And now, we arrive at the Astros’ first October opponent on the road to repeating as champions, the Cleveland Indians. The match-up many expected in the ALCS last year finally arrives, a year later. After pacing the American League with 102 wins in 2017, and with a rather lackluster division opposing them this year, most people expected the Indians to show up in October once again this year.
It didn’t quite go that smoothly, though. The division was never really in doubt, thanks to an AL Central that failed to live up to even the minimum of expectations (including three 98-plus-loss teams), but the Indians didn’t quite look like that 102-win juggernaut from last year. Especially in the first half, the bullpen that had long been a strength looked downright atrocious (although some in-season tinkering brought it up to respectability).
So, where do things stand here, heading into the playoffs?
Overall, they’re a 91-win team that won the division by 13 games, and clinched their division before any other team. If you’re the glass-half-empty type, it’s worth noting that this team looked much stronger just based on their runs scored and allowed, with a Pythagorean record of 98-64. If you’re the glass-half-full type, it’s worth noting that they also undoubtedly fattened up on their weak division, with a 49-27 record against the AL Central and a 42-44 record against everyone else. Obviously, every playoff team is good, and even the worst teams can beat the best teams a few times, let alone very good teams facing slightly better ones…but it’s not completely off-base to think this is one of the better match-ups the Astros could have hoped for.
The Indians’ offense is solid, but definitely not the team’s strong point. They finished third among AL teams in runs scored, but that came with a home park favorable to hitting. By weighted Runs Created+, they were solidly tied for fifth with the Rays at 105, but a step behind the rest of the AL playoff teams (who all finished at 110 or 111).
MVP candidates Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor are the clear leaders of the pack, with a combined 15.7 WAR between them. Any time your up-the-middle combo is hitting that well (they have wRC+s of 147 and 130, respectively), things can’t be too bad. Of course, there are still concerns there, as Ramirez slowed down considerably as the season went on; his OPS dropped nearly 240 points in the second half, with his August and September numbers (.823 and .637) looking incredibly mortal.
The tier below them is probably Edwin Encarnacion and Michael Brantley. Brantley has never quite lived up to his 2014 season (which saw him finish third in MVP voting), but he’s still a solidly-above-average outfielder when he’s healthy. Encarnaction, meanwhile, is still a decent hitter at age 35, with 2018 representing his seventh straight season of 30 or more homers, but it definitely looked like age might be starting to catch up to him. His average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage (as well as wRC+) were all the lowest they’ve been since 2011.
The rest of the lineup is question marks and injury concerns. Yan Gomes looked like a league-average hitter this year (101 wRC+), which is pretty good for a catcher. However, there are questions about his thumb following an injury in the final series of the regular season. Yonder Alonso was another roughly-league-average hitter (97 wRC+), but that was less impressive for him given that he’s a first baseman. Jason Kipnis has shown he’s more than capable of handling center field, but he’s also not quite what he used to be offensively, and he’ll likely be at the bottom of the lineup. The third outfield slot went through a revolving door of players before settling on Melky Cabrera (after having released him earlier in the year). Like Alonso, he’s a more or less league average bat (102 wRC+) at a position that usually demands a little more.
The X-Factor here will be Josh Donaldson, who missed most of the year due to injury. If he’s healthy, he could add a dangerous thump behind Ramirez and Lindor, but that’s always a big if. He seemed like he might be fine once he put on the Indians’ red-and-blue, but that’s still just a sixteen game sample size in a year where he missed 110 games overall.
This is without a doubt the strength of the 2018 Indians. The Indians were the one team with more Wins Above Replacement from their starting pitching than the Astros this year, 22.9 to 22.5. Even after losing Danny Salazar for the whole season, the rest of the staff stepped up their game, and the team became the first in history with four 200-strikeout pitchers.
There is one big question mark, though: will Trevor Bauer start? Bauer had the strongest year of any Indians starter, with the best Fielding Independent Pitching (2.44), second-best ERA (2.21), third-best WAR (6.1), and fourth-best K% (30.8%) in the American League. But injuries limited his appearances late in the year, and even now, Terry Francona apparently hasn’t decided whether to start him in Game 4 or save him for high-leverage bullpen work in the first three games.
Outside of that, Corey Kluber looked like his normal ace-self, with 215 innings of 2.89 ERA, 3.12 FIP, and 222 Ks. Carlos Carrasco struck out even more batters than Kluber and posted an even-better 2.94 FIP (and a slightly worse 3.38 ERA), and Mike Clevinger stepped up his game and contributed 200 innings 3.02 ERA.
There are two big weak points here, from the Astros’ perspective. The first is hope that fifth starter Shane Bieber ends up having to pitch game 4 because Bauer was spent earlier in the series. While Bieber isn’t a bad starter (his 3.23 FIP shows he’s better than his 4.55 ERA would indicate), it’s also true that he’s still not as good as Bauer. Any situation where Bieber is starting means there are that many more innings that aren’t being thrown by their ace.
The second is something I pointed out a few weeks ago: the back half of the Indians’ rotation in particular has faltered against good teams this year, there were just fewer good lineups in the AL Central to test them. And this wasn’t something new this year; if you’re concerned about sample size (as neither threw even 34 innings against over-.500 teams this year), the pattern holds up last year as well:
Splits against team less than and greater than .500
|Carrasco, lt .500
|Carrasco, gt .500
|Clevinger, lt .500
|Clevinger, gt .500
It might wind up meaning nothing, as any player can step up for a game in the playoffs, but I think it’ll be worth keeping in mind at least.
This is definitely the biggest difference between this year’s Indians and last year’s version. After an abysmal start to the season that saw Cleveland among the worst relief corps in the game, closer to teams like the Tigers and Marlins than most of the other playoff contenders, a total renovation in the middle of the season brought the bullpen up to respectability.
Cody Allen, last year’s closer, ended up losing the role after he became their version of 2018 Chris Devenski. Andrew Miller has been…fine, I guess? He’s still decent, but definitely doesn’t look like his normal self, as his strikeouts have dropped and batters are generally hitting him harder than last year. Dan Otero managed to snag a postseason roster spot in spite of a near-5.00 FIP and an over-5.00 ERA. Mid-season arrival Adam Cimber’s strikeouts have disappeared while his WHIP has climbed.
Really, the only bright spots are the other two mid-season additions, new closer Brad Hand and short reliever Oliver Perez (32.1 IP in 51 games). If the Astros’ lineup is locked in and able to wear down the starters early to get the bullpen, we may end up seeing a lopsided score or two.
Overall, you don’t want to take anything for granted. Every team in the playoffs is good, and the best players are the Indians are definitely good enough to take down anyone when they’re firing on all cylinders. But this is still a team with several notable weak spots that it isn’t difficult to imagine the Astros exploiting. All that’s left is to wait until Friday and hope the team starts October off on the right foot. Game 1 will feature Kluber facing off with Justin Verlander in Minute Maid Park, starting at 1:05 Central Time.