The Cleveland Cavaliers are in big trouble. After two blowout losses in Games 1 & 2 of the NBA Finals, it’s hard to imagine the Cavs winning four out of the next five games in order to win the title. That’s why many betting websites now have the Golden State Warriors as monster favorites to win it all at -1,000. Other sites like Fivethirtyeight give the Cavs a mere 11% chance to come back as well.
This surely wasn’t what Cleveland fans were hoping for, particularly after the Cavs gave the Warriors a battle in last year’s Finals without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. And what’s even more depressing for Cavs fans is that I’d wager that their chances of winning a title with LeBron in the next few seasons are unlikely at best. Simply put, the Warriors are not going away any time soon. Moreover, if another team were to win a title in the next couple of years other than the Warriors, I’d bet that either the Spurs or whatever team Kevin Durant signs with this summer would win the title (or maybe even the Celtics!). So with that said, it seems like it’s all but certain that Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought will continue for the time being.
But in the words of Lee Corso, not so fast, my friend. Cleveland fans should not be down in the dumps over the Cavaliers because there is another team in town with a legitimate chance at a title this year. Nope, not the Browns. Good guess, though. The Indians.
I’ve been high on Terry Francona’s squad for a while now, which explains why I picked them before the season to win the American League. You must be wondering why I would pick a team that plays in the same division as the two-time defending American League champs and who was only 81-80 last year to win the AL. The main reason I went out on a limb was because I did not believe Cleveland profiled as a .500 team. Last year, the Indians were one of only two teams in baseball (along with the Cubs) to rank in the top ten in hitting, pitching, and fielding. In addition, the Indians had one of the better starting rotations in baseball with the likes of former Cy-Young winner Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, and Carlos Carrasco; and on top of that, the Indians did not get full seasons from outfielder Michael Brantley, who was often injured, and shortstop Francisco Lindor, who was in the minors to start the season before getting called up and developing into one of their best players.
After a sluggish start in which they were six games out of first place at the start of May, the Indians are finally playing to their full potential. They are currently on a six-game winning streak and are leading the AL Central by 2.5 games. In addition to being the third-best team in baseball since May 1st, they also have the AL’s third-highest run differential (+42) behind the Red Sox and Mariners.
Once again, the statistics continue to point to Cleveland being one of the more well-rounded teams in the league. The Indians currently rank 5th in batting according to Fangraphs, which is actually a bit ironic because they aren’t a great hitting team: they are only batting .257 (13th in MLB) and slugging .424 (10th in MLB) as a team. But what makes the Indians offense dangerous is that they are one of the best base running teams in the league. As we’ve seen with Kansas City over the past two years, quality base running is extremely valuable.
Defensively, the Indians continue to be stingy. After ranking third according to Fangraphs in 2015, the Indians again rank third defensively in terms of Ultimate Zone Rating this year (explanation of UZR here).
Surprisingly, Cleveland’s “weakest link” has been their pitching, as they only rank 11th according to Fangraphs. But this isn’t even really a concern because their starting pitching still ranks ninth in the MLB in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP; explained here). Plus, the Indians have been without one of their best starters in Carlos Carrasco for most of this year due to a fluky hamstring injury. Now that Carrasco is back healthy alongside Kluber and Salazar, the Indians are poised to have the best starting rotation among the contenders in the AL. Pick your poison if you’re the team that might meet the Indians in an ALDS matchup. Even in an ALCS or World Series, hypothetically, the Indians could still turn to someone very respectable like Josh Tomlin-who is 8-1 this year-or Trevor Bauer in a pinch.
I’d be remiss not to mention two other key players responsible for Cleveland’s success. The defensive prowess of both shortstop Francisco Lindor and second basemen Jason Kipnis give the Indians arguably the best defensive middle infield in baseball. It’s not like these guys don’t get it done at the dish, either. Lindor has a slash line of .308/.361/.448 and is rated by Fangraphs as the sixth best baserunner in the league. And even though Kipnis is having a bit of a down season thus far, he has still been a consistent hitter since entering the league in 2011 and, like Lindor, is a superb baserunner.
Even though the Indians have been thriving over the past month, is it a little premature for me to look ahead to the playoffs? No, it’s not. The Indians are definitely the best team in the AL Central. They have a far superior run differential than the Royals and possess a much stronger roster than the White Sox, even though the combination of pitchers Chris Sale and Jose Quintana is quite dangerous. Even the top analytical baseball sites agree that the Indians are legit. Fivethirtyeight has Cleveland rated as the fourth best team in the league while Fangraphs projects them to win the AL Central by a full seven games.
That being said, let’s be measured when evaluating the Indians. Even though I like Cleveland to win the Central with relative ease, they will face some stiff competition in the playoffs from the likes of Boston, Seattle, and Texas. In short, they are no lock to win the American League. Plus, they could use a good bat and a quality reliever because their bullpen is only ranked 19th in WAR.
Nonetheless, Cleveland fans shouldn’t dwell too much on the Cavaliers’ dismal showing in the Finals. The Indians are well-rounded and they are set up for postseason success thanks to their strong starting pitching. So while I’m sure many Clevelanders were expecting LeBron James to lead their city to glory, it may turn out to be a group of unheralded stars named Kluber, Lindor, Salazar, and Carassco who take Cleveland to the promised land.