Now that I have your attention, I can admit that the title should actually be “How the Indians could possibly back into the play-offs if a lot of other things go right,” but that doesn’t ooze the type of confidence that Cleveland fans love and wouldn’t fit easily on the top of a web page. This analysis will not focus on the talent in Cleveland or the other teams they are competing against for what is essentially two play-off spots, but instead their results so far and upcoming opponents for the rest of the season.
To start, while nothing is anywhere near over the Orioles, Angels and Athletics are assumed to be in the play-offs. They could still go into a slump and lose their divisional and Wild Card leading standings, but this will not really affect Cleveland either way. The Mariners and Blue Jays sites can deal with those probabilities. For the rest of the contending teams, as of Monday, August 18th things look like this:
This isn’t a direct look at the Wild Card or Central Division standings, but a combination of both. Essentially, at the end of the season the best overall team and the top Central team will both make the play-offs with all others being eliminated. At the moment, it would be the Royals winning the division and Seattle taking the second Wild Card. While there are still five teams yet to be eliminated that aren’t included, if they somehow enter into this conversation, the Indians chances would be greatly reduced, so they will be ignored in the discussion of what the Indians need to happen to return to the postseason.
As always, the Indians primary goal should still be the Central Division for, while they are one game further back than in the Wild Card, they are competing with just two teams instead of five. The Indians also have a very divisional heavy schedule as we are to see. Using just current winning percent and opponents for the rest of the season, we can see what each team is expected to do for the rest of the year:
Luckily for the Indians, rarely in baseball do things work out exactly as expected. All changes in expected winning percent derive from strength of schedule with the Central Division teams gaining an advantage with 44 games left against Minnesota and Chicago between the three contenders. While Houston and Texas are still below .500 teams that the Mariners will encounter, they have many more games against the Angels and Athletics than any of the other teams. Seattle will also play three games against the NL East leading Nationals and will finