On Wednesday, June 14, the Cleveland Indians were 31-31. They sat two games behind the first-place Twins in the AL Central and 11.5 games behind Houston for the best record in the American League. Last season Cleveland won 94 games and came as close to winning the World Series as you can without actually winning it—up 3-1 after four games, tied in Game 7 at home. But they started 2017 slowly, slogging to a record that would’ve generated national media attention if the defending champion Cubs hadn’t crawled to a, well, not worse, exactly, but noisier mid-June record.
Since June 14, Cleveland is 53-25, the best record in the American League, and the second best in baseball after the Dodgers, who went 41-10 in June and July. They’ve opened up an 11-game lead on Minnesota in the AL Central and closed the deficit to Houston for home-field advantage to 2.5 games. And for as much as the Astros look like they’ve struggled over the past three months, they’ve still got the American League’s second-best record since June 14; it’s not like Cleveland ran down the 2007 Mets.
Somewhere during Cleveland’s current 15-game winning streak (tied for the longest in MLB since 2002, much to the delight of Universal Windows Direct customers) a certain lurking truth became clear: The team that ran through the American League playoffs last year like a well-honed knife through a soggy tomato is back, and, in several important respects, it’s better than ever.
Part of defending an American League title is just bringing back what worked last season, and Cleveland’s done that in multiple key areas. Francisco Lindor (106 OPS+ in 2016, 108 in 2017) is hitting for more power, but is more or less the same player he was last year. Trevor Bauer goosed his K/9 by 26.8 percent, but has about the same league-adjusted run prevention numbers as he did last season. First baseman Carlos Santana is also putting up similar numbers (.259/.366/.498 in 2016; .260/.366/.471 in 2017), as is the backbone of the most celebrated bullpen of the 2016 season: Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, who is on the DL with tendinitis in his right knee, but is expected to be 100 percent by the playoffs.
Getting those players to perform at 2016 levels is important because last year Terry Francona had to manage harder than any other playoff-bound field boss. He platooned aggressively, he rewrote his rotation for each round of the playoffs, and he rode Miller like a college closer. Francona had stars to call on, but he also had to press more buttons than his competitors did—and press more of them correctly. He might do that again this October, but it’s far from a certainty that everything will go so right again. It’d make Francona’s life—and the lives of everyone invested in Cleveland’s success—much easier if he could just write a good left fielder, for instance, into the lineup, rather than cobbling one together out of two platoon bats and a defensive replacement.
In fact, several key players for Cleveland have already dropped off. Josh Tomlin, who started two games in the World Series, was a league-average pitcher last year. This year his ERA is 5.20. Jason Kipnis, a four-win player for Cleveland in 2016, has been hurt off and on all season and has posted just a 77 OPS+ when he’s been in the lineup. Center fielder Tyler Naquin (128 OPS+ as a rookie in 2016) posted just a 46 OPS+ so far this season, leading to his replacement by Bradley Zimmer, another rookie, who’s hit just .246/.309/.392, an 80 OPS+. Brandon Guyer, who was essentially Josh Donaldson against lefties last year, is hitting like Josh Phegley this year.
But Cleveland’s been able to weather those concerns not just because guys like Lindor, Bauer, and Allen have been as good as they were last season, but because so many other players are better than they were in 2016.
For some, that’s just a matter of health. Carlos Carrasco isn’t materially different this year compared with last year, but unless he takes another line drive off his pitching hand, he’ll be healthy for the playoffs. The same goes for Danny Salazar, whose ERA was nearly a run lower last year, but had a forearm strain derail what could have been a Cy Young–caliber campaign and limit him to a pair of mop-up appearances in the World Series. Now he’s healthy, with a league-average ERA and peripheral numbers that say he should be even better. Michael Brantley missed almost all but 11 games in 2016 with a shoulder injury, but this year he returned to the All-Star Game, and though he’s on the DL with a sprained ankle, he should be healthy for the playoffs.
