Why the Cleveland Indians are the favorite to win the AL Pennant

The Cleveland Indians just posted 13 unanswered runs to beat the resurgent Texas Rangers last night by a score of 15-9 after trailing 9-2 (Disclaimer: I wrote this three days ago but didn’t get the chance to publish it).

While coming into the 2017 season the general consensus was that it was Cleveland’s starting pitching that would carry them through the regular season and into the playoffs. Last night showcased the two aspects of their squad that get much less recognition and are the main reasons why they’re my AL favorite.

The two aspects are their depth and strength of their lineup and bullpen.

The headline grab from Monday’s game is obviously the 13 runs the offense put up after the third inning, but what goes unnoticed was the ability of the Indians bullpen to hold the Rangers offense scoreless after the No. 4 inning.

More times than not when a team goes down early by seven runs, the manager will turn to their long relief mop up guys hoping to collect outs and save the premier arms in the bullpen to fight another day.

However, the Indians’ entire bullpen is comprised of premier arms.  Finishing the final five and two-thirds innings of last night’s game, surrendering just one ER on three H and two BB was the combination of Dan Otero, Boone Logan, Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, and Nick Goody.

All of these guys may not be household names, but only one of them showcases an ERA above 3.00 (Otero – 3.48).  When you add in Zach McAllister (another sub 3.00 ERA) and, the man I believe to be the best reliever in baseball, Andrew Miller you get the most complete and dominant bullpen in baseball.

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Photo via Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

In total, there are seven quality arms in Cleveland’s pen who all have at least 26 appearances on the season. Out of those seven, the only guy averaging less than an inning per appearance is lefty specialist Logan.

During the 2016 postseason, we saw how effective Terry Francona’s strategic, heavy use of the bullpen was. Barring any significant injuries, it looks like he will have all the tools to do it again.

The bullpen as a whole ranks in the top-3 in almost every pitching category and leads in ERA (2.59), fewest blown saves (3), opponent SLG (.336), and opponent OPS (.621).

The other teams that hover around the top of these categories with the Indians are the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Arizona Diamondbacks. Each team just so happens to be holding a spot in the playoffs right now.

With an increased importance on the health of starting pitching and limiting pitch counts in baseball, a strong bullpen carries value in many ways and is an underappreciated aspect of most successful MLB teams.

The main story of Monday’s 15-9 victory was the lineup of the Indians that put up a jaw-dropping 13 consecutive runs over a four-inning span.

This lineup was one that I thought, coming into the season, would undoubtedly be amongst the top 5 in the league. Unfortunately, everyone has underperformed this far except for Jose Ramirez and Lonnie Chisenhall.

Major offseason acquisition Edwin Encarnacion struggles at the plate have been most notable, but in the month of June, the Dominican slugger is slashing .333/.454/.654 with 23 R, 7 HR, and 18 RBI, and for the first time since June 2016, has more walks (17) than strikeouts (14).

In a lineup that has a lot of solid contact hitters, the power of Encarnacion can be the spark this lineup needs to catch fire for the second half of the season.

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Photo via Tony Gutierrez/AP Photo

The other main disappoint from this lineup has been Francisco Lindor. Lindor’s power numbers have been impressive this year with 14 HR and 21 2B in just 330 PA whereas he had just 15 and 12 HR in 684 and 438 PA in 2016 and 2015 respectively, yet his ability to get on base and steal bags has been way down this year.

His AVG and OBP are down to .253 and .316 compared to .301 and .358 in 2016 and .313 and .353 in 2015.  This dip is mainly due to his .250 BABIP which is markedly lower than the .324 and .348 marks he had in 2016 and 2015, which means he is due for a positive regression over the final few months of the season.

While it may be over-optimistic to expect him to return to those levels, it is likely that number will regress towards the mean and bring his AVG up to around .270-.290 by the end of the season.

On top of these two all-star caliber players, the Indians lineup has depth and versatility across the board that allows them to matchup well against both righties and lefties. For example, Lonnie Chisenhall pinched hit against the Dodgers last week after the removal of Rich Hill, who posed an unfavorable lefty on lefty matchup, and finished the game 2-3 with a home run and five RBI against right-handed arms.

Chisenhall’s counterpart is Brandon Guyer who hits against left-handed pitchers well. Filling out the rest of the lineup are OF Bradley Zimmer, Michael Brantley, 2B Jason Kipnis, 1B Carlos Santana, and IF Jose Ramirez who have all shown the ability to go 4-4 with 2 HR on any given night. Don’t be surprised to see this lineup get hot and carry the team through the dog days of summer and into October.

This lineup reminds me of the one that carried the Royals to back-to-back World Series in 2014 and 15. On any night, the nine guys they trot out are tough outs and really make the pitcher work to get through six innings.

It has been well documented over the years that power pitching is what wins in the postseason. With a staff headed by Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar, the Indians have the potential to have the best starting rotation in the postseason.

While Salazar has been a disappointment this season and Carrasco got roughed up on Monday night, they’ve had stretches of dominance in the past and, if healthy, they can do so again in the playoffs. If Kluber gives the same level of production he did in the 2016 postseason (4-1, 1.83 ERA, 35 K, pitching on 3 days rest 3 times), the Indians will have a No. 1 Ace that can match up with the best of the MLB.

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Photo via Jason Miller/Getty Images

Their rotation is finished out with Mike Clevinger, Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin, and Ryan Merrit, all of which have shown the potential to be postseason pitchers, especially with the prowess of the aforementioned bullpen behind them.

Most playoff rotations consist of three or four guys. With seven arms to pick from, everyone should have a lot of trust in Francona to put together the strongest postseason rotation in the AL.

The Indians have won 10 of their last 15 games and look to be righting the ship at the perfect time. They currently sit atop a wide open AL Central with a 41-36 record and look poised to run away with the division or at worst compete for a wild card spot. Especially when you consider the Tribe went 53-28 at Progressive Field in 2016 and are currently 16-20 at home this season.

There are numbers of ways in which the Indians can improve and will improve in the second half of this season.

Let’s #EmbraceDebate here.  Let me know why you guys think I’m wrong and who you see rolling through the AL this October.

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