The Numbers Behind an Improbable Playoff Run

Two weeks ago, the list was Toronto, Minnesota, Texas, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, Seattle, Chicago, Detroit and Baltimore. Today, it is New York, Texas, Minnesota and Los Angeles.

Two weeks ago, the chance was two percent according to Today, it’s 11 percent. Yes, that’s eight percent less than what it was going into a three game series against the Toronto Blue Jays. The Cleveland Indians would go on to win the series opener versus David Price before losing three of their next four games. The remaining two against Toronto and one of three games against Detroit.

Looking from the outside in, that might have spelled the end for the Indians, but after a series opening win against Chris Sale and the Chicago White Sox, a team the Indians still have five games scheduled against in the remainder of the season, there is still a glimmer of a playoff chance at the end of the long, 162-game tunnel.

After Sports Illustrated featured the Indians on their cover for the first time since their 1987 Indian Uprising cover as their pick to win the World Series, there were two trains of thought. First: maybe this is the year, the first since 1948, where Cleveland can hoist a World Series. Second: Cleveland has just been cursed for the second time since 1948 by the same magazine. Well, there’s always next year.

The reality is that the Cleveland Indians had one of the best rotations in baseball locked up before the season began. Reigning Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber, would head the rotation after signing a five-year deal in the offseason. Carlos Carrasco joined him, signing a four-year deal after posting a 1.30 ERA in his final 10 starts of 2014. Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar returned to the team, both young starters looking to build off of strong seasons. The last spot could have featured Gavin Floyd, a free agent signed in the offseason, Josh Tomlin or Zach McAllister.

In addition to that, Michael Brantley, who finished fourth in AL MVP voting, returned to bolster a lineup that added a much needed slugger, Brandon Moss, in the offseason.  Yan Gomes, the catcher, was returning after a Silver Slugger year.

Everything was lining up to be an outstanding year for the Cleveland Indians who would go up against the perennial powerhouse Detroit Tigers and reigning AL Pennant winning Royals in a three-way battle to win the division.

After 135 games, Cleveland and the world, knew what would happen. The Indians looked strong in their first series of the season, losing only one game to the Houston Astros. It was to starter Dallas Keuchel, who is a strong Cy Young candidate this season. He’s 17-6 with a 2.29 ERA and 0.992 WHIP while he has struck out 185 batters in 200.2 innings pitched.

After that, Cleveland lost four consecutive games. Cleveland has not had a record at or above .500 since they were 2-2 after that first loss against Detroit after the Houston series. The Indians have gotten close, they were 27-28 before losing four of their next five games against the Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles. Cleveland was 42-44 before losing three straight, winning three of four, then dropping six consecutive.

The Indians are once again in striking distance of a winning record and as a result of great parity in the American League — compared to the National League which has eight teams with a zero percent chance to make the playoffs compared to the AL’s two — are also in striking distance of a playoff berth.

While technically speaking, the Indians are five games out of the playoffs after their recent run where they have won eight of their last 11 ballgames. Texas has the second wildcard spot and a five-game lead on the Indians. Behind Texas, Minnesota is three games in front of Cleveland, but the Indians will play the Twins seven more times this season. Three times in the Twin cities and four on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. Finally, the Angels have a two-game lead on the Indians.

Now comes the crazy math, the Indians only have seven remaining games against teams above .500 and all seven of those games are against the Kansas City Royals. In 12 games against Kansas City this year, Cleveland is 5-7. The remaining 16 divisional games will be against the struggling Tigers, the surging White Sox who won four straight before a loss against the Indians Monday and the seven games against Minnesota that could decide a playoff berth.

The Twins have four games against the Angels — before playing the Indians at all. Outside of that, their schedule is very similar to the Indians because they are both in the AL Central.

The Los Angeles Angels have the toughest schedule of any of the teams on the list with the handicap coming because they are three games behind the Rangers. They have 14 games remaining against above .500 teams and will finish the season with a four-game series in Texas.

The Rangers won’t have a cakewalk finish to the season either as they will have 11 remaining games against teams that are above .500, but they do have the advantage of playing six games against the Oakland A’s, who are currently 20 games below .500.

Because the Rangers play the Halos four times to end the season, the Twins play the Angels four times in the heart of September and the Indians have seven games remaining against the Twins, if the Indians can stay hot behind their pitching staff that leads Major League Baseball in strikeouts and complete games, is tied for the best WHIP in the majors and is third in batting average against, they have a legitimate shot at squeaking into the playoffs.

The real question is: can the bats produce? The Indians are 51-15 when their offense can produce four or more runs. With Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis and Brantley all batting above .300 in the second half of the season, who knows what could happen?  The only thing that is for sure is that the American League Wild Card race is going to be extremely interesting to follow for the remainder of the season.

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