When I make my preseason predictions, I don’t go entirely by what the numbers tell me. I’m willing to make a potentially embarrassing call if I believe that a team has a chance to go sharply in one direction or another. Sometimes this leads to great moments (picking the ’02 Mets to finish last, for instance), and sometimes I drive off the cliff (any time I’ve picked the Padres or Reds to do anything).

So it feels good to have called a big surprise in the AL Central this year. I knew that one of the disappointing teams from last year would rise up, surprise the pundits, and stay in the division race deep into the summer.

I just had the wrong one.

The Cleveland Indians open today just three games out of first place in the AL Central, thanks in part to an 18-10 record since the All-Star break. For a team that I picked to be the worst in the American League–the Tigers were my choice to shock the world–this is a heck of an achievement. How did they get here?

First things first: The record is real. The Tribe is outplaying its projected record by about three games, largely on the strength of a weak schedule. (The Twins, just as an example, are outplaying their projection by five games.) Like the Twins and Tigers, the Indians are basically a .500 team that’s benefiting from the White Sox’s inability to play to their component skills. That’s not to say that they’re not catching some breaks: The Tribe has an AL-best 22 one-run wins, and their 22-14 record in those games (8-4 since the All-Star Game) is the best in the league.

This isn’t a balanced team. The Indians are in a race because their offense has exceeded expectations, bludgeoning all comers. They lead the AL in runs and are third in the circuit in EqA. The offense has been built on two poles–doubles and OBP, categories in which they lead MLB. For a team that had seen its runs scored decline in every year since 1999, and had one of the worst offenses in baseball last year, it’s been a reminder of the heady days of the 1990s, when the Indians had a dominant offense that would be among the league leaders in those categories in most years.

I don’t know that you could have seen this coming:

                     EqA      PECOTA Mean     PECOTA 90th

Victor Martinez     .304         .282             .304
Travis Hafner       .340         .284             .311
Ronnie Belliard     .285         .252             .281
Omar Vizquel        .278         .253             .282
Casey Blake         .288         .254             .285
Matt Lawton         .289         .275             .301
Jody Gerut          .264         .277             .305
Coco Crisp          .261         .260             .295
Ben Broussard       .297         .268             .294

Six of the Tribe’s nine hitters with the most playing time are exceeding the most optimistic projection PECOTA could crank out. Of the other three, Matt Lawton is in the upper end of his range, Coco Crisp has hit his mark, and Jody Gerut has disappointed after what was probably an over-his-head rookie year. The guy with the most playing time who didn’t hit at all–Alex Escobar–was thrown overboard this week for not getting with the program.

Maybe that’s Eddie Murray, I don’t know. I do think that when this many players exceed expectations, it’s reasonable to consider the batting coach as a possible cause. It’ll be at least another year or more before we can say for sure, and it’s certainly fair to consider subjective opinions in making that evaluation. However, it’s also important to acknowledge that it could just be one of those things, that not every confluence of events has a proximate cause.

The Indians have needed nearly every one of their 640 runs, because they’ve had one of the game’s most frustrating pitching staffs. Three days out of five, the Indians have started a reliable, reasonably consistent starting pitcher who gives them a quality outing. The other two days, they’ve been using the first-round cuts from “Last Comic Standing.” We can measure this using Support-Neutral Wins Above Replacement.

Team    Top Three   Others    Gap

ANA        2.7      -0.1      2.8
BAL        2.7      -3.7      5.0
BOS        7.9      -0.2      8.1
CHW        4.6      -1.7      6.3
CLE        4.0      -2.3      6.3
DET        3.6      -2.0      5.6
KCR        1.3      -4.1      5.4
MIN        8.6      -0.8      9.4
NYY        4.4      -1.7      6.1
OAK        7.5       1.2      6.3
SEA        5.2      -0.7      5.9
TEX        5.9      -0.7      6.6
TB         3.1      -1.8      4.9
TOR        6.2      -0.3      6.5

Starters outside the top three have been worse for the Indians than for any AL team aside from he Orioles and Royals. The gap between what they’ve gotten from the top and bottom of the rotation is above average as well.

C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Jake Westbrook have been very good. No one else has, Chad Durbin‘s brief dalliance with effectiveness aside. Both Lee and Westbrook are going to be entering new workload territory later this month, which has to be a concern.

Michael Wolverton has written about the Indians’ bullpen, which is the worst in the AL by 40 runs. Four different Indians relievers, none of whom are on the roster any longer, have cost the team at least 10 runs compared to average. (Late note: Cliff Bartosh, one of those four, was recalled yesterday.) Everyone but Ernie Camacho has gotten a chance to close.

The good news is that the current Indians’ pen is much better than that. Rick White, Bob Wickman and Matt Miller have all been average or above. Rafael Betancourt, a huge disappointment–OK, maybe just to fantasy owners–has seen his role reduced as a result. Bobby Howry, who threw just four innings last year, has been devastating since his call-up on June 30, with 27 strikeouts and two walks in 26 innings.

Eric Wedge hasn’t helped himself in how he’s run the pen. I wrote about one particular game in which I felt he mismanaged his relief staff poorly, but it went deeper than that. Like a lot of managers these days, Wedge constantly changed his usage patterns and his pitchers’ roles, putting far too much weight on the most recent work everyone had done. It’s a difficult, unproductive approach, and one far too common in today’s game.

The Indians play lousy defense. On any given day, either they or the Royals has the poorest Defensive Efficiency Rating in baseball. The infield is the culprit, with an aging Omar Vizquel and a round Ron Belliard combining to let a lot of balls through. That’s no doubt made the back end of the rotation and the bullpen look a bit worse, and may present a problem in the Tribe’s 13 games left with the contact-hitting Twins.

Those 13 games will probably decide this team’s fate. Aside from the top-heavy rotations, the two teams don’t have much in common. The Twins play pretty good defense, have a strong bullpen, and don’t score. Those 13 games–beginning Friday at Jacobs Field–are going to determine who wins the AL Central, and will present as interesting a clash of styles as we’ll see all season long.

The Indians are playing with house money, anyway. This wasn’t supposed to be a year in which they contended, but rather one in which they sorted through some of their young talent and set a base for the future. The play of veterans like Belliard, Casey Blake and Matt Lawton is why they’re here, but it’s not likely than any of those three will be around two years from now, when this team is really good.

Frankly, I’m not sure there’s any team in baseball whose future I like more. Not only is there a lot of talent on hand, with an above-average–albeit not great–farm system in place, but the management team has a good mix of talent, with a respect for performance analysis. Plus, we know from the last decade that when the Indians are good, they get a tremendous response from the city, with raucous, sold-out crowds. They generate more than enough revenue to support a good-sized payroll, which will come in handy as Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner and Ben Broussard head for their primes.

The Indians are back, and even if it doesn’t happen for them this year–the defense and the pitching may be too much to overcome–it’s been a fun story to track, and has whet the appetite for great baseball in Cleveland.

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