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Indians offense is making it hard to find joy in baseball

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Cleveland will make the playoffs and I don’t care

Detroit Tigers v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Indians will make the playoffs.

Last year, that statement would have been a great relief, but, despite winning 93 games, the Tribe missed postseason play. This season, playoffs are as close to a statistical certainty as can be without actually being clinched. Here is where the team’s playoff odds stand this morning:

  • FanGraphs: 97.3%
  • Baseball Prospectus: 96.8%
  • Baseball-Reference: 99.3%

The 90% confidence interval from Baseball-Reference puts Cleveland’s worst-case scenario record as 31-29, which is likely still good enough to eke into the playoffs. Yet, despite these great odds, I’m not particularly excited about the prospect of this team in the playoffs.

Part of this ennui comes from the fact that 16 teams make the playoffs this year, and simply being in the top 53% of the league is not much of an accomplishment. But making the playoffs is still like getting a lottery ticket, and the chances of a mediocre team knocking off a top seed in the first-round best-of-three Wild Card series seems high (excuse me for not doing the math, I think we can all agree on this point). Thus, more than ever it could be a good year to punch a ticket to the playoffs.

Where my real reservations come from is the state of the Cleveland offense. I put the failures of this team’s offense in historical context a couple weeks ago and Matt Schlichting examined how good even a slight improvement might make the Tribe, given their insanely good pitching. Those articles are both worth your time (if you haven’t read them, go on, I’ll wait), and in case you haven’t paid attention things have not really improved despite Franmil Reyes launching some absolute missiles.

As of Monday Cleveland has the third-worst offense in MLB, ahead of only the Rangers and Pirates, and 24% worse than league average (76 OPS+). They’ve had some bad luck, based on a .258 BABIP (also third worst), but also a complete lack of power (.126 ISO, worst in MLB). The fact that this team has compiled a record of 17-11 so far is something of a miracle. That miracle being the pitching staff, with their 7.0 bWAR representing an advantage of nearly a win and a half over then next-best staff (Jays, 5.6 bWAR).

The old maxim is that pitching wins championships, and maybe the Tribe can surprise, but unless the offense can eke out more than a run here or there it is unlikely. And I have a hard time imagining that happening based on results so far. Four of the seven teams Cleveland has faced so far this season have losing records; the Tribe has a winning record against just one team that is currently above .500, with a 4-2 record against the White Sox. Overall, Cleveland is just 5-7 against winning teams with a -13 run differential against those teams.

Even against teams with losing records, however, the Tribe is struggling. Consider, for instance, last Thursday against the Pirates. In the top of the eighth inning, the first three batters reached base in succession (Reyes walk, Tyler Naquin single, and Domingo Santana walk). Based on run expectancy (and the sample matrix at FanGraphs assumes a team scores 4.15 runs per game, which is slightly higher than Cleveland’s 4.0, but close enough to use), with the bases loaded and no outs the number of expected runs a team should score is 2.282. In this situation, however, Cleveland drove in one run when Beau Taylor reached on an error, and then Chris Stratton (an average reliever, 101 ERA-, with a bad defense behind him, 4.50 ERA but 3.19 xFIP) got two groundouts and a strikeout from the Tribe’s 9-1-2 hitters. Cleveland went on to win the game, 2-0, but a lack of offense in situations like that, against a terrible (really terrible) team, is the kind of thing that saps confidence.

This isn’t an isolated event, either. The Tribe has sent batters to the plate with the bases 39 times in this short season and in those appearances the team’s OPS+ is 87, or 13% worse than league average. Although this is slightly better than the team’s overall OPS+ (76), it’s still pretty darn bad.

Perhaps a trade is coming, but is any individual going to revitalize this lineup short of adding Mike Trout? I feel resigned to another disappointing playoff run at this point, and probably something close the 3-0 drubbing from 2018 rather than the 3-2 heartbreak of 2017. And if it is that bad, missing the playoffs entirely in 2019 might seem like an enviable outcome. But at least we’ll get to watch Triston McKenzie for one more start at minimum, even if he gets no run support.