With a win this evening, the Indians will guarantee their seventh consecutive winning season, only the fifth time in club history such a streak has occurred (1995-2001, 1947-‘56, 1934-‘40, and 1917-‘23). Given that no one predicting the Indians would run away with the AL Central also predicted Aaron Civale would make as many starts as Corey Kluber, it’s easy to look at 2019 and consider it successful.
But, looking forward to an October that will hopefully feature the Indians, is there hope for more success?
If the series in Tampa was a harbinger of things to come, the outlook is not so rosy. But one series does not a season make, so let’s zoom out to look at the season at large. Unfortunately, things are not much better by those lights. Against teams with records above .500, the Indians are 20-32, a .385 win percentage, which ranks 19th among all big league teams, just behind the Rangers. By run differential, the Indians are better than their record, with just a 30-run deficit (230 scored vs. 260 allowed), ranking 13th, just behind Cincinnati; however, the Tribe’s Pythagorean win-loss percentage (based on run differential) is still just .444, 17th overall.
This iteration of the Indians is not the same as the one that broke camp back in March, though. You won’t find a Max Moroff or Eric Stamets within 100 yards of this infield. So, maybe those winning percentages are not a good reflection of what this team is now. Since July 31, when the roster was fully overhauled, the Tribe is 7-12 against teams above .500, but they are 6-7 against likely playoff teams (Houston, Minnesota, New York Yankees, and Tampa Bay).
That is ... still not very hopeful, and the problem is easy to spot: poor offense. As mentioned, the Indians have been outscored by 30 runs against teams with records greater than .500 this year, which speaks to the lack of offense. Even louder is the fact that just three players have a wRC+ above 100 against those teams, those three being Carlos Santana (152), Roberto Pérez (106), and Francisco Lindor (103). Limiting the sample to after July 31 does not materially make a difference, as still just three players hit better than league average, though José Ramírez (139) replaces Pérez (79) among the three and reminds us what we’re missing.
On the other side of the ball it looks as predicted, despite injuries, with top rotation arms faring quite well. Mike Clevinger sports a 2.39 xFIP against teams above .500 this season, and Shane Bieber is not far behind at 3.34. Pen arms Nick Wittgren and Oliver Pérez also have xFIP under three, and everyone with a minimum of 10 innings pitched against teams above .500 falls under 5.00 xFIP with the exception of Zach Plesac, Adam Cimber, Adam Plutko, and Jefry Rodriguez.
So, maybe I’ve been looking at this wrong. The old saw goes “Pitching wins championships,” right? Cleveland certainly has pitching. As Mitchell Krall noted at Waiting for Next Year, “The team with the best rotation in baseball coming into the season was missing its supposed top three pitchers, but remained one of the best rotations in baseball. That’s remarkable!”
Moreover, against teams that could be American League playoff competition, the pitching has been outstanding. In terms of wOBA against, Clevinger has held 66 batters to just .227, Bieber has held 205 batters to .306, and even recently maligned Brad Hand has held 65 batters to .298 — all well below league average of .321. If the pitching can hold off the high-powered offenses of AL playoff teams, maybe the Indians offense can create some space to do damage of it’s own in a small series. Shrinking the sample for batters to plate appearances against likely playoff teams since July 31, six batters have been above league average in wOBA (Santana, Ramírez, Greg Allen(!), Yasiel Puig, Oscar Mercado, and Lindor).
Thus, perhaps hoping for success in October doesn’t seem so outlandish after all. Being swept by the Rays in a series that had playoff implications was miserable, but even though games in August and September mean a lot, they are not the most meaningful games this team will play in 2019. The Indians are a win away from cementing the current run of success as one of the greatest in team history, and because of the randomness inherent in the playoffs the team may be set up as well as the homer-happy Twins or pitching-dominant Astros come October. Stranger things have happened, after all.