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This Year’s Indians Are Secretly Better Than Last Year’s

Just like its struggling World Series counterparts in Chicago, things haven’t been easy for the Cleveland Indians’ pennant defense this season. The team that was one ninth-inning run away from stunning the Cubs last November looked even stronger heading into this season. The core of young talent was intact, a pair of aces missing from its postseason run were healthy, and the normally frugal Indians’ front-office shelled out $60 million for a new slugger. But despite an enormous on-paper advantage in talent, the Tribe hasn’t exactly blown the doors off the American League.

Cleveland was trailing in the American League Central as recently as the last week of June; even now, they only lead the second-place Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals by a game and a half each. For a franchise that hasn’t made back-to-back playoff appearances since 1999, the 2017 Indians appear on the surface to be headed for disappointment, just like every other season on the Cuyahoga since 1948.

But unlike the Cubs, who’ve mostly earned their disappointing sub-.500 record, Cleveland has played much better this season than their Ws and Ls would indicate. The team’s +58 run differential ranks seventh-best in major league baseball, placing it firmly in the next tier of contenders below the dominant Dodgers/Astros/Diamondbacks/Yankees/Nationals group at the top of the game’s pecking order. According to both the Pythagorean expectation (which converts a team’s run differential into an expected winning percentage) and total team wins above replacement1 (WAR), the 2017 Indians have been superior to the 2016 version that ultimately ended up winning the AL pennant:

The Indians are on pace to outplay their World Series version

Production per 162 games for 2016 and 2017 Cleveland Indians

WINS
SEASON ACTUAL PYTHAGOREAN WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT
2017 86.9 92.8 47.1
2016 94.6 91.2 47.0
Difference -7.7 +1.6 +0.1

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

The biggest factor holding Cleveland’s record back has been a distinct lack of clutch hitting: Tribe hitters have the majors’ third-worst on-base plus slugging (OPS) with two outs and runners in scoring position, and its second-worst OPS in “high leverage” situations. But their vaunted relief pitching — led by do-everything relief ace Andrew Miller — has been as good as advertised, as have starters Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. Although Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Edwin Encarnacion and Francisco Lindor have all been various degrees of disappointing in the first half, third baseman Jose Ramirez has enjoyed a breakout season (he ranks 11th in the majors in WAR). Taken altogether, Cleveland is playing just fine.

But the team happens to be caught up in one of the most misleading division races ever, as far as the standings go. Through 82 games apiece, the AL Central-leading Indians’ record was two games better than those of the Royals and Twins.2 But according to Pythagorean records, Cleveland “should” be 8.5 games up on Kansas City, and 10.9 games up on the Twins, whose -54 run differential is almost exactly the negative mirror image of the Indians’ mark.

That 8.9-game difference between Cleveland’s actual and Pythagorean leads over Minnesota is the biggest gap between a division leader and runner-up at this stage of the season3 in the history of divisional play (since 1969):

Nobody has secretly dominated like the 2017 Indians

Division leaders with largest difference between actual and Pythagorean-predicted leads through 82 games, 1969-2017

DIVISION LEAD
YEAR DIVISION LEADER NO. 2 ACTUAL PYTHAG. DIFF. WINNER
2017 AL Central CLE MIN* 2.0 10.9 -8.9
2007 NL West SDP ARI 1.0 9.3 -8.3 ARI
1972 NL East PIT NYM 5.0 13.3 -8.3 PIT
2008 NL East PHI FLA 1.0 8.9 -7.9 PHI
1992 AL West MIN OAK 1.0 8.7 -7.7 OAK
1976 NL West CIN LAD 6.0 13.5 -7.5 CIN
2008 AL Central CHW MIN 1.0 7.8 -6.8 CHW
1989 NL West SFG HOU 2.0 8.6 -6.6 SFG
2012 AL Central CHW CLE 2.0 8.6 -6.6 DET
2017 AL Central CLE KCR* 2.0 8.5 -6.5
1985 NL West SDP LAD 2.0 8.4 -6.4 LAD
1971 AL East BAL BOS 3.0 9.3 -6.3 BAL
1998 NL Central HOU MIL 7.0 13.2 -6.2 HOU
1985 NL East STL NYM 3.0 9.1 -6.1 STL
1969 AL East BAL BOS 12.0 18.1 -6.1 BAL
1997 NL East ATL FLA 4.0 9.8 -5.8 ATL
1993 AL West CHW KCR 1.0 6.7 -5.7 CHW
1973 AL West OAK ANA 1.0 6.3 -5.3 OAK
1989 AL East BAL NYY 6.0 11.2 -5.2 TOR
1970 NL East NYM PIT 2.0 7.1 -5.1 PIT

*Second place in the 2017 AL Central division is currently tied.
Excludes strike-shortened seasons in 1981 and 1995.

Sources: Retrosheet, ESPN Stats & Info

So the good news for Cleveland is that it’s badly outplayed both of its would-be division challengers. The bad news is, that’s not always enough. Among the midseason division leaders on the list above, only two-thirds of them ended up eventually winning the crown, despite starting off with an average lead of 3.3 games.

Even so, FiveThirtyEight’s MLB Elo ratings give the Tribe a 70 percent chance of winning the Central and an 81 percent shot at making it back to the playoffs, despite what’s shaping up to be a crowded AL wild card picture. You wouldn’t guess it from the standings, but if the Indians just keep playing the way they have been, they should be right in the thick of things again come October.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. All mentions of WAR in this story will refer to an average between the competing versions offered at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

  2. Cleveland played its 82nd game on July 4, while Kansas City and Minnesota have currently played 83 games.

  3. Through 82 games.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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