Well, it’s July 1st and the 2016 Cleveland Indians currently sit at 48-30, good enough for first place in the AL Central, in addition hold a six game-lead over the defending World Series Champion Kansas City Royals. Not only are they sitting higher than expected with their win percentage, they are the hottest team in all of baseball and refuse to lose, riding a red-hot 14 game winning streak and haven’t lost since their basketball neighbors took home the NBA Championship. In those last 14 games they have outscored their opponents by a whopping 80-26 proving it’s not just their bats that are firing on all cylinders, their pitching has perfectly complemented what has been total dominance by the Tribe over the past two weeks.
The Indians last held a division lead this large at this point of the season in 2011, when an over-matched and inexperienced roster disappeared in the second half. This team isn’t and shouldn’t be concerned with the past or the future, just the present, as this group is a 100% different animal. With seven division titles since 1995, and no World Series appearances since a 1997 loss to the Marlins, the Indians are looking for their first World Series win in 68 years and have primed themselves very well for baseball glory.
Although we can’t come to conclusions and pick the Indians as World Series favorites because of a hot streak in June, we need to first do our due diligence and ask ourselves: is this sustainable? Is this team for real? Or is this just a random spike soon to be forgotten within the next month? Let’s break it down and explore the Indians’ game-changers:
A great mix of old and new is what the Cleveland Indians have deployed for the most part this season and they are showing it’s working. From 36 year-old Juan Uribe to 22 year-old Francisco Lindor, Cleveland has shown a wide age gap throughout parts of their lineup and it could be their secret to success. Old veterans like Rajai Davis, Juan Uribe, and Mike Napoli are serving as great mentors from some young guns like Jose Ramirez, Tyler Naquin, and especially Francisco Lindor.
Now, before we get into some X-factors of the Indians lineup, obvious candidates for best team contributor like Mr. Reliable Jason Kipnis, and “know what you’re gonna get from him everyday” Carlos Santana have been left out of this analysis.
Hidden in the shadows when talking about the great superstars of the Major Leagues is the 22 year-old mentioned above, Francisco Lindor. Heavily overlooked as not only the best shortstop in all of baseball, but possibly the most overlooked player in the game. Lindor is proving more and more each day why he should be regarded as the league’s best shortstop, and it is a shame that he isn’t. In a very strong age of great young shortstops it’s easy to name off promising athletes like Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Trevor Story, or even Manny Machado, (if you’d like to recognize him as one) however, the effect Lindor has had on this Indians club is ridiculous, and it’s time he gets his recognition.
Lindor upholds a very respectable slash lines of 304/.362/.462, he is also second in runs scored and hits out of all qualified shortstops. Through 299 at-bats, he’s only struck out 43 times, successfully stolen a base on 13 out-of-16 attempts and has the 6th best wRC+ out of all shortstops. Impressive. The case that Lindor is basically ignored as the game’s top shortstop is 100% real. Although he isn’t tops in any particular category, across the board he sits beautifully in all of them proving just how good he is all-around on both sides of the ball with being the top AL shortstop in defensive runs saved over the last two seasons. A .304 BA supported by a .323 BABIP shows proof that an average above .290 for the year is a definite reality. The switch-hitting 2011 draft pick is also on pace to destroy his career high HR total of 12, sitting at 10 with still a week and a half to go before the All-Star break.
We also have to remember that Lindor is doing all of this at a shortstop position where offensive standards are incredibly lower in comparison to others. This makes him a very rare commodity with insane upside. A Gold Glove caliber 22 year-old SS who is also an advanced hitter might be the most important item in all of baseball. There may be great shortstops around the league with incredible individual skills like Bogaerts’ ability to hit for a high AVG, Correa’s ability to pound HR, Andrelton Simmons’ amazing defensive abilities but no other shortstop in the game today is the whole, and legit package like Lindor.
Tyler Naquin is a young 25 year-old outfielder who wasn’t even supposed to get regular at-bats on this team, but he’s made the most out of Michael Brantley’s absence this season. Drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the 33rd round of the 2009 June Amateur Draft, Naquin climbed 32 rounds in the draft three years later and found himself becoming a first rounder for the Indians.
