It’s happening again.
The Cleveland Indians are tearing through opponents after the All-Star break.
If there is one characteristic that encapsulates the identity of the Francona-led Indians, it is the surge they make every season as the playoffs approach. Last season the team demolished opponents during a 22-game winning streak. The 2018 team is following the same path. They’re 19-9 since the All-Star break as they face a four-game series against the Red Sox, who may become the seventh team to finish the regular season with a winning percentage better than .700 since 1920. I don’t think it’s fair to say that this one series is a true test of the caliber of the 2018 Indians.
I do think we’re going to find out what weird Faustian bargain Terry Francona made in order to own the second half of the season in perpetuity. I don’t think it’s attributable to small sample size any longer.
By the numbers (chart warning)
Since joining the Indians as skipper in 2013, here is each season’s won/loss record split into halves, along with some other fun. Here is an image link for mobile users.
Here’s what this tells us: If the Francona Indians played the entire season the way that they did in the second half, they would win 99 games every season according to Pythagorean expectations. This outpaces their first half expectancy of 88 wins by a margin that usually makes the difference between winning a division and either limping into the wildcard game or just missing the postseason entirely.
They outscore opponents by slightly more than one run per game on average; this skyrocketed to 2.4 runs last season. The only year on record in which the Indians were actually a worse team in the second half as compared to the first is 2016. They still won eleven more games than they lost.
How do these teams manage to play so much better after the All-Star break?
I don’t know for sure, but there are a few things that we need to consider.
One factor could be trade deadline additions to the roster that address weaknesses made obvious before the break.
2013 netted the Tribe Marc Rzepczynski, and he shut down opponents in 20.1 IP, allowing only two runs. For the next two seasons, the Tribe mostly jettisoned people at the deadline. 2014 saw the departure of Asdrubal Cabrera and Justin Masterson; In 2015, David Murphy, Brandon Moss, Michael Bourn, and Nick Swisher all departed. Someone, somewhere must have muttered “we don’t need no stinkin’ outfield”.
In 2016, the Indians traded several prospects to the Yankees in exchange for Andrew Miller. The Indians went 8-6 after All-Star weekend before trading for the lefty, then finished up the year with a 34-25 run. Brandon Guyer arguably had an even larger impact; after coming over from the Rays he hit an absolutely stupid .333/.438/.469 in 96 PAs.
In 2017, the team picked up Joe Smith at the trade deadline, then Jay Bruce on August 10th. It is difficult to say for sure to what extent these deals were responsible for what followed, but the Indians lost only nine games for the rest of the season after those two trades. This season, the team added Brad Hand and Adam Cimber. Leonys Martin does not look like he will have a chance to contribute given his illness.
Deadline deals appear to be part of the puzzle, but they certainly don’t explain everything.
Mid-season call-ups and breakout performances
I think there is a little bit more traction here, and it helps to fill out pieces that are missing by just looking at trades.
In 2013, Jose Ramirez came up when rosters expanded. He had a fine slash line but only a dozen or so plate appearances with which to make an impact. A more impactful addition came through the late season emergence of Danny Salazar. In nine starts throughout August and September, Salazar threw 46 innings while holding opponents to an ERA of 3.33. Depending on whom you ask he was worth a win to a win and-a-half in those two months.
2013 also happened to be the year of the Carlos Carrasco Bullpen Experiment, which is largely credited with reviving his chances in the majors as a starting pitcher. In his seven appearances out of the ‘pen, Carrasco allowed only two runs. This coincided with Ubaldo Jimenez’s last hurrah with Cleveland — 11 August and September starts with an ERA of 1.92.
2014 was an unusual year. Remember TJ House? Yeah, that’s what I thought. At one point in time I thought he’d locked down a spot in the Indians’ rotation for life. While that sounds crazy now, here’s why: House made nine starts in August and September of 2014. The Indians went 8-1 in those games, and House tied Stephen Strasburg for the 6th best xFIP in baseball during that span.
Meanwhile, Kyle Crockett morphed into the Indians’ shutdown lefty reliever. He came up shortly before the break, but pitched 16.2 innings after it with an ERA of 1.62. Intentional? MAYBE. In the field, Jose Ramirez began making his presence known. He started 55 games in the second half of the season and hit to the tune of .283/.325/.377 with excellent glovework at shortstop and second base.
2015’s biggest impact came from Francisco Lindor. He didn’t come up after the break, but the difference between the team before and after his presence is too absurd to not recognize. Lindor also hit .345/.386/.544 in the second half with 33 extra base hits. Abraham Almonte also came over the Padres and chipped in, hitting .261/.319/.467 from August 8th to the end of the season.
On the mound, Cody Anderson appeared and tossed 61 innings in eleven games after the break, notching a winning decision in each of the last five. Josh Tomlin returned from injury, and the Indians won in 8 of his 10 starts behind a 3.02 ERA. Jeff Manship also materialized in an Indians uniform at some point and pitched 31.1 innings with an ERA of .86.
In 2016, Mike Clevinger provided the late season jolts from within the organization. Clevinger oscillated between a starting role and a relief role. If you erase his absolutely miserable start on September 27th (2 IP, 5 ER) it becomes clear how valuable he was during the late stretch. He represents the only significant contribution or breakout in the last two months from a player in the system. Remeber: Tyler Naquin broke camp with the team that year.
2017 saw Yandy Diaz get his longest uninterrupted chance to play on the major league roster. When he returned on August 22nd, he helped the team immediately. Yandy went .304/.407/.402 in 108 PAs the rest of the way. For the record, Baseball Reference lists him as being 19 fielding runs above average at third during that span. Tyler Olson also pitched 20 innings, all in the second half, without allowing a single run.
All in all, it amounts to an impressive slate of late contributions from previously slumping players or those being given their first real shot at the majors.
Still, somehow, it doesn’t quite feel like it explains how this keeps happening.
Have the Indians just played really bad teams in the second half every season?
Not enough to make that much of a difference. In 2017 the Indians did have the easiest projected second half schedule in all of baseball before they completely annihilated it. The same holds true for this season. This wasn’t really the case in any of the other seasons. What we can say is that maybe these two seasons should be subject to some kind of correction. While the Indians did make moves to improve in those years, they also benefitted from an easier-than-normal slate of games. We should take the absurd run differential from those seasons with a grain of salt, then, and revise down slightly exactly how great the Indians have been in the second half.
Still, what would that bump them down to? A 96-win quality team? Horror of horrors.
All of this ignores the easiest explanation of all:
Terry Francona made some kind of unholy bargain to gain supernatural second-half powers
If only he’d managed to attach a rider including the postseason.