Sep 25, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Fans cheer during a game between the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Better Schedule Should Benefit Indians Moving Forward

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Coming off of a 92-70 record in 2013, expectations for the Indians were fairly high this season.

However, the Indians have yet to meet these expectations in 2014, and currently find themselves in the middle of a crowded AL Central with a 39-43 record, 4 games behind the second-place Royals, and 7.5 games behind the division-leading Tigers.

The Tribe must also deal with the White Sox (0.5 game behind the Indians) and Twins (1.5 games behind Cleveland). If the Indians hit another rough patch, they could easily find themselves in last place.

But on the bright side, if the Indians start another hot streak, they could easily find themselves in first place.

The AL Central is one of the closest divisions in baseball this season, and the race to find out its winner should come down to the end of the season.

Despite the recent hot streak that the Tigers are on, this isn’t the same Detroit team as last season, and I’m not sure if it’s fair to expect them to run away with the division like they have the past few years. There’s no denying that the Tigers are still a tremendous team, but there are also some talented teams chasing after them.

The Royals have alternated between red hot and ice cold this season, and are receiving below replacement-level production from several positions in their lineup (I’m looking at you, Eric Hosmer). However, they have really good pitching — in the rotation and in the bullpen. They’re still a young team on the rise, but it’s anyone’s guess as to how 2014 will turn out for them.

The White Sox have a potent offense led by phenom Jose Abreu, but their pitching staff (outside of the electric Chris Sale) hasn’t picked up the slack. Chicago has done a terrific job of rebuilding its stock of young players since current GM Rick Hahn took over, but the White Sox also don’t appear ready to make a legitimate playoff run this year. However, they look to have a good future ahead of them.

Like the White Sox, the Twins have exceeded expectations, but their pitching (4.37 team ERA, 28th in baseball) is a major obstacle for Minnesota to overcome. They have an extremely bright future (and a stacked farm system), but they look to be a few years away.

The Indians, meanwhile, have struggled to break past .500 this season, and their starting rotation has had its fair share of struggles in 2014 (the rotation’s collective ERA of 4.48 ranks 25th in baseball). The bullpen has been solid (but overworked), and the offense has been frustratingly inconsistent at times this year — and has a total of two hits in the Tribe’s last two games.

But it’s not time to hit the panic button.

Most people like to say that each game is just as difficult as the next one. This isn’t football, where strength of schedule can have a massive impact on a team’s record. Over the course of 162 games, things tend to even out.

But the Indians have had some incredibly difficult stretches in their schedule this season, such as their current 8-game road trip featuring games against the Diamondbacks, Mariners, and Dodgers. That’s a tough road trip, especially with the solid pitching they’ve faced. As of now, the Indians are only 2-4 through the first 6 games of the trip.

The Indians also had a 16-game stretch in late April against the Tigers, Blue Jays, Royals, Giants, and Angels — all legitimate playoff contenders. The Tribe went 5-10 over that stretch (one game was postponed).

In addition to that, they had a 13-game stretch against the Blue Jays, Athletics, Tigers, and Orioles. The Indians went 6-7 over that span, though it took a 4-game winning streak for that to happen.

It’s way too early to give up on the Indians this season, especially when more wins like this could be on the way. (Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)

Those are some incredibly difficult stretches for any team, and if you were to subtract all of the games of these three rough patches of the Indians’ schedule from their overall record, they would currently stand at 26-22 — which would be good for second place in the AL Central and mere percentage points behind the Mariners for the final Wild Card spot.

I know, the Indians’ overall record is all that people care about (and for good reason).

But what this shows is that when the Indians’ schedule isn’t unbearably difficult, they’re capable of playing good baseball. It’s ridiculous to take any major league team for granted, because it all boils down to the fact that each team the Indians play is in the major leagues for a reason. There are certainly teams that are better than others, but there’s no such thing as an easy win.

Every team is capable of beating any other team at any given time. However, that doesn’t mean that the Indians shouldn’t be able to beat certain teams on their schedule.

The Indians can usually beat the teams that they should beat. And by looking at their schedule for the rest of the season, it seems to get better as the season goes on — meaning that it seems fair to expect better results from the Tribe moving forward.

After their current series against the Dodgers, the Indians return home for 10 games against the Royals, Yankees, and White Sox. The Royals will provide a tough test for the Indians (as will the Yankees and the aforementioned offense of the White Sox), but the Indians play better at home, and these are teams that the Indians should be capable of beating a few times.

I know that I wrote that there’s no such thing as an easy win (because there isn’t), but this stretch doesn’t seem as difficult as some of the ones the Indians had to play earlier this season.

After the homestand is the All-Star Game. Following that, the Indians have an 11-game road trip against divisional opponents (Detroit, Minnesota, Kansas City). This will be a critical road trip for the Tribe, but the Indians are capable of winning at least a few games on that trip.

All in all, those appear to be the two most difficult parts of the Tribe’s schedule moving forward.

Of the Indians’ remaining 80 games, 43 are at home. And in September, 17 of the Indians’ 27 games are in Cleveland, including their final 6 against Kansas City and Tampa Bay. Let’s not forget that the Indians are 23-15 at Progressive Field so far this season.

We’ve all seen what a better stretch of games at the end of the season can do for the Indians. Does anyone remember their 10-game winning streak to end last season to clinch a playoff spot?

The Indians also have 45 games against divisional opponents left in 2014, which could be a huge boost to their chances at winning the AL Central — and a huge twist for the playoff hopes of other AL Central teams — if they play well. (It could also hurt them if they play poorly, but I’m too optimistic to be thinking that way.)

Before last year’s season-ending winning streak, the Indians had little to no margin for error — like they do with the remaining games on the schedule this year. But this is a team that’s shown the ability to play well with their backs against the wall. And even though he’s made a few head-scratching decisions this year, Terry Francona is still the best manager in the division.

He’s also the only one to have won a World Series as a manager.

Nobody is giving the Indians much of a chance to make the playoffs again in 2014. Before their 1-0 loss in the first game of their series against the Dodgers, the Indians had only a 13.6% chance of making the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus. But considering the Cavs overcame 1.7% odds to win the first overall pick (and the rights to pick Andrew Wiggins) in this year’s NBA Draft, I’m willing to believe that anything can happen. (And no, the NBA Draft Lottery is not rigged…come on.)

But the Indians don’t mind being under the radar. No one thought they would make the playoffs last year, but they did.

And if history is any indication, it’s way too early to count out the Indians.

Because you just might regret it.

 

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