On Friday afternoon in Houston, Cleveland will play its first meaningful baseball game in a year. That might sound like an exaggeration, but Terry Francona could have treated the whole regular season like extended spring training and his club still would have coasted to its third consecutive division title. So weak was the rest of the AL Central, which finished with an average record of 66-96, that Cleveland’s odds of winning the division never dropped below 85 percent all season and never dropped below 98 percent after June 26.
The issue, as Cleveland attempts to return to the World Series, is that this lack of competition allowed the club to succeed in the regular season despite not satisfactorily answering a number of seemingly basic questions: Is the lineup deep enough to score consistently? Is the bullpen reliable? Can Cleveland actually beat good teams? Unless it can answer all three questions in the affirmative, Cleveland—my preseason pick as World Series winner, and a team that’s talented enough to accomplish that feat—won’t advance far through a tricky playoff field.
Let’s take those three areas of concern in order. First, the offense, which was sufficiently productive through September—Cleveland scored the third-most runs in the majors, behind only the Red Sox and Yankees—but could be exploited this month. While the top of the lineup boasts a quartet of powerful bats in Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley, José Ramírez, and Edwin Encarnación, the bottom is underpowered. Cleveland’s one-through-four hitters combined for a 123 wRC+ while its five-through-nine hitters contributed a collective 88 in the regular season, and while a disparity is to be expected, Cleveland’s drop-off was particularly pronounced: Its 35-point difference was tied for second largest in the AL, behind only the Betts-and-Martinez Red Sox and tied with the Trout-and-Ohtani Angels.
Perhaps the biggest indictment of the lineup is that outside the top four hitters, Melky Cabrera, who’s on his third AL Central team in the past two seasons, managed the best per-plate-appearance production (min. 150 PA). That’s a far cry from lineups like those of the Yankees, which features Gleyber Torres as the no. 9 hitter, and Dodgers, whose bench players could all start in Cleveland. It also makes Cleveland, perhaps, an October rarity: a team with a lineup that affords opposing pitchers “rest” innings instead of posing a constant threat, thereby allowing the likes of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole this weekend to conserve energy for the top of the order while still carving up a third or more of the lineup with ease. Rather than be an additional luxury for the lineup, August acquisition Josh Donaldson (.280/.400/.520 in 60 PA with Cleveland) might need to play well for Cleveland to maintain its pace at the plate.
The bullpen also presents a significant reason for consternation, and in this case, it’s because of the regular-season performance, not in spite of it. In 2017, Cleveland’s pitchers ranked first in starter WAR and second in reliever WAR; this season, they were once again first for starters but tumbled to 27th for relievers, besting only the Mets’, Marlins’, and Royals’ feeble pens. Cleveland’s relievers allowed 1.5 homers per nine innings this year, which is the worst for any playoff team in league history.
Even now, after some trade-deadline spackle, Francona’s bullpen is a mess. In July, Cleveland traded its top prospect, catcher Francisco Mejía, to San Diego for relievers Brad Hand and Adam Cimber, and while that plan has worked with Hand, the sidearming Cimber has added to the problem. His strikeout rate in Cleveland is one-third of what it was in San Diego while his walk rate has ballooned, and he has simply lost the strike zone: Before the trade, Cimber led all 464 pitchers with at least 250 pitches thrown in zone rate, but after moving to Cleveland, he ranked 208th.
That trade was necessary because Francona’s stalwart relievers from Octobers past struggled throughout the season’s first half, and they have continued along that path since the pen received reinforcements. Closer Cody Allen went the wrong way with all three true outcomes, finishing with career worsts (besides his abbreviated first year) in strikeout rate, walk rate, and home run rate; at both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, he was worth exactly 0 WAR, meaning a generic Triple-A arm could have replaced him and produced identical results.
Andrew Miller, meanwhile, spent the season shuttling from Progressive Field to the disabled list and back, and his performance suffered accordingly: His ERA tripled from last season and, at 4.24, represented his worst mark by far since becoming a reliever. Even after he returned for good from the DL in September, he allowed runs in four of 10 appearances for a 6.30 ERA, and even if those results were evidence of rust, he’s not the multi-inning, paradigm-shifting Miller of 2016 anymore. He didn’t throw two full innings in any game this season and recorded more appearances of two outs or fewer than appearances of four outs or more.
