Are the Cleveland Indians Best of A Bad Division or Legit Contenders?

On September 15, with a 15- drubbing of the Detroit Lions, the Cleveland Indians became the first time in baseball this season to clinch a division title. The Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, and Los Angeles Dodgers were not the first—it was the Indians that mastered their division faster than any other team in baseball.

You can’t argue with how the did it, either. It doesn’t get much more dominant than a two-hit shutout. But, to be fair, the Detroit Tigers are not exactly tough competition these days. In fact, no team in the AL Central even has a winning record other than the Indians.
As of September 22, the Indians lead the division with an 86-68 record followed by the Minnesota Twins (71-83), Tigers (63-92), Chicago White Sox (61-93), and Kansas City Royals (53-102).
The competition hasn’t exactly been very stiff for the Indians which begs the question get asked—are they legitimate contenders or just the best team of a bad division?
Yes, the Indians did get off to a slow start this season. They were only 15-12 through April and just 30-25 through May. They didn’t do any better the year before (27-24 through May). In fact, the way the 2018 season progressed is a lot like the way last year progressed:

  • June: 2017— 15-12; 2018—14-12
  • July: 2017— 15-11; 2018—14-11
  • August: 2017—19-9; 2018—19-9
  • September: 2017 (including the last regular season game on October 1)—25-4; 2018– 9-11

The final month of the season has not been as good this year, but otherwise, the seasons are almost mirror images of each other. Since they were considered contenders heading into the postseason last year, surely, they must be this year as well— right?
Their odds to win the AL are not terrible at +550. They are the lowest among the division winners (Houston— +175; Boston— +150) and equal to that of the New York Yankees. It is not hard to see why. They have the fourth best run differential in the AL (+155). They have the third-best batting average in the AL (.257) and the second-best ERA in the AL since the All-Star break (3.44).
But possibly the most meaningful stat— with six strikeouts Saturday night (September 22) Mike Clevinger became the fourth pitcher on the staff with 200 or more strikeouts (he has 202). No team in MLB history has ever had four pitchers with 200+ strikeouts in a season.

So—they have a good offense and a pitching staff that has put up some unprecedented numbers. Sounds like someone who could make one heck of a playoff run if they wanted to. But it is worth noting who they faced and how they fared against them.
They clobbered their own division (45-24; as of September 22) but their own division is terrible so that’s expected. Against the rest of the AL, they are just 29-36. They struggled against left-handers all season (20-21) and have not been good on the road (38-36).
They are going to play the Houston Astros in the ALDS; a team that is good at home (45-35) but even better on the road (52-22).
Clearly, they are the best of a bad division. But it would be unfair to paint them as pretenders and not contenders. They are a good team; it’s just that the rest of the competition in the AL is better.

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