The Cleveland Indians defeated the Minnesota Twins at Target Field on Sunday, 7-1.
This column presents my takeaways from Sunday’s game. For more baseball analysis and insight, follow me on Twitter (@TJZuppe).
1. ELITE COMPANY
We’re all guilty of being prisoners of the moment from time to time. “This is the greatest performance ever! You’ll never see anything like this ever again!” Yeah, probably not GREATEST EVER. And just wait a week. We’ll probably see something even cooler.
With that understood, let’s go out there on that ledge that we may journey out on a little too often: Corey Kluber is one of the best pitchers in Cleveland Indians history. But, no, really. He’s put himself on that radar.
For some, maybe that’s not some outlandish statement. He is, after all, a former Cy Young Award winner. He did make the AL All-Star squad this year. He has been one of baseball’s best pitchers over the past three seasons. True, true and true. But does that put him the franchise’s greatest ever camp? Others might be skeptical.
Well, let’s examine.
Following Kluber’s 10-strikeout, seven-inning performance in Sunday’s victory, the right-handed hurler finds himself in exclusive company when it comes to the whiffs. Kluber is now tied for fourth on the club’s all-time list of 10-K games (h/t @Indians), equalling Luis Tiant’s 24-game mark and trailing just Sam McDowell (74), Bob Feller (51) and Herb Score (26).
Kluber also joined the 200-strikeout club for the third consecutive season, becoming just the fourth Indians hurler to register three seasons over 200 whiffs or more, joining McDowell (6), Feller (5) and Gaylord Perry (3). That’s not a bad list.
2. DIGGING DEEPER
Now, at this point you might be saying, “Yeah, well Kluber hasn’t done it long enough to be considered one of the franchise’s greatest.” OK, you might have a point. He doesn’t have the longevity that others do — or he might not have played in the era of sub-2.00 ERAs and 300+ inning- seasons — but if you look at some of his rate stats, he falls in line with some of the Tribe’s best hurlers.
For instance, when it comes to strikeouts-per-nine innings, Kluber is best in franchise history. How about adjusted ERA+ (which accounts for the run environment and ballpark the pitcher played in)? The righty is ninth-best in team history, according to Baseball Reference.
Sure, those are just two randomly selected statistics (and it’s often hard to compare accurately across different eras of the game), but when you’re consistently mentioned among the hurlers Kluber often is, it’s truly saying something.
With Sunday’s outing now in the rearview mirror, Kluber now leads the AL in WAR (via Fangraphs), is fourth in ERA, first in FIP (fielding independent pitching) and third in strikeouts and innings pitched this season. And he’s gotten better as the campaign has progressed, posting a 2.40 ERA since the end of May, limiting opposing batters to a .198 average and .0.99 WHIP in 124 innings.
That performance has put him back in Cy Young conversation in the AL. And if the righty can win over the voters at the end of the season, he would become the first Indians pitcher to ever win the award twice. If that isn’t putting yourself in the best-in-franchise-history conversation, I don’t know what would.
We are truly witnessing what could become one of Cleveland’s most special pitching careers, and it would be a shame to not fully appreciate it until it’s over.
3. GOOD DAY
One quick look at Tyler Naquin’s heat map will give opposing pitchers a pretty clear gameplan to execute against the Indians’ rookie outfielder. Simply, get the ball up in the zone and enjoy the success against the left-handed hitter.
We’ve certainly seen that play out over the past few months, as teams are throwing Naquin more pitches up and fewer within the actual lower portion of the strike zone. An an example, here were the number of pitches the left-handed hitter saw through July by percentage.
Now, here’s how pitchers have attacked him since Aug 1.
Being a far better low-ball, breaking-ball hitter combined with seeing more elevated fastballs has helped lead to the 25-year-old’s recent hitting slump, entering Sunday’s game slashing just .213/.293/.363 over his previous 30 games since Aug 1. Of course, this is nothing new for any young hitter — especially one who had great success — as the league adjusts to players’ strengths and weaknesses when they become apparent.
But when slumps occur, often, it’s about finding minor victories and building off of them. Sunday can certainly be included on the positive side of the ledger for Naquin, picking up a pair of hits and walking twice in Cleveland’s rout of Minnesota.
Both of the base knocks came off left-handed pitching, a matchup Naquin hasn’t seen much of this season, and the RBI hit in the third inning came on an impressive 12-pitch at-bat.
Sometimes, it’s not just about results, it’s about the quality of at-bat that leads to them. More sequences like Sunday’s — and laying off the high, hard stuff — might help bring better future outcomes for the talented left-handed hitter.
4. I AM YOUR DENSITY
Fate. Destiny. These words get thrown around a lot this time of year. But only one team will truly have them on their side when the dust settles.
To get to October, it’s often about a battle of attrition. Outlast and outperform. And accomplish those goals over the length of a 162-game grind.
The Indians have put themselves in an enviable position, and this weekend’s action just further clinched their probable playoff status. Cleveland took 2-of-3 from the Minnesota Twins, rising 24 games above .500 and ensuring Terry Francona’s fourth straight winning season as manager of the Indians.
In the process, Cleveland also expanded their lead in the AL Central over the Detroit Tigers to seven games and reduced the Indians’ magic number to clinch the division to 14.
For some context, for the Tigers to force a tie in the AL Central, they’d need to finish with a record of 17-3 if Cleveland played .500 ball in their final 20 games. The two teams will matchup seven more times down the stretch, but for the Tigers to catch the Indians, they’ll essentially need to sweep the seven games from Cleveland or hope for some serious help.
The Indians have owned the season series against Detroit thus far (11-1), and Sunday’s win over the Twins clinched an opportunity for winning records for Cleveland against every AL Central opponent this season (vs. MIN: 10-9, vs. CWS: 9-3, vs. KC: 8-5).
No matter what happens the rest of the way, the Indians’ dominance in their own division has put them in a position where they control their own fate — at least, as much as one possibly can.