“How will the Cleveland Indians win without scoring any runs?”
That question was seemingly on the minds of many who spent any time around the team in Spring Training, regularly firing questions about the bats in the direction of manager Terry Francona during the exhibition campaign.
Admittedly, no one expected the Tribe’s offense to be a top-tier unit.
They were relying on Mike Napoi, who had not proven to be anything more than a really good platoon bat with some pop. They needed a dynamite follow-up campaign from Francisco Lindor. They needed a little more from the much-maligned Carlos Santana. Jason Kipnis needed a full year of consistency, not just one hot month of production, to help carry the Indians’ offense.
After all, the return of Michael Brantley, Cleveland’s most consistent offensive player over the past 3-4 years, was uncertain following off-season shoulder surgery. Could outfielders such as Lonnie Chisenhall, Rajai Davis and Tyler Naquin truly help cover Brantley’s time missed?
And was Jose Ramirez, a natural middle-infielder, really going to spend any time in left field? No, seriously?
“When we went into the year,” manager Terry Francona explained as he thought back about Spring Training, “everybody said, ‘How are you going to score? How are you going to score?’ Then without Brantley, you’re kind of thinking, ‘Is this going to stretch?'”
Of course, most of the talk about the Indians prior to the season was about their stellar starting rotation, led by Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar at the top. It wasn’t just their talent, but it was Cleveland’s depth — Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin and Cody Anderson were all expected to log starter innings this season — which made them a sexy pick by many to win the American League Central Division despite an offense, without Brantley, which appeared to leave much to be desired.
On Monday, the Tribe clinched what many thought they could, winning the AL Central by defeating the Detroit Tigers 7-4, but the path to many correct predictions could not have been any further from what people expected. But if the realities of the Indians’ situation would have been laid out before you this spring, you never would have believed at division title was possible.
That ability to flip narrative on its head just speaks to the character and resiliency of the group. And it’s been a collective team effort to help them get there.
The Indians’ starting pitching, for the most part, has lived up to expectations. A few bumps in the road have taken place, particularly in August when nearly every pitcher was victimized by in a handful of games, but recently, the only thing slowing down the team’s rotation has been injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, both likely to keep the two from contributing as starters in the postseason.
Overall, Cleveland’s rotation has posted a 4.07 ERA, second-best in the American League. The 13.5 fWAR contributed by the starting pitchers also ranks third-best in the AL, trailing just the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox.
But it hasn’t just been the starting pitching carrying the Indians to the playoffs, the scenario many expected entering the 2016 campaign.
The Indians, thanks to the valuable production provided Napoli, Kipnis, Ramirez, Lindor, Santana and others, have served as one of the league’s best offenses throughout the 2016 campaign. Entering Tuesday’s game at Detroit, the Tribe’s bats rank second in the AL in runs scored (758), fifth in wRC+ (103), and fourth in OPS (.761), even with only 11 games of contributions from Brantley.
Napoli, Santana and Kipnis have all reached career-high power outputs this season. Ramirez has developed into one of this year’s better hitters with runners in scoring position. Naquin emerged as a Rookie of the Year candidate.
The 80-game suspension of Abraham Almonte and the full-year ban of Marlon Byrd for PEDs? Just blips on the radar. Yan Gomes’ struggles and injuries? Yet another hurdle to clear.
And it hasn’t just been about the contributions at the plate.
The Indians set out to be smart, but aggressive on the base paths this season, and the club has responded by being the AL’s most efficient baserunning team in terms of BsR (per Fangraphs). The Tribe’s 131 stolen bases, which leads the league, is part of that aggressiveness, but Cleveland has also excelled at taking the extra base when appropriate, a decision which can often lead to additional offense in crucial situations.
Davis and his league-leading 42 steals has been one of the leading catalysts.
Beyond the starting pitching and offense, the addition of wipe-out lefty Andrew Miller has quietly transformed Cleveland’s bullpen into one of the best in baseball. Talented and durable relievers Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen were already solid, but the addition of Miller combined with the emergence of righty Dan Otero has given Francona a healthy quartet to trust at the back-end of games.
The Indians’ relievers currently own the second-lowest relief ERA in baseball and have posted a 3.06 ERA since the All-Star Break. Cleveland’s pen arms have also limited opposing batters to a .221 batting average in the second half and have struck out 25.5 percent of the hitters they have faced over that stretch.
Lastly, the arrival of Lindor helped transform the Tribe’s defense in 2015.
Cleveland has built on that this season, sitting near the top in many defensive categories in 2016, including a second-place ranking in UZR (ultimate zone rating) among American League clubs this season. The Indians also place fourth in Fangraphs.com’s defensive rating and have saved the sixth-most runs in the American League this season (18).
To recap, the Indians enter the postseason among baseball’s best in starting pitching, relievers, offense, baserunning and defense.
This pony apparently knows quite a few tricks.
There’s no doubt the loss of Carrasco and Salazar to injuries was a massive blow to the Indians’ title chances. Even if Salazar is able to return and pitch out of the bullpen in October, the Tribe’s playoff rotation will not resemble the unit many anticipated.
But even if the starters aren’t capable of providing the dominant playoff innings some expected, Cleveland has proven more than capable of picking up the slack in other areas this season.
Their ability to advance deep into the postseason will likely depend on that trend continuing. But as this year has proven, what do we really know anyways?