Through 143 plate appearances, Naquin has also been a sneaky, and important piece in the Indians’ winning streak. He is currently slashing an incredibly impressive .328/.390/.602 while smashing 6 HR, and 17 RBI. What makes Naquin so valuable is his ability to run the bases and stretch some lightly hit balls into extra base hits, while also using his speed greatly in the outfield as well. He won’t kill you with the long ball, but we all know riding a carousel full of doubles is just as beneficial as a big fly. Naquin is slowly, and quietly solidifying himself as one of the best bats in any bottom portion of a lineup. Although Brantley’s return is inevitable at some point this year, it is going to be near impossible to not keep this guy on the big-league club.
Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis
Let’s go ahead and group these two veterans together. Who would’ve thought two guys with a combined age of 69 and a combined total of 11 teams played for in their careers would arguably be the biggest key to Cleveland’s success? Both of them came very cheap last winter (Napoli at $7M for one year, and Davis for $5.25M for one year) and have certainly outperformed expectations through half of a season.
After a disappointing season playing for the Red Sox and Rangers in 2015, Napoli drove in just 50 runs in 133 games. This season, he has played in 72 games with the Tribe and has already totaled last season’s RBI amount with 52 so far, which actually leads the team. His glove at first base has also been very beneficial and allows Carlos Santana to play a more comfortable position of DH. Napoli’s past World Series experience, and presence in the clubhouse also does wonders.
Not only does 35 year-old Rajai Davis lead the AL in stolen bases (21), he also provides a whole lot of experience and leadership for the Tribe. Providing speed on the base-paths, and in the outfield, Davis has also been pretty good with the bat slashing a .271/.333/.433 which actually puts him on pace for one of his best batting seasons.
Cleveland’s young and promising rotation is proving more and more each day that it is the best in baseball. Better than the Cubs’, Met’s Dodgers’, and Nationals’. The Indians’ rotation is second in starter wins with 37, fourth in ERA at a 3.51, second in complete games with 5, third in shutouts with 7, fifth in innings pitched with 490 and fifth in strikeouts with 451. As you can see, Cleveland’s rotation is across the board top-5 in virtually every important grouped rotation statistic.
With an average age of 28 across the five Indians starters, it is technically higher than the league average, but Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar have both shown their amazing upside, without showing their true ceiling or peak yet. With Kluber already winning a Cy Young Award in 2014, he has shown his peak, but hasn’t shown a whole lot of regression at already 30 years old.
Additional numbers during their streak:
- Cleveland could play .500 baseball the rest of the regular season and still finish with a 90-72 record. That would possibly be enough to win the division. The Royals, who sit in second place in the American League Central, would have to go 48-36 to reach the 90-win mark.
- During the streak, Indians starting pitchers have posted a 1.86 ERA. They have limited the opposition to 55 hits in 97 innings.
- No Tribe pitcher has allowed more than three earned runs in a game during the winning streak.
- Tribe relievers have tallied a 1.29 ERA during the streak, though they have totaled only 21 innings in the 13 games. They have tallied 29 strikeouts and have issued only six walks.
- The Indians have spent 27 consecutive days in first place in the AL Central
This run by Cleveland can certainly be sustainable if full health can be had and Michael Brantley can come back and produce on the level that we are so used to. Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis are going to continue to do what they do and provide for the team the way they do with their differing skills. Lindor is only going to get better as the year goes on, and Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana can be relied on everyday to help out the team. The rotation can be below average in comparison to the rest of the league from here on out (which it won’t be) and can still be one of the best in baseball. 30 year-old Corey Kluber and 31 year-old Josh Tomlin are becoming Mr. Reliable’s, while Carrasco and Salazar continue to get better as the year goes on and have greatly flashed their upsides.
Cleveland Indians’ fans for the most part were incredibly up in arms about the management not making a huge splash in free agency this past offseason when a lot of people though they should have, but huge props to Mike Chernoff and Chris Antonetti for making small, cheap, and hugely impactful transactions.
Although this streak is incredible, we can’t expect the Indians to play this good for the next three months. They will of course reach some sort of regression eventually. The best news of all is that Cleveland is in a winnable division, with Michael Brantley still remaining injured, and being their best player, it can only do wonders for when his eventual return becomes a reality.