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Even The Indians Can’t Escape Baseball’s Postseason Buzz Saw

After falling short of the 2016 World Series title in extra innings of Game 7, the Cleveland Indians picked themselves up and spent the 2017 season building toward one of the most dominating campaigns in baseball history. After a meager start, they slowly began playing to their impressive underlying metrics, finally reaching their peak with an American League record 22-game winning streak in August and September. By the end of the season, they’d staked their claim as not only the best team in baseball this season,1 but also one of the top regular-season teams of all time.

And in a week of October baseball, it was all over. On Wednesday night, the New York Yankees eliminated Cleveland from the postseason in Game 5 of their AL Division Series matchup, completing an epic comeback after being down two games to none. Now the Indians will have five months to ponder how they let it all slip away.

The Indians’ bats, which were solid all year (despite a slight lack of star power), went ice-cold against Yankee pitching. Cleveland hit .171 with a .550 on-base plus slugging (OPS) during the series, a far cry from their numbers in each category during the regular season. Of the nine Indian hitters with at least 10 at-bats during the ALDS, all but two — right fielder Jay Bruce and catcher Roberto Perez — saw their OPS drop at least 130 points from its regular-season level. (Second baseman Jose Ramirez, Cleveland’s best hitter this year, looked lost at the plate all series; his OPS was down a shocking 675 points from the regular season.)

It didn’t help that Cleveland ace Corey Kluber, who ranked as baseball’s best pitcher during the regular season, struggled in both of his ALDS starts. According to game score (our metric for judging a starting pitcher’s performance), Kluber produced the worst performance of his postseason career in Game 2 — a game that he was lucky the Tribe eventually came back and won — and then followed it up with another clunker in the do-or-die Game 5. After compiling one of the great pitching seasons of the millennium, Kluber saved two of his worst five starts this year for the playoffs:

But maybe the biggest lesson of Cleveland’s quick playoff exit is that this kind of thing can happen to even the most dominant of baseball teams. According to WAR per game, the 2017 Indians were the 13th-best regular-season team of the World Series era,2 sandwiched between the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers and the 1922 St. Louis Browns. And even among such impressive company, their postseason result doesn’t stand out. Of those top 25 teams by WAR, fewer than half ended up winning a championship. For every 1927 New York Yankees, who dominated the season all the way through a World Series sweep, there were more cases like the 1969 Baltimore Orioles — an absurdly fearsome team on paper, stacked at every position, who nonetheless were upset in the playoffs by a team with lesser credentials.

Baseball’s best teams don’t always win

Teams with the highest regular-season wins above replacement and their furthest playoff round reached, 1903-2017

POSTSEASON
SEASON TEAM WAR* ROUND OUTCOME OPPONENT
1927 New York Yankees 73.5 WS Win PIT
2001 Seattle Mariners 67.0 LCS Loss NYY
1939 New York Yankees 67.0 WS Win CIN
1910 Philadelphia Athletics 65.2 WS Win CHC
1969 Baltimore Orioles 64.4 WS Loss NYM
1931 New York Yankees 63.6
1998 New York Yankees 62.6 WS Win SD
1906 Chicago Cubs 62.2 WS Loss CHW
1905 New York Giants 62.1 WS Win PHA
1936 New York Yankees 61.8 WS Win NYG
1995 Cleveland Indians 61.8 WS Loss ATL
1953 Brooklyn Dodgers 61.8 WS Loss NYY
2017 Cleveland Indians 60.9 LDS Loss NYY
1922 St. Louis Browns 60.8
1909 Philadelphia Athletics 60.6
1932 New York Yankees 60.2 WS Win CHC
1944 St. Louis Cardinals 60.0 WS Win STB
1948 Boston Braves 59.6 WS Loss CLE
1906 Cleveland Naps 59.5
1929 Philadelphia Athletics 58.9 WS Win CHC
2017 Houston Astros 58.8 LCS ??? NYY
1998 Atlanta Braves 58.5 LCS Loss SD
1988 New York Mets 58.4 LCS Loss LAD
1976 Cincinnati Reds 58.4 WS Win NYY
1970 Baltimore Orioles 58.3 WS Win CIN

* WAR is The Baseball Gauge’s custom version, which combines elements from all the major WAR variants. It is pro-rated to 162 team games.

Source: The Baseball Gauge

Unlike pro basketball, in which the best team wins with metronomic consistency, baseball still delivers plenty of upsets like the Yankees’ win. It’s part of what makes the sport great — even though that’s surely of little consolation to the Tribe’s long-suffering fans right now. It will be another offseason without a World Series champion for Clevelanders to celebrate. Even after 69 straight years, it never gets easier.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Among other metrics, they were No. 1 according to wins above replacement — specifically, a custom meta-metric provided by The Baseball Gauge that averages together elements of the WAR variants found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, in addition to Baseball Gauge’s own WAR metric.

  2. Since 1903.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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