â€‹Note: this article was originally published on Thursday afternoon, so stats are as of Thursday morning. Last night, the Indians defeated Detroit and Justin Verlander (in their 10th one-run victory of the season), further solidifying their hold on the AL Central.
“I felt last year at this point we had played our best baseball. You couldn’t play any better than the way we played the first 45 games. Unfortunately, we had some guys go down. But I still don’t think we have played our best baseball [this year].”—Manny Acta
For the first two months of last season, the Indians looked like a fairy-tale team. On May 22, fresh off their 28th win in 43 games, they sat atop the AL Central with a winning percentage 50 points higher than any other team’s and a lead over the second-place Tigers that had stretched to seven games. The Indians had been among the best in baseball at almost everything: their hitters’ .276 True Average was the highest in the American League, their defense had converted 72.9 percent of balls in play into outs (the AL’s third-highest rate), and their pitching staff’s 4.30 Fair Run Average ranked a respectable fifth. Their third-order winning percentage, an estimate of how successful they should have been based on their underlying statistics and the quality of their opponents, was an AL-high .613. Quite simply, the Indians had played like the league’s best team.
Baseball Prospectus wasn’t buying it. We projected the 28-15 Indians to regress to a sub-.460 mark over the rest of the season. Our seemingly pessimistic projection turned out to be too generous: Cleveland actually won at a .437 clip from May 22 on, going 52-67 to finish at 80-82. By the end of the season, the Indians had completed a transition from all systems go to full system failure: their TAv fell to .261 (ninth), their Defensive Efficiency declined to 70.7 percent (ninth), and their FRA inflated to .463 (sixth). The fairy tale had an unhappy ending.
Fast forward to 2012: through 43 sparsely attended games, the Indians are again exceeding expectations. At 25-18, this year’s edition is three games behind the pace set by last year’s club, and their 3 1/2-game lead in the AL Central is only half as large as the 2011 team’s was at the same point last season. Given that most pundits pegged the Tigers to run away with the division, though, the Indians’ presence in first place is surprising no matter the margin. Last year’s Indians turned out to be a tease. Is the same fate in store for the 2012 team?
If this year’s club follows the same trajectory as 2011’s, it won’t have as far to fall. The Indians have played well, but they can’t be confused with one of the AL’s top teams: they’ve allowed the same number of runs as they’ve scored, and they rate no better than fifth in the AL in TAv, DE, and FRA. The Indians are the only AL Central team over .500, but every team in the AL East boasts a better run differential. However, the Indians’ lackluster run differential is somewhat deceptive. They’ve outhit their opponents and put more runners on than all but two other AL teams, but they’ve scored only the 11th-most runs per time on base. Their problem hasn’t been how much they’re hitting, but when they’re hitting, and that’s not a problem that’s likely to persist.
Consequently, if anything proves to be the Indians’ undoing, it probably won’t be their offense. Despite the sustained excellence of 2011 breakout bat Asdrubal Cabrera, Cleveland’s hitters lack power, but they do put the ball in play, striking out less often than any team but the Royals. Patience is the lineup’s strong suit: led by Carlos Santana, Travis Hafner, and Shelley Duncan—who hasn’t done much besides walk—the Indians have drawn more free passes than any other team. If they could sustain their 11.2 percent walk rate over a full season, it would be the highest recorded by any club since Seattle walked in 12 percent of its plate appearances in 2000. That was so long ago the Mariners were actually good at getting on base. Given how little offense the Indians have gotten from their left and center fielders, the impending return of Grady Sizemore could give them a boost even if he doesn’t regain any semblance of the production he supplied in his prime.
Cleveland’s potentially fatal weak point is pitching. The team’s offense has the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball, but its pitching staff—thanks largely to the extreme struggles of Ubaldo Jimenez—has the worst. Indians pitchers simply don’t miss bats: they’ve struck out only 16.1 percent of the batters they’ve faced, ahead of only the A’s and Twins. No playoff team since the post-strike playoff format was instituted in 1995 has qualified for the postseason with a staff that strikes out so few batters relative to the league average. The average playoff team’s staff has had a “Strikeout percentage plus” (K%+) of 106, compared to a league average of 100. The 2005 Braves staff had the lowest K%+ of any 1995-2011 playoff team, at 89. The Indians are at only 84, which doesn’t bode well for their future run prevention.
Cleveland’s pitchers compensate for their inability to miss bats by keeping the ball on the ground more often than any other team but Toronto, getting grounders on 49 percent of their balls in play. Grounders are good, and they’re even better when the defense behind a worm-burning staff is adept at turning them into outs. Last season, Indians opponents hit .237 on ground balls against them, the eighth-highest rate in the AL. This season, Indians opponents have hit just .197 on grounders, the second-lowest rate in the AL. The Indians have also turned double plays at the third-highest rate in the AL, erasing some of the runners their arms have put on via the base on balls. There is some evidence that pitchers who allow more ground balls also tend to allow fewer ground-ball hits by inducing weaker contact, but clearly the Indians’ infield of Casey Kotchman, Jason Kipnis, Cabrera, and Jack Hannahan has done an excellent job of supporting the likes of contact-prone Derek Lowe and Justin Masterson.
On Wednesday, manager Manny Acta said, “I still don’t think we have played our best baseball.” PECOTA disagrees, but it doesn’t foresee another collapse in the Indians’ future, forecasting a .522 winning percentage for Cleveland the rest of the way. The system expects the White Sox to flag to .500 going forward, which makes them the division’s third-best bet for an October berth.
Despite their lackluster play, the Tigers—whom the Indians came from behind to beat last night—remain the real threat. Even if the Indians’ 9-2 record in one-run games regresses and Detroit outplays them from now on, as PECOTA expects, Cleveland’s current five-game cushion gives them a good chance of outlasting the Tigers’ attack. Our playoffs odds put the Indians’ chances of holding on to claim the Central at just a tick over 50 percent. At the same point last season, we gave them only a 40 percent chance, sensing an inferior team hidden behind a superior record. Thanks to the additional wild card team in 2012, the Indians’ odds of qualifying for the playoffs without winning the division are nearly three times higher than they were at the 43-game mark last season, bringing their overall odds of post-season play to approximately 60 percent.
Through their first 43 games, the 2012 Indians haven’t been quite as good as Cleveland’s ill-fated 2011 team. But from game 44 on, they’ll be better. And they might just be better enough.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .