Baseball is not setup to be an easy game. Hitting a round ball that travels with varying spin rates and flight paths anywhere from 75 to 100 miles per hour with a cylindrical bat is as difficult a task as making those bats miss while fitting the ball into a tightly framed window that is the strike zone. Even the best hitters in baseball will go through prolonged slumps of hitting hard outs directly at defenders- just ask the Baltimore Orioles Manny Machado from the first half of 2017. Even the best teams in baseball will go through prolonged slumps where they cannot seem to obtain easy wins- just ask the current Los Angeles Dodgers who both have the best record in MLB and have lost 16-of-17 games.
Sporting News contributor and current United States Marine, Ryan Spaeder, put the 19-game current win streak in perspective from a statistical perspective. A 50-50 coin flip would land on heads 19 times in a row with 1-in-524,228 odds. The 2017 Cleveland Indians are better than a .500 team though as their 88-56 record puts them winning just over 60% of the time. Those odds would be 1-in-16,410. Even if the Tribe was considered a .750 team, the odds of winning 19 straight would be 1-in-237, which is less than half of a percent.
As the Indians have out scored the opposition by a crisp 100 runs during the streak (132-32), ESPN Stats & Info noted it is the biggest run differential in any 19 game sample (not just winning streaks) since the 1939 New York Yankees led by some 24 year old kid named Joe DiMaggio. Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs wrote a detailed article about how the Indians pitching staff might be the best baseball has ever seen. Yes, better than any of the 1990s Atlanta Braves, 1930s Yankees or early 1900s Chicago Cubs staffs.
For overall teams, the golden standard for fans of the Indians has always been the 1995 squad, who blended ridiculous hitting with a dominant bullpen and good enough starting pitching. Can this 2017 team be better than the one who came within an expanded strike zone and a David Justice home run of winning the World Series?
Well, the 1995 Indians played 144 games. After Monday, the 2017 Indians have played 144 games. Let’s compare.1
Team Value Breakdowns
Value can be a tricky item to nail down, which is why it is good to utilize multiple sites and algorithms to ensure nothing is missed. It is not a perfect measure, but is a nice snapshot in time of how well a team performed.
Whether using Fangraphs or Baseball Reference, the 1995 Cleveland Indians had a high value coming from their bats. The 27.8 number even includes a negative effect from the fielding, which was less than stellar outside of Omar Vizquel at shortstop and Kenny Lofton roaming center field. Having the bats of Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and Albert Belle- among others- was well enough to compensate for any ill effect in the field. The somewhat surprising aspect is the projected end of season WAR from the current club is approaching that 1995 team in value though they will need the extra 18 games the 95 squad never had to get there. With 144-of-162 games in the books, it is not as if the projections should be far off of the final numbers either.
No one should be shocked to see the rotation edge go to the current Tribe team. Orel Hershiser, Dennis Martinez, and Charles Nagy were a wily bunch, but they cannot compare to Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and the rest of the aces today. Some might have forgotten just how good the bullpen was in 1995 though. Before Jose Mesa was reviled after the 1997 World Series, he was throwing a 1.14 ERA over 64 innings for that 95 team. Julian Tavares (2.44 ERA, 85 IP), Eric Plunk (2.67 ERA, 64 IP), and Paul Assenmacher (2.82 ERA, 38.1 IP) were each key pieces of a shutdown backend staff. The fact that Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, and the rest have matched those efforts is remarkable.
There is a reason the 1995 team was known for their power. They led MLB in home runs, were second in isolated power, and at or near the top in a number of other power related categories. Just as impressive though was their ability to get on base. As such, they also led MLB in on base percentage and wRC+. Those of us that remember the many come-from-behind wins know that team did their best work in high leverage situations, which is why their WPA was not only the best in MLB but by a ridiculous margin.
Even though the 2017 team could wind up hitting more home runs (in 18 more games) and match that 1995 team in isolated power, the overall profile falls just short. The current squad does not get on base quite as much, which hurts both the on base percentage and wRC+. Having the overall value, power, and MLB ranks even be a comparison to that hitting-first team though is amazing. The one area where the 2017 team has not matched the 1995 one is in high leverage. The team has rather infamously fell well below their Pythagorean expected record, which can be traced back to early season struggles with runners in scoring position. Being “clutch” is not supposed to be a predictive statistic, and the current team hopes it is not as it is the lone offensive measure where the team is in the middle-of-the-pack.
The 90s era had far less strikeouts, which is why the MLB ranks are more indicative than the actual numbers. Both teams were able to fare well in comparisons across their leagues. The 95 bullpen actually did relatively better in striking out and strikeout-to-walk ratio compared to their era though it is splitting hairs as both teams were Top 4 across the board. The 2017 team appears hurt in WPA based on the cumulative statistic above, but it should be noted the Indians have been dominating the opponents in so many of these recent wins, the bullpen has not had high leverage innings with which to continue to compile numbers there. A good problem to have.
Here is where the 2017 ballclub separates. Look at those MLB ranks. They are first in just about every single peripheral statistic with ERA being the lone outlier in their profile sitting at No. 4. Some early season defensive and cluster issues- especially with Trevor Bauer- contributed to their ERA underperforming their FIP. The current run though is absolutely ridiculous. It is unfathomable- without fathom- for a team to have an 18 game stretch where only one starter has given up as many as four runs (Danny Salazar in what amounted to a rehabilitation start) after Trevor Bauer gave up four runs to start off the 19-game winning streak (Indians beat Boston Red Sox 13-6).
The 1995 Indians will hold a special place in the hearts of all fans who were able to witness that particular team. The Tribe had not even threatened to make the MLB postseason since the 1958 season before moving into Jacob’s Field in 1994. When the strike cancelled the inaugural season, the 95 squad came back with a vengeance and obliterated MLB. Having the Browns leave in the aftermath of losing the World Series to the Atlanta Braves also rallied the entire community around the team in a way that might be impossible for anyone in any city to replicate.
This 2017 Indians ballclub is special too. MLB is pushing efforts to make Frankie Lindor one of the faces of baseball. His energy and effusive smile make people who do not care about baseball want to watch. The team is also coming off of heartbreak though theirs was the result of losing the World Series rather than being denied a chance at one. That the front office was able to bolster the squad with players such as Edwin Encarnacion, Austin Jackson, and Jay Bruce have made the current iteration even more dangerous than last years. The seemingly never-ending supply of prospects who can utilize their tools at the MLB level has allowed the team to perform despite an also never-ending run of injuries.
So, which team is better between the 1995 and 2017 Indians? The numbers would tilt the scales slightly in favor of the team playing to win an American League record 20 games in a row tonight behind AL Cy Young Award candidate Corey Kluber. However, it truly doesn’t matter. Tribe fans can revel in the fact there have been multiple teams within a lifespan of such dominance for which to root and cheer.
Now, let’s go get No. 20 tonight and watch as the Indians make their bid to return the World Series back to the Northcoast for the first time since 1948.
- A big thanks to WFNY reader Frank Ryan for pointing out the article was even more timely than first anticipated. [↩]