The return of Carrasco and Salazar in particular should keep Francona from having to start Ryan Merritt and his 87 mph fastball in the ALCS again this year. But Merritt somehow has a 1.74 ERA in 20.2 innings this year, so the diminutive Texan might be magical. But while Wenger’s Law dictates that players returning from injury are like new signings, Cleveland’s gone out and acquired a couple of big bats over the past 12 months.
Edwin Encarnación isn’t hitting like he did during his best years in Toronto, but his .256/.381/.501 line is a marked improvement over Mike Napoli’s .239/.335/.465 line in 2016. (Encarnación has spent most of the year at DH, moving Santana to first to replace the departed Napoli.) Midseason acquisition Jay Bruce is hitting .278/.354/.542 since returning to Ohio, and with Bruce and Brantley in the lineup, the corner-outfield spots look more like the offensive engine rooms they should be, as opposed to last October, when Francona had to platoon and play matchups to hide the weaknesses of Guyer, Rajai Davis, and Lonnie Chisenhall.
Speaking of Chisenhall, though, he’s nearly doubled his walk rate and added more than 100 points of isolated power since 2016, when he was a league-average bat against righties who had to sit against lefties. Chisenhall now has the highest wRC+ on the team and the 10th-highest wRC+ among MLB outfielders (minimum 200 PA), one spot ahead of Dodgers phenom Cody Bellinger.
Chisenhall isn’t the only breakout player. Last year Mike Clevinger was a 25-year-old rookie swingman most famous for his cocker spaniel haircut. Clevinger was about replacement level in 53 innings in 2016, but in 100.1 innings this season, he’s brought up his K% from 21.5 to 27.3 and his ERA down from 5.26 to 3.50. Only nine pitchers in baseball have thrown more innings with a better ERA+ and strikeout rate this year, and Clevinger’s DRA (4.01) indicates that he’s getting a little lucky, but not that lucky.
Clevinger pitching like Carrasco is evidence enough of how many breaks the Indians are getting, but the improvements don’t end there. Cleveland’s catchers are hitting .225/.308/.374—catcher is Cleveland’s worst position, according to Baseball-Reference’s WAA. But even that’s an enormous improvement over 2016, when Cleveland’s catchers hit .182/.242/.316.
There was nowhere for backstops Roberto Pérez and Yan Gomes to go but up, but Corey Kluber and José Ramírez looked like they’d already hit their ceilings in 2016. That turns out not to be the case: Ramírez was a four-win player at age 23, and in his age-24 season, he’s doing everything well that he did last year, plus he’s added about 100 points of slugging and has played more second base, since Kipnis has been hurt. That means that with three weeks to go in the season, he’s already at 5.2 wins, sixth among American League position players.
Meanwhile, the 31-year-old Kluber, who missed most of May with a back injury, has been better than ever since his return. Kluber won the AL Cy Young Award in 2014 and easily could have won another last year—both with performances that pale in comparison with his 2017 rate stats. He’s currently within a rounding error of a career-low walk rate and he’s on pace to demolish his career bests in strikeout rate, hit rate, WHIP, and ERA+. Since June 1, Kluber has a 1.89 ERA with 194 strikeouts in 138.1 innings. In his last 18 starts, Kluber has an 11-strikeout, three-hit shutout, plus four other starts of at least eight innings and 10 strikeouts, and at most one earned run allowed.
The cumulative effect is that Cleveland is on pace to be 3.7 games better than it was last season and is outscoring its opponents by 1.4 runs per game, which not only beats last year’s mark of 0.6 runs per game, but it’s better than what the Dodgers and Astros are putting up this year. As a team, Cleveland is hitting .263/.340/.450, up from .262/.329/.430 last year. In 2016 Indians pitchers had a 119 ERA+ and a K/9 ratio of 8.7. This season they have a 135 ERA+ and a K/9 ratio of 10.0; Carrasco’s fourth in AL pitcher bWAR with almost exactly those rate stats.
Whether it’s because they play in flyover country, or because at various points in the season the Dodgers, Astros, and Yankees have sucked all the air out of the room, the Indians are still flying under the radar. By any measure, this Cleveland team is better than the one that took the Cubs to seven games last season, and the Indians are red hot and getting healthy at the right time.