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Why the Cleveland Indians Could Be Poised for Deep Cinderella Run

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 Why the Cleveland Indians Could Be Poised for Deep Cinderella Run

The Cleveland Indians haven't won anything yet. They're in line to make the playoffs as the American League's second wild-card club, but their one-game lead over the Texas Rangers could disappear in a heartbeat. And even if the Indians get in, they're going to be a long shot for the World Series.

So basically, the Indians are your guys if you're in the mood for a good Cinderella story. And if you saw what happened on Tuesday night, you might be thinking the same thing I am:

Heck, why not them?

If you missed what happened, here's the scene. Chris Perez had allowed two home runs in the top of the ninth inning against the Chicago White Sox to blow the save. The Indians were down a run in the bottom of the ninth. There were two outs with a runner on first and a geriatric hitter with a sub-.200 batting average at the plate.

But there's a reason the Indians keep that guy around. It's because Jason Giambi can do things like this:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

That bomb made it five straight wins for the Tribe, not to mention a 16-6 record in September. After posting a .537 winning percentage in the first half, the Indians have—after a sixth consecutive win on Wednesday—a .587 winning percentage in the second half. 

And they are a team that has the goods to do some damage in the postseason.

More on that in a moment. First, let's deal with the elephant in the room: The Indians may indeed be surging at the right time, but it's against some awful competition.

It's true. Of Cleveland's 17 wins in September, 12 have come against the New York Mets, Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox. Their combined record this season is [CENSORED FOR DECENCY'S SAKE], so it's not like the Indians have been slaying dragons.

And that, for those who haven't been paying attention, is the nagging truth of their 88-70 record in general. Per Baseball-Reference.com, the Indians have a 36-52 record against clubs with .500-or-better records. There's not a single contender in MLB that has done worse in that department, so thank goodness for Cleveland's absurd 52-18 record against .500-or-worse teams.

But the Indians won't be running into many of those if they end up playing in October, so why should they be fitted for glass slippers?

History, for one. The Wild Card Era has seen eight teams with 90 or fewer wins make it as far as the World Series, and half of them had sub-.500 records against .500 or better teams. The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals barely made the cut with a 30-30 record against .500-or-better competition.

Point being: A potential Cinderella need not be experienced at slaying dragons in order to slay dragons in October. When it comes to winning in the postseason, other things matter more.

Such as talent. And the Indians have more of that than they get credit for in the one department that can make a huge difference in October: starting pitching.

Courtesy of FanGraphs, these are the rankings for starting pitcher ERA since the All-Star break:

Post-ASB Starting Pitcher ERA
Rank Team ERA
1 Dodgers 2.78
2 Tigers 3.08
3 Indians 3.21
4 Reds 3.29
5 Brewers 3.44

FanGraphs

Usual suspect, usual suspect... Wait, what?

Yup. In the second half of the season, the Indians have enjoyed better starting pitching than 27 other teams. Nothing changes if we look at park- and league-adjusted ERA- either, as it also has Indians starters ranked third since the break.

This is mostly Ubaldo Jimenez's doing. It's still advisable to hold one's breath when he's on the mound, but he has a 1.86 ERA since the break. Only two pitchers have compiled a higher FanGraphs WAR in the second half, and the names behind Jimenez include Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw.

Jimenez could find himself pitching in the wild-card play-in game if the Indians clinch early and choose not to have him start on the final day of the season. If not, Danny Salazar could get the honors.

Now there's a name to get to know. Salazar only has 10 major league starts under his belt, but in those he's racked up an 11.3 K/9 and a 3.12 ERA. His hard stuff averages (yes, averages) between 96 and 97 miles per hour, according to Brooks Baseball, and both his fastball and his splitter boast whiff/swing rates in the neighborhood of 30 percent. 

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Then there's Corey Kluber, who is in the running for the most underrated pitcher in baseball. He owns a 3.61 ERA for the season, a 3.06 ERA since the break and a 4.09 K/BB ratio that puts him among the elites. That's no fluke either, as he's better than most at missing bats and throwing strikes.

The Indians would obviously be better off if they had Justin Masterson poised to be in their postseason rotation. But as it is, Jimenez-Salazar-Kluber is a pretty good trio for the Tribe to throw at opponents in a short series, and in the postseason Masterson could help to make another strength even stronger.

Contrary to what Perez's meltdown on Tuesday night might signify, the Indians bullpen isn't much of a liability. He can certainly make things too interesting, but this is a bullpen that has shaped up to post a 3.02 ERA in the second half of the season, according to FanGraphs. That's seventh best in MLB.

The second-half success of Cleveland's bullpen has much to do with the quality pitching of Bryan Shaw, Joe Smith and Cody Allen. They've combined to allow 21 earned runs in 85 innings since the break, which amounts to a combined 2.22 ERA. 

Now picture that trio plus Masterson.

It's been a while since Masterson has had to pitch in relief, and there's likely to be some rust on his arm seeing as how he sat out most of September with an oblique injury. But if ever there was a year for Masterson to temporarily reinvent himself as a shutdown reliever, it's this one.

Jason Miller/Getty Images
Masterson is strictly a fastball-slider guy, but he had both pitches working just fine before he got hurt.

Masterson's usual M.O. is to throw his sinker at hitters and hope to get ground balls. But this season saw him up his strikeout rate from the 17 percent neighborhood to up near 24 percent. A big key was getting lefties to go down on strikes more often. Masterson's K% for his career against lefty hitters is only about 15 percent, but this year he got it up to 19 percent. 

If Masterson proves capable of pitching in relief like he was pitching in a starting role, Terry Francona is going to have a formidable weapon at his disposal. Masterson could be turned into a late-inning reliever with the stamina to get more than three outs at a time, a la Adam Wainwright in the 2006 postseason.

It's a good thing the Indians have the pieces to baffle opponents with their arms, because the more pressing concern with this club is what they stand to get from their bats in October. The Indians have been inconsistent offensively all season long, especially in the second half.

After averaging 4.78 runs per game before the break, the Indians have only managed 4.13 runs per game after the break. It certainly doesn't help that Michael Bourn and Jason Kipnis have both been in a funk.

It's not all bad for the Tribe's offense, however. Carlos Santana, Ryan Raburn and the criminally overlooked Yan Gomes have been hitting well since the break, and others have caught fire in September. Per FanGraphs, Nick Swisher, Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall each have an OPS north of .860 this month.

And collectively, this Indians offense has a certain habit that must be noted: It tends to be money in the clutch.

Jason Miller/Getty Images
As you might have noticed.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, the Indians rank third in MLB in batting average in high-leverage situations. They also rank third in OPS in such situations. That they also rank third in MLB in OPS in late and close situations certainly has something to do with this.

Whether clutch hitting is an actual thing depends on who you ask. Contemporary thinking says it's not, and I tend to agree. At the very least, it's certainly not something you can expect to reappear next year just because it appeared this year.

But the Indians are one of those teams that can vouch that hitting in high-leverage situations can be infectious. And if we look back at recent history, there just so happen to be some great teams that can vouch for it as well.

The 2012 San Francisco Giants led MLB in hitting in high-leverage situations. Ditto the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals. The 2009 New York Yankees ranked second. And those eight Wild Card Era teams to make it to the World Series despite winning 90 or fewer regular-season games? Seven of those were better than the average team in high-leverage situations.

Hmm...it's almost like the ability to hit in the clutch is something that comes in handy in October. I suppose it is a time when all hits are clutch to a certain degree.

There's not a checklist for spotting a Cinderella team before one happens. Trust me. I tried to come up with one, only to find that the more notable Cinderellas of the last couple decades had very little in common with one another. Score a point for "you can't predict baseball."

But these Indians, man...

If they get into the postseason, the Indians are probably going to have the worst record out of all 10 World Series contenders. But they're poised to head into October with all the momentum on their side, armed with good pitching in their rotation and their bullpen and an uncanny ability to come up with hits when hits are needed.

The Indians aren't going to be the team to beat no matter how things shake out, but here are words to be marked:

Don't sleep on this team.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. 

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

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