The Indians Chance at October Baseball

When Dan Szymborski released his updated playoff odds to account for moves — or lack thereof — at the trade deadline, he noted that the big losers of July 31st were the Cleveland Indians. The deadline came and went, and the Tribe failed to add any talent to their roster, while the Tigers, Orioles, Rangers, and Red Sox make strong additions to bolster their rosters for the stretch run. Standing still while your competitors improve is equivalent to going backwards.

However, it should be noted that Szymborski’s simulations still had Cleveland’s playoff odds at 36.3%, a fairly robust number for a team with Ryan Raburn as their offensive hero. And since that post was published, the Indians have won two of three and pulled into the lead for one of the two wild card positions in the American League. If the postseason began today, the Cleveland Indians would qualify for the playoffs, and yet, a quick glance at their roster does not exactly resemble a list of All-Stars. How is this team making a playoff push?

It’s impossible to start anywhere but with Raburn. Coming off an unbelievably terrible year with the Tigers — of the 347 batters to hit at least 200 times in 2012, Raburn rated 346th in wRC+, ahead of only utility infielder Wilson Valdez — Raburn signed a minor league contract with the Indians in January, and has since been a revelation. Of the 284 batters with 200 more plate appearances this season, Raburn’s 169 wRC+ is tied for 5th with some guy named Mike Trout. On a per plate appearance basis, Raburn has been a better hitter than the likes of David Ortiz, Joey Votto, or David Wright. That’s not a bad return for a guy who got a non-roster invite to spring training.

Raburn’s success somewhat symbolizes this Indians team. A year ago, he was one of the game’s worst players, and at age-32, his career looked to be hanging in the balance. He’s responded by having one the best stretch of baseball of his entire career. And he’s not the only Indian who has come back from baseball purgatory.

Scott Kazmir hadn’t pitched in the big leagues since recording five outs (and allowing five runs) in 2011. The year before that, he’d been the worst pitcher in baseball. He then spent time in independent ball, and joined a long line of cautionary tales about getting overly excited about the future of young hurlers. Instead of accepting that his arm had given out, Kazmir worked to get his velocity back, signed with the Indians after a good run in winter ball– as a non-roster invite, just like Raburn — and has returned back to the form he showed when he was in Tampa Bay. His walk rate is the lowest of his career, and Kazmir’s success has stabilized the back end of a rotation that is still generally seen as the Indians big weakness.

However, a closer inspection shows that starting pitching might actually be the primary reason the Indians are hanging around the playoff chase. While their rotation may not be full of house hold names, their ability to avoid relying on terrible performers has proven to have a strong positive impact on their record. In 2012, 102 of their 162 starts were made by pitchers who ended the season with an ERA over 5.00, including giving 21 starts to Derek Lowe (5.52 ERA), 17 starts to Jeanmar Gomez (6.23 ERA), and 16 starts to Josh Tomlin (5.72 ERA)

This year, just 13 of their 109 starts have been made by pitchers with an ERA over 5.00, and none of those five project to start another game for the Indians this year. Instead of horrendous outings from everyone besides Justin Masterson, the rotation behind the Tribe’s ace has been quite solid if not spectacular. Kazmir’s resurgence has been part of that, but so too has the underrated dominance of Corey Kluber.

The young right-hander might not be a household name, but he sure is pitching like one. On the season, he has a 3.03 xFIP that rates #9 among qualified big league starting pitchers. He currently sits in between Homer Bailey and Cliff Lee, and once you adjust for the fact that he’s pitching in the American League, he actually moves up to #7, just behind Max Scherzer. Corey Kluber has been a revelation for the Indians this year, and has had as much of a low key impact as any non-Raburn player on the Indians.

But herein lies the rub; the Indians success to date is based on players doing things they’ve never really done before, or in Kazmir’s case, haven’t done in quite some time. While the team has more established stars like Masterson, Jason Kipnis, and Carlos Santana, they had those players last year and won 68 games. Masterson and Kipnis are having better seasons than they did a year ago, but the team’s success this year is due to a far better supporting cast, and unfortunately, those role players probably can’t be counted on to sustain these performances.

Expecting Raburn to keep hitting like Mike Trout just isn’t realistic. Expecting Kluber to keep pitching like an ace isn’t fair to the youngster. Expecting backup catcher Yan Gomes to keep hitting bombs when he’s put in the line-up is likely a path to disappointment. The Indians have been heavily reliant on a bunch of players with mediocre track records playing like All-Stars, and yet they still only have a half game lead over the Rangers and Orioles in the wild card race.

Maybe some of these guys really have figured things out and are going to keep performing at a high level, but there re just too many guys on this team playing over their heads right now. Some of them will regress, and when they do, it isn’t clear that there are enough players on the other side of that coin who can pick up the slack. And so, while the Indians are a collection of great stories, this team looks to have serious potential for a second half fade.

Ryan Raburn can only carry you so far for so long. When the magic runs out, the Indians playoff chances might evaporate with it.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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