Shocker: Cleveland Indians Have Best Run Differential in AL

Posted: 07/26/2016 by levcohen in Baseball

For the last few years, the Indians have been decent but never really a force to be reckoned with. They have three consecutive seasons with a record better than .500, but they haven’t won the division once in that time. In fact, Cleveland has only won the AL Central twice since the turn of the century after winning five straight to close out the 1990s. This year, though, they’re five games up heading into play tonight and have the best run differential in the AL at +86. So did the Cavaliers break the Cleveland curse once and for all? Can the Indians win the division and make noise in the playoffs? Or is their 56-41 start mainly smoke and mirrors?

The thing that sticks out to me about the Indians is their tremendous offensive depth. They’ve been without Michael Brantley, who has been the team’s best player for the last few years, since early May. Brantley added 10 WAR in the last two seasons, 13th in baseball and right between Yoenis Cespedes and Miguel Cabrera. Can you imagine the Mets playing without Cespedes so easily, or the Tigers soldiering on without Miggy? Well, the Indians have managed to thrive even without their star because of that depth. Their top six and nine of their top 11 plate appearance accumulators have been at least average at the plate. Some of the producers have been as advertised. Jason Kipnis led second basemen in WAR last year (5.2); he’s on pace to match that total this season as he’s again matched above-average offense with very good defense. Carlos Santana, a lumbering DH who hits atop the lineup, has long been very adept at getting on base. His OBP this year is .352, which is actually just one point better than worst in his career. Santana always manages to rack up a lot of walks while hitting a bunch of homers, which is a good combination. Rajai Davis has been one of the best utility outfielders in baseball for years, providing solid hitting and fielding while serving as perhaps the best pinch runner in baseball. But much of Cleveland’s production has come out of nowhere. Shortstop Francisco Lindor is the obvious headliner. He was a top prospect and was always supposed to be good, but not this good, this fast. He’s eighth in baseball in WAR and has been the second most valuable defensive player in baseball according to Fangraphs. More surprising has been his bat, which has propelled him to a .303/.360/.458 triple slash with more homers already (12) than anyone expected him to hit in a full season. In Lindor, the Indians have a bonafide star, something they haven’t really had since they traded C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee after each won Cy Young awards near the end of the ’00s. But Lindor hasn’t been the team’s biggest offensive surprise. How about Tyler Naquin, an unheralded rookie who’s slashed a monstrous .321/.380/.626, almost entirely as a platoon player against righties? What about Lonnie Chisenhall, a very average career hitter (.263/.312/.416) who’s exploded to the tune of a .303 average this year? And how about Jose Ramirez, a shortstop who’s been pushed to third by Lindor but has rebounded from a .219 hitting by hitting .284 and playing every night?

Of course, there are two sides to this coin. The out-of-nowhere production from Naquin, Chisenhall, and Ramirez has been nice and has spurred the Indians to their surprising start, but it also could vanish at any point. Hopefully (for the Indians) this isn’t a harbinger of things to come, but Ramirez has hit just .188 since the All-Star break, a clear sign of how dangerous it is to rely on unheralded and unproven players and still expect sustained success. On the other hand, Naquin has a 1.241 OPS since the break (with seven extra base hits in eight games). I think that’s a pretty good way to look at Cleveland’s chances going forward. With the roster they currently have, I think they have the highest offensive variance of the six teams I’m looking at. They have — hands down — the lowest floor at the plate; if the unexpected offensive performers slump, they’ll be a below-average offense. But while they might not have the highest upside (those Red Sox have a pretty good offense, you know), imagine what this team could do if their less-heralded players kept up their hitting when Brantley comes back.

The pitching is, perhaps less surprisingly, good. Corey Kluber, winner of the 2014 AL Cy Young, has continued to pitch like the ace he is. Don’t be fooled by the bizarre 16 losses last year, as Kluber ranks second among all pitchers (you’ll never guess who’s first) in WAR since the start of 2014. But after years of investing in pitching prospects (through the draft and trades), Kluber now has some help. All five members of Cleveland’s rotation are in their prime years (they’re all between 25-31), and all five have ERAs below 3.75. This is a rotation with great stuff, hence the fact that they’re fifth in baseball in strikeouts per nine innings. But they also have great control, which is why they’re fourth in MLB in strikeout-walk%. 60 AL pitchers have thrown 80 innings, and all five of Cleveland’s starters rank inside the top-20. Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco have made the biggest jumps since last year. Carrasco has a 2.31 ERA, which is even lower than the number he posted in his breakout 2014 season (2.55). Meanwhile, Salazar may be one of the frontrunners in the AL Cy Young race, with an 11-3 record matched by his 2.75 ERA (70 points better than last year) and 125 strikeouts in 111.1 innings. If you’re thinking that this sounds a bit like their offense (i.e. surprising and maybe unsustainable), you might well be right, as the team’s rotation has an ERA 29 points lower than it did last year. But the difference, I think, is that Salazar, Trevor Bauer, and Carrasco have not come out of nowhere. They’ve been around and adding value for a while, and they’ve all had good stuff for a long time. For Salazar and Carrasco, this just feels like a natural progression in their careers. So while there might be a little regression, I think the rotation can continue to be a big strength moving forward.

The bullpen isn’t great. Cody Allen is an oft-dominant closer and setup man Dan Otero has a 1.18 ERA, but they don’t have much support. It’s a fine bullpen, though, one that ranks 11th in ERA and 15th in WAR. It won’t win them many games, but if this is a team that’s offense and starting pitching is good enough to win the World Series, the bullpen won’t keep it from winning the World Series.

The Indians have a clear hole: catcher. The Indians rank dead last in baseball with a -.9 WAR from their catchers, so it makes sense that they’re interested in Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who’s second among catchers in WAR since the start of 2012. But they have a decision to make. Should they sacrifice a top prospect (maybe Bradley Zimmer or Clint Frazier, the 22nd and 23rd ranked prospects in baseball according to MLB.com) for a catcher or third baseman, or should they just roll with what they have and continue to build for the future? If they opt for the former, they can have a real chance at competing with the other five teams I’m talking about. If they don’t make a move for someone like Lucroy, I think they’ll remain near the bottom of the six.

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