Coming off their third straight AL Central title, the Cleveland Indians appeared to approach the 2019 off-season with the mindset of an incumbent to the throne – they were 2019 post season bound as of last November. In a flurry of moves and non-moves, the Tribe roster evolved into a state of economic efficiency – sacrificing costly marginal wins in favor of budget versions of the name brand. One can blame the front office for only so much. Projections had them a clear favorite to win the division even in spite of losing veterans such as Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, and Michael Brantley. Their projected cushion was a whopping 13 games per ZIPS and no doubt the Indians had their own in-house projections propping up their decision making. They were going to be a shoo-in for the Central, the playoffs are filled with random outcomes and payroll had reached a franchise high. The time seemed right for a redeployment.
The whole situation is reminiscent of an exchange on a Seinfeld episode. For the Tribe to lose the AL Central it would have to be our doing – or undoing as it may be. “Nobody tells me it’s them not me. If it’s anybody, it’s me.” Very Constanza-esque. This sentiment allowed the front office to circle the wagons around an elite corps of starting pitchers and hunker down for the playoffs; patching together a lineup and bullpen to be good enough. For the off-season and much of the regular season to date, this logic held water. The offense has struggled immensely, but the rotation has delivered for the most part and the bullpen has more than carried its weight. However, given the rash of injuries to Cleveland’s rotation, the state of the Indians offense and the exceptional play of an intradivisional foe, the standings and, perhaps more importantly, the projections have changed. We have had injuries. We have not hit the ball exceptionally well. We have had difficulty scoring and we seem to find a challenge in beating inferior opponents. But it now appears to no longer just be a we problem.
At just shy of the 25% mark into the 2019 season, the Indians find themselves looking up at the Minnesota Twins in the AL Central standings by four games. We should find solace in the fact that we are not alone. In fact, as of this writing, the Twins sport the best winning percentage in the entire league at .641. One would hope that we were built to absorb deficiencies in our lineup and/or in the bullpen. But we were not necessarily built to absorb these hurdles in addition to having the best team in baseball within our division.
This is not a write up pumping the greatness of the 2019 Twins – far from it. But their first 39 games into 2019 have done much to win favor with the pundits as well as the projectors. The same ZIPS projections that gave the Indians a super comfortable 13-game September cushion six weeks ago now project the Tribe to finish second in the AL Central. The Indians playoff odds have gone from 96% to 66% according to ZIPS while their odds of a World Series Title have been almost cut in half.
The problem is no longer solely on this side of the table. The projections only have the Cleveland down five wins from 96 to 91. But Minnesota now projects to an amazing 95 wins (up from 83). They are finding themselves inside the top 10 in almost all power rankings. The pomp and circumstance might just be legit. They currently rank second in wRC+ and wOBA and third in positional WAR. Their pitchers are seventh in ERA, eighth in FIP, and sixth in WAR. Their defensive WAR almost doubles the next closest team. Their bullpen, which by most accounts is their weakest link, ranks top half in FIP and ERA but top ten in WAR. They have no doubt come to play.
Granted, the Twins have played less than half of their games against sub .500 teams but the Indians have played exactly 25% of their games against sub .500 teams. Their schedule has been favorable when compared to the Twins. In spite of the weak strength of schedule, the Tribe offense remains a bottom-five offense in all of baseball and they remain behind the Twins.
For a team that appears to have banked on coasting into (at very least) the All-Star Game, the Indians find themselves in a dogfight with what has shown to be a superior opponent. From an outsiders perspective, you can see a clear difference in the energy of both teams. If passion mattered in the standings, the gap would be wider than four. The Indians have not scored fewer runs per game in 40 years. 1
Given the disparity in play, to be a mere four games out is a Godsend. You would be hard pressed to find an objective baseball person to admit that this is the best the Indians can be, but the fact of the matter is that this is no longer a battle against ourselves – working through the regular season to hone our playoff roster. Our Tribe has legitimate holes and we no longer have the luxury of coasting and hoping for a postseason run. The landscape has changed and we must adjust quickly. What started as a situation in which we controlled our own destiny has now devolved into a real conundrum – one which is no longer just a we problem.