This anticlimactic coronation (the Indians planned to pop the bubbly a day late, after Sunday’s game) was befitting an American League Central title that was always expected, especially on the heels of an AL-record 22 consecutive victories. Still, this is the sweet stuff you simply can’t take for granted in this game, especially in a market that has seen the way competitive windows can sometimes slam shut.
Manager Terry Francona, who dealt with the ignominy of a seemingly elite 2011 Red Sox squad coughing up its division in epic fashion, knows a bit about that.
“I’ve been in situations that look really rosy,” he told Indians flagship WTAM, “and then the next year you’re working for ESPN.”
So, soak in this Central title, Tribe fans. Look across the league waters at the surprising difficulty the defending world champion Cubs have endured in what was supposed to be an easy march to National League Central glory and realize that maintaining greatness after a deep October/November run is not easily done. This is the first time the Indians have gone back-to-back in the Central since their run of five straight titles from 1995-99.
Sometimes the hard part of the glory days is fully appreciating that you’re in them.
What the Indians have built — initially on a limited budget and eventually with go-for-it gusto in the open market and trade front — is a team that has all the goods to win this franchise’s first championship title since 1948, ending a 69-year drought that, thanks to those aforementioned Cubs, stands as the longest in the sport.
Be it blessing or curse, entering Saturday, FanGraphs was giving the Indians an 18.3-percent chance of winning it all, second only to the Astros at 18.9. Whether the Indians maintain their current seeding ahead of the ‘Stros or end up in the second spot, the Indians won’t be viewed as a plucky, injury-riddled underdog this October. They are elite, and great things are expected of them.
Maybe these Indians don’t get it done. Maybe they don’t even get as far as the 1995, 1997 and 2016 models. Baseball’s postseason, we know too well, is sometimes more about the moment than the makeup.
What seems certain in the pre-postseason present is that this is the most balanced ballclub the Indians have had in at least a generation. People forget that the ’95 club that won 100 games in a strike-shortened 144-game season wasn’t entirely about that epic offense. That club did have the best staff ERA in the AL (3.83). But how much of a difference would an ace of the ilk of a Corey Kluber have made in that six-game World Series loss to the Braves?
These Indians have their ace, and, with a healthier overall rotation outlook than they had a year ago, they might not need to ask him to make three starts on short rest. They’ve just reapplied Andrew Miller to a bullpen that is deeper than a year ago, when Miller, Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw all saw double-digit inning totals in the postseason. Their depth of infield options has turned what could have been a net negative (Jason Kipnis‘ wilderness year with injury and performance atrophy) into the pure positive that is improved defense. And because Edwin Encarnacion has come as advertised, Jose Ramirez has had a season worthy of MVP discussion and Francisco Lindor has suddenly decided to be a 30-homer offensive machine, the lineup can hang with any other October has to offer.
Just look at where the Tribe — a club with by far the game’s best run differential (plus-226) — ranked among MLB’s 30 teams in some key context categories available at FanGraphs, going into Saturday’s play:
- Weighted runs created plus: Second (106, or 6 percent better than league average)
- Starting ERA-: Second (82, or 18 percent better than league average)
- Relief ERA-: First (61, or 39 percent better than league average)
- Defensive runs saved: Eighth (25 runs above average)
- Baserunning: Sixth (8.2 runs above average)
The Indians were the only team in baseball ranked in the top eight in each of those categories. It is a recipe for success. That doesn’t mean the cake won’t burn in the oven come October, but the Indians have clearly lived up to their regular-season potential.
There will be questions come October, with Bradley Zimmer‘s speed and defense yanked from the equation because of a broken left hand, and Kipnis experimenting in center field. Fundamentally, the Indians will have a different feel going into October with a target on their back, particularly after all the attention they received during The Streak.
But this club was built to win, and it has won. For all the handwriting about a potential hangover, the Indians are on pace for just the third 100-win season in their history (1954 and ’95).
That’s not something that should be taken for granted in such a goofy game. It is something to be celebrated — even if the clinching celebration had to wait a day.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.