Can the Cleveland Indians Still Win the AL Central?
A couple days ago, I did a piece wondering whether the Miami Marlins, who were 3.5 games back of the second NL wild card spot at the time, had a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. Then, on Thursday night, Giancarlo Stanton got hit in the face with a pitch, ending his season, and presumably Miami's playoff hopes along with it.
So I'd like to apologize to all Cleveland Indians fans in advance. I'm about to write about your team's chances of winning the AL Central.
I pray no one else gets hurt.
After taking both games of a doubleheader on Thursday, Cleveland is just four games behind the Royals and 3.5 games behind the Tigers for the division lead. They are also 3.5 games back of the AL's second wild card spot, tied with the Blue Jays and three games behind the Mariners.
But it's likely the Indians have set their sights on the division lead, and by the time Monday rolls around, they could be in a great spot. Cleveland is in Detroit for a huge three-game series and, if they sweep the Tigers, will be just a half a game behind them in the division. They'll also likely have gained at least a little ground on Kansas City, depending on how the Royals fare in their weekend series at home against the Boston Red Sox.
The Indians have been a pretty solid team all season long. At 76-69 overall, they've been particularly outstanding at home (45-30) but have had their struggles on the road (31-39). They do have a positive run differential of +14, and according to our projections have a 5.1% chance of reaching the postseason and a 1.5% chance of winning the division.
Obviously, those odds will increase exponentially if they sweep the Tigers. They'll be much worse if they get swept.
The rotation has been blisteringly good over the second half of the season, and particularly hot over the last month.
|Season||3.91 (8)||3.45 (2)||3.39 (1)||1.27 (T-6)|
|Second Half||2.91 (3)||2.85 (1)||3.19 (1)||1.13 (2)|
|August||2.57 (1)||2.79 (1)||3.39 (3)||1.12 (T-1)|
|Last 30 Days||2.27 (1)||2.73 (1)||2.91 (1)||1.05 (1)|
The Indians have had the best starting staff in the American League over the last 30 days, and they've been one of the best since the All-Star Break as well. That's the main reason why they are 24-14 since the start of August.
Ace Corey Kluber currently leads all American League pitchers in fWAR at 6.1, and his rWAR of 5.7 is tied for third. His nERD of 2.23 - meaning Kluber would give up 2.23 runs less over a 27-out game than a league average pitcher - is second among all MLB pitchers. His success this year has been well-documented, and he's a leading candidate for the Cy Young Award. But it's the support of the other members of the staff that have gone a long way to keeping Cleveland in the playoff race.
All four starters have been particularly tough over the last 30 days, with Carlos Carrasco posting a 0.80 ERA in 33.2 innings pitched, followed by T.J. House with a 2.03 ERA, Kluber with a 2.41 ERA, Danny Salazar with a 2.73 ERA and Trevor Bauer with a 3.55 ERA, all over the last month. All five starters have generated an fWAR of at least 0.7 each during that time frame.
The starters have been supported by a solid bullpen, which has the third-best ERA in the American League this year.
|Season||3.06 (3)||3.65 (9)||3.53 (3)||23.1 (5)|
|Second Half||3.02 (8)||2.68 (8)||3.38 (6)||22.5 (7)|
|August||2.07 (1)||3.16 (5)||3.15 (3)||22.3 (8)|
|Last 30 Days||3.50 (7)||4.19 (11)||3.70 (8)||20.1 (9)|
The 'pen has stumbled a bit over the last month, which perhaps shouldn't be a surprise. The Indians bullpen has the third-largest gap between their team ERA of 3.06 and their Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 3.65 (-0.59), which would indicate they've been due for a slight regression. However, they're still performing well, largely because they are the best at limiting the percentage of batted balls that are line drives (16.9 LD%) and generate the third-most ground balls in the AL (49.7%).
Weak contact and keeping that contact on the ground is a good way to get around a staff that doesn't pile up the strikeouts.
Offensively, the Indians have been middle-of-the-pack in the American League for most of the season.
|Season||617 (7)||133 (8)||.255 (6)||.320 (T-6)||.316 (5)||104 (T-4)|
|Second Half||200 (T-8)||43 (T-6)||.252 (6)||.314 (4)||.309 (6)||99 (T-4)|
|Last 30 Days||95 (12)||20 (T-11)||.249 (7)||.305 (8)||.300 (10)||93 (T-7)|
The last 30 days have been a bit more troublesome for the Cleveland offense, near the bottom of the American League in most of the categories listed above. They do have four regulars who have been above average offensively this season. Michael Brantley's nERD of 3.00 is eighth-best in all of baseball, while Yan Gomes, Carlos Santana, Lonnie Chisenhall and Michael Bourn all have weighted runs created (wRC+) 100 or better.
Before Wednesday's doubleheader, the Indians had scored four runs or fewer in 10 of its previous 11 games, although their 8-2 win in the first game of the doubleheader was a nice tonic for the recent offensive slumber. Even with a starting rotation as good as Cleveland's, the bats are going to have to score more consistently in order to make up ground in the Central.
Understanding that defensive metrics are still a work in progress in many ways, FanGraphs says Cleveland has the worst defense in the American League. They're dead last in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) at -74 and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). Which make it all the more incredible that their pitchers have been as successful as they are this season.
The Indians are in a position to make a move. In addition to their three-game series against Detroit this weekend, they also still have three games left at home against the Royals, as well as a suspended game from August 31st in which the Indians were leading the Royals 4-2 heading into the bottom of the 10th. The Royals will get the chance to bat in that one, but that's a tremendous opportunity for Cleveland to pick up an easy game on Kansas City.
And outside of the teams they are chasing, the Indians don't play another team with a winning record the rest of the way. They get Houston for four games, Minnesota for three and finish up the season with three games at home against Tampa.
With just 17 games left, the odds are still against the Indians catching the Royals and Tigers. But with a little bit more offense and the continuation of a remarkable starting rotation, it's not unreasonable to think Cleveland could make the postseason for the second year in a row.
They'll get their chance starting Friday night in the Motor City.