Last year, Cleveland had a season to remember. They finished with 94 wins and came within one epic Game 7 of winning it all. It would have been their first championship since 1948, and it likely could have cemented manager Terry Francona as a future Hall of Famer. Despite the outcome of that final game, I am sure Cleveland fans were thrilled with the season that the team gave them, but there’s always the ‘what-if’ that comes with losing a heart-breaker.
One could have reasonably argued that Cleveland was the best team in the AL going into the 2017 season. They were returning more-or-less the same team but with the addition of a couple of bats that could make them even better. One of those bats was Edwin Encarnación, who was arguably one of the best value signings of the offseason. He would be a cheap upgrade over the departing Mike Napoli. Michael Brantley was also expected to return in 2017. I am sure that nobody was expecting a repeat of his MVP-caliber season in 2014, but there was hope that he could be productive when healthy. “When healthy” being the big caveat, though.
FanGraphs projected Cleveland to win around 93 / 94 games at the beginning of the season. It is not easy for a team to be above 90 wins on true talent, but Cleveland cleared that by a few wins. By taking a look at their roster, it is not hard to see why.
As of this writing, Cleveland is on pace to win “only” 88 games, and FanGraphs has them finishing at ~92 wins. Regardless, even 88 Ws should earn them the division easily. The Twins and Royals are not far behind, but there is a reason why Cleveland has a 95.6 percent chance of winning the division. Simply put, there is much more talent on this team than the ooverachieving Twins and the declining Royals. Going by BaseRuns, which is basically a more advanced version of the pythagorean expectancy, the Royals are three wins higher than they one would expect and the Twins are seven wins higher, tied with the Rockies for the most in baseball.
So where is Cleveland ranked in terms of BaseRuns? They are seven wins below where you would expect based on their numbers. Only the Yankees are below them at 10 wins below where they could be. While BaseRuns is not the be-all-end-all of true-talent, it can help identify sequencing trends to more accurately project a team’s future wins.
Cleveland is tied with the Reds and Diamondbacks for the sixth-best wOBA in baseball at .327. With RISP, however, they drop to a .305 wOBA. To delve deeper into this, Baseball Reference has a stat called tOPS+, and it is used to compare splits to overall production. A number lower than 100 is good for pitchers but bad for hitters, and vice versa for a number above 100. Take a look at how unlucky Cleveland’s hitters and pitchers have been in run scoring situations.
|2 outs, RISP||76|
|Late & Close||68|
|2 outs, RISP||126|
|Late & Close||85|
Other than pitchers in late and close situations, that is an amazing amount of bad luck. Those seven wins lost according to BaseRuns are starting to make a lot more sense.
There actually is not a whole lot to say about the players and hitters themselves, oddly enough. José Ramírez might get some down-ballot MVP votes. Yan Gomes is not a cipher anymore. Lonnie Chisenhall has somehow hit .305/.376/.578 this year, albeit in only 64 games. Jason Kipnis is struggling, unfortunately, and Carlos Santana’s offense is down from last year. Bradley Zimmer has performed well in his debut, hitting .253/.322/.416 with good center field defense and 13 SB to only 1 CS.
Francisco Lindor has sold out OBP for power, and yet is still roughly the same hitter as last year by wRC+. Strangely, his defensive metrics have him as approximately a league-average defender. That is probably just a small sample size blip, but it is something to keep an eye on.
Cleveland’s pitching, both the starting rotation and bullpen, is among the best in baseball. Andrew Miller is still Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, and Nick Goody have been valuable contributors. After coming back from the DL for a sore right shoulder, Danny Salazar has been incredible. It has only been four starts, but over that span he has a 1.42 RA9 and 37 percent strikeout rate.
Of course, there is the phenomenal Corey Kluber. As good as Chris Sale is, not enough people are talking about how Kluber is providing him with some serious competition for the Cy Young award. He will probably fall short, not just because of all the hype surrounding Sale, but because he is at an innings deficit due to a DL stint in early May. Still, Kluber has a 2.90 RA9, a 5.6 percent walk rate, and a ridiculous 35.8 percent strikeout rate. To put that in context, Sale has a 2.67 RA9, 4.7 percent walk rate, and 36.9 percent strikeout rate.
The AL Central has turned out to be more interesting than originally expected. However, Cleveland is still the best team in the division by a significant margin. Their bad luck might cost them home field advantage in one or two rounds in the playoffs, but they will certainly be playing a best of seven series to begin their postseason.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.