MLB: How the Indians Bring Cleveland a Second Title in 2016
Try this one on for size: Cleveland, Title Town USA.
One Game 7 ago, the idea would have been laughable. But LeBron James and the Cavaliers changed that. With the Indians showing their all-around might on the baseball diamond, it’s plausible we could see a World Series run and — gasp — a win in 2016.
If the miracle happened, Cleveland would have its second title in the space of six months following the well-publicized drought that lasted decades. By now, just about everyone knows that since joining the association in 1967 the Cavaliers had never won a title prior to 2016.
But the Indians’ drought is much longer to behold. You have to go back to 1948, the year after Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke the color line in their respective leagues, to find the last time the Tribe won the World Series. The team has only appeared in three Fall Classics since, with the most recent coming in the dramatic 1997 loss to the Marlins.
You can find good omens everywhere with the current team, which went from a sluggish, sub-.500 April to a blistering June pace with the Indians winning 15 of 21. Fronted by Corey Kluber (7-7, 3.59 ERA) and Danny Salazar (8-3, 2.23 ERA), the rotation has received a huge boost from Trevor Bauer (5-2, 3.20 ERA) and Josh Tomlin (8-1, 3.32). No AL staff matched this production in 2016, and the group looks postseason-proof.
Cleveland’s offense is right there as well, putting up top-10 numbers in runs and RBI. Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis are the sparks, but the power combo of Carlos Santana and Mike Napoli is the big upgrade this season.
The two combined for 30 HR in the team’s first 71 games, allowing everyone to shrug off the loss of Michael Brantley following his brief return to action. (The excellent seasons from Rajai Davis and Jose Ramirez haven’t hurt, either.)
When we looked at the Indians’ chances before the season began, we saw the need for more consistent offense to go along with the strong starting pitching for the club to reach its projections of 90 wins, and that has happened so far. Meanwhile, the club’s bullpen is good enough to carry its obligations, and the defense is elite. Only the streaking Texas Rangers have been better at snagging balls put in play this season.
The Indians are rock-solid up the middle with Lindor and Kipnis, but contributions from Juan Uribe and Yan Gomes have elevated the Tribe to the top of the American League. Combined with a rotation that leads the AL in strikeouts per nine, you can see how teams have trouble scoring when they run into a three-game set with the Tribe.
Divisional dominance has been crucial in this team’s run into first place. Cleveland has played well against AL Central rivals and sported a 19-6 record through its first 25 against Chicago (7-2), Kansas City (6-4), and Detroit (6-0). Two walk-off wins in one three-game set versus the White Sox allowed the Tribe to make up ground it lost in two one-run losses versus the Royals.
What would it take to keep this train rolling? If Brantley misses much more time this summer or is out for the season, the front office will have to consider getting help on the trade market. For all of Tyler Naquin’s good work in his rookie campaign, he won’t keep a .453 BABIP for the rest of the year.
Davis and Ramirez have been among the team’s top position players, but it’s hard to say if they can keep up the pace through September. Bullpen help couldn’t hurt, either (something every team in baseball could say). It will take some lucky bounces and a little magic, but the Indians have a legitimate shot at winning the Central.
With the ability to line up its lethal rotation in a series against an opposing playoff team, you have to like the Indians’ chances in October, too. Who knows, maybe Cleveland will have to start getting used to all this winning, even on the diamond. After a 68-year drought, we’d say the time has come.
Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.com and Baseball-Reference.com.