“This time it’s for real”
The Windians, as they are now known, have been a growing national curiosity pretty much since April 7, the day they completed a sweep of the Red Sox to improve to 4-2. From that point on, we’ve watched them climb up the “Power Rankings” on every baseball web site known to man, to the point where they are now tops on many such rankings, including our own here at MLB.com.
Implicit in the question, of course, is the assumption that there might be some fluky elements assisting the Windians thus far. That’s fair, given that this team, all incremental improvements from the pitchers in the second half last season aside, really did come out of nowhere. I don’t think anybody’s expecting them to win 100 games.
But a seven-game lead is a seven-game lead is a seven-game lead. That’s what the Indians possess as the Red Sox return this week. And when it’s May 23 and you have a seven-game lead, well, that’s at least remotely real.
To me, Memorial Day is the perfect assessment point for a ballclub. For one, it’s a holiday, and what better way to spend a holiday than to relax with a Bud and a burger and reflect on either how good or how hapless you are? (I assess myself on Arbor Day every year, and it’s always worked for me.)
But Memorial Day is usually ideal because, by that point, a team has played somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 games, which is a nice base. The Wall Street Journal had an interesting story the other day that noted this: Since 1996, just nine percent of teams with a losing record on June 1 wound up with 90 wins. In that same period, the average correlation between a team’s win percentage on June 1 and season’s end is 0.76.
With that — and the Indians’ seven-game lead on the Tigers — in mind, I called up the records after 50 games of every AL Central winner since 1995 and found the following: All but one of those 16 teams were either in first place or within 2 ½ games of the division lead after 50 games. The only exception was the 2006 Twins, who were 23-27, 11 ½ back of the Tigers (who were 35-15 and would go on to finish second and in possession of the AL Wild Card).
Of course, their physical shape leaves a little to be desired at the moment. A significant setback for Grady Sizemore, whose “bruise” last year turned into microfracture surgery, would not be welcomed. But Sizemore is expected to run the bases this week and could be back by the weekend, so we shall see. The Travis Hafner oblique injury, even if it’s “only” a month, would bring him back just in time for the Indians to play nine straight games in NL parks, so it’s going to be a while before Pronk returns. The Alex White finger issue strikes me as the big one, because it attacks the one area where the Indians undoubtedly don’t possess a tremendous amount of depth, and that’s starting pitching. The Indians can only endure so much, and these hits can’t keep coming. But that’s true of any team.
The schedule will tell us a lot about the Tribe the next couple weeks. This past weekend’s sweep of the Reds was a nice start, and the next 13 games come against the Red Sox, at the Rays and Jays and against the Rangers. But it’s not like the Indians beat up on a bunch of patsies to get to this point. Though I can’t exactly attest to this meaning a whole heck of a lot, ESPN.com has their “strength of schedule” as the best in baseball. And as significant as this current stretch might be from a national perspective, it’s the division play that ultimately matters most.
So… are the Windians for real? The standings say so, history says so and, yes, the power rankings say so. All this considered… yeah, I say so, too. And I’ll really be ready to say it if this holds up through Memorial Day (which, according to my calendar, is just a week away).
Now give me a dollar.
PS: Don’t miss the three-part series on this club that we ran on MLB.com today. Jordan Bastian hit on the influence of Manny Acta and Tim Belcher, while I wrote up the roster construction and the 10 turning points that led to this organization’s turnaround.