At the start of the 2013 season, many would have cast off the Cleveland Indians in their assessment of possible playoff teams. Now, with just 35 games left in the MLB regular season, the Cleveland Indians find themselves in a dog fight for a spot in the 2013 MLB playoffs.
Currently, both wild-card spots and even the AL Central Division title are within reach, but it will take a solid effort moving forward if there is going to be October baseball in Cleveland.
This article seeks to break down the Indians' remaining schedule and roster composition in comparison to that of the teams they'll be fighting for one of three possible playoff spots. By the end of this article, we should have a pretty good understanding of who the Indians are as a team and what sort of chance they'll have to make the postseason this year.
Without further ado, let's begin by discussing the teams which rank ahead of them in the current standings.
Who's Ahead of Them?
The Tribe sit just 2.5 games back of the fifth and final playoff spot—currently held by the Oakland A's—while the top wild-card spot—currently held by the Tampa Bay Rays—is up for grabs and just four games away.
Though it remains a long shot, the team can't be completely counted out of the AL Central race, either, as they remain in the hunt, just five games back of their rival, the Detroit Tigers.
As I previously alluded to, the Indians have just 35 games remaining on the schedule, 21 of which come against teams below the .500 mark. In fact, the Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, Houston Astros and New York Mets combine for a measly .412 winning percentage.
Overall, the Indians will encounter eight different opponents, all of whom combine for a .486 winning percentage. The A's, Rays and Tigers, all of whom are immediately in front of the Indians right now, will face schedules featuring teams whose combined winning percentages are .494, .511 and .485, respectively.
The Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers also factor into the equation, as they hold 1.0- and 2.5-game leads in their respective divisions. When analyzing each of their remaining schedules, the Sox and Rangers will face teams who have combined for winning percentages of .491 and .517, respectively.
In short, all five of the teams mentioned above will be in the mix somehow, and the Tribe will have to contend with that.
The Indians have a pretty easy schedule moving forward, including games against some of the league's worst teams—see Twins, White Sox and Astros. As previously mentioned, the Indians' remaining schedule features eight different teams, whose combined winning percentage sits at an underwhelming .486 percent.
While the Tigers do have a slightly easier schedule, Cleveland has one big thing working against them over the season's final weeks.
The Tribe have just three games against teams ranked ahead of them in the AL. Those three games come against their division foe Detroit, a team which the Indians have gone 3-13 against this season.
They do, however, have one thing working in their favor: the fact that three of the five teams discussed in detail come from the AL East. These three teams are fairly evenly matched and could beat up on each other, allowing the Indians to gain ground against weaker competition.
With similar strengths of schedule, though, it could prove difficult for the Indians to jump teams which already place ahead of them in the standings. For that reason, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Indians in the same position they currently find themselves in, at season's end.
The Tigers have the easiest schedule of all five teams, coming in percentage points ahead of the Indians in terms of opponents' winning percentage, lending credence to the idea that the Indians don't have much of a shot at the division.
That leaves them to fight it out with the A's, Rays, Red Sox and Rangers for one of just two playoff spots accessible to the Tribe.
The most important stretch of games will come in the final 23 games of the season. The Indians will take on the Mets, Royals, White Sox, Astros and Twins in that stretch, all of whom are very beatable teams—.431 combined winning percentage.
Should the Tribe take 16 or more from those five teams, they'll find themselves with at least 85 wins by season's end. Assuming they win 16 of those 23, the Indians will need to take roughly five of 12 from the Tigers, Twins, Braves and Orioles before embarking on that final 23-game stretch.
It's doable, but how do they stack up against the teams ahead of them in the standings?
Offense Compared to Contending Teams
So we've established that winning the division is an unlikely scenario; however, either of the two wild-card spots are very realistic possibilities.
To get one of these coveted playoff spots, the Indians will have to contend with several very powerful teams including the A's, Rays, Red Sox and Rangers. Outside of the Red Sox, who will face a grueling test in their final 33 games, the Indians, A's, Rays and Rangers have similar strengths of schedule, so the real question now is: How do their rosters compare?
