Imagine a world in which April was just more spring training and the season didn't start until May 1....
With just a few days left in the season, the Cleveland Indians are on the verge of clinching a second straight postseason appearance, looking to hold off the Tigers and Royals to win the AL Central crown. At 72-58, the Indians have the third best record in the AL, and are holding tight to a one-game lead in the division.
The good news for the Tribe is that even if they somehow fall behind Detroit or Kansas City (who is 1.5 games off the pace), they should still hold onto a Wild Card spot. Seattle (behind Cleveland by percentage points) leads the Wild Card right now, with Detroit and Kansas City also giving chase there. Baseball Prospectus puts their playoff odds at 73%.
So how did the Indians get here? Well, it started with a solid first month, a 15-13 record in May that kept the Indians close to the Tigers, while the Royals (who went 12-17) dug themselves a hole they haven't quite been able to climb out of. (Luckily the Tribe's 10-17 April was just spring training, otherwise they might have been the team in a hole they couldn't escape.)
That start came on the back of some great hitting performances. Yan Gomes, who was just awful in Arizona, put it together in time for Opening Day. Once the games counted, Gomes firmly established himself as the top catcher in the AL, and with four games left in the regular season, he's had a 17-HR, .290/.321/.488 campaign.
Michael Brantley was plugging along during April's extended spring training, but he put it into another gear when real games began in May. His MVP-caliber season features a .336/.396/.520 line. Brantley hit safely against the White Sox on Opening Day, and never looked back. He started the year with a 10-game hitting streak and, and after an 0-4 game, hit then hit in 15 more in a row.
After spring training, there was concern that Carlos Santana had lost it, and he had a rough first three weeks of the season, but (after suffering a concussion and missing three weeks, ending the brief 3B/C experiment) he went on to post a .251/.376/.468 season, the best numbers of his career. He's closing in on another 25 HR year, and leads MLB in walks.
Santana was helped by Terry Francona's decision to cut off the Carlos-to-3B experiment less than a month into the season. Though Tito was left with little choice after Lonnie Chisenhall's scorching Spring Training. Not expected to be a regular in the lineup, he saw only 51 April PA, posting a .362/.412/.489 line in Arizona. Chisenhall sat out Opening Day, but was basically a regular from day two on. Unfortunately, his regular season line - .272/.336/.427 - while not bad, has far from lived up the high hopes we had coming out of April. Even worse, that line is buoyed by a hot first five weeks. Chisenhall went 0-13 in a mid-June series at Fenway and has his just .218/.289/.327 since the start of that three-game set. If those April stats had counted, we'd all be excited about the future with Chiz. Instead, there is a lot of concern.
Santana wasn't the only bat to struggle in spring. Asdrubal Cabrera was hearing trade rumors circulate after a brutal April, in which he hit .220/.297/.330. But once the calendar turned to May, Cabrera turned it on. His .255/.308/.406 line as of the trade deadline was a 104 wRC+, above average for any position and very solid for a SS. It was enough for the front office to turn down an offer from Washington (supposedly slugging utility man Zach Walters was on the table), keeping a much needed bat in the lineup down the stretch, helping make up for some big disappointments.
Disappointments including Jason Kipnis and David Murphy. Both put up solid spring numbers, but neither has produced since Opening Day. Murphy has an OPS under .700 (.260/.315/.372). Kipnis opened the season on the DL and never completely recovered, hitting just three home runs to go with a .245/.303/.320 line.
After the bats carried the team early, the arms came on later. Corey Kluber was the one shining spot from day one. His 4.14 ERA in April was a bit inflated compared to a 2.83 FIP, but no one could have imagined what the righty would do once the season started - a 2.22 ERA and 2.30 FIP, striking out more than 10.5 per 9 IP.
At the other end of the spectrum, Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco were so bad in Spring Training, that the former made only three starts before being shipped to Columbus and the latter didn't even make the rotation, breaking camp in the bullpen. But both have bounced back tremendously and have been lights out since they returned to the rotation. Salazar has a 3.06 ERA and 2.91 FIP, while Carrasco has a 1.32 ERA and 1.73 FIP with a K/BB ratio of nearly 9! The future looks bright, and luckily they were able to work through their issues before the games counted.
When this team broke camp, there were serious question marks - who would be in the rotation? was Yan Gomes worth that contract extension? what do you do with Santana if he can't hit? But Tito and his staff did a great job getting these guys ready, and when the season started on May 2, the team took off. The bats carried the club long enough for the rotation to fill out, and now the Indians will have a chance to try to put it all together in October.
Just be glad those April games were only spring training - if those had counted, we might be staring down an awfully long offseason, instead of holding onto the AL Central lead.