Another year, another ho-hum Indians exit. Sigh. Last week this often magical season officially ground to a halt following a 5–2 loss to the Yankees. Though much has been made of it, and he was certainly not his usual robotic self, Kluber really didn’t pitch that badly, but he looked a little off at the outset and definitely didn’t have ace-like stuff. I suppose a day or two before the last game of a playoff series is perhaps not the best time to be working on your mechanics.
The last two games, these Indians looked sloppy and lifeless. This is the real culprit. Seven errors over those final two contests led to, I believe, seven unearned runs. And I could go on spewing such factoids. Despite all this, however, and as much as it pains me to admit this, I think it’s definitely possible that the 2016 and 2017 Indians teams both played above their heads for most of the season. When you look at their roster this year, particularly when considering the amount of time that key guys like Brantley, Kipnis, and Chisenhall missed, it doesn’t look like a 102 win squad on paper, or a World Series bound team — and last year’s bunch was even weaker! Every time you’d watch them (both this year and last) you‘d pretty much think to yourself, of about 2–3 guys per night, “wow, this dude cracks the starting lineup on a regular basis? Really? Hmm, okay, I guess it must be working.”
So I think that, as great as a few players have been, they realistically should not have won 102 games this year, nor made the World Series last year. We should enjoy what they did accomplish and accept it for what it is. And on the flipside, concerning this year’s 0–3 meltdown to close out the ALDS, the Yankees were probably a little bit better than their record indicates. For instance despite all the raving about their bullpen, they were actually among the league leaders, if not the #1 team, in blown saves, in large part because of manager Joe Girardi’s often baffling approach to deploying his relief squad. And for at least the last two months there, it seemed like every night they would win, so would the Red Sox, thus they made up no ground. Let’s put it this way, we were all pretty much rooting for the Twins to beat these Yankees in that Wild Card game, because it was obvious which team had the greater potential for giving us fits.
Nonetheless, the Indians clearly picked the wrong time to go cold, particularly as the Yankees weren’t even playing that well themselves. A thought did occur to me near the end, though, as the announcers were pointing out Cleveland’s abysmal record in series clinching games: is it possible there is some sort of an Ohio influence seeping into their performance? They almost seem too laid back in these games. The fans are passionate, sure, when it comes to sports, but in general if there’s one personality trait linking most Ohioans in their everyday lives, it might be excessive mellowness. Has this affliction spread to our sports teams as well? I’m struggling to think of too many guys — or any guys — on the current roster whom you’d describe as outwardly passionate. This isn’t everything, but there definitely wasn’t any urgency on display in this series, and you’d have to at least entertain the notion that this might be the missing piece. At any rate, beginning with ’95, where the modern playoff era begins, I feel compelled now to examine these efforts, and see if there’s any underlining pattern afflicting our beloved Tribe. Here’s a recap:
1995: Best record in baseball. Though these 90’s squads are thought of now as boppers, it’s surprising to note that this particular edition led the league in both batting average and ERA. Still, I don’t think too many people were shocked that Atlanta beat them in the Series. Fans were just stoked we got there.
Record in potential clinching games: 2–0 (1–0 vs. Red Sox, 1–0 vs. Mariners)
1996: Best record in baseball. Not quite as good as the previous year, but then again neither was Atlanta. The Orioles, a wild card team, knock us out in the first round before we even catch our breath.
1997: This definitely feels like one that got away. Curiously, the weakest record they would have during this playoff run, but they are up against another wild card team, the Marlins. Florida probably was a slightly better team than Cleveland. Even so, as any fan knows, we had the lead late in Game 7, only to lose in extras. Then again they were probably lucky to get past both the Yankees and the Orioles, with Sandy Alomar’s winning homer against the great Mariano as the enduring symbol of these upsets.
Record in potential clinching games: 2–2 (1–0 vs. Yankees, 1–1 vs. Orioles, 0–1 vs. Marlins)
1998: The Yankees were an unstoppable force and it’s not surprising the Tribe couldn’t get past them. This basically went down as expected.
