With apologies to Bob Feller and the 1948 World Series champion Cleveland Indians, the definitive Indians team for most fans today is the one that called Jacobs Field home in the mid-to-late 1990s. And as it happens, this year’s squad, at 51-32 and coming off of a recent 14-game win-streak, looks like the franchise’s best all-around incarnation since that golden era of Cleveland baseball.
Those late-’90s Indians were stocked with an outrageous number of marquee names; the 1997 Indians’ roster, for instance, contained 22 players who appeared on All-Star teams, tied for the 15th-most of any team ever. With that core, Cleveland won 59 percent of its games from 1994 to 2001, the 19th-best (non-overlapping) eight-season run by a franchise in major league history, to go with a couple of pennants and a World Series near-miss in 1997. Until LeBron James’s Cavaliers won the NBA title a few weeks ago, those Indians represented the pinnacle of modern-era Cleveland sports.
But after years of jinxed and otherwise interrupted rebuilding attempts, Cleveland might finally have a real successor to those beloved ‘90s teams on its hands this season. Through 83 games, the 2016 Indians have the franchise’s highest Elo rating (our pet metric for rating a team’s quality at any given time) for this stage of a season since 1998, when the Tribe was powered by the likes of Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel and Bartolo Colon (a handful of belt sizes ago).
The Indians of the late ‘90s were an offensive machine, scoring 1,009 runs in 1999 — the fifth-most any team ever posted in a single season — and cracking 950 on two other occasions. And given the sheer amount of hitting talent on hand in Cleveland, at the height of an era we’ll just call one of the most offensive-minded in history, it would have been difficult not to pile up the runs. But one of the secrets of those great Indians squads is that they could pitch, too. Over the same 1994-2001 period, Cleveland also had the fifth-best ERA in baseball after adjusting for park and league, and its staff accumulated the third-most wins above replacement (WAR) in MLB. The names weren’t necessarily megastars — in addition to Colon, their WAR leaders were Charles Nagy, Dave Burba and ancient versions of Dennis Martinez and Orel Hershiser — but they cobbled together a very effective pitching staff to complement a modern-day murderers’ row of hitters.
This year’s Tribe cuts a similar profile of all-around goodness. Their batters have the fourth-most WAR of any position-player corps in baseball, highlighted by the emergence of 22-year-old Francisco Lindor as an outright star in his second major-league season. But they can also pitch, with a staff that boasts the eighth-most WAR in the majors. In fact, this time around, it’s the hurlers who have more star power; ace Corey Kluber won the Cy Young two seasons ago, and he might be joined in that category this year by one of his teammates, whether it be Danny Salazar or Carlos Carrasco. The sum total has been a balanced club that’s finally living up to expectations, and one that looks as scary as any in the American League at the moment.
This being Cleveland, there’s plenty that could still sidetrack the Indians’ renaissance. But the city is in an unfamiliar place after actually winning something for the first time in forever. It might even — dare I say it? — be on the verge of a golden age in sports, if we put aside the the Browns. And a big part of that will rest on these Indians’ ability to match, if not surpass, the old ghosts of the 1990s.
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