The sportswriting world has gone crazy with Cubs Fever over the past few days, inking article after article about Chicago’s historic run to their first World Series since 1945. Don’t get me wrong: This is an accomplishment worth celebrating with all the fanfare it has received. However, the Cleveland Indians — you know, the other team still playing baseball — are almost invisible right now. Even second baseman Jason Kipnis is being asked about his past Cubs fandom, not his own team’s preparation for their first Fall Classic in two decades.
That’s how most of 2016 has gone for Cleveland, though. They were sabermetric darlings during spring training, as every major statistical projection system available forecasted that they would win the AL Central running away. However, most national pundits favored the defending champion Kansas City Royals or aging-but-potent Detroit Tigers.
Those national writers looked to be partially correct early on. The Tribe stumbled out of the gate, posting a 10-11 record in April. They fell to as many as six games behind the upstart Chicago White Sox in the early season standings, and were in fourth place when the calendar turned to May. Things got a little better in the second month of the year; the Indians found their footing, finishing the month above .500, just 2 1⁄2 games behind the Royals.
Then the light turned on. The Indians won 22 games in June, including all 11 that they played at Progressive Field, and vaulted ahead of Chicago and Kansas City into first place.
Cleveland Indians— Cleveland Indians (@Indians) June 23, 2016
└ 2016 season
└ Losses at home
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They stretched their division lead to seven games after a close win on July 1, and would maintain a healthy margin for most of the second half. Other than a brief surge by the Tigers in early August, the Tribe led the Central by four games or more for 75 of their final 84 games. They went 49-26 against their division, including a 14-4 mark against the second-place Tigers.
The Indians’ run through the postseason has been just as smooth. They swept the Boston Red Sox in three games in the ALDS, which included a 6-0 whitewash against ace David Price in Game 2. The Toronto Blue Jays didn’t provide much more of a challenge in the ALCS, as the Tribe quickly pulled out to a three-game lead. Toronto’s Aaron Sanchez delivered a Game 4 win to stave off elimination, but Cleveland took care of business the next day with a 3-0 win that never seemed in doubt.
Like the New York Mets a year ago, the Indians’ identity revolves around a dominant starting rotation. Ace Corey Kluber put together another Cy Young-caliber season in 2016, allowing a 3.14 ERA and 3.26 FIP in 215 innings. His 149 ERA+ led the American League, and he fell just short of the league lead with 5.1 fWAR. Carlos Carrasco managed only 146 1⁄3 innings this season due to a couple of stints on the disabled list — including one that will keep him out of the World Series — but he too managed some stellar numbers. His 3.72 FIP was nearly a full run higher than last year’s 2.84, but he still struck out over a batter per inning and limited opponents to a 3.32 ERA.
In Carrasco’s stead will be Trevor Bauer, who put together arguably the most consistent year of his career to date. His 4.26 ERA was nothing special, but his 199 innings pitched, 3.99 FIP, and 2.7 fWAR were all career-bests. He also cut his walk rate to a career-low 8.6 percent, a number the Indians could probably live with going forward. He hasn’t made much of an impact this postseason, other than the headlines he created when he sliced his finger working on a remote control drone. Bauer left his lone ALCS start in the first inning when his sutured finger continued to bleed everywhere.
Danny Salazar was a big part of the Indians’ regular-season rotation, but he missed most of September with a knee injury. While Salazar has not pitched in the postseason yet, will be on the Indians’ World Series roster. His role has yet to be determined. During the regular season, Salazar managed a 3.87 ERA and 3.74 FIP in 137 1⁄3 innings. His 27.6 percent strikeout rate was third-highest among AL starters with at least 100 innings pitched.
Josh Tomlin will start Game 3 of the World Series for the Tribe, but the real star here is the Indians’ bullpen. Andrew Miller earned ALCS MVP honors by striking out 14 of the 25 batters he faced in the series. This continued a dominant season for Miller, who posted a 1.45 ERA and 1.68 FIP in 70 appearances for the Indians and New York Yankees. Closer Cody Allen is the other end of this two-headed relief monster. While his numbers aren’t as spectacular as Miller’s, he still held opponents to a 2.51 ERA while striking out 33 percent of the batters he faced in 68 regular season innings.
One of the biggest surprises of the 2016 season has been the Cleveland offense. They tied for fourth in the American League with a 102 wRC+ and were second to the Red Sox with 777 runs scored. They were also among the top five in batting average, on-base percentage, and walk rate, while leading the league with 134 stolen bases.
While the “good team has good offense” narrative seems obvious, it’s important to remember that the Indians have been without outfielder Michael Brantley for almost the entire season. Brantley appeared in just 11 games for Cleveland this year, leaving the left field duties up to a mash-up of players. Those talents include Rajai Davis, Jose Ramirez, Marlon Byrd (who was suspended for PEDs), Brandon Guyer, and Coco Crisp. Davis and Ramirez combined for a whopping 6.8 fWAR on their own, and Ramirez’s 122 wRC+ was third on the team (minimum 200 plate appearances). Rookie Tyler Naquin was first with a 135 wRC+ in 365 plate appearances; he also managed 14 home runs and a .218 ISO en route to a 2.5-fWAR season.
The infield was the real star of this show, though. Carlos Santana and Mike Napoli alternated between first base and the DH spot, and hit 34 home runs apiece. Napoli was the lone Cleveland hitter to drive in more than 100 runs, but Santana managed 87 RBI while scoring 89 runs, many of them from the leadoff spot in the lineup. Jason Kipnis added 23 home runs of his own in a season that probably won fans a fantasy baseball championship or two. He filled the box score with counting stats — 91 runs scored, 82 RBI, and 15 stolen bases — while posting 4.8 fWAR, nearly matching last season’s five-win output. And Francisco Lindor was the most valuable of all, putting up 6.3 fWAR and a 112 wRC+ from the shortstop position. Lindor has largely flown under the radar after challenging for the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2015, but is every bit the two-way star the Indians were hoping for when he was developing in the minors.
If the Indians have a weakness, it’s at catcher. Yan Gomes managed a pitiful .527 OPS during an injury-riddled regular season, and has not played in the postseason. Roberto Perez was only slightly better in 61 regular season games, amassing a 54 wRC+. He finished on the positive side of the WAR ledger, but only just. He delivered a home run in the Indians’ postseason opener but has done little of consequence at the plate since then, with just two hits in his last 24 plate appearances.
The Indians aren’t a 103-win juggernaut like the Cubs, and this series looks awfully one-sided on paper. According to Baseball Prospectus’ third-order win percentage, the Cubs were a whopping 22 games better than the Indians during the regular season. However, the postseason is a different game, and the Indians have already taken care of the Red Sox and Blue Jays, two teams that also finished ahead of Cleveland in the adjusted standings. The Indians were the AL’s best baserunning team, according to FanGraphs’ Baserunning Runs (BsR), and their defensive score also led the AL. The Indians also hold home field advantage in this series, where they were 53-28 during the regular season.
Rob Rogacki is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and the Managing Editor of Bless You Boys, SB Nation's Detroit Tigers community. You can follow him on Twitter at @BYBRob.