I want to preface today’s While We’re Waiting with this: I’m not worried about the Cleveland Indians winning the American League Central. I’m not all that worried about the Indians making a serious run at the World Series. I do think they’re the best team in the American League, even if they’ve spent the better part of 2017 forcing us to make excuses to say that very thing. They’re a great baseball team, and while the record hasn’t shown it, their so-far-middling performance hasn’t shrouded that.
But as the Kansas City Royals won their sixth straight game Monday night—in addition to making a solid trade to the San Diego Padres to acquire Trevor Cahill, Brandon Maurer and Ryan Buchter—I’m left frustrated that we’re still even pondering the Kansas City Royals. But I’m placing the cart before the horse.
The Cleveland Indians won their fourth game in a row on Monday, a make-up game against the Cincinnati Reds, splitting the season series with their Ohio counterparts. In doing so, the Indians kept the Ohio Cup, a meaningless trophy the teams trade back-and-forth for a series victory. Since the teams tied the series this year, the Indians kept the cup that they will now hold for a third straight season, but doesn’t tying the last-place Reds feels like a metaphor of the entire season? ((I don’t want to hear about how the Reds were playing earlier in the season either. They shouldn’t have split the season series with a team that’s now 17-games under .500.))
I know, I know: Things like this happen every so often, even to great teams. But for your Cleveland Indians, these wishy-washy performances from week-to-week has been the story of the season.
With all of this said, the win was Cleveland’s fourth straight victory, and for the first time all season, it appears as thought the Tribe are starting to shape up into the team that everyone thought they’d be three months ago. This was the team that was supposed to run away with the Central, and was what many thought would be, if not the clear favorite to return to the World Series, the best favorite to get to the World Series. And while I’m hoping that this four-game streak is the start of something, I don’t have to look to far in the rearview mirror to see a stretch in which the team went 1-6 in their previous seven games, right before this current streak.
Two-and-a-half steps forward. Two steps back.
Up to this point, most of us paying attention have shrugged off this middling 2017 run up to this point. Hell, I just did it at the start of this piece.
“While their wins and losses don’t show it, they’re playing better than last year.”
“It doesn’t matter how they’re playing now, it just matters in September.”
“Expectations were too high.”
And my personal favorite…
“The division sucks, so the Indians can coast.”
All of these statements hold a certain truth in them. The Indians do have facets of their game that are better than last season. Certainly run differential is a part of that, as has been mentioned in the past few weeks. The Indians are at plus-85 in run differential currently, and with over two full months of baseball to be played, that’s likely to increase substantially. Last season, they finished the year with a plus-101 run differential at the end of the year. They’re on pace to score more runs than last season, and while they’re also on pace to give up more runs, there are signs that that could change.
A variety of projections have the Indians ahead of where they currently are, including Pythagorean, which suggests their record should be 57-40, instead of 52-45, for what it’s worth. When you see these sorts of projections, there are two thoughts that enter the thought process:
- Are teams just playing better against the Indians?
- Are the Indians under-performing?
Most of the time, when you ask questions like that, there’s a little truth to both. I’d say they’re likely underperforming, but a good case could be made for both.
There’s also a lot of truth to the “it just matters in September,” especially for this team. With no legitimate threat for the Indians up to this point, coasting has been pretty okay. So the September theory should hold true. The Indians are 65-43 in September since Francona took over, and if you include his 62-51 record in August, his closing months come in at an impressive 127-94. The Indians do play better baseball under Francona heading towards the playoffs.
But there’s something to be said about just winning, right? In a couple of recent conversations, I’ve had that talk you have with people that don’t really stop and think about what they’re saying. You’ve probably had that talk.
“Games don’t matter until July.”
It’s a ludicrous statement for a variety of reasons, but in any sport, every game is pretty important. I suppose, in the end, if the Indians are playing at peak performance at the end of the year, it’s all good, but this team should have been the team that was sitting at 20 games over .500, lining things up for the playoffs. There’s no perfect strategy, and maybe this is only a fans’ qualms, but the Indians, on paper, shouldn’t be a middling team, right? September should be about health, right?
In the end, the only thing that matters, to me, is whether or not the team is performing to the best of their abilities, taking into account the ups and downs of a season. There are always bumps in the road, as the injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar taught Indians fans last year. Last year’s team felt like it clicked on every level, even without the duo in September. This year, it’s just felt different.
Which brings us to the division. The Central is terrible. It really is. There’s a small part of me that wonders if all of the Indians struggles this year are some sorta subconscious non-worry. Stranger things have happened. Minnesota is now .500, and the Tigers and White Sox are on the wrong side of .500.
