Francona and crew are putting baseball on notice

The defending American League champs are still one of the best teams in baseball.

by Paul West

The Cleveland Indians haven’t exactly been the talk of the town around Major League Baseball this season. There always seems to have been another trending storyline: Aaron Judge’s power surge; the Houston Astros’ arrival among the elite; the once-mighty Mets running an infirmary; the Chicago Cubs‘ rollercoaster ride; or the Los Angeles Dodgers‘ record-setting pace and recent fall to earth. All these plotlines, and many others (juiced baseballs; Giancarlo Stanton‘s quest for the record books), have made it easy to forget about the team which was within feet, and minutes, of winning the World Series last year.

Not anymore.

As of mid-September, the Cleveland Indians are in the midst of a record-breaking 17-game winning streak. Their run differential has ballooned to +206, now best in the majors. They’ve tied the Astros for the best record in the American League…and they appear to still be synthesizing for another deep playoff run.

A quick look at Cleveland’s team rankings shows how balanced they truly are: sixth in baseball in runs scored and batting average; second in on-base percentage and third in slugging; fourth in quality starts, third in batting average against, and second in ERA and WHIP. Their fearsome starting rotation–a strikeout-compiling quartet which suffered ill-timed injuries last fall, making their pennant run all the more impressive–is intact once again, and cranking out quality starts while continuing to miss bats. Mike Clevinger has a 3.30 ERA and 171 strikeouts in 159 innings, and he’s their fifth starter behind Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, and Trevor Bauer. They’ve also got depth around the diamond. Designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion has been resurgent of late, as has switch-hitting Carlos Santana, and the acquisition of Jay Bruce adds lefty power as a complement to round out the middle of the order. Brandon Guyer is  part-time righty who hits left-handed pitching well and plays both corners in the outfield. Center field is split between two speedsters with good gloves and occasional power: veteran righty Austin Jackson, and young lefty Bradley Zimmer. On the infield, Jose Ramirez is batting .309 with 25 home runs, and plays third, second, and shortstop; meanwhile, Francisco Lindor brings speed, power, and great athleticism to shortstop. Second baseman Jason Kipnis has battled injuries for much of the year, and isn’t game-changing presence he once was, but he’s another veteran with lefty power who’s contributed to the team’s huge run differential. And behind the plate, Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez are a lefty-righty tandem who give the bottom of the lineup some big-fly threat potential.

Cleveland’s gotten hot at the right time, and they’re looking to finish last year’s journey.

Lest we forget–their bullpen, while not quite as automatic as they seemed at times last year, is still a strength. Cody Allen has 25 saves, anchoring a crew of lefties and righties who can shorten games when needed–but lately, aren’t needed all that much. Lefty setup man Andrew Miller sports a 1.65 ERA and a .79 WHIP, and manager Terry Francona mixes and matches them artfully. Speaking of Francona, he remains a player-friendly presence who helps keep the clubhouse relaxed and morale high.

Last but not least: Cleveland plays 14 of their final 20 games in their home park, Progressive Field. They actually have a better road record than home record this year, but last season they were a staggering 53-38 at home–and the Believeland crowd will likely be manic down the stretch.

The defending American League champions have somehow flown under the radar for much of the season, but they’re one of the best teams in baseball. With September upon us, it’s time to take notice.

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