The Indians are American League champions for the first time since 1997, making it four out of five years the pennant winner has come from the Central Division. The Indians really pulled away for the division title early one, despite some setbacks, so just how far away were the Royals from stacking up with the AL champs? Let’s take a look at the tale of the tape and see just how much improvement the Royals need.
The Indians were second in the league in runs scored and fourth in on-base percentage. They were very much a Jekyll-and-Hyde team when it came to home/road splits. As a home team, they were second in the league in run production, but they had the third-worst runs-per-game on the road (the Royals were dead last). They had the third-lowest soft-contact rate (the Royals had the second-highest). Despite striking out at the same rate as the Royals, the Indians walked much more, finishing fourth in the league in walk rate.
That's what speed do. The Indians took a page out of the Royals' playbook and were the best baserunning team in the league this year. They led the American League in both stolen bases and Baserunning Runs (BsR), a measure of well they ran the bases overall. Their steals came on a very high success rate. Rajai Davis led the American League with 43 steals and Davis and Jose Ramirez were two of the top five baserunners in baseball.
The Royals relied on sequencing in 2015, but this year they were 11th in the league in OPS with runners in scoring position, just ahead of the Indians. The big difference was the Indians had far more opportunities with runners on base, scoring 561 runs in situations with runners in scoring position to just 511 by the Royals.
The Indians have dramatically improved their defense, going from the second-worst defense in baseball in 2014 by Defensive Runs Above Average to the fifth-best this year. The Royals are still among the best, but are no longer lapping the field as they did in 2015. The Royals do tout the best defensive outfield in the game, while Cleveland's outfield is below average. Cleveland has caught up with major improvement at shortstop, with Francisco Lindor showing he is one of the best defensive shortstops in the game.
This was the known strength of the Indians going into the season, and they did not disappoint. They finished second in the American League in starting pitcher ERA, and topped the league in FIP. The Royals got off to a disastrous start with their starting rotation, but improved a bit in the second half and finished with the fourth-worst ERA, and the worst FIP. Only Rays starters struck out more hitters and only Yankees starters walked fewer hitters than Indians starters. Indians starters also went deeper into games, averaging 5.82 innings-per-start, fourth best in the league, compared to just 5.56 innings-per-start by Royals starters.
The Royals signature has been a dominating bullpen the last few seasons, but they took a step backward in 2016 from "OMG awesome" to merely "good." They tied the Indians for the second-best bullpen ERA, with Indians relievers besting them in FIP and strikeout rate. Indians relievers were also better at holding a lead. Cleveland was 69-5 when leading after six innings, the Royals were just 58-11.
Injuries were assigned much of the blame for the problems in Kansas City this year, and to much of an extent that was true. The team was a bit thin, and losing players like Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Wade Davis for extended periods hurt the team. The Royals also had more days lost to the disabled list, although much of that is to players like Jason Vargas, Tim Collins, and Mike Minor, players not expected to be counted on in 2016. The Indians suffered significant injuries as well to Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar. If you take the projected WAR from ZIPS and multiply that by days missed, the Indians actually lost more value to the disabled list than the Royals.
The Indians dominated the Central Division, going 49-26. And that is with them only going 10-9 against the lowly Twins, their worst record against any Central Division opponent. The Royals did well in the division as well, going 46-30, but they were just 5-14 against the Indians, getting out-scored 92-59. The Royals dropped nine of ten at Progressive Field, and won just one series all year against the Indians.
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