The Cleveland Indians (31-24) continued their 1990s-like dominance of the AL central over the weekend, sweeping four straight from the defending champion Kansas City Royals (30-26) and leap-frogging them into first place. Actually, “leap-frog” is a far too friendly way to describe a 25-6 beat down over four days. We need a better playground analogy. . . . Do you remember the kid in school who used to hang out near the tether-ball pole just so he could “accidentally” whack passersby in the head for his own amusement? Yeah, it was more like that.
This fairly well attended series at Progressive Field did offer a nice mix of late-inning heroics (a walk-off win on Thursday), defensive gems (Lonnie Chisenhall’s cannon and Francisco Lindor’s hot potato flip), and plenty of fireworks (eight home runs, including the first THREE of Tyler Naquin’s career).
From a simpler perspective, though, things just tend to go well for Cleveland when they give Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin, and Corey Kluber 6+ runs to work with, as was the case Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
In their careers, that trio of young-ish hurlers is a combined 68-0 when the Indians put six or more runs on the board by the end of a game. Yes, sixty-eight victories vs. zero defeats. So, it seems like a pretty simple methodology going forward. Score a bunch and win!
Now, granted, pitchers don’t pick up L’s very often when their team plates a six spot. But among starters who’ve received that level of friendly support at least 20 times in their career, only 10 Indians in history have managed to notch completely unblemished records, and three of them are in the rotation right now.
I know, that’s kind of a random, meaningless stat. You could give up 12 runs when your team scores 13 and come out smelling like roses. Nonetheless, it’s a fun list of names, no? Extra respect to the great Gaylord Perry, too, who didn’t hide behind no-decisions. When the Indians gave him six runs, he hung around and got the W 26 out of 27 times.
It might not surprise you to know that two of the worst winning percentages in Indians history—in games with 6+ run support—belong to the famed head-cases Fausto Carmona (.811), who lost 7 such contests, and Ubaldo Jimenez (.667), who dropped six. Bob Feller lost 10 games when his team scored 6+, but he also won 127, so I guess we’ll let it slide.
Of course, this whole business about run support has been a regular part of the narrative for Corey Kluber—and to a lesser and opposite sense Danny Salazar—for the past two years. Even after Sunday’s seven run outburst, the Indians are only scoring 2.92 runs per game again for Kluber in 2016, 7th fewest in the AL—this after he ranked dead last with a 3.31 run-support average in 2015. Salazar, inexplicably, has benefited from considerably more lumber assistance, getting 4.03 runs per game last year and 5.45 runs this season—11th most in the league (Josh Tomlin actually leads the team at 5.60, ranking 9th in the AL).
While the sudden power of Naquin and all-around greatness of Lindor were getting the bulk of the attention all weekend, Salazar, Tomlin, and Kluber all pitched brilliantly, as well (Carlos Carrasco also made his return in Game One of the series, but he’s just starting to get back in the swing of things). Salazar (6-3, 2.24 ERA, 10.7 K/9) seems like a shoe-in All-Star selection at the moment. His 2.9 WAR ranks below only Clayton Kershaw among all MLB pitchers, and ahead of supposed Wrigley demigod Jake Arrieta. Tomlin is also getting some All-Star whispers from the Little Cowboy Fan Club—we’re a relatively small but loyal group. At this point, his inclusion feels like a long shot, but his 8-1 record is hardly smoke and mirrors, either. While Josh’s strikeout numbers are down from the unexpected spike of the past two years (6 K/9), the master of control has a league-best 5.86 K/BB ratio and an outstanding 1.09 WHIP. If you didn’t consider him part of “The Big 3” coming into the year, it’s at least time to start thinking of him as a proper d’Artagnan sort of character.
As for the Klubot (5-6, 3.84 ERA), a successful #VoteKluber campaign this summer would likely require a considerable June surge. At the very least, though, he’s begun to silence some of the doubters—those who began to wonder if 2014's gaudy numbers might have been a bit of a misleading outlier, like that of his battery mate Yan Gomes. The aforementioned run support problems are the most popular evidence for why Kluber is more elite than his bubblegum card numbers suggest. One-hundred more advanced stats paint the same picture. But beyond the unfair losses he’s accumulated, it’s worth looking into those overlooked no-decisions, too. It's there that you can see an ace who is routinely pitching a winning brand of baseball, just without the actual W's to appease the masses.
In his career, Kluber has collected 29 no-decisions, covering 192 innings of work. His ERA in those games is 3.09, which might sound really good for a bunch of games he didn’t win—and that’s because it IS really good.
In fact, since the year 2000, Kluber’s No-Decision ERA ranks sixth best among all MLB starters who’ve posted at least as many No-Decisions as he has.
In further quick summation of a great weekend for baseball and a shit weekend for hoops, the Indians rotation is back to full power, completely shutting down what had been a red hot Royals offense (injuries not withstanding). Meanwhile, the line-up is firing all cylinders, with the long-awaited right-handed, veteran power bat of Mike Napoli balancing almost too well with the youthful energy and promise of Lindor, Jose Ramirez, and Naquin. Cleveland is a ridiculous 16-3 against the three teams chasing them in the division—KC, Detroit, and Chicago—and their run differential is sixth in all of baseball at +46, behind only Seattle (+49), St. Louis (+54), Washington (+54), Boston (+69), and the Cubs (+141). Fangraphs has the Indians at a 10.2 percent chance to go to the World Series, second only to the Red Sox in the AL (12.5 percent). Those championship odds may actually now be better than that of the basketball team that plays next door.