How Seriously Should the Cleveland Indians Be Taken as a Contender?

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How Seriously Should the Cleveland Indians Be Taken as a Contender?

Do the Cleveland Indians have your attention?

If not, they should.

After concluding a four-game sweep of the Seattle Mariners with a walk-off win on Monday afternoon, the Tribe have won 15 out of 19 in May and 18 out of 22 dating back to late April. They presently have a 2.5-game lead in the AL Central over the reigning American League champion Detroit Tigers.

It shouldn't feel legit. Not after what the Indians did the last two years. They were 32-20 at the end of May in 2011 and 27-23 at the end of May last year. They ended up flopping both times, and how.

I shouldn't buy the Indians. I really shouldn't buy the Indians.

...But I can't help it. The Indians feel legit. They feel like a team that's going to be in it all season long. They don't feel like a fluke.

Nor do they look like one. You go looking for signs of unsustainable good luck in times like these, and there aren't many to be found where the Indians are concerned.

Most notably, the Indians entered Monday's action with a Pythagorean record of 25-17, according to Baseball-Reference.com. That was precisely the same as their actual record, which is always a good sign.

If the concept of a Pythagorean record is gibberish, all you need to know is that it's a metric that essentially evaluates teams based on their runs scored and runs allowed. If a team is good at one of those, odds are its success is going to look for real.

And that's the thing about the Indians. We know they're quite good at the whole "runs scored" thing.

Following their 10-run outburst on Monday, the Indians rank fourth in baseball with 218 runs scored as of this writing, according to FanGraphs. They lead MLB in home runs with 60 and in team OPS at .796. Not quite the Indians of the 1990s, but plenty good.

Cleveland's lineup features six regulars who each have an OPS over .800, including three offseason arrivals: Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Mark Reynolds. We know from his track record that Swisher is game to keep it up, and Reynolds will be too if he can maintain what would be a career-low 26.5 strikeout percentage. Bourn's early-season power is suspicious, but his .360 OBP is roughly where it should be.

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
The JK Kid has an .829 OPS, seven homers and nine steals.

As for Cleveland's other offensive studs, the Indians are seeing Carlos Santana make good on what was always considerable offensive potential. Jason Kipnis, meanwhile, is looking like he did in the first half of 2012, when he was a dangerous power/speed threat with a .765 OPS, 11 homers and 20 steals.

Expecting the Indians to maintain their 5.1 run-per-game pace is a bit much, but the talent level of their offense should not be underestimated. Terry Francona's lineup features a fine combination of power and speed, and it doesn't feature as many easy outs as recent Cleveland lineups.

Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma can testify to that. They went into their respective starts against the Indians sporting ERAs under 2.00, and their ERAs are now north of 2.00.

But what of Cleveland's own pitching?

It's not great, and that's not a minor concern seeing as how this is a club that's featured poor pitching each of the last two seasons. Especially last year, as the Tribe's 4.79 ERA was the worst in the American League.

But "not great" is not the same thing as "bad," mind you. The Indians don't have the St. Louis Cardinals' pitching staff, but there are things to like about it.

Despite some hiccups against the Mariners, Cleveland's bullpen owns a 3.07 ERA, good for eighth-best in MLB. In guys like Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano and Bryan Shaw, Francona has some quality talent to call on.

But it's the rotation that bears watching, and not because it's on imminent implosion alert. 

Tribe starters had a rough go of things with a 5.09 ERA in April, but they have since turned it around to the tune of a 3.52 ERA in May. That's good enough to rank in the top 10 in MLB.

Justin Masterson has thrown two shutouts, including this one against the Yankees; video courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

The Indians boast two starters in Justin Masterson and Zach McAllister with ERAs under 3.00. Former walking disaster Ubaldo Jimenez deserves a hat-tip for posting a 1.90 ERA in his last four starts. Scott Kazmir has produced two poor efforts in a row, but the Indians have to like that he's throwing harder than he has in years (see Baseball Info Solutions data on FanGraphs).

I have the same suspicion of Cleveland's starting rotation that I suspect many have: that the numbers just don't match the names, and the bubble that's been blown up this month is bound to burst. 

At the same time, I like the sound of what Tribe pitching coach Mickey Callaway had to say to ESPN's Jerry Crasnick:

They've really made it a friendly competition within the rotation, and become a rotation instead of just some individuals who are struggling to have some success out there. They're really coming together and getting along great and competing against each other, which is always a good thing.

A's lefty Brett Anderson said something similar about Oakland's rotation when I interviewed him last year, and that bodes well for the Tribe. Oakland's rotation was a patchwork affair that shouldn't have put up numbers in 2012, but it produced the ninth-best ERA in MLB. A bit of friendly competition can have that sort of effect.

The Indians don't just feature something in common with last year's A's. They also have something in common with the Baltimore Orioles, last year's other big surprise.

That would be a flair for the dramatic.

Yan Gomes' walk-off on Monday pushed Cleveland's record in extra-inning games to 5-0, which is already reminiscent of Baltimore's insane 16-2 record in extras last year. The Tribe also own an 11-3 record in one-run games, which is reminiscent of Baltimore's even more insane 29-9 record in such contests.

The mathematical explanation is that the Indians have a heaping helping of good luck to thank for their heroics in tight ones. The Indians themselves would probably chalk it up to what Hawk Harrelson called "TWTW"—or "T-Dubya, T-Dubya," which is The Will To Win—brought on by good team chemistry.

And the word from Tom Withers of The Associated Press is that the Indians have plenty of that:

Great team chemistry doesn't come from nowhere. The Indians made it a mission to cultivate a strong clubhouse culture over the offseason. They started with the hiring of Francona, a known players' manager, and continued by adding strong clubhouse guys like Swisher and Jason Giambi.

As silly as it was, the "Harlem Shake" video the Indians produced during spring training did serve to show that they were already keeping things loose. They've gone from that to winning ballgames in exciting fashion, and the 2012 A's, 2012 Orioles and so many other surprise contenders from years past can vouch that this is a habit with surprising staying power.

In all, there's quite the mix going on in Cleveland. The Indians can hit, their pitching has improved, and they've got a case of T-Dubya, T-Dubya.

There's a lot of season left, which means there's a lot of time left for things to go wrong. The Indians are well aware of this fact from what they've been through the last two years.

But this year, they look prepared not to let that happen.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

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