The Boston Red Sox are having a historically successful season. The Houston Astros are the defending World Series champions. The New York Yankees are one of the most complete teams in Major League Baseball. The Oakland Athletics are the biggest surprise in the sport this season. But don’t sleep on the Cleveland Indians in the American League playoffs; they’re lying in the weeds.
The date was October 8, 2017. It was Game 3 of the Indians’ American League Division Series matchup with the New York Yankees. The Indians were up 2-0 in the series looking to sweep, or at least finish off the Yankees in New York. The score was zero apiece in the seventh inning. All-Star reliever Andrew Miller was on the hill for the Indians, and Yankees first baseman Greg Bird was at the plate; the unthinkable happened. On a one-one pitch, Bird launched a solo home run into the upper deck. The home run would be enough for the Yankees to keep the series alive, and they just so happened to pull off the comeback by winning Games 4 and 5 — stunning the Indians and their fans.
Since the Indians collapsed in the playoffs, they’ve been cast aside. All the talk in the AL is centered around literally every other playoff team not named the Indians. Meanwhile, the Indians have the talent to matchup with any team heading into the postseason.
With Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Michael Brantley, Edwin Encarnacion, Yonder Alonso, and others in their lineup, the Indians have one of the most dangerous offenses in the sport. And since his arrival in Cleveland three weeks ago, former All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson has flashed some power, making their order even more lethal. Going into Monday night, manager Terry Francona‘s lineup was third in runs (779), fourth in hits (1,369), fifth in home runs (207), sixth in batting average (.257), seventh in on-base percentage (.330), fifth in slugging (.432), and fifth in OPS (.763).
The Indians starting rotation is one of the best quintets in the sport. Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger have all recorded 200-plus strikeouts, which marks the first time in MLB history that a team has seen four of its starters achieve such a feat. And rookie right-hander Shane Bieber has authored his fair share of dominant outings this season.
Going into Monday night, the Indians starting rotation was third in ERA (3.45) and second in strikeouts (1,020). The Indians biggest issue is their bullpen.
Last season, the Indians had arguably the best bullpen in the game. One year later, they’re among the league worst. Cody Allen has been shaky in the late innings, and Miller has been on the disabled list multiple times with a bevy of injuries and has been underwhelming in the appearances he’s made as a result. Dan Otero and Tyler Olson own ERAs above 5.00. Oliver Perez and Brad Hand (whom the Indians acquired before the trade deadline) have been the two steady forces in their pen. But, collectively, the Indians bullpen went into Monday night 23rd in ERA (4.50), 29th in strikeouts (451), and sixth in home runs surrendered (76).
Yes, the Indians greatly benefited from being in the worst division in the sport this season. Currently 15.5 games up on the Minnesota Twins (72-83) for first place in the American League Central, they were offered little to no competition within the division. Sure, their 46-24 divisional record is underwhelming considering the circumstances, and some would argue that the Indians should be better than their 88-68 record given the incompetence of their division, as a whole. With that said, it’s crucial to take into account the experience the Indians core has under its belt playing in the postseason.
In 2016, the Indians made it to the World Series. Although they lost in Game 7 at home, the Indians made quick work of the AL, sweeping the Red Sox and beating the Toronto Blue Jays in five games. The Indians lineup has performed at a high level in the postseason, their starting pitchers have put together some miraculous outings, and their relievers, for the most part, have gotten the big out when need be. Last season, the Indians did not fare the same way, blowing a 2-0 lead to the Yankees in the ALDS. And the year prior, they blew a 3-1 series lead to the Chicago Cubs in the World Series; a failure to finish in the big moment has defined this Indians core.
The Indians need better execution from their bullpen, but their efforts in doing so could be bolstered by the addition of two new faces. If Francona opts to go with a three-man rotation — which is a possible scenario — then he will likely send Bieber and either Carrasco or Clevinger to the pen. If Francona goes with Carrasco as his third starter based on veteran pedigree and the fact that the righty has made a postseason start in the past, the Indians will have Clevinger and Bieber coming out of the pen. The two righties could be used as setup men, or, most likely, long relievers. If Kluber, Bauer, or Carrasco struggle early, Francona could turn to Clevinger or Bieber to help keep the Indians in the game. And if Allen can keep runners off base, their pen will resemble what it was last season — which was an elite grouping.
Kluber has not been superb over the last month, but he’s still the best righty in the AL and one of the last pitchers any team wants to face in a big game; Bauer has come into his own as an elite starting pitcher; Carrasco is a steady force every fifth day; Clevinger has been dominant in his first full season as a starter.
The Indians can go head-to-head with any starting rotation in the game, even that of the Houston Astros (who are their projected ALDS matchup) who feature Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel, and Charlie Morton in their rotation. The Indians lineup is as talented as that of the Red Sox who feature Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez, Andrew Benintendi, and Xander Bogaerts, among others. The Indians bullpen has proven arms, they just need to find and command the zone. That will ultimately be the X-Factor to the Indians success in the coming weeks.
The Indians aren’t the frontrunner to win the World Series, let alone the AL Pennant. But they’re being foolishly slept on. An Indians team playing to its capabilities can beat anyone in the majors.