The Royals have been closing their window since their World Series victory two seasons ago, and while they still have a solid core of veterans that have played together since their title, their team just isn’t the same as it used to be.
But they’re interesting. They have four players with a 2 fWAR or better offensively in Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Whit Merrifield and Salvador Perez. Eric Hosmer isn’t far behind at 1.6, and Jorge Bonifacio is at 1.2. There isn’t a cornerstone player there anymore, but you can see that they still have interesting offense, just not exceptional offense.
Their rotation is aging, with the 34-year old Jason Vargas and Jason Hammel, but anchored by Danny Duffy. None of the three are aces, but Duffy is a solid starter, Vargas is wily, and they just added Trevor Cahill, who has been an underlying want for many Indians’ fans. Their rotation isn’t great, but it’s good.
The staple of the Indians past has been their bullpen, but the days of their bullpen being the best in the league are long gone. Joakim Soria is still there, and is having a great season, as is Mike Minor. The relief pitchers they added from the Padres, lefty Ryan Buchter and righty Brandon Maurer will add to their depth, but aren’t big splashes by any stretch.
On paper, the Royals should be dealing assets to get better in the near future while they can. Hosmer, Cain, Vargas, Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, and now Trevor Cahill, are all free agents after the season, and while each will be interesting additions to contenders in 2018, only Cain may be regarded as a “franchise” sort of player, and even he’s entering his age 32-year. So in this regard, the fact that the Royals are still in the game is a good thing for the Indians, likely this year, but also in years to come. By “going all in,” they are now going to face a difficult task rebuilding. They lose their ability to acquire young talent, and with a system that is fairly barren already, it’s going to be a long haul for them, even if they re-sign a few of their players to market contracts.
But the fact that they’re still in it leaves me uncomfortable. I’ve been discussing the word “variance” with a lot of my baseball-minded friends, and that word is starting to keep me up at night. Last season, the Indians came one run away from a World Series, with Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin and a bullpen. This is no knock on the Indians. They were a good team last year, but they were one big hit away.
Francona seemingly pulled all the right strings throughout the playoffs, but ran out of strings when Michael Martinez stepped to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the tenth inning.
Strange things happen in baseball, which brings me back to 2017.
The Indians are the best team in the American League Central. The Indians are the best team in the American League. The Indians have one of the best two or three offenses in the American League. The Indians have a top two or three bullpen in all of baseball. The Indians rotation has two of the top ten starters in all of baseball. The Indians are a top five or six team in all of baseball.
All fact, right? Walk through those questions again, and think about the roster, when healthy. Carlos Santana at first…Jason Kipnis at second…Francisco Lindor at short…Jose Ramirez at third…Michael Brantley in left…Bradley Zimmer in center…Lonnie Chisenhall in right…Yan Gomes/Roberto Perez in center…Corey Kluber as the ace…Carlos Carrasco as the other ace…Danny Salazar throwing 97…Andrew Miller the best reliever in baseball…Cody Allen a top five closer.
That’s a roster both loaded with All-Stars, and with World Series veterans. That’s a roster in its prime. That’s a roster you talk “windows” about.
So why in the hell are we still talking about the Royals? Why in the hell are we still making excuses? Why in the hell are we ecstatic about a four game win streak, while looking back at losers of 6 of 7?
And there are the Royals, 1 1/2 games back, winners of six in a row, and have just made a splash before the trade deadline. They’re a veteran team, that play well together, and feel like their backs are against the wall. It feels a little like they’re about to crank out the William Wallace speech from Braveheart. Of course, we know how that movie played out, and the non-statistical fear that I have of the Royals being close honestly makes no sense at all. No, I don’t think the Royals are better than the Indians. Yeah, I think the Indians are going to win the division, and the American League, and make a serious run for the World Series again.
But Damn it Indians…put them down already…
…because Variance scares the hell out of me.
It’s a beautiful day…
Musically, I’m all over the place, and while U2 has never been my favorite band, the one thing I’ve always loved about them has been their seemingly good place with each other. Sure, there have been documented cases of them hating each other, the same as any other band (or marriage, for that matter), but they’ve never stopped putting out albums, and they’ve sort of avoided the drama that follows most bands (or Cleveland sports teams).
So here’s a couple from U2, still heathy, fighting the good fight, and finding ways to stay relevant 30 years later.
In honor of their Joshua Tree tour, not my favorite song of the album, but my favorite video: “Where the Streets Have No Name,”:
And for those that are saddened by the past 18 months of rock tragedies, it really is a “Beautiful Day.” The Indians are in first, and it can only get better, right?