After coasting to an AL Central division title for the third consecutive season, the Cleveland Indians are back in the playoff hunt and seeking their first World Series title since 1948.
There’s just one team with two position players among baseball’s top five in WAR. (This applies to both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, take your pick.) That team would be Cleveland, with José Ramírez and Francisco Lindor. Ramírez, of course, became baseball’s first player in six years to become a member of the 30-30 Club. Meanwhile, Lindor became one of just four players in baseball history to record 25 stolen bases, 35 home runs, 40 doubles and 125 runs. Each is electric—MVP-caliber—and the infield duo is only the beginning of the team’s case for a deep playoff run.
Cleveland’s rotation isn’t just one of the best in baseball; it’s also the deepest. The Indians are the first team in history to have four different pitchers record a strikeout total of 200 (Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger), and the rotation’s strikeout-to-walk ratio is the best in baseball and by far the best in the American League, at 4.37. (Houston, by comparison, comes in second place at 3.69.) They coax batters to swing outside the zone more than most rotations do, but they limit contact there better than anyone—55.6% of swings, compared to the league average of 64.3%. They go deep into games, as the only rotation in baseball to average more than six innings per start. If you want one more tidbit to prove how good they’ve looked? By FanGraphs, there were just nine pitchers this season with 4.0 WAR in the American League. Four of them play for Cleveland.
Well, about that last point…. The rotation goes so deep into games because they are, clearly, good enough to be trusted. But also because the bullpen isn’t quite good enough to have that same trust. The team shored up its relief corps at the deadline by adding San Diego’s Brad Hand and Adam Cimber, but that was only enough to take them from one of baseball’s worst to one of baseball’s most mediocre. In the second half, Cleveland’s bullpen has ranked ninth in ERA, ninth in K/BB, fourteenth in FIP, and twenty-fourth in HR/9. In other words? Okay-ish, but okay-ish isn’t really what anyone wants in relief-centric October. Closer Cody Allen’s struggles remain a problem; Cimber hasn’t lived up to expectations; lefty journeyman Oliver Perez has played a surprisingly key role, which isn’t really the sort of thing that any playoff team would like to see in 2018. Andrew Miller has returned to full health and is, as always, a force to be reckoned with, but one fireman can only put out so many fires.
The rotation’s strengths can carry the team far, but at some point, the bullpen will have to pull a little weight. Right now, it isn’t a unit to trust.
Cleveland’s offense has had few heavyweights outside of Ramírez, Lindor, and hit-for-contact king Michael Brantley. Edwin Encarnacion had his worst season at the plate since 2011; Yonder Alonso hasn’t matched last year’s breakout; Jason Kipnis has floundered. But the team made a last-minute attempt to fix that—waiting until just before the final deadline to acquire an injured Josh Donaldson—and so far, it’s paid off. Donaldson, 32, hadn’t looked like himself in a limited showing earlier in the year with the Blue Jays, but after three months on the disabled list with shoulder and calf injuries, he’s returned in tip-top shape. In 60 plate appearances with Cleveland, Donaldson has a .920 OPS with three home runs and three doubles. If he can keep it up, he can provide a crucial boost at the plate for a team that could use it.
Why You Should Root For
Is Lindor’s smile not enough?
Apart from that, though: this is fundamentally the same team that suffered a heart-wrenching World Series loss in 2016, and a premature exit in the divisional series is 2017. Ramírez and Lindor are both as fun and as talented as any infield pairing imaginable—exactly the sort of players, and personalities, who can represent the game at its best—and why shouldn’t this year be their year?
Brantley—who had his best season at the plate since 2015, as an All-Star with an .832 OPS—was the only qualified hitter in baseball with a contact rate above 90%. More impressive? He made contact on almost every single swing he took in the zone this year. 97.3%! He’s one of just three hitters with a strikeout rate in the single digits, which makes him something of a unicorn in today’s game.