The 1986 Indians had not one, but TWO knuckleballers in Tom Candiotti and Phil Niekro, the latter being possibly the greatest in the history of the craft. The Tribe signed Niekro at the ripe old age of 47 to help stabilize their disaster of a rotation. He and Candiotti (a bargain bin free agent pickup) would be at least passable as major league starters relative to the 1985 rotation. So instead of giving up 60 more runs than the next worst pitching team they only gave up 2 more! That’s improvement! What they did have, however, was the league’s best offense. Not one of the best, not “surprisingly good,” they led the whole league in runs scored. They scored 831 runs on the season, 11th in franchise history (post WWII) and better than the 2018, 2017, 2016, and 2007 teams for some context. In fact, they only scored 20 fewer runs than the 1998 team, and 9 fewer than the ‘95 team (in 18 fewer games). Like I said, they weren’t “good considering” they were just flat out good.
And why wouldn’t they be? Every starter had an OPS+ above 100 except catcher Andy Allanson. Joe Carter narrowly missed a 30/30 season, but collected 200 hits and hit .302. Cory Snyder dazzled in his rookie campaign hitting .272 with 24 home runs in only 103 games. Pat Tabler, Tony Bernazard, and Julio Franco all hit over .300. Brett Butler drew 70 walks and stole 32 bases setting the table at the top of the lineup. They didn’t have an Albert Belle bashing 50 long balls, but they were formidable.
Unfortunately, the only offense better than them was whoever they played that night as they allowed 841 runs, 10 more than they scored. With that said, however, there was reason for optimism with the rotation. In June they drafted college standout Greg Swindell with the #2 overall pick out of the University of Texas. They passed up chances at Matt Williams, Kevin Brown, and Gary Sheffield, but at the time Swindell was thought of as potentially the best player in the draft after a standout performance for team USA in the Olympics. Notably, first baseman Lee Stevens was picked 22nd overall, I bring that up only because the forgotten member of the Bartolo Colon trade doesn’t get enough love. Doug Jones also emerged by seasons end as a bullpen option with some promise.
The offense was enough to carry them to a solid 84-78 finish, leading Sports Illustrated to pick them the following season as potential World Series winners. The core was just getting better, they signed Steve Carlton that offseason, Swindell was well on his way, what could possibly go wrong! Certainly not another 100 loss season, right? RIGHT?
Well, you’ll find out tomorrow.