Cleveland Indians Have a Clear Path to Winning the American League Central

Jun 1, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians catcher Yan Gomes (10) is tackled by his teammates after hitting a game-winning RBI single in the eleventh inning against the Texas Rangers at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 1, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians catcher Yan Gomes (10) is tackled by his teammates after hitting a game-winning RBI single in the eleventh inning against the Texas Rangers at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports /

The Cleveland Indians have built a sizable lead over the opposition, and underlying statistics suggest that the lead could be bigger

When the Cleveland Indians were last in the playoffs back in 2013, the roster featured players such as Justin Masterson, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Scott Kazmir.  All three players played a big part in driving the team to its first ever Wild Card berth, but they have since departed.  In fact, only around half of the players who were on the Post Season roster are currently regulars for the Tribe. 

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That playoff run was quite memorable.  Danny Salazar emerged from the minor leagues to pitch 52 innings of ace-like baseball.  Ubaldo Jimenez turned from looking like a major flop to become a major driving force in the starting rotation.  Perhaps the most magical part of the season came when the Indians won the last ten games of the season to clinch the top spot; but unfortunately, the streak ended there when they lost to the Tampa Bay Rays in the Wild Card game.

To go back to when the Cleveland Indians last won the American League Central, however, would put us almost a decade in the past.  In 2007, the Tribe won the AL Central and made it quite far in the playoffs, ending with a game-seven loss to Terry Francona and the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series.  Unsurprisingly, not a single player from that team remains with the Indians.

Many fans had hoped that last year would be the season that the Indians finally win the AL Central and make a big run in the Post Season.  Sports Illustrated, in fact, picked the Indians to win the World Series.  Needless to say, that did not happen, and they finished the season in third place with an 81-80 record. 

This year’s team is still very similar to the one they fielded last year, and some people expected the Indians to win the AL Central.  Certainly, it seemed a bit of a stretch to suggest that they had a lock on the division – especially with the reigning World Champion Kansas City Royals still intact – but one could easily justify picking the Indians to take home the division crown.

Now with 74 games in the book, the Cleveland Indians look to have a clear path to winning the AL Central for the third time this millennium.  On the back of a three-game sweep over the Detroit Tigers, the Indians are armed with a 44-30 record and a five-game lead over the Kansas City Royals.  Given this solid lead, there is little reason to wonder why FanGraphs gives the Indians an 84.1 percent chance of winning the division.  It would be easy enough to stop there, but we can glean a deeper understanding by examining some extra statistics.  After all, I’m certain that at least a few of you have some doubts about me declaring that the Indians have just about won the division before the All-Star break.

To start, let’s look at the number of runs that each of the AL Central teams has scored and allowed.  We can then look at a team’s run differential – the difference between runs scored and runs allowed – and use that as an indicator of what a team’s “true” record should be.  The underlying logic for this method is that a team that scores more runs than it allows is more likely to win games than a team that scores fewer runs than it allows.

Here is a table with those numbers:

Well, that definitely clears up the picture a bit.  Not only do the Indians have the best record, but they also have the best run differential by a wide margin.  Any fans who doubt that the Indians are truly the best team in the division might want to check out this table.

We can also use run differential to estimate a team’s record using Bill James’ Pythagorean expectation, which David Smyth modified to make more accurate.  This method predicts a team’s winning percentage by running some calculations on the number of runs a team has scored and allowed.

Using this equation simply expands the Cleveland Indians’ lead over their competition, and the Indians’ five-game lead would expand to a whopping ten games.  Perhaps now it makes sense why FanGraphs gives the Indians such a high chance of winning the division despite the fact that we have yet to play half the season.

Does this mean that the other teams should concede the season?  Not at all.  Injuries happen, and sometimes events that are thought to be guaranteed fall apart.  Now is the time to remember the 2011 season, when the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves underwent historic collapses and missed the playoffs.

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The lesson to take away from this is that the Indians are extremely likely to win the American League Central, but it’s too soon to sit back and relax.  Chris Antonetti and the front office should still look to upgrade the team as they can, and the team definitely needs to continue winning – after all, that’s how they got to this point.  Teams have won and lost against great odds before.  After all, we should remember that the Indians did just that when they won a Wild Card berth in 2013.