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The Tigers could not beat the Cleveland Indians in 2016

The Indians are in the World Series partly because they dominated the Tigers all year long.

Detroit Tigers v Cleveland Indians

The Cleveland Indians have defied belief all season long. While many statistical projections forecasted them atop the AL Central, few would have put money down on them to make the World Series. Yet here we are in October, the month of madness and miracles, and we find the Indians awaiting their opponents for the Fall Classic.

For Tigers fans, watching Cleveland decimate the hopes of Boston and Toronto in spectacular fashion comes as no surprise. Throughout the regular season, Detroit spectators watched with a stomach-churning mix of fear and dread whenever a Cleveland game would come around, because a losing streak can only last so long before it starts to feel like a curse (just ask the pre-2016 Cubs).

The Tigers played the Indians 18 times this season, missing out on their 19th match-up due to a late September rain-out that was never made up. Of those games the Indians won 14, while the Tigers won just four. Detroit lost the first 11 games they played against Cleveland, leading to Justin Verlander’s dry quip.

What makes the 2016 Indians such an unstoppable force of nature? Red Sox and Jays fans are likely asking themselves the same question now, but for the Tigers it was practically a whole season of defeat. So how did the Indians manage to beat the Tigers at seemingly every turn?

Pitchers vs. Indians

Tigers pitchers collectively allowed a 4.24 ERA for the season. When Cleveland rolled around, the Tigers’ ERA skyrocketed to 5.79. The Indians batted .262/.329/.430 as a team during the regular season, but hit a robust .284/.354/.474 against Detroit.

  • Indians hitters managed a .217 batting average against Justin Verlander, with only Lonnie Chisenhall (.500) and Francisco Lindor (.500) managing frequent success. Mike Napoli did the most run damage with four RBI.
  • Michael Fulmer allowed an unusually high .337 average against the Indians, with Michael Brantley (1.000) and Tyler Naquin (.667) the biggest annoyances. Napoli once again did the most damage with 7 RBI.
  • Jordan Zimmermann had the worst luck, allowing a .379 average to the Tribe. His was a smaller at-bat pool — he only made one start against Cleveland — but his biggest challenge was Jason Kipnis (.667).
  • The Indians only hit .276 against Daniel Norris. Again, it was a small sample, but Norris did manage to get a win against Cleveland after returning to the starting rotation.
  • Anibal Sanchez wasn’t as bad as might be expected. The Indians hit .303 against him, with Rajai Davis (.600) being his biggest sore spot, but Yan Gomes collecting the most RBIs with five.
  • Smaller samples included Hardy, who held them to a .125 average. Francisco Rodriguez didn’t give up a single hit, but also did not have many save opportunities.

There were lots of issues with bullpen management later in games, and Tigers relievers surrendered a lot of runs. The Indians were also a rare difficult team for Fulmer, and clutch hitting by Napoli with runners in scoring position was a real sore spot for Tigers.

Tigers vs. Indians pitching

The Tigers actually had a better overall average than the Indians in the regular season, batting a collected .267/.331/.438. But against the Indians they hit just .229/.296/.373. Indians pitching had a season ERA of 3.84; against the Tigers it lowered slightly to 3.76.

  • Cory Kluber was rough on the Tigers, allowing a mere .178 batting average for hitters. Justin Upton was the biggest thorn in his side with 4 RBI.
  • Josh Tomlin held the Tigers to a .260, getting roughed up mildly only by Castellanos with 3 RBI and Upton, who was hitting .417 against him with 2 RBI.
  • Trevor Bauer had a memorable September 18 loss to the Tigers, in which he hit Kinsler, Cabrera, and Victor Martinez with pitches, giving Kinsler a concussion in the process. Bauer held batters to a .274 average. Castellanos was his biggest competitor, with a .500 and 5 RBI. Maybin managed a .667, and Upton had 2 RBIs off him. Arguably, Bauer’s damage went beyond just games he pitched in, because Kinsler was out for several games after being hit, possibly costing the Tigers wins they really needed down the line.
  • Mike Clevinger was a weak link in the Cleveland rotation, allowing the Tigers a .471 average in his lone start. Miggy was unstoppable in that game with a perfect 1.000 average and 5 RBI.
  • Danny Salazar, much like the top part of the rotation, kept the Tigers offense cold, with a .255 average. Nick showed his value against Salazar with 2 RBI.
  • Postseason superstar reliever Andrew Miller was near untouchable, as one would expect. The Tigers hit a mere .136 against him, with only 2 RBIs.
  • Indians closer Cody Allen netted 4 of his 2016 saves against Tigers, holding them to a .130 average.

Bottom line

The Tigers relievers were a big problem against the Indians, with everyone but K-Rod giving up runs in later innings. This was a huge problem for the high leverage low-scoring games. Norris, who had a win against the Indians late in the year, missed a great deal of early season starts, which could have benefited the Tigers since he seemed to handle the quite capably in the fall. He pitched only 2 innings in their confrontation on July 4 before being sent back to the DL.

The two players on the team who played well offensively against the Indians were Upton — whose bat didn’t warm up until after the All-Star Break, when Detroit had already given up 11 losses — and Castellanos, who missed two losing games due to his injuries. Had Upton found his footing earlier, and had Nick not missed those games down the line, the story against the Indians might have looked a little different. Adding a healthy Norris, a more reliable Zimmermann and Sanchez, and Fulmer at full confidence would have made things very different indeed, by helping to avoid relying so heavily on relief pitchers, who struggled regularly against the Cleveland hitters.

Ultimately, Cleveland was just a better team in 2016, and it’s easy to see why they are now on their way to the World Series. But with a healthier starting rotation and consistent power hitting, the Tigers should be able to avoid any embarrassing losing streaks next season.

It might also help if Andrew Miller were barred access to the park forever.