The Cleveland Indians' Biggest Strength Ended Up Being Their Downfall
After coming so close to winning the World Series last season, it wasn't shocking to see the Cleveland Indians trying everything possible to set their squad up for another deep run into October in 2017.
Already armed with a strong rotation and dominant bullpen, Cleveland took their offense to another level by stretching beyond their means and signing Edwin Encarnacion to a franchise record three-year, $60 million deal. And when they needed a boost in August, they stretched even further financially by taking on Jay Bruce's remaining salary.
The year got off to a sluggish start -- they were just 47-40 at the All-Star break -- but a tremendous second half that was highlighted with a recording-breaking 22-game winning streak enabled them to finish with a 102-60 record that was tops in the American League. It was just the third time they reached the century mark in franchise history and the most wins they've captured in a single season since 1954 (111).
The offense was rolling, but the pitching staff was dominant, healthy, and ready to defend their 2016 AL pennant.
Until they weren't.
Rolling Into October
The Indians consistently had one of baseball's best pitching staffs throughout 2017, but they ratcheted things up a notch following the midsummer classic. Their performance looks even more ridiculous when the numbers for the rotation and the bullpen are separated. The below chart displays the ERA, SIERA, strikeout rate (K%), walk rate (BB%), fWAR for each group in the second half.
Corey Kluber rightfully received most of the attention -- he's got a great chance of taking home his second AL Cy Young award -- but this was a team effort. The starting staff led baseball in every single one of the categories above in the second half, and it wasn't particularly close. Kluber is good, but he can't pitch every day, ya know.
Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer were big pieces to this second-half surge, but since Danny Salazar was limited to just 45 innings following the All-Star break, guys like Josh Tomlin, Mike Clevinger, and Ryan Merritt all did their part, combining for 22 starts during this time.
It's not as if the New York Yankees were entering this ALDS matchup with a quiet offense, though -- their 108 team wRC+ during the regular season was second to only the Houston Astros. This wouldn't necessarily be easy since they have studs like Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and... Didi Gregorius.
Off to a Good Start
Manager Terry Francona's decision to start Bauer in Game 1 and save Kluber for Game 2 worked exactly how he hoped it would -- Cleveland shutout New York by a score of 4-0, with Bauer, Miller, and Allen combining for 14 strikeouts to go along with 3 walks and 3 hits allowed.
A series win was far from a sure thing at that point, it was looking pretty darn good with Kluber on the horizon. Game 2 didn't go according to plan since he was batted around for 6 runs on 7 hits (2 homers) in just 2.2 innings of work, but that's where the whole dominant bullpen comes into play. That group help the Yankees to just two more runs over the final 10.2 innings to win an extra-inning thriller and push their series lead to 2-0.
Our models gave the Indians an 87.79% chance of closing this series out and moving onto the ALCS at that point, but this is where baseball is gonna baseball, guys.
Hitting a Brick Wall
Carrasco hurled 5.2 shutout innings in Game 3, but it was Miller's performance that was a bit shocking. Yes, he only gave up one run, but it was a solo homer to left-handed hitter Greg Bird. Allowing homers is rare enough for the southpaw -- he had allowed just three all season -- but it was even more rare to watch a lefty slug one over the wall.
Bird joined Cody Bellinger as the only left-handed hitters to accomplish that feat against Miller in 2017, who didn't look exactly like the guy from last October that allowed three earned runs in 19.1 innings.
That's when the wheels started falling off. Bauer didn't allow an earned run in his Game 4 start, but four runs crossed the plate on his watch while lasting 1.2 innings, which put a lot of stress on the bullpen. It'd be fine with Kluber lined up for Game 5, though, right? I mean this is why Francona set his postseason rotation the way he did.
This seemed like a perfect way to avoid a collapse, but it just didn't happen -- he struck out 6, but allowed 3 early runs and lasted just 3.2 innings. And with two insurance runs in the ninth inning off the bat of Brett Gardner, it proved to be too much for the Indians to overcome.
Kluber's final ALDS line included a 3.29 SIERA, but a 12.79 ERA with a 30.3% strikeout rate and 9.1% walk rate over two starts (6.1 innings). The peripheral stats don't look terrible, but he wasn't close to the pitcher he'd been for most of the year. It's hard for any squad to win a short series when the anchor of your rotation can't lead the way like he did it in the regular season.
The offense didn't perform up to expectation and losing Encarnacion for a couple games because of an ankle injury wasn't ideal, but it was the pitching staff that was supposed to lead this team back to the Fall Classic.
Waiting 'Til Next Year
It looked as though everything was perfectly in place for the Indians to finally feel October glory for the first time in 69 years (nice). But as we see just about every season, baseball can be unpredictable -- especially in a five-game series.
Now, they're forced to wait until next year (again) to see if they can break MLB's longest championship drought. Outside of a handful of decisions -- one being the impending free agency of Carlos Santana -- Cleveland has a lot of their core group coming back in 2018.
Residing in a division that could have three of their four opponents potentially in rebuild mode next season (the Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, and Chicago White Sox), the path toward returning to October baseball looks pretty good. And with an offense anchored by Encarnacion, Francisco Lindor, and Jose Ramirez, along with a pitching staff that should continue to be among the league's elite, they'll once again appear to be a legitimate World Series contender.
Once they get back, though, they'll just need to find a way to leverage their perceived strengths to their advantage. After blowing a 3-1 World Series lead and now a 2-0 ALDS lead in consecutive postseasons, the pressure will be on to finally close the door if they're in the same situation a year from now.