To begin, we'll compare the Indians offense to those of the teams they'll have to fight for the wild card.
The Indians can hit; it's something they actually do very well. In the AL, the Tribe rank in the top five in runs, doubles, RBI and OBP. Additionally, they crack the top 10 in triples, home runs, total bases, batting average, OPS and stolen bases.
The Indians are a very efficient team in several aspects of the game including getting on base and, subsequently, stealing bases.
How does this offense compare to the four teams mentioned above? For starters, take a look at this chart:
Note: Bold indicates the leader in the category among the five teams.
Boston is by far the offensive leader of the bunch, and Oakland is clearly the weakest offense of the five, but it's close between the Indians, Rangers and Rays in the middle of the pack.
Starting Rotation Compared to Contending Teams
Cleveland's starting rotation has outperformed expectations by a significant margin. At the start of the season, outside of Justin Masterson, a rotation featuring Scott Kazmir, Ubaldo Jimenez, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister would have been downright laughable.
Even so, the starting rotation has been better than advertised. The five starters mentioned above have combined to make 108 of 126 possible starts, working to a 3.82 ERA over 637.2 innings pitched.
The following chart should help to compare the same five teams' starting rotations. For argument's sake, we'll look at each team's starting rotation, including players expected back by the beginning of September.
Note: This means that Brett Anderson will replace Dan Straily in Oakland, Clay Buchholz replaces Ryan Dempster in Boston, Alexi Ogando and Matt Garza replace Justin Grimm and Nick Tepesch in Texas, and Matt Moore replaces Roberto Hernandez in Tampa Bay's rotation.
Bold indicates the leader in a category among the five teams.
Cleveland leads the five teams in games started by their projected September rotation, however, it's clear that the best all-around rotation resides in Arlington, Texas. The Indians have the worst combined ERA, WHIP, BB/9 and K/BB figures of any of the five rotations.
Although they've been right around the middle of the pack in terms of starting pitching this season, its become increasingly evident that Cleveland doesn't have the rotation to match the efforts of those in Boston, Oakland, Texas or Tampa.
Bullpen Compared to Contending Teams
Bullpens can become increasingly difficult to predict as the rosters expand on Sept. 1. For this reason, we will use the combined stats of each team's bullpen from the regular season—as opposed to the use of projected bullpens like the starting rotation section above.
Note: Bold indicates the leader in a category among the five teams.
By the numbers, Texas holds the best ERA and save percentage. However, Oakland is arguably the best all-around bullpen of the five.
The Indians may have the worst bullpen of the group. The Tribe sport the worst ERA, BB/9 and K/BB ratios of the group while narrowly avoiding the worst WHIP and save-percentage marks.
Bullpen success is crucial down the stretch, as late-inning losses and blown leads can be crushing to a team looking to build momentum. This is one area where the Tribe is clearly the worst of the bunch.
What Does It All Mean?
Well, from this perspective, things don't look great for the Indians. They're stuck against several teams who seem to be better than them in most aspects of the game, and that doesn't even include the surging New York Yankees, lurking Baltimore Orioles or division-rival Kansas City Royals.
The Indians will have opportunities to put distance between themselves and the Orioles and Royals—three and six games against, respectively.
As discussed above, it will be interesting to see what the Indians do with their next 12 games against the Twins, Braves, Tigers and Orioles, respectively.
The Twins are by far the worst of that group. However, games like these can never be taken lightly, as teams within the division love to play spoiler for contending rivals.
The nine games that follow could make or break Cleveland's season, though, as the Indians have struggled mightily against the Tigers, while the Orioles and Braves are two of the tougher teams in their respective leagues.
Should the Indians make it through that 12-game stretch at 5-7 or better, the chances of them making the playoffs grow exponentially.
As of now, their chances of making the playoffs are about a 30 percent according to ESPN. My count puts them more at around 35-40 percent with the determining factor being the 12-game stretch which starts tonight, Friday, Aug. 23.
All stats come courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and are current through play on Aug. 22, 2013.
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