The Cleveland Indians have been slumping a bit of late. After sweeping a six-game homestand against division rivals Kansas City and Detroit, they won the first game of their second west-coast swing of the season to capture their seventh consecutive win. In the eight games since, however, they have won only three games, alternating victories and defeats at Oakland and Anaheim before dropping two of three contests against the Rays at home. With the Royals concurrently taking two of three from the Yankees, the Indians’ lead is down to four games in the loss column.
Even with their recent struggles, the Indians maintain the largest lead of any first-place team, the second-best run differential in baseball, and are on pace for 104 wins. Nonetheless, our Playoff Odds Report, which repeatedly simulates the remainder of the season, has show scant love for them, with their chance of winning the division consistently rated below that of the Tigers, who currently trail them by five games in the loss column.
We can debate the relative merits of the two clubs, and in particular whether the most surprising Tribesmen—Matt LaPorta, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jack Hannahan, Michael Brantley, Travis Hafner, Justin Masterson, and Josh Tomlin—are going to keep it up the rest of the way. We can also moot about the idea that we’ve reached or are about to reach the point of the season where current standings become more meaningful than preseason projections and thus the Indians and Tigers are what they are, so the Playoff Odds Report is wrong, or (this is a favorite option of some readers when we say something against their favorite team) simply prejudiced. Yes, secreted within the soul of the new machine is a Tigers fan.
I would prefer to think of this as proper skepticism rather than a defect. Over the previous three seasons, the Indians have averaged a 72-90 record, and while it’s not unheard of for a team to take a great leap forward, that leap can often be transient—in the course of a few months, the overachieving team completes a parabola, and rather than sailing into the playoffs it belly-flops back into the second division. Perhaps we can now use current records as a predictor, but there are always outliers, and nothing says the 2011 Indians won’t be one of them.
One of the object lessons here is the 1948 American League season. Appropriately, that season is usually brought up in the context of Cleveland's long championship drought, because that year the Indians squeaked into the playoffs after winning a one-game tie-breaker against the Red Sox and then brought down an equally surprising Boston Braves team in the Patronize-a-Native-American World Series. If anything else about the campaign is recalled it’s that Indians shortstop-manager Lou Boudreau had one of the best seasons ever put together by a shortstop, batting .355/.453/.534 and winning the Most Valuable Player award.
However, if you picked a random date on the ’48 schedule and looked at the standings, you might not see the Indians in first place, but the Philadelphia Athletics. They spent 49 days in first place and were still lingering there as late as August 11, almost 110 games into a 154-game schedule. This is a jarring thing to realize, because (a) if you check the final standings, the A’s closed the season in fourth place, 12 games out, leaving no indication that they had ever been a contender, and (b) they had no business being there in the first place.
By 1948, the A’s were well into the “Madness of King Connie” phase of their existence. Owner-manager Connie Mack was 85 years old, and if he wasn’t yet completely senescent, he was well on the way. The team had not been out of the second division since 1933, 15 years before, and although the 1947 team had broken a string of 13 consecutive losing seasons by going 78-76, there was no reason to believe that old McGillicuddy had somehow put together another winning outfit. It could claim one All-Star, the Joe Girardi-style catcher Buddy Rosar. Mack had some good hitters, including patient types like Ferris Fain and Eddie Joost and a quality offensive outfield unit in Elmer Valo, Sam Champman, and Barney McCosky (some of whom pop up in Dave Frishberg’s classic tune, “Van Lingo Mungo”), but the aggregate was not particularly potent. The most notable thing about the pitching staff, and this is really just trivia, is that three members—Bill Dietrich (1935), Dick Fowler (1945), and Bill McCahan (1947)—had no-hitters to their credit.
The ’48 team was virtually identical to the 1947 team, and yet the A’s were in and out of first place throughout the season in what would prove to be a painfully close race that also included the Yankees and the Red Sox as well as the aforementioned Boudreau-powered Indians. On the last day they were in first place, the A’s had a 65-43 record, which put them on a pace for 93 wins. The A’s benefitted from good luck, or divine intervention, or something—we have to credit their playing eight games over their Pythagorean record to that point, and we can’t give the credit to Mack, given that he wasn’t always aware of where he was or that the players cavorting in front of him weren’t the $100,000 Infield.
Parenthetically, Connie’s fog makes it harder to take seriously the theory that we can credit or debit a manager’s account for the over- or underachievement of his teams as wins or losses in excess of projection, unless you want to say that Mack’s late ’40s managerial brilliance was displayed in his having at least the awareness to hire coaches like Al Simmons and his own son Earle, who could cover for him. From Bob Considine’s 1948 profile of Mack:
In his excitement these days, Mister Mack sometimes makes plainly discernible mistakes in simple strategy, and if these cost him a game he is distraught… When he signals for an obviously wrong move these days Al Simmons turns his back a bit sadly on the old man, as if he did not detect the signal, and calls for the right move. But this never fools Mister Mack. When Al comes back to the bench at the end of the inning, Mister Mack usually speaks up.
“You used better judgment that I did, Al,” he will say quietly, and then go about his timeless task of wagging his scorecard at his fielders.
As with auteur theory in films, baseball auteur theory sometimes substitutes broad generalizations for a thorough analysis of what are actually complex systems of responsibilities and relationships.
After their last day in first, the A’s inadequacies caught up to them all at once. They didn’t fall completely apart, but simply reverted to their 1947 form, going 29-27 the rest of the way, enjoying three five-game winning streaks but also three long losing streaks of eight, five, and five games. It wasn’t enough to hold off the Indians, who were going 34-17 during the same period, nor the Yankees and Red Sox, who put up almost identical records.
Nothing says that the Indians’ many flaws will manifest before it’s too late for them to matter (and Manny Acta’s mental acuity isn’t in question in the way Mack’s was), or that either they or the Tigers won’t change significantly between now and the end of the year. Both are playing with one hand behind their backs to some degree: the Tigers can easily call on Andrew Oliver or even Jacob Turner if their pitching staff needs to be goosed, and Andy Dirks seems to be rounding into a decent bit of outfield depth at Toledo, useful if the major-league left fielders continue to hit .235/.286/.333. Meanwhile, the Indians have already given Alex White a shot, and may call on second baseman Jason Kipnis or third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall at any time.
But then, that’s the whole point: the Indians’ situation, because it was so unexpected, is more fluid than that of most contenders. They largely achieved their current status by dint of careful planning rather than Baby Pennant Race 2011 jumping out of an oversized cake and shouting “Surprise!” No wonder then, that even computers are paranoid that it’s all just a cruel mirage. Rather than offseason planning and projection, this race might come down to dramatic moves that have yet to be made—as well as the Tribe’s ability to continue to outperform expectations, just as Connie’s A’s did, or at least, as they did to a point.