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The race for the AL Central crown is defying expectations

Despite a large advantage on paper, Cleveland isn’t running away with the division.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The All-Star Game is officially behind us, the unofficial halfway mark in the season whereupon the haves have separated themselves from the have-nots, and the race to the postseason has begun to solidify. Except, not in the American League’s Central Division, where first and last place are separated by just nine games and the favorite has failed miserably to meet expectations.

At the onset of the season, the Cleveland Indians were the overwhelming choice to run away with the Central. Yet here we sit in July and the Tribe owns just a 2.5-game lead over the Minnesota Twins, with the Kansas City Royals sitting just three back. This comes despite Cleveland being the only team in the division with a positive run differential by a large margin, and boasting a pitching staff that is statistically one of the best in all of MLB.

When we looked at the field and in the dugout Tuesday night in Miami, we saw five members of the Indians on hand for the midsummer classic (despite Corey Kluber being replaced on the roster and Terry Francona skipping the event to recuperate from his recent heart procedure), and just nine players from the other four teams in the division combined. On paper the Tribe is much more talented than its divisional peers, yet the wins and losses have yet to reflect that.

Cleveland is currently 47-40 and has a +74 run differential, good for third in the American League. According to its Pythagorean record (based on how many games they “should” win with that run differential), however, the team should be 51-36 and own a much more sizable 10-game lead in the central. Taking that into account, should Tribe fans be worried about a return to the postseason?

“You wouldn’t guess it from the standings, but if the Indians just keep playing the way they have been, they should be right in the thick of things again come October,” says Neil Paine in a column for FiveThirtyEight. “Cleveland has played much better this season than their Ws and Ls would indicate… The 2017 Indians have been superior to the 2016 version that ultimately ended up winning the AL pennant.”

Figuring out the reason for Cleveland’s underachieving relative to the rest of the division isn’t really touched on in great detail in Paine’s piece. It seems important to try to understand what the data says, as the postseason fortunes of a number of teams may well rest with whether the Indians put it all together in the second half.

According to Baseball-Reference, the Tribe’s offense is dead last in the AL in win probability added. On the mound, though, Cleveland is at the top of the heap in this statistic.

For good measure, a look at wins above average puts the club No. 2 in the league behind the Houston Astros overall. But when broken down by position, that stat shows that, as far as the data is concerned, the position players are largely being kept afloat by the pitching staff:

Baseball-Reference

I have two theories about this based upon the data I reviewed: the Tribe is top-heavy, which masks some of their deficiencies; and they’ve lacked an overall clutchness.

The top-heavy argument is actually a fairly easy one to make. Among position players, Jose Ramirez has posted an OPS+ of 150 and a bWAR of 3.6 prior to the all-star break, by far and away the top marks among everyday players on the roster. Among those with 200 plate appearances or more, only Lonnie Chisenhall (141), Edwin Encarnacion (119), and Michael Brantley (108) also have an OPS+ above 100, and no one else has been worth more than 1.6 bWAR.

The same results can be observed on the pitching side of things as well. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger have each put up an ERA+ of 138 or better in the starting rotation, while Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, and Andrew Miller are at 170, 182, and 336, respectively, out of the back end of the bullpen. No other Tribe starter has an ERA+ mark over 100, and no other reliever has seen more than a handful of high-leverage situations.

Clutchness is trickier, and not a term I’m a fan of given its connotation and the laziness with which baseball has historically used it as a defining trait of certain individual players. Individual clutchness is, to me, a fairy tale, great for building up a guy’s mythology and explaining away specific events without having to do any heavy intellectual lifting.

But team-wide clutchness, particularly over a large enough sample size, does seem to have something to it. The 87 games Cleveland has played to this point in the season seems a large enough sample to begin drawing conclusions about its situational performance. As a team, the Tribe has a slash line of .244/.322/.403 with runners in scoring position, and just .228/.300/.349 in those which are considered high-leverage. That performance leads to a dreadful clutch rating from FanGraphs of -6.29, which is dead last in the AL by a wide margin. For context, the Tribe was eighth in the clutch ranking in 2016 at -1.18.

The question for the stretch run of the season following the All-Star Break is whether or not that lack of clutchness will remain, or if Cleveland will regress back to normal in that regard. It’s the difference between the Indians playing to their potential or continuing to underperform. On the flip side, a lot depends on whether the Twins or Royals can keep exceeding expectations and thriving in spite of their sub-par performance. The good news for fans of the Tribe is that FiveThirtyEight still projects the team as the clear favorites in the central, and gives them the third-best odds of winning the World Series.

Of course, the games aren’t played on paper. If Cleveland hopes to complete the championship journey it fell short of last season, the on-field results will need to catch up to the data.


All data current through Tuesday, July 11th.

Ben Martens is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @wbennomartens.