risen to contention the Twins own window has cracked open just behind them. They constantly nip at Cleveland’s heels. So maybe that’s something.

It could be that it’s all a matter of timing. They’re all equally a rival, and it just matters who is better at the moment. I know I appreciate a win over the Tigers a bit more than the Twins, and actually almost like the White Sox. Though I did get to see a lot of cheap, bad baseball there in the past, so that helps. Maybe every team doesn’t need an arch rival. Which is too bad. Then again, the Indians are the most consistent winners. Maybe they’re everyone else’s arch rival, and Cleveland is just the king of the hill. Feels weird to say if they don’t win a title, but it makes some sense.

Poll

Who is the Tribe’s biggest rival?

This poll is closed

  • 64%
    Detroit Tigers
    (206 votes)
  • 5%
    Kansas City Royals
    (17 votes)
  • 13%
    Minnesota Twins
    (43 votes)
  • 16%
    Chicago White Sox
    (54 votes)
320 votes total Vote Now