As of May 1st, the Cleveland Indians have a record of 16-12 and are one and a half games back in the AL Central. The only thing that is stopping them from holding the division lead are the red-hot Twins, who have won seven of their last ten and sit at 17-10. This is a pace that nobody expects Minnesota to keep up. In the eyes of many, Cleveland is in great position to win a fourth straight division title. With what is looking to be one of the best starting rotations in baseball, fans could hope for a deep postseason run. However, this team has a massive weakness, and it isn’t the bullpen.
By just about every possible measure, the Indians have one of the worst offenses in baseball. They match their bottom of the league home run numbers with total strikeout numbers among the largest in baseball. In fact, the Indians have the most strikeouts among teams that are bottom five in home runs. This team simply does not score many runs, and it is a major problem. The league average OPS currently sits at .747; Cleveland sports a team OPS of .637, good for the third worst mark in the majors. The thing that saves this team is its ability to walk. With currently 99 walks as a team, the Indians have the 14th most in baseball. Impressed? Probably not, but that’s the best you’re going to get with this offense. Yes, a mediocre ability to draw walks is what carries this Indians lineup. In many cases, it’s the only thing that keeps the unit out of the league basement. A team batting average of .212 is good for third worst in the majors, but a mediocre walk rate puts the team OBP at .301, which is still terrible but only the seventh worst in baseball. This alone is what keeps them from having the worst OPS in the league, as they sport a league-worst .335 SLG. This team is easily a bottom five offense in the majors, and right now it is their pitching, and pitching alone, that is winning them games. (All stats as of April 28th, 2019)
The Indians aren’t the absolute worst in most of these categories, so why is their lack of offense a big deal compared to the teams who share in their offensive atrocity? The reason it is a bigger deal is because this team is supposed to be contending. If we look at the teams with similar offensive statistics as the Indians we see a common theme: they are all awful teams. The bottom ten teams in OPS, excluding the Indians, currently have a combined record of 106-133 (good for a winning percentage of .444). At that rate, over a 162 game season, we’re looking at a 71 win team. The Indians, of course, are a lot better than that at 16-12 (winning percentage of .571). At that rate, the Indians are on pace to win 93 games. These other teams won’t sniff the postseason, while most expect the Indians to win their division. However, even with their superior pitching, is the Indians’ dismal offense too large a detriment for this team to overcome and succeed?
Let’s see what history has to say about teams with horrible offenses. For the purpose of comparison, we will be looking at the last five seasons (dating back to 2014) to see how well teams could fare without stellar bats. In those five years, teams that had a below average team OPS (this is generous, considering the Indians currently sit at third worst) were a combined 10 for 79 in making the postseason, a 12.7% rate. The Indians are likely to be one of these teams in 2019, so analyzing the success of these past teams will give a strong indication of whether or not this team can make a run in despite their offense. This isn’t to determine if the Indians pitching specifically can overcome a bad offense, but if anything can overcome such a dismal lineup to find postseason success. In reverse chronological order, we will be looking at each of these five years, and seeing how well the below average offensive teams compare to this year’s Indians.
To start, it is important to mention that not a single below average OPS team made the postseason in 2018, a perfect 0 for 15. The two teams that played in last season’s world series, the Red Sox and Dodgers, finished first and third in team OPS over the regular season.
2017 – Red Sox
Just a year before posting the best team OPS in the majors (after the acquisition of JD Martinez, it might be important to note), the Red Sox were a below average offensive team. Boston had a team OPS of .736, which was the ninth worst in baseball and 14 points lower than the league average that year of .750. Is this offense comparable to this year’s Indians? To put it simply, no. This team is clearly superior offensively, with an OPS roughly 100 points higher than Cleveland’s current mark. Where they are comparable, however, is pitching. Boston had a team ERA of 3.70 that year, to Cleveland’s 3.47 (fourth and fifth in the league, respectively). There is no doubt that pitching was Boston’s strong suit in 2017, so how far did it get them? The answer is not far at all. After winning their division, something the Indians are already expected to do, the Red Sox lost in the ALDS to the would-be champion Houston Astros in four games. This appears to be a sad and realistic fate for this year’s Indians, as the Red Sox similarly had a good pitching staff and possessed a much better offense and still lost in the divisional series.
