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In 1999, the world was anticipating the Y2K bug, Rachel and Ross had just (accidentally) married, and Enema of the State and The Slim Shady LP were selling millions of records against the backdrop of Napster’s ascent.

And the Cleveland Indians went into the All-Star break leading the American League Central. It wouldn’t happen again for nearly two decades. The years past, don’t they?

But Cleveland, like other relics of ‘99, is back. For the first time since Willenium, the Indians had a lead—of 6 ½ games, no less—at the break, fueled by a 14-game winning streak that left the baseball world wondering, “Are the Indians for real this time?”

It’s a common question at this fragile time of year, when many teams are suffering from the existential uncertainty and must decide whether to go for it, whether to be buyers, sellers or holders, what sacrifices next year’s team should be willing to bear to aid this year’s, or, simply, what it’s all about. As the playoff-elusive Indians are no doubt asking these questions of themselves, I decided to ask them myself.

Let’s start simply. Going into Monday, the Indians led the Central by 6 ½ games. They held a winning percentage of .593. They have the best starting rotation in the American League.

Were the Indians in the National League, where the Cubs, Nationals and Giants are all chasing 100 (or more) wins, that would put them in a far different position than they are now:

Team

WPCT

Record

Giants

.613

55-36

Cubs

.604

56-37

Nationals

.602

56-37

Indians

.593

54-37

Rangers

.591

55-38

Orioles

.589

53-37

But the Indians don’t play in the National League. For that matter, they don’t play in the AL East or the AL West. The club has the best record in baseball against division opponents this year, winning a full 70 percent of their games (28-12) against the squishy AL Central.

Cleveland’s 14-game winning streak began on June 17th at Progressive Field. The club swept the White Sox, the Rays, the Tigers, and the Braves and took two of three from the Blue Jays, the final win of the streak coming down to a 19-inning showdown that saw some of the most prolific position player pitching of the season.

What do those teams have in common? Well, a bevy of interesting things, actually.

1) These teams have weak offenses. Three of the five teams are in the bottom third of baseball by TAv, and only the Blue Jays (at 10th) crack the top 10.

2) Two of these teams, the Braves and the Rays, are posting winning percentages well below .400.

3) Two of these teams are in the AL Central.

So what are we gathering from this information? The Indians have feasted on weak teams, teams in their division, and the part of the diagram where those circles overlap. The Indians’ interleague opponents this year: The Reds, the Braves, the Phillies… and the Mets, against whom Cleveland lost two of three. Indeed, they don’t have a winning record against any .500+ team outside their division, losing series to the Orioles, Astros, Red Sox, Mets, Mariners and Rangers, while mustering a 2-2 split so far against the Blue Jays. The Yankees, a game under .500, are also walloping them. So yes, it sounds quite good that Cleveland did this really great thing at a most opportune time to put themselves in a great position at the All-Star break, but had Cleveland gone up against tougher competition, the party would have broken up long before Canada had decided enough was enough.

That’s not to say that the Indians are not very good. It is to say that the Indians haven’t been very good against teams that have been very good, the sort of teams that stand between an ALDS berth and a second parade in downtown Cleveland.

What the Indians must decide now is what moves they should make at the deadline, and this calls for a bit more contemplation than it might for other organizations. The club’s success this year is pretty simple: Their starting rotation boasts five starters with an ERA+ better than 130—better than Chris Sale, better than Zack Greinke, better than Jose Quintana; five of the 27 best starters in baseball, by that measure. That has allowed them to survive an offense that is, at best, middle of the pack, a slug-heavy lineup that simply doesn’t do anything else well enough to stand out. The lineup is set to receive a highly anticipated offensive boost, with the return of do-everything outfielder Michael Brantley, who posted a slash line of .310/.379/.480 while only striking out in 8.6 percent of his plate appearances in 2015. He began his rehab games last week, and when he comes back he will be among the best players any team adds at the trade deadline this year—if he’s healthy and 100 percent right away.

However, that last part is crucial. The Indians, after playing all year without Brantley, are still figuring out what kind of team they’ll be with him. If he’s at full strength, and the rest of the lineup coalesces around him, it frees the club hold on to the best parts of the 2017 and 2018 rosters while upgrading around the edges—say, in the bullpen, where an above-average unit could use some sprucing up if it’s convenient. If he’s not, if he’s compromised, or if he’s at risk of reaggravating the shoulder—and, would you look at that—they’re a more one-dimensional club that'll play half of each inning this October from a position of weakness.

(The Indians also recently lost Yan Gomes to a separated shoulder, which isn’t the worst lump they could take offensively this year—Gomes has been in a terrible slump that’s going on 15 months now. Calling up catcher Roberto Perez to take up Gomes’ spot behind the plate could end up being an upgrade.)

The Indians rotation is great. Their offense is average overall, weak for a contender. Their bullpen is a bit better than that, imperfect but not a liability. Cody Allen, as a closer, with a 31 percent strikeout rate and 2.66 ERA, is good enough to carry a relief staff into October

Put it together and the Indians are poised to coast into October, when the real test begins. They’ve taken advantage of being in a weak division, of having a soft interleague schedule. That’ll work until October, when there are no bad teams left.

The Cavaliers may have broken the Cleveland Sports Curse, and the Indians have the best chance they’ve had since the late ‘90s of bringing even more salvation to eastern Ohio. But a lead at the All-Star break isn’t enough to feel cocky. The next two weeks will bring the return of Michael Brantley, the close of the trade-deadline season, and a much clearer picture of what sort of contender the Indians are going to be this year.

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boatman44
7/20
I feel I need to add to your article that Cleveland also have some of the best coaches in the game, Many teams look on with envy as Tito, Mickey, Sandy , Ty, Brad and Mike do their thing, which is irreplaceable.
bappel56
7/20
They have scored the fifth most runs in the MLB. How is that an average offense?
oldbopper
7/20
Tyler Naquin has 12 HR's and an OPS of 1.023 in 196 PA's. Where did that come from but a better question is why does he only have 196 PA's?
cmd600
7/21
"That’ll work until October, when there are no bad teams left." I saw everything in this article but evidence that this is true. Where is the evidence that a mediocre regular season record against playoff or above .500 or however you want to separate good teams from bad teams doesn't work in October? Finding the shit that works in the playoffs seems to be a huge analytic breakthrough. Did you actually discover something or just kinda blow right past that? As far as the Indians, they are 5th in wRC+, and are all of 0.8 wins ahead of your 3rd order record for them. I'm having real trouble seeing these issues.
warclub
7/21
To be fair, the Cubs, Giants, and Nationals get to play games vs. the underbelly of the NL. The Braves, Reds, Brewers, etc.