Jim Thome is officially an Indian again, returning to the place where he struck fear into the hearts of American League pitchers for 12 seasons.
When he last donned the cloth of The Tribe, Thome was wrapping up a historically great 2002 season in which he had hit 52 home runs while leading the league with a .677 percentage.
In honor of his return, I have taken the liberty of publishing a roster consisting of the best seasons in the history of the Cleveland Indians franchise.
After several years of dwindling in obscurity after dominating the first eight years of the American League Central, the Indians finally returned to form in 2007 and Victor Martinez was a big reason why. The 28-year-old backstop was worth plus-7 runs on the year with the glove. With the bat, he clubbed out 25 home runs, 40 doubles and topped the .500 slugging percentage plateau.
2002 was actually before Jim Thome became a permanent DH who couldn’t be trusted near first base so he's out there for this list. Thome was the premier hitter in the league that year, putting up league leading totals in slugging (.677) and OPS+ (197). Meanwhile, despite getting pitched around 122 times during the season he still found enough at-bats to club a franchise record 52 home runs.
Hall-of-Famer Nap Lajoie was the only American Leaguer not named Cobb to win a batting title between 1907 and 1915 edging the Georgia Peach .3840 to .3833 on the last game of the year. Nap—whose team was called the “Naps” in his honor—also led the league in doubles with 51 while putting up an OPS+ just south of 200.
Without a doubt, the most dominant hitter of 1953, Al Rosen notched his first and only MVP award by throwing up a league leading totals in home runs (43), RBIs (145), runs scored (115), slugging percentage (.613) and OPS+ (179). Mickey Vernon barely beat him out for the batting crown, .337 to .336 and the only player with a higher on-base percentage—Gene Woodling—did so by just seven points over about 200 fewer plate appearances.
It’s tough to have an all-around year quite as good as Lou Boudreau did in 1948. With the bat, he hit .355/.453/.534 with 18 dingers, 106 RBIs, and a 164 OPS+. With the glove, he led the American League with a whopping 1.9 defensive wins above replacement. And on top of all that, he was also the manager of the Indians, and took them to their first world championship in 28 years—and the first championship ever won by an integrated team.
Or 1994. Or 1996. It’s really tough to go wrong with Albert Belle, who was one of the most dominant hitters of the ‘90s. In 1995, Belle hit .317 and led the league slugging with a .690 clip. In addition, he became the first player to put up both 50 home runs and 50 doubles in the same season and led the league in both runs scored and RBIs. In the process, he managed to lead the Cleveland Indians explosive offense to a 100-44 record and their first playoff appearance in over 40 years.
Tris Speaker played center field in a way that few could, playing unbelievably shallow such that he could make a number of 8u putouts and 6-8-3 double plays. In his career, he accumulated an incredible 449 outfield assists including 26 in 1923. He wasn’t too shabby with the bat either, putting up an insane line of .380/.469/.610 for a 182 OPS+. The all-time doubles leader put up a career high in the number with a league-leading 59 helping contribute to his career high 130 RBIs.
Long before there was a Black Sox scandal or a little boy crying, "Say it ain’t so," Joe Jackson was tearing it up over in Cleveland. Shoeless Joe finished second in the league to Ty Cobb with a .408 batting average and a .590 slugging percentage, but managed to edge him out with a league leading .468 on-base percentage. Between his on-base skills and speed—19 triples and 41 stolen bases—he would make an excellent leadoff hitter for this team.
Although he wasn't actually a DH in 1999, Ramirez wasn't impressing anyone with the glove and he had to get into this lineup somehow. And what a year for it! In 1999, Manny Ramirez drove in 96 runs...in the first half. He ended up with 165, more than any player had amassed going all the way back to 1938. But Ramirez wasn't just a product of his lineup (as his career would show). The right-handed slugger hit .333/.442/.663 with a league-best 173 OPS+. His efforts earned him the first of eight consecutive silver sluggers (most of which he would win with the Red Sox).
Even in the pitching-friendly days of the dead-ball era, a 1.16 ERA seems a little ridiculous…seeing as how it translates to a 205 ERA+, it kind of is. Joss also led the league with a 0.806 WHIP—a figure since topped only by Walter Johnson and Pedro Martinez in the American League. Among his 24 victories was a perfect game, a 1-0 gem against the Chicago White Sox.
In 1940, the late great Bob Feller went 27-11 and led the league in ERA (2.61) and WHIP (1.133) over a league-leading 320.1 innings. His efforts earned him a second place finish in the MVP balloting. Rapid Robert won 25 games the next year but afterwards felt a higher calling as he was the first of many baseball stars to enlist in the military following Pearl Harbor. Feller joined the Navy and made Chief within three years, serving on the USS Alabama. Oh, and then after the war, he came back, won 26 games and struck out 348.
Flashing an unusual delivery, Luis Tiant contributed heavily to the domination of Major League hitters by pitchers in the year of the pitcher, 1968. That year, El Tiante led the American League with a 1.60 ERA (186 ERA+) and nine shutouts, while posting a miniscule 0.871 WHIP.
Long before steroid debates ever surfaced in baseball, a pitcher by the name of Gaylord Perry would blatantly cheat (or pretend to cheat), applying foreign substances to balls in plain sight. Whether his "Vaseline-balls" actually had more movement or just psyched hitters out, they worked. Perry won 24 games in 1972 and posted an excellent ERA of 1.92 over 342.2 innings. For his efforts, he won the American League Cy Young award; a few years later, he would win the award in the National League, becoming the first player to win the award in both circuits.
In 2007, Cliff Lee was sent down to the minors due to control problems and had to earn a spot in the Cleveland rotation coming out of spring training. He did just that, and proceeded to win 22 of his 25 decisions for the .500 Indians while posting a league-leading ERA of 2.53. He earned the American League Cy Young just one year after the award was given to his then-teammate C.C. Sabathia.
Catcher: Sandy Alomar Jr., 1997—Posted .900 OPS and won All-Star Game MVP at home field.
First Base: Hal Trosky, 1936—162 RBI ranks 20th all-time for single-season.
Second Base: Roberto Alomar, 2001—Switch-hitter posted line of .336/.415/.541 in final season in Cleveland.
IF: Omar Vizquel, 1999—11 time Gold Glove winner hit .333 with a .397 OBP.
OF: Kenny Lofton, 1994—Led American League with 7.7 WAR and 60 stolen bases.
OF: Rocky Colavito, 1958—180 OPS+ and 41 dingers; led league with .620 slugging percentage.
Closer: Jose Mesa, 1995—1.12 ERA and 46 saves to earn a fourth place MVP finish and two Cy Young votes from Randy Johnson.
Setup: Mike Jackson, 1998—40 saves; batters mustered a 44 OPS+ against him.
Fireman: Sid Monge, 1979—Held batters to .208 average in 131 relief innings.
RHP: Rafael Betancourt, 2007—ERA less than one-third of team closer Borrowski, but just three save opportunities.
LHP: Jesse Orosco, 1989—all-time leader in appearances; at 32, had 14 more seasons left in him.