David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Between Innings: Can the Cleveland Indians be considered contenders if they keep losing to elite teams?

"Between Innings" is a column featuring the topics fans of MLB (specifically the Cleveland Indians) are currently discussing between the innings and after the game. Today's topic considers if the Indians are actual contenders as they continue to struggle against the MLB's elite.

Are the Cleveland Indians actual contenders or another slightly above average team in the Terry Francona era with no true hopes of winning the World Series in 2016? As the Cleveland Cavaliers are on the precipice of Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors, wondering if the Tribe might follow in their championship contending footsteps is only natural. However, after the Texas Rangers defeated the Indians 7-3 on Tuesday to guarantee a series win, the idea of the Northcoast turning into Championship City requires a bit of eye straining and a heavy dose of optimism.

Results Matter

The Indians have now faced six teams whose records are above a .550 winning percentage, boasting a 7-12 in said games. The Tribe has lost five of the seven series played, and have a losing record against five of the six teams (two series against Boston Red Sox where they tied the first series 1-1, then lost two of the next three games). Worse yet, the Indians have a run differential against these elite teams of minus-28, which indicates Pythagorus is not going to explain any of these losses away.

Opponent Win/Loss % Wins Losses Run Differential
.550 and Above 7 12 -28
.451 to .549 11 7 +29
.450 and Below 8 5 +25

Despite doing better against some teams (4-0 versus Cincinnati Reds) than others (0-3 versus Philadelphia Phillies, 2-4 against the hapless Twins), the Indians have won over 60% of their games against the non-elite members of MLB. Taking care of business to the tune of a 19-12 record against the bad and mediocre teams is the reason the Wahoo Warriors still stand with their heads above the .500 water mark with a 26-24 record.

As Hayden Grove reports, the Indians are not overly concerned to this point of the season though:

"They come and go. You win four out of five and you lose four out of five," Chisenhall said. "It’s never fun to lose ballgames and unfortunately stacked on top of each other here. You just keep playing hard."

Caveat: Sample sizes of three to six games are incredibly small and can quickly change over the course of a full season. Injuries will have a major effect on the teams that survive to make the postseason where incredibly small sample sizes can make for unlikely heroes and goats.

Indicators of Goodness

While the Tribe has found the MLB-worst Minnesota Twins an unsolvable mystery, the rest of the AL Central division has wept on the doorstep of the Cleveland Indians. And, in the age of the unbalanced MLB schedule, divisional games take on the utmost importance. The ballclub from The Land has dominated the discussion among the contending teams in the AL Central in 2016 as the Indians are a robust 14-7 inside the division. Even better, they are 12-3 against the Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, and Kansas City Royals with winning records against each.

Additionally, the Indians expected weakness on offense has not come to fruition. The Indians 101 wRC+ and 101 sOPS+ places them as a Top 10 offense in MLB when combined with their AL-best baserunning (fangraphs score BsR as 8.6). And, it is the elite baserunning that has helped the Tribe take middle of the pack batting averages, isolated power, and on base percentage and turn those into the Top 7 scoring offense in MLB at 4.76 runs per game (third in the AL behind Boston and Seattle). The news gets even better for the offense when considering the team had an even better month of May (108 wRC+) compared to April (91 wRC+).

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The defense has also held up their end of the bargain. Fangraphs has the Indians listed as the third best defense in MLB by Defensive Rating (16.0) and UZR/150 (9.4) with only the Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs ahead of them. With Francisco Lindor at shortstop making the extraordinary plays routinely and other players such as Jason Kipnis and Yan Gomes making some great plays of their own, the rating is not a complete surprise.

Harbingers of Doom

Strangely, the other defensive metric at Fangraphs has the Indians listed as the 24th best defensive team in DRS (-13). Mike Napoli, an all-around great guy, has been one of the oddest contributors to poor defensive metrics as he is listed negatively on both DRS (-4) and UZR/150 (-7.6) despite being a positive defensive first basesman throughout his career. Pitching has been another negative aspect of the Tribes DRS (-4). However, Rajai Davis (-7) and Tyler Naquin (-8) have done the most damage to the Indians defensive score in this metric as their -15 combined DRS in center field is absolutely horrendous.

The Indians were supposed to be able to rely on dominating pitching in 2016, especially from the rotation. However, 2016 has seen the pitching staff mostly be average rather than the keystone upon which the Indians championship hopes are built. They have been mediocre in ERA (3.99, 12th) and FIP (4.00, 14th). After setting strikeout records the past two seasons, the Indians find themselves as the 10th best team in MLB at K-rate (22.2%) and K-BB ratio (14.4%). None of these numbers are poor, but they are simply not the dominant indicators expected from this staff.

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Final Say

June has just begun, which means there are still four complete months of regular season baseball left on the MLB calendar. Many things will happen along the journey towards the MLB Postseason. Thus far, the Indians have managed to work around injuries to Michael Brantley, Carlos Carrasco, Roberto Perez, and Lonnie Chisenhall while maintaining an adequate record. With Carlos Carrasco returning from the DL for a weekend series against the AL Central leading Kansas City Royals, the Indians can have everyone singing their praises by Monday with another strong showing against a divisional opponent.


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