Scoring? No, they’re not good enough there.
Pitching? Nope, it’s not as good as it seems.
Defense? Nah, it’s fairly horrendous.
From here to there, the Cleveland Indians are gilded – gilded like a team not meant to play in the postseason.
It’s no doubt crept up on everyone’s mind as they have examined the American League Wild Card teams fighting to displace each other, and the other playoff position clubs. They are the best teams in Major League Baseball, appearing to be on the playoff-level. All the division leaders are behemoths, eight others are almost as good, and the Washington Nationals are living up to their talent at last. The only other team skidding to postseason contention is the New York Yankees, not looking like a playoff team at all – weak hitting and a shaky rotation – but they are playing with a thousand watts of spotlight and hardly lack any autumn resumes, so no one is surprised to see them in the mix. But the Indians beg a different examination and inquiry: Are they a playoff-level team?
They certainly don’t seem like it. The overlooked and attention-diverting Indians, when looked at, make everyone halt, narrow their eyes, and wonder if the money spent in the off season makes them overrate the Progressive Field natives.
Because on offense they don’t look like a playoff team. When thinking about Cleveland’s lineup without even scanning the numbers, you probably aren’t impressed. Jason Kipnis, the All-Star, probably stands out immediately; along with Carlos Santana, Nick Swisher because of the money spent on him, and Jason Giambi because a 42-year-old former PED user hitting a few home runs is always going to make headlines. For the most part, that is an apt assumption of all the Indians’ good hitters. The lineup does not generate many opportunities. They have very little patience at the plate, as they only have three players with more than 43 walks this season, and those three guys are the only hitters on the team who have played at least 100 games in 2013 and have on-base percentages over .340. Of their regulars, the Indians only have four players with OPS+ of 100 or greater. And any on-base talent they do have is limited by the swings and misses; they’re eighth in the Bigs in strikeouts. Asdrubal Cabrera, Michael Brantley, and Michael Bourn have been simply awful this year. Once you get past Swish, Santana, and Kipnis, just about any rotation can cruise by the rest of the Indians’ hitters; that doesn’t even consider the playoff starters they might duel. The offense is as it looks: rag-tag. They have the potential of some sweet swings from Swisher, some power and everything from Carlos Santana, and the threat of a steal from Kipnis and Bourn, but little of that result in a team that gets on base enough to frighten you. Of the playoff position teams, the Indians’ OBP is middle-of-the-pack. Overall, 692 runs scored isn’t horrible, but the deeper numbers aren’t the cadre of a playoff-caliber offense.
The defense certainly doesn’t lift the Indians’ play up. Among every teams’ fielding, Cleveland is near the bottom, everyone can agree with that. In classic errors and fielding percentage, the Indians are fifth-worst in the AL. Cabrera and Kipnis have 21 combined, as hardly a game goes by without the Indians making at least one blemish. The advanced fielding numbers? Cleveland is still bottom-of-the-Majors there. They’re in the negative in Double-Play Runs and Error Runs (-1.2 and -4.4, respectively). Their Ultimate Zone Rating? -31.8 (-3.2 UZR/150). The defense was touted to be respectable coming into the season – and in the outfield it has been (8.9 Outfield Arm Runs) – but when the ball is on the ground – look out. Cabrera, usually a shortstop you could stand to have on defense despite his declining defensive results, has practically cost the Indians entire games at his prime position, tripling his Defensive Runs Saved from last year – in the opposite direction (-5 to -15). If he could hit like he did even last year, if he could get on base at least at a .300 clip, then you could stand it, not unlike being content with Carlos Santana’s defense. Santana, arguably the Indians’ most dependable hitter, has never been known for his plate defending skills; his highest DRS total was 2. But this year he has suffered from the Indians’ defensive itis, posting a -8 Rctch. His only saving grace is that most of the playoff teams don’t have strong legs. But on the more important aspect of overall defense of the other clubs Cleveland may combat with in October, five of them have UZRs of more than 20. In simpler terms, the Indians have an offense and defense that costs them runs when their main competition is a rock. Do they still look like a playoff squad?
