The Cleveland Indians should not have had such an easy road to the AL Central title last season. Their closest competition, the Detroit Tigers, had an 82-61 record in games against all other teams in 2016. The Indians went 80-63 against those same teams.
Fortunately for the Indians, they also had to play against the Tigers. One might even suggest an alternative word for “play,” because the season series between the two clubs was as lopsided as you will ever see. The Indians won 14 of their 18 games against Detroit, and outscored the Tigers 106 runs to 71. How dominant was this? The Tigers were responsible for nearly 35 percent of the Indians’ +101 run differential — the fourth-highest in MLB last year — in just 11 percent of their schedule. The Indians scored nearly six runs per game against the Tigers, and didn’t lose a game against Detroit until July 6. By then, the Indians had already opened up a 7 1⁄2 game lead and the division race was all but over.
This is a new season, though. The Indians have struggled in the early going, winning just two of six games following their season-opening sweep over the Texas Rangers. They have only scored 14 runs in that stretch despite playing against the Arizona Diamonbacks and Chicago White Sox, two teams that finished below .500 in 2016.
However, it’s far too early to plan their demise. The Indians entered 2017 as one of the American League’s best teams on paper. Their starting rotation is the class of the division, if not the entire league, and their offense received an offseason jumpstart in the form of Edwin Encarnacion. Michael Brantley is back from injury, Andrew Miller is here for a full season, and Francisco Lindor is a year older and closer to his prime.
Long story short: they’re good. Really, really good.
Game 1: LHP Daniel Norris (0-0, 4.26 ERA) vs. RHP Trevor Bauer (0-1, 6.35 ERA)
Trevor Bauer got rocked in his first start of the season, allowing four runs in 5 2⁄3 innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks. This isn’t surprising, as Bauer has never posted an ERA under 4.00 in any of his five major league seasons. What was surprising was Bauer’s command. The 26-year-old righty struck out seven and did not allow a walk, something he had only accomplished once before in his career. In fact, Bauer didn’t even go a single start without walking a batter last season. The Tigers will be a stiffer test in this regard, as they have drawn 23 walks in just 49 2⁄3 innings against Bauer in his young career.
Game 2: RHP Justin Verlander (1-0, 1.35 ERA) vs. RHP Corey Kluber (0-1, 5.25 ERA)
Corey Kluber’s 2016 season somewhat mimicked Justin Verlander’s, in that Kluber struggled a bit in April and early May. After eight starts, Kluber had a 4.30 ERA, though he decided to mix in a five-hit shutout against the Tigers for good measure. The Klubot started running on all cylinders in mid-May, however, and he finished the season with a 2.77 ERA and 3.98 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his final 24 starts. This dominance continued into the postseason, where he allowed seven total runs in six playoff starts. He was even stingier against the Tigers last season, holding them to a .173 batting average and .552 OPS in four meetings.
Game 3: LHP Matt Boyd (1-1, 5.40 ERA) vs. RHP Carlos Carrasco (1-0, 2.13 ERA)
The Tigers were bad luck for Carlos Carrasco last season, who left two of his four starts against Detroit with injuries. He suffered a hamstring injury at Comerica Park in late April, and missed a month of action. When he came back, he was a crucial part of the Indians’ success, holding opponents to a 3.47 ERA with a 4.48 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20 starts. The 21st start lasted just one pitch; Ian Kinsler hit a liner off Carrasco’s right wrist, resulting in a season-ending fracture. Now fully healthy and coming off a dominant first couple outings, he looks poised to post one of his best seasons yet.
Clipping the Ed-wing
One of the main culprits of the Indians’ early offensive woes is new signing Edwin Encarnacion. The former Toronto Blue Jays slugger is hitting just .156 with a .570 OPS through his team’s first nine games. He has gotten on base at a decent clip with six walks already, but has just three hits since his game-tying home run against the Rangers on Opening Day.
Is it too early to worry? Probably. Encarnacion has been one of the most productive hitters in baseball over the past five years and still received a $60 million contract in a market avoiding power-hitting corner bats like the plague. That kind of money can put pressure on a player, though, and the expectations surrounding Edwin and the Indians are sky-high. Tigers fans watched Justin Upton struggle early before finally rounding into form later in the season, and it would not be all that surprising to see Encarnacion go through a similar early season slump. His elevated strikeout rate in 2016 was already an ominous sign, and he already has 13 punch-outs in 34 plate appearances this year.
How the Tigers win the series
Cleveland’s starting pitchers carved up the Tigers in 2016, and ate plenty of innings doing so. Corey Kluber averaged seven innings in four starts against Detroit, and Carlos Carrasco tossed a four-hit shutout in June. The Tigers weren’t able to dig into the Indians’ middle relief corps, a key to their success in seasons past. Even if the Tigers aren’t able to get much going early in games, wearing down the Tribe’s starters will be crucial to avoid Andrew Miller and Cody Allen at the end of games.
Fortunately, it’s not impossible. Carrasco has dominated the Tigers in recent years, but struggled against Detroit earlier in his career, even after everything clicked for him in 2014. The Tigers have always been able to drive Bauer’s pitch count skyward, if not knock him out of the game earlier than expected. Even Kluber is fallible; he allowed a 4.24 ERA in an unlucky April last year, and has a career ERA north of 4.00 in the first month of the season.