9 Factors Affecting The Cleveland Indians Playoff Chances

When it comes to the major league baseball stretch drive, there’s no topic I’m more personally interested in than the Cleveland Indians playoff chances. With my own Boston Red Sox out of the picture and having been that way for a long time, I’m happy to root for Terry Francona.

Cleveland is currently 72-67, and has fallen six games back of the Kansas City Royals in the AL Central.The division title I predicted for the Indians at the start of the year and reaffirmed as recently as last week is pretty well off the table after a tough series against the Detroit Tigers.

But the Indians are still breathing in the wild-card discussion. They’re 4 ½ games back of the Seattle Mariners for the final playoff spot. Cleveland joins the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays as teams that are holding on by their fingernails, and all three also have to pass Detroit on the way to catching Seattle. Here’s nine points that are affecting the Tribe’s playoff chances—past, present and future and for better and for worse…

    • When we talk about for better and for worse, both descriptions aptly describe the Cleveland bullpen. Looked at collectively, the relief corps is a big reason the Indians are still alive. They rank third in the American League in ERA. They’re deep, with four regular pitchers having ERAs in the 2s. But they have been terrible at closing games. The team ranks 13th in save percentage in the AL. Before blaming it all on closer John Axford, who was terrible early, the Indians have been the league’s worst since the All-Star break, blowing 8 of 15 save chances.
    • The offense generally has also failed the team in its playoff push. Since the All-Star break, the Indians rank 10th in the AL in runs scored (compared to seventh for the season as a whole). There’s no bigger disaster area than the DH spot. Zach Walters, Ryan Raburn and Jason Giambi get at-bats here and all are hitting below .200.
    • *Before we make this focus too negative, let’s start talking about Corey Kluber. He’s now the rotation’s #1 starter, and he needs to get more national attention. Kluber is 13-9 with a 2.58 ERA and has already logged 195 innings. He’s turning into the kind of arm that a manager can win a wild-card game with, or who looms large over a best-of-five Division Series.
    • Baseball*If Kluber is going to get that chance, either this year or next, the rest of the rotation has to be more consistent. The Indians rank 9th in the AL in starters’ ERA, but the positive signs are there. Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and T.J. House have all been effective and that negative ranking was more about the first half of the season than the second.
  • *Carlos Santana has emerged as an effective offensive player, with a .365 on-base percentage and hitting 24 home runs. He’s plate discipline is fantastic, having already drawn 98 walks. But you would like to see Santana hit more—the batting average is only .228 and with his ability to drive the ball, it seems like the slugging percentage should be more in the .500 range, rather than .431. He’s effective, but could be better.
  • *The breakout years have come from Michael Brantley (.370 OBP/.494 slugging) in left field and third baseman Lonny Chisenhall (.358/.459). The breakout of Chisenhall was especially big. While Brantley had always been at least respectable, Chisenhall had been awful and he was starting to look like Cleveland’s version of Mike Moustakas in Kansas City—the so-called “top prospect”, that we kept hearing about and seeing in the lineup, but never produced. Apparently, Francona and GM Mark Shapiro were also getting a little impatient prior to this season, so it was good to see Chisenhall answer the bell.
  • *I like what we’re seeing from Yan Gomes behind the plate, with his 17 home runs and .480 slugging percentage. It would be nice to see the OBP higher than .326, but in this year of offense being down across the league, even that’s manageable from your catcher, especially if he hits for power and plays good defense, as Gomes does.
  • *If you’re looking for reasons why this year just wasn’t meant to be for Cleveland, I would suggest starting with second baseman Jason Kipnis. You can usually make a credible argument for Kipnis being in the elite of American League second baseman, along with the more heralded Robinson Cano in Seattle (and formerly New York) and Dustin Pedroia in Boston. This year, Kipnis got injured early and has never gotten it going. The OBP is .316, the slugging is .339.
  • *And that underscores the deeper doubts about the Indians in 2014—maybe, after a magic turnaround year in 2013, this just isn’t their year. While I’m rooting otherwise, the standings and the limited time left say that’s probably the case. I would just like to point out two examples of why Cleveland fans can still feel good.

In 2009, after a magical run to the 2008 World Series, the Tampa Bay Rays slipped to 84-78. In 2013, after a magical run to the 2012 playoffs, the Baltimore Orioles slipped to 85 wins. Both years seemed disappointing on the surface. But both were examples of a turnaround team seeing the tide turn against them, but still having a winning season. It was the kind of year that quietly solidified the foundation.Tampa Bay went on to become a consistent contender. Baltimore has gone on to lead the AL East by a commanding margin this year.

I think the worst-case scenario for Cleveland this September—so long as they close reasonably well and finish over .500—is that their own foundation as a steady contender in the years ahead is being put more firmly in place.