The year was 2011. Barack Obama was still in his first term. The Arab Spring had fully sprung, as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek resigned after years of corruption. Controversial silent Oscar winner The Artist had just hit theaters. The biggest pop star on Earth was Katy Perry, whose album Teenage Dream was a legitimate sensation. Packers legend turned Jets fiasco turned Vikings playoff goat Brett Favre had retired for the final time.
The day was May 23 when the Cleveland Indians were 30-15. They were seven games ahead of the second place Detroit Tigers and 15.5 ahead of the defending AL Central champion Minnesota Twins, and showing no signs of slowing down. Grady Sizemore had turned around his injury-plagued 2010, with a .282/.333/.641 batting line in 84 plate appearances. He’d surely be the comeback player of the year, unless his teammate Travis Hafner, looking more svelte than during his prime, snatched it for himself. Asdrubal Cabrera had made the Indians’ plan to dump Jhonny Peralta look like a wise one, and Matt LaPorta was finally easing the blow of the CC Sabathia from three years prior. Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin had ERAs of 2.50 and 2.41, respectively, and top prospect Alex White had been summoned and immediately shone in his limited time. The two most disappointing members of the team? Carloses, Santana and Carrasco.
I’m not fooling anyone here—we all remember what happened that season. Or, more accurately, we probably don’t remember, but that’s kind of the point. The Manny Acta-led Indians would go 50-67 after May 23, culminating with an 80-82 record fifteen games behind Detroit. The only first-stringer who performed significantly better over that stretch was Santana; Cabrera, Hafner, Sizemore, and Tomlin all floundered or ailed. Alex White was a Rockie. Matt LaPorta would play 89 more games in his MLB career. Despite the 30-15 start, that team truly stunk. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. The next season, the Indians were 25-18 on May 23, but would go 43-76 the rest of the way. Acta was fired, Tito was hired, and the Tribe would win 92 games in 2013.
The 2019 Indians team is undoubtedly a flawed one, as Twitter never fails to belabor. This past offseason, the Indians made some decisions which, at the time, raised eyebrows among the fanbase. Allowing Michael Brantley to walk, without even extending a qualifying offer (QO), was a decision based on his durability, not his play. This wasn’t an irrational move! Sure, hindsight has been cruel, as Brantley is putting together what could be his finest year, but the Indians didn’t have the benefit of hindsight. All they had was one good season separating Brantley from a track record of extreme fragility. Had I been the Indians’ director of baseball operations, I think I would have offered him the QO, but it wouldn’t have been an easy decision by any stretch. On the other hand, flipping Yandy Diaz to Tampa Bay without ever giving him an opportunity to prove his worth is less justifiable, even for a former Top 50 prospect in Jake Bauers.
Had Cleveland hoarded Diaz and signed Brantley to the one year, $18MM qualifying offer, the Indians record would likely be improved by only a few wins; they would still find themselves in a deep hole, several games behind the surging Minnesota Twins. Do not fear, though, Indians fans—learn from the 2011 example. The MLB season is 162 games long for a reason: it often takes that many games to determine teams’ true talent. In fact, I sifted through the years to record the winning percentages of every Indians team from Game One to May 23, and then May 24 to the rest of the season in order to determine their relatedness. The resulting correlation coefficient is a shade under .4, which indicates a fairly weak level of association between pre- and post-May 23 performance. The naked eye agrees as you can see below.
The average difference between the winning percentage is .08; should the Indians improve by this amount over the rest of the season, they would finish with a record of 92-70. History is rife with examples of teams overcoming disappointing starts or blowing huge divisional leads. Of course, by no means are the Indians guaranteed to improve at all, but history shows they’re unlikely to continue their current pace, as are the Twins and every other MLB team. Furthermore, perhaps it’s just circumstantial, but the Indians have significantly outperformed their early season performances in each of the last five seasons.
Need further proof? Read this excellent piece written by the brilliant Jeff Sullivan last summer on the same topic. The projection systems still believe the Indians to be a superior team to the Twins; Mike Clevinger should be returning to the club sometime next month, and Corey Kluber could follow soon after. Jose Ramirez is still Jose Ramirez, batting average be damned. Most excitingly, we could be in store for an actual, real-life division race, something the Indians haven’t been involved with since 2013.
Paul Dolan, in a tone-deaf manner, admonished Cleveland fans to “enjoy” star shortstop Francisco Lindor before he leaves for free agency in three years, and his defeatist mentality soured the fanbase, myself included before the season had even begun. Please, let him have it—picketing outside of Progressive Field in protest of his fatalistic comments would be an awesome development—Cleveland fans deserve better. However, in regard to the massive wave of despondency and cynicism about the actual team among the fanbase, what do you have to gain with this attitude? Emotional protection, maybe? The vindication of being right, perhaps? How is that any fun? This is largely the same team that finished one win away from a World Series championship, the one that won 22 consecutive games. Wade through the defeatism, everyone; there’s still plenty of joy to be had.