The bullpen might just be what keeps Cleveland in games. Their 28-17 one-run game record as of Sunday, and their 10-2 extra inning line, is among the best in the game, and not unlike Baltimore last year is probably their greatest strength and is making them a postseason club. While the relief numbers are not Atlanta- or Cincinnati-like, making your eyes pop onto the page, many of their bullpen arms have been notable. Cody Allen and Joe Smith have practically carried the entire bullpen themselves. Both have allowed fewer hits than innings pitched, and Allen has a strong 82-26 strikeout-to-walk tally. Complimented by those two arms, Chris Perez and Bryan Shaw’s numbers are much more acceptable for a playoff group. Certainly, the pen would go a long way to keeping the Indians alive in the postseason, that’s for sure. In a fall season of tight games, your triumphs are often measured by how often your closer hugs his catcher.
But the Indians’ rotation, believe it or not, may prevent Chris Perez from even coming out. The Cleveland starters, a constant talking point for outside watchers this year, are not as good as people think. There’s no doubt that Ubaldo Jimenez has been fantastic down the stretch, posting a 1.83 Earned Run Average since the All-Star break, but beyond him the Indians’ rotation is not dominant. No Cleveland pitcher who has started at least 20 games in 2013 has an ERA+ greater than 111. Justin Masterson has been good, a starter you can count on to beat most teams, but his 1.215 WHIP is not like most of the postseason aces he might grapple. Scott Kazmir has been a feel-good story in 2013, but his WHIP is average (1.322). And while Corey Kluber is a solid arm to have in the back-end of a postseason rotation and might get you some positive innings, the No. 4 man, Zach McAllister (97 ERA+, 1.346 WHIP), drags the Tribe’s playoff progress back a bit.
And that will matter in a few weeks. In a postseason environment where starting pitching is often the final divider between the champions and the losers, the Indians fall quite short. Yes, Detroit, Boston, and Los Angeles have monster rotations that the Indians might not even face, but what about the weaker teams? Tampa Bay has one of the best pitching staffs in baseball – Price, Moore, Archer, Cobb. Any one of those starters could be argued to be more postseason-talented than Cleveland’s starting arms. Even the Texas Rangers and their stumbling rotation of late might be more reliable than the Indians’ starters. As potent as manager Terry Francona’s bullpen is, their rotation makes them take at least one step back when compared to the AL starters. And that isn’t even talking about the other National League rotations that the Indians could face in the World Series, if they survive that long.
The argument can be made that Cleveland’s run differential (+55 when this article was written) is playoff-level, as many of the other postseason-position teams aren’t posting run differentials of +100 or more. But most of them have at least one aspect that sets them apart as playoff-ready. From Tampa Bay’s hitting and pitching, to Kansas City’s pitching, to Cincinnati’s Jekyll-and-Hyde offense-rotation-bullpen, most of the teams that Cleveland could face next month have multiple powers the other teams should fear. The Indians, however, fly by on their bullpen only, and maybe, maybe homeruns. But bullpens without starters to ease their load, and homeruns attempted off the best pitchers in baseball, can only make a team so good. Something has to pop for a team to be a playoff club, not be a playoff club to have something pop.
But for now, the record is what counts. Yankees, Orioles, Royals, Blue Jays, Twins, White Sox, Angels, Nationals, and more – most teams are looking up at the Indians in the standings. Regardless of their competition or good fortune in one-run games, the Indians’ luster can take them to October baseball to possibly get hot. That’s all Cleveland really stresses about. Scoring? Who needs it when you win? Pitching? Who needs it when you win? Defense? Who needs it when you win? Cleveland will say it a million times, if need be. They’ll take the luck and ride it to the time when luck is most needed, regardless of how gilded they look.