By: Brian Endicott
With 30 games remaining in the 2015 season, the Cleveland Indians are far below preseason expectations. They were projected by many analysts to be a playoff-bound team, a strong contender for an AL Central title, and even a possibility for a World Series run. Instead, the Kansas City Royals have run away with the Division and the Indians sit 4 games under .500 and 6 games behind in a faint hope for a Wild Card spot. There are still 4 teams between the Indians and that final Wild Card spot: the Texas Rangers, Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels, and Tampa Bay Rays.
So what realistic possibilities remain for this preseason projected contender?
Looking first at the Tribe’s schedule, there are 16 games left against sub-.500 teams and 17 games left at home. They begin a 17-game stretch tonight where 14 of those 17 games are against ball clubs with losing records. The Indians will need to win all 5 series over this stretch and post a 12-5 mark to setup for a playoff run over the final two weeks.
Is that realistic?
I have frequently looked at August 8th – the day after the Indians traded away Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher – as perhaps a turning point in the season. Since that date, the Indians have a 15-9 record (including 12 wins and only 6 losses against clubs with winning records) and averaged 5 runs per game. Prior to August 8th, they were 10 games under .500 and averaged 3.6 runs per game. Based on this turnaround, it feels realistic to hold optimism.
Additionally, both Michael Brantley and rookie Francisco Lindor have been among the best in baseball over that stretch by producing identical .398 batting averages and a combined 23 multi-hit games. Brantley is second in the league with a .321 season average and Lindor holds the highest rookie average at .308. The Indians have also had offensive production from Lonnie Chisenhall, whose performance has seen a huge turnaround since being recalled from AAA-Columbus on June 30th. Prior to being sent down, Chisenhall had a .209 average; that average is .370 over 26 games since being recalled, boosting his season average to .260.
In total, the Indians have 4 players batting at .299 or better post-All Star break. Those 4 – Brantley, Chisenhall, Lindor, and All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis – have a post-All Star Game combined average of .353 with 47 doubles, 15 home runs, and 72 runs batted in.
Meanwhile, the starting pitching has performed up to preseason expectations. The group leads all of baseball in complete games and strikeouts and is second in the American League in quality starts with 76. Given the consistency of the starting rotation and a recent offensive emergence, the Indians have the tools necessary to make a playoff run over this last month of the season.
Those tools are going to have to step it up against clubs the Indians have struggled against all season. Of the final 30 games, 27 are within the Division where the Indians have won only 18 of 49 games. That’ll have to do a dramatic turnaround if there’s any chance of a Wild Card.
The Indians will need help too – and a lot of it. Of the other teams in Wild Card contention, they Indians only have games left against the Minnesota Twins (7 games: 3 road and 4 home). Here’s how the schedules shape up for each of the other 4 contenders:
Rangers: 30 games, 16 against sub-.500 teams and 17 home games;
Twins: 30 games, 16 against sub-.500 teams, 13 home games;
Angels: 29 games, only 9 against sub-.500, 15 home games;
Rays: 29 games, 17 against sub-.500 teams, 16 home games.
The Texas Rangers are in the driver’s seat, holding a 1.5 game lead. Meanwhile, the Angels have been in a free-fall, dropping 19 of their last 30 games and they Rays have been playing even .500 baseball since falling behind in the race for the AL East title. If those two trends continue, the Indians can give themselves a good chance by simply continuing to play as well as they’ve played since the Bourn/Swisher trades, including the 7 games they have left with the Twins. That’ll leave the Wild Card race between them and the Rangers.
Don’t count the Tribe out yet, there’s lots of meaningful baseball left to play in September.