Clinching games: 1–0 (Red Sox)
1999: If we weren’t already wringing our hands about the Yankees in ’98, then this is without question the year where we start to see that proverbial window closing. Though everyone else in the universe seemed to know that the Tribe’s real flaw was starting pitching, i.e. lack thereof, GM John Hart was obsessed with sluggers and thus added still another one, in the form of Roberto Alomar, as his only big offseason move. So yes they score 1000 runs during the regular season. And yes they are knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.
Clinching Games: 0–3 (Red Sox)
2001: This was either the epilogue for the original run or the short lived beginning of something new, take your pick. A lot of new faces but still a bunch of guys remaining from the ‘95–97 crews. The Mariners set the AL record for wins and were heavy favorites. This Indians team was more of a scrappy veteran squad, plus they no longer had Manny Ramirez. In 2002 they will shutout the Angels on opening night, drop the next one, then win 10 in a row. So we’re thinking, oh yeah, high fives, here comes another monster year. Then they lose the next 8 and begin tearing down the team.
Clinching Games: 0–2 (Mariners)
2007: The only playoff team this middle run managed, although you have to mention ’05 in any discussion about choking. That squad was a young one which wasn’t supposed to accomplish much, but they gelled really fast. Got within one game of first place in late summer and still basically had a wild card sewn up, until going 1–6 the final week. In ’07 they had their best chance to win in 10 years. Tied Boston for the best record in baseball and would have smoked Colorado if they could have just gotten past the Red Sox.
Clinching Games: 1–3 (1–0 vs. Yankees, 0–3 vs. Red Sox)
2013: This team kind of came out of nowhere. A few big ticket signings were brought on board to compliment a young core, though they weren’t expected to contend right away. Improbably enough, though, they win their final 10 games and need every one of them to clinch a wild card spot. It’s the first year of the new format — two wild cards, squaring off in a single game — and the Indians not so shockingly pick this moment to collectively slump.
Clinching Games: 0–1 (Rays)
2016: Finally, another strong, legit contender! Unfortunately the #2 and #3 starters both wind up on the DL in September and miss most or all of the playoffs. In light of that, and also almost no Michael Brantley the entire year including the postseason in its entirety, we should consider this an overachieving squad. Then again they do drop the last 3 games of the World Series.
Clinching Games: 2–4 (1–0 vs. Red Sox, 1–1 vs. Blue Jays, 0–3 vs. Cubs)
2017: Best record in the AL. Possibly one of the top 5 teams in franchise history. Unfortunately a sloppy and nonchalant ALDS dooms them.
Clinching Games: 0–3 (Yankees)
So since ’95, they’ve done unbelievably poorly in spots where they could clinch a playoff series. It’s even more appalling if you start with that final game of the ’97 Series: 4–17!!!! That does mark a clear line in the sand where their fortunes begin to fade. It’s almost as if the baseball gods, looking at ’95 and ’96 as the franchise’s greatest ever assemblage of talent and regular season results (rightly so, I must say), and giving them one final chance to get their act together in ’97, have struck them down forevermore. Just four playoff series wins since then, but an astounding four occasions where they have dropped the last three games of a series, needing just one win! Plus an 0–2 finish against the Mariners in ’01 thrown in for good measure.
But this notion of baseball gods is, of course, pure whimsy. I have a theory to promote here, after all. There’s maybe not much evidence to prove any “Ohioness” has sabotaged their efforts, though if not, then what is it? What is the official diagnosis of these premature exits? Have they choked?
I would argue that choking means to cave under pressure. There are many different reasons why a team might lose, though, which include overconfidence/lack of passion (this year’s bugaboo), and expected results skewing closer to “normal” the more games you play. Here’s how I stack up what should have happened vs. what did (zero equals a result matching what was expected; plus is better, minus worse on what I’m calling the Cleve-O-Meter):
1995: About what you’d expect.
1996: Any time you exit in the first round after posting the best record in baseball — to the wild card team, no less — then something went haywire. It’s important to remember the Yankees were not yet a dynasty, as they’d not yet won a single playoff series. There’s no reason to think the Indians would have beaten the Braves this year as they were unable to the previous year, but still, this was a bit of an underperformance.
1997: It doesn’t matter how you got this far or that the Marlins were probably the better team. If you’re an inning away from winning the thing, and fail to do so, you blew it.
1998: Nobody was getting past the Yankees.