2016 – Mets, Dodgers
Coming off of their 2015 World Series appearance (which we will get to later), the Mets actually posted a higher team OPS in 2016. A mark of .733 was good for fifteenth worst in the majors, only 6 points lower than the league average of .739. Again, this offense is hardly comparable to the 2019 Indians, as this Mets offense was barely even below average. However, New York posted a 3.57 team ERA, good for third best in baseball. Again, we have a team with similar pitching to the Indians, and a much better offense. How did this team fare, you ask? The 87 win Mets were a wild card team, and lost to the Giants in that year’s NL Wild Card Game. This team was very similar to the 2017 Red Sox in that they had good pitching and a better offense than Cleveland this year, and still couldn’t get it done. The Dodgers also fell under this tent, as far as these numbers go. LA had a team OPS of .728, which was twelfth worst that year and 11 points below the league average. They also had a team ERA of 3.70, the fifth best that year. Another team of this blueprint, the Dodgers fared better than the others. They made a NLCS appearance, where they lost to the Cubs in six games. This would be overachieving in the eyes of most for this 2019 Indians team, but if the Dodgers could do it, why can’t Cleveland? An appropriate answer would be that the Dodgers had a significantly better offense, but anything can happen.
2015 – Cubs, Pirates, Cardinals, Mets
These four teams were just about the same in terms of team OPS in 2015. The Cubs and Pirates both posted marks of .719, two points below the league average of .721 and tied then for thirteenth worst in baseball. The Cardinals were slightly worse at .716, making them twelfth worst, and then the Mets were the eleventh worst at .712. So again, we see teams that have better, but relatively comparable offenses to Cleveland. To start, the Cubs gave their fans something to cheer about. Making an NLCS appearance, fans in Chicago were given a bright future towards which to look. This obviously does not apply to this year’s Indians, whose fans have been waiting more than two years now since their notorious World Series collapse. However, it shows that the team made a run. The Cardinals and Pirates weren’t so lucky, as they both fell to those Cubs: the Pirates in the Wild Card Game, and the Cardinals in the NLDS. In the Mets, we have our first below average offensive team to advance to the World Series. The Mets, not just in 2015 but most years, seem to be similarly built as the Indians. If the Indians are going to make a run, it would be this way. However, New York’s run required some offense, and they got it as Daniel Murphy went on an absolute tear in the NLCS. Fortunately for Cleveland, they have players capable of doing that. Jose Ramirez is off to a tough start but was a seven win player last year, and Francisco Lindor has started right where he left off upon his return. At this point in the season, it even seems that Carlos Santana is a hitter capable of getting hot at the right time. The 2015 Mets are the first team on this list that may give real hope to Indians fans this year.
2014 – Cardinals, Royals, Giants
The teams for this year probably jump off the page, as they should. Yes, both World Series participants from 2014 had below average OPS’s. 2014 was a pitching dominant year, as the league average OPS was only .700 flat. The Cardinals posted a .689 mark, which was 13th worst. St. Louis still won their division and advanced to the NLCS, and they did it with worse pitching than this year’s Indians. In fact, all three of these teams had higher team ERAs than the Indians have now. The Royals, as most remember, were a complete dark horse team. Winning the Wild Card Game on a walk-off, Kansas City never looked back as they did not lose a game until they reached the World Series. The Giants had a similar path, also coming out of the Wild Card Game, although they were not quite as dominant in their intermediate rounds. These three teams are also good news, in a way, for the Indians. The Royals had an exceptional bullpen, which the Indians certainly do not, and that throws the comparison off a bit. However, these teams are examples of teams that were more or less mediocre during the regular season and got hot at the right time. There is no way to know if the Indians are capable of doing such a thing until the postseason arrives. Again, these teams had better offenses than the Indians do now, but it wasn’t their offenses that carried their playoff runs.
If there is anything to conclude from this, it’s that Cleveland’s chances at the Commissioner’s Trophy in 2019 are very slim. The ten teams just analyzed were the below average offensive teams that actually made the postseason, which only 12.7% of such teams in that time span could do. It is possible, but it is also fair to say that Cleveland absolutely needs to add one or more bats to their lineup if they want to make a run. Based on the way this team has been run, the chance at that happening isn’t great. Especially with the powerhouse teams in the American League, a team OPS of .637 is not going anywhere, no matter how good the pitching is. For Indians fans, just know that if the team gets hot at the right time, anything can happen. Unfortunately, that should be what you’re hoping for, because the slim chance of that happening appears to be what upper management is banking on as well.
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