Cleveland’s best reliever by results in the regular season was somehow Oliver Pérez, who produced his most valuable campaign since 2008. Including Pérez, the team’s top four relievers by fWAR are all left-handed (though Tyler Olson didn’t even make the ALDS roster), which might be a problem against an Astros lineup with George Springer, José Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa.
Zooming out, the third Cleveland concern veers toward the conceptual rather than the roster-specific: Does a season spent clobbering second-class teams properly prepare a team for the playoffs—especially, as in Cleveland’s case, when the team in question struggled against other playoff-caliber teams in the regular season?
Six other AL teams finished with winning records; Cleveland lost its season series with the Astros, Yankees, Athletics, Mariners, and Rays, and it beat Boston 4-3 only after catching the Red Sox during a hangover series in September. Overall, Cleveland finished 23-31 against teams that were better than .500, which was the worst for any 2018 playoff team. The team also played just 54 such games, while no other team played fewer than 71; the Reds, Giants, and Padres all played at least twice as many.
That imbalance could skew perception of the team’s individual players and their performances too. Starter Carlos Carrasco, for instance, was the most valuable pitcher in the American League after the All-Star break, but he benefited in that stretch from facing 11 below-.500 teams—eight of them Central foes—in 14 games. Against weak competition, Carrasco amassed a 6-2 record and 1.49 ERA while allowing an opposing .199/.243/.296 slash line. Against stronger competition, though—one game against Boston and two against Tampa—Carrasco stumbled to a 6.88 ERA and a .324/.364/.620 slash line. That latter set of statistics isn’t his true talent, of course, and he wouldn’t expect to fare so poorly in the playoffs. But the point stands that he might not look quite so dominant against Houston, Boston, or New York.
Here, at least, Cleveland can turn to precedent for an encouraging counter to its worrisome 2018. In the six-division era (since 1995), teams that went .500 or better against good teams in the regular season went 543-537 in the playoffs, good for a 50.3 percent win rate. Teams that were below .500 against good teams in the regular season went 223-229, for a 49.3 percent win rate. That’s an imperceptibly small difference, which suggests Cleveland has nothing to worry about. Numerous teams, from World Series winners (the 2010 and 2014 Giants, 2008 Phillies, 2006 Cardinals, 2002 Angels, 2001 Diamondbacks, and 2000 Yankees) to runner-ups (2016 Indians, 2015 Mets, 2014 Royals, 2010 Rangers, 2005 Astros, and 1997 Indians), have passed October tests despite struggling to defeat top competition in April through September.
And despite all the disquiet stemming from its regular-season malaise, Cleveland has the star power to make a deep playoff run. The starting rotation is notably not a concern, with Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger all ranking in the top 15 in pitcher WAR this season, so the reliever worries might not prove as pressing. And on offense, Lindor, Ramírez, and friends could do for Cleveland what Altuve and Co. did for Houston last season, when the Astros parlayed dominance from the top of the order into a title despite a collective slump from the bottom half.
The ultimate takeaway from Cleveland’s regular season is perplexity, because it’s not often that a team with so much latent talent displays so many conflicting signs. Even its record is a point of confusion: On the one hand, Cleveland won the fewest games of any AL playoff team despite playing in one of the worst divisions in MLB history, which seems discouraging; on the other, the team also underperformed its run differential by a whopping seven games, which suggests bad luck was at least a partial culprit.
Yet for a team that reached extra innings of Game 7 of the World Series two years ago and then lost a 2-0 ALDS lead last season, the narrative of Cleveland’s 2018 season was always going to be written in October anyway. It’s hard to put much faith in lessons from the last six months when the team’s season, and story, could come down to a handful of evenly matched games against the defending World Series champion. But that’s the playoffs, and that’s the stratified American League in 2018. The baseball world eagerly anticipated a Houston-Cleveland series last season; even after a 12-month wait, the series should be a blast.