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Appropriate levels of Indians playoff optimism: While We’re Waiting…

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On the eve of the 2018 American League playoffs: I can’t shake the memory of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcast back on Sept. 23.

That night, the Cleveland Indians won in walk-off fashion for a second straight evening against the Boston Red Sox. Throughout the broadcast, ESPN’s crew – Matt Vasgersian, Alex Rodriguez, Jessica Mendoza and Buster Olney – could not stop gushing about the Indians roster and the fate of Tito Francona’s ballclub in the upcoming postseason.

This is despite the fact the Indians, at 91-71, finished the regular season 17 games behind the Boston Red Sox (108-54). In fact, the Red Sox had the best regular season record in MLB history in 17 seasons, dating back to the historic 2001 Seattle Mariners (116-46). It’s an incredibly dominant Red Sox team!

During the broadcast, all four ESPN employees went around and gave their rankings of their four top American League playoff contenders. Around and around they went and unanimously agreed on one thing: The Cleveland Indians are a legit top-two team in the AL, despite having the fifth-best record out of the five playoff-qualifying teams.

As a Cleveland Indians fan: I was stunned. The broadcasters kept saying how they didn’t truly trust Boston in October yet again, after back-to-back seasons of quick, disappointing ALDS losses. Ultimately, the Red Sox finished the season on a 20-18 (.526) run after starting the year at 88-36 (.710). They had been on pace for a 115-win season before the late August and September swoon. The ESPN’ers were dismissing Boston nonchalantly off the bat.

From there, the crew kept saying how the New York Yankees (100-62) had numerous question marks, especially in the rotation. They questioned the World Series hangover for the Houston Astros (103-59). And some thought the Oakland Athletics (97-65) could survive the do-or-die Wild Card game, but none were terribly optimistic after that.

The broadcasters just kept going back and saying how this Cleveland Indians team is built for October, how it is better than the record indicates, and how they’re the team to beat. It was astounding to hear out loud on national primetime TV. Alex Rodriguez himself kept sharing painful memories of playing in front of the very loud Jacobs Field back in the ‘90s. But he was still gushing over the prospects for this current Indians team.

Let’s not understate anything: This is quite mathematically the most challenging playoff bracket ever for the Indians to overcome. This was the first time ever that a single league featured three 100-win clubs (Boston, Houston, New York). For there to be three 100-win clubs overall is rare enough for all of MLB; that has only occurred seven times itself.

But this is a 91-win Indians team that could be the fourth partner in such an ALDS square dance (assuming New York fends off Oakland in the Wild Card on Thursday). And it’s a 91-win Indians team that feasted on a historically bad AL Central: Cleveland was 49-27 (.645) in division play and 42-44 (.488) against all other teams1.

Last season, the Indians were the defending AL Champs and just won 102 games. They were facing off against the 91-win Wild Card Yankees. On the eve of the 2017 AL Playoffs, I warned about the coin-flip odds and how rare it can be for 100-win teams to actually face off in the postseason … which happened eventually for the Astros and Dodgers in the World Series.

To some extent, despite the Indians and Astros both being division winners in 2018, the narrative feels somewhat flip-flopped. The pressure is more on the defending champion Astros; as the underdogs, the Indians can sneak up, despite the hype coming from the ESPN love-fest. Coin-flip odds sound pretty good in comparison!

These Astros were even better on paper than the still-quite-great record indicates. They led baseball with a plus-263 run differential. Their starting pitching was top-five; their bullpen the very best; Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve are two of the very best at their respective positions. Who cares about any hangover: This is a really damn good baseball team.

And the Indians honestly have question marks! Corey Kluber has not looked like his 2016 self, let alone Cody Allen or Andrew Miller. Yan Gomes says he’ll be ready for Game 1; if not are we really ready for lots and lots of playoff plate appearances for Roberto Perez? Do we even know what replacement-level position players will round out the roster? The bullpen has been shaky all season.

This weekend should be raucous. Almost two weeks later, I’m still reeling with how optimistic ESPN happened to be about an underdog Cleveland baseball team’s October prospects. It didn’t really make logical sense. But then again, does October baseball ever make sense?

  1. Note: Three other teams actually had larger differences in division versus non-division winning percentages. Kansas City was .474 in division play and .256 otherwise. Oakland was .500 in division play and .686 otherwise. And the Atlanta Braves were right dang near close to the Indians with a .645 division mark and .477 outside division mark. []