A Reason for Hope
By Bob Toth
The baseball season is a grueling one.
A total of 162 games are played over a six-month span. Teams travel all across the country, staying in one road city no more than four games at a time, and rarely at home for any stretch above nine games.
Winning streaks and losing streaks are inevitabilities of the season. Slumps and injuries factor into both.
But all of it is for naught if your team is not sitting in first place on the last day of the season.
Over the last few years, the Indians have found a way to be competitive for a portion of the season, but have struggled to seal the deal by finishing the season strong. An awful, late-July collapse last season saw a horrendous losing streak decimate the team and its playoff pursuit. Injuries were the undoing in the second half of 2011, as the team sputtered and looked like it just simply ran out of gas down the stretch.
What may be surprising though is that the Indians have been one of the more successful teams at holding down the top spot in the division throughout the last couple of seasons.
Consider last season. The Indians maintained the American League Central lead for a total of 48 days, despite finishing with a 68-94 record by season’s end. During the high water mark of the campaign, they were as many as eight games over the .500 mark and held a lead as high as four games over their division rivals.
They did not see a game in first place after June 23rd. Their monumental collapse in August, posting just a 5-24 month and several lengthy losing streaks, eliminated them from any chance at postseason play. The team had a 24-53 mark in the second half. Their nosedive left them in fourth place while consistently battling to stay out of the division cellar in the month of September.
Who led the division for a season-high 126 days?
It was not the Minnesota Twins or Kansas City Royals. Neither team spent a day in first place.
Neither was it the winners of the American League Pennant, the Detroit Tigers, who only spent 46 days in first place throughout the season, two fewer than the Indians.
The Tigers ended the regular season at 88-74. They finished 14 games over .500, but had no lead bigger than three games during the season. Even though they reached the World Series, they had the worst record amongst American League playoff teams and actually had a record worse than two other teams who failed to reach the postseason, the Tampa Bay Rays (90-72) and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (89-73).
The Tigers were able to reach the great heights of the World Series due in part to a 43-29 record against the AL Central. The only team within the division that they finished with a season mark below .500 against was the Indians.
The Indians, by comparison, went 31-41 in the division and struggled against the rest of the Central.
How did Chicago fall short of the division crown despite leading the AL Central for 126 days? An 11-17 September during crunch time was largely responsible, as the White Sox were still in first place on September 26th. But 6-12 records against both Detroit and Kansas City contributed to a 37-35 overall record within the division.
The White Sox finished second overall, three games behind Detroit, with an 85-77 record. During the season, they were as many as 16 games above .500 and led the division by as many as three and a half games.
Unlike the three-team race of 2012, 2011 came down to two teams.
The Twins never sniffed first place on the way to a fifth place, 63-99 season. The White Sox (four days) and the Royals (eight days) both finished with sub-.500 records as well.
While the Tigers won the AL Central and dominated it with a 50-22 mark against division rivals on their way to an American League Championship Series appearance against the Texas Rangers, they did not spend the majority of the season in first place.
That privilege belonged to the Tribe.
The 2011 Indians led the AL Central for 96 days, just ahead of the Tigers’ total of 91. Cleveland held a firm grasp on the division well into late July, when a week and a half before the trade deadline, the wheels fell off. They were 15 games above even in late May and had a lead as big as seven during the season. Despite trade deadline moves to acquire outfielder Kosuke Fukudome (July 28th), pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez (July 30th), and designated hitter Jim Thome (August 25th), and the call ups of Lonnie Chisenhall (June 27th) and Jason Kipnis (July 22nd), the team did not have enough left in the tank to overcome mounting injuries, including those to Fausto Carmona, Josh Tomlin, Grady Sizemore, Shin-Soo Choo, Travis Hafner, Michael Brantley, and Kipnis.
The Indians’ dismal second-half performance led to a 33-40 record down the stretch. They did not have remotely close to the same level of dominance that they exhibited the previous season in close games, finishing with a 30-26 record in one-run games. They were an even 36-36 within the division.
What makes the 96-day divisional lead so much more important, and upsetting, is that it was the third-best mark in the entire American League. The Texas Rangers led the AL West for 168 days of the season on the way to a World Series appearance, and the New York Yankees led the AL East for 98 days on the way to a playoff appearance of their own.
What does this mean to Cleveland’s front office, and what should it mean to the fans of the struggling franchise?
It very much could signify that the Indians have a legitimate core of players on the roster worth building around and that they need to find a way to eliminate some of the weaknesses that seem to be very well known at this point in time. The team has been competitive enough to be in contention, but does not seem to have enough on the roster to push the team over the hump.
There have been some common denominators on the roster during those two seasons. Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera, Choo, and Brantley have been the primary offensive weapons, with Kipnis in the mix for a season and a half. While none has been consistently great, each has showed signs of being able to carry the team for lengths of time.
The bullpen has been the reliable bright spot for each of those seasons. Closer Chris Perez saved over 30 games in each season while Pestano and Smith locked down the ends of games with sub-3.00 ERA’s. Both primary left handers out of the ‘pen, Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp, lost their way a bit in 2012, but Nick Hagadone had appeared capable to fill the void until a self-induced injury sidelined him for the season.
The rotation has been the most unstable of the bunch due to injuries to Carlos Carrasco and Tomlin, the ineffectiveness of Jeanmar Gomez, Derek Lowe, and Jimenez, and the identity crisis of Carmona / Roberto Hernandez, which has left Justin Masterson as the one “stable” piece of the rotation, if he could even be called that at the present.
They need to close out the second half of the season stronger. They certainly need to play better within the division, as more than 44% of the season’s games have been against their rivals. The Indians only had winning records in the AL Central against the Royals (12-6) in 2011 and the Tigers (10-8) in 2012.
It is worth noting that, of the five AL Central teams, the Indians have spent the most days in first place (144) over the last two years. This is the case despite posting the third-best record at 148-176. The Tigers are second with 137 days in the top spot while claiming two division titles, two ALCS appearances, one World Series visit, and a division-best 183-141 record in those two years. The White Sox claim the third-highest total, with 130 days in the lead of the AL Central despite being just 164-160 over the last two seasons.
The three teams atop this leaderboard may be a little more evenly matched than expected or recognized. It took a late collapse by Chicago this season and disappointing crashes in each of the last two seasons by Cleveland to provide any distance in the standings for the eventual leader.
Now, the Indians have to find a way to continue to do what they did well (win the close games) while improving on the things they could not do consistently (score runs, supply power, and get reliable starting pitching).
The Indians are aware of how close they were in each of the last two seasons. Many of this offseason’s hottest Indians’ rumors have pertained to addressing those exact needs.
Inquiries on outfielders Shane Victorino and Nick Swisher and first basemen Kevin Youkilis and Mark Reynolds have all been aimed at improving the offensive deficiencies in the lineup. Trade rumors swirling like a tornado around Cabrera last week during the Winter Meetings all seemed to be centered on acquiring a slew of young, controllable, major league ready starting pitchers.
On paper, the Indians might not have matched up well with the expensive payroll of the Tigers or the veteran sluggers Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn of the White Sox, but they have found a way to be involved in the conversation for a good part of the last two seasons. The Indians now need to find a way to be in that discussion on the final week of the season and on into October, when everything they played the game for becomes that much more worthwhile.
Because being in first place is irrelevant, unless it is after the 162nd game of the season has come to an end.
Photo: David Maxwell / Getty Images