1999: I remember being pretty fired up at the time that David Justice (“David Useless”) had taken himself out of at least one starting lineup because of, as I recall, a sore toe, and over Hargrove’s curious pick for battling Pedro Martinez out of the bullpen in Game 5 (Sean DePaula? Who? Exactly). The 0–3 finish also looks heinous to be sure. And yet, this is what happens when you still have a rotation filled with nothing but #3 starters, five years into this run, but your GM keeps stockpiling bats.
2001: Losing the last two games of a series is not nearly as devastating as dropping the final three, particularly when your opponent won 116 games during the regular season. This team wasn’t going to be winning championships anytime soon. Let the dismantling begin.
2007: Yup, this sure looks like a choke job any way you spin it. The Rockies were on fumes and would have been toast regardless of opponent.
2013: Anything can happen in a one game playoff, especially when you had to win your last 10 just to sneak in the back door.
2016: I wouldn’t rate any AL team as having been the “favorite” heading into this. Still, it did feel a little bit ahead of schedule for the Indians to make it this far. But, again, dropping the last 3 games is pretty grisly (the last 2 at home, too — although as many have pointed out, this alleged home field advantage may have killed the Tribe; if in Chicago the last 2, no DH means no Schwarber in the lineup), with the added heartbreak of taking a Game 7 to extra innings for your second consecutive World Series.
2017: An anti-choke of sorts in that they appeared to think they were still easy landslide favorites to win the whole ball of wax though down 5–2 in the 9th inning of the last game of the first round. Choking would imply being too amped up to get the job done — I definitely didn’t see any evidence of that here.
2000: They battled like crazy the 2nd half and only missed the playoffs by a single game. Not a great team, and they also had Manny Ramirez drama to contend with, but they really gave it their best.
2005: This would have been a +1 or even a +2 performance most of the year, but the 1–6 final week obliterated pretty much all of it. Good memories up to that point, though.
2008: This season has a lot of parallels with ’99 in that you’re not even really sure what you’re rating, here — is it the play on the field or the performance of the GM? Sure, they’d underwhelmed a bit up to the trade deadline. But there’s Cliff Lee having a Cy Young season, and C.C. Sabathia only a year removed from such — and we all know what happened as soon as he was traded to Milwaukee. Detroit wasn’t exactly clobbering the division and Tampa Bay, the eventual left field AL pennant winner, was far from a powerhouse. I don’t see how the front office spends a half decade assembling a stable of young talent, gets exactly one competitive season out of them, then decides to blow up the entire team and start over when they’re just a couple of games back and you haven’t won a ring in 60 years.
So if I’m adding this up correctly, that’s a negative 6.4 on the Cleve-O-Meter, when comparing expected results versus actual. That sounds about right. 1997, 2007 (the one that got away, I’m telling you, which nobody ever talks about), 2016 and 2017 are the biggies. They definitely should have won a title and probably two, statistically speaking, despite completely mishandling that amazing group of guys from the mid 90’s.
You’re left with, then, asking why a team has so consistently underperformed in the playoffs, up to and including this year’s edition. Francona is a world class manager, and they should be among the best teams again next season, but their road will never again be this easy — and I can’t say his and team president Chris Antonetti’s comments following the Yankees debacle were particularly reassuring. In a nutshell saying they weren’t freaking out about this loss, and would continue doing just what they’ve been doing.
But I think this attitude is the problem. Watching these other four playoff teams still in the mix, each has one or more fiery personality given to pumping up the entire roster. The Indians have none of that. We have an ace known for resembling a robot and a talented young shortstop who likes to smile a lot. That’s about the extent of our noteworthy character traits. I’m not saying a rah-rah guy would solve all our problems, but it couldn’t hurt, and this includes the coaching staff as well. It’s easy to play armchair manager, so to speak, and wonder what these coaches do, exactly, when you’re watching Edwin Encarnacion come out of his shoes every at bat, regardless of the situation or the count, with his wildest Jose Canseco home run swing. Or you’re seeing guys slinging sidearmed throws back to the infield, as another enemy run scores, or swinging at pitches in the dirt but then taking called third strikes down Broadway. I would argue that none of this matters unless we manage to inject a little more passion into the proceedings. It couldn’t hurt, and might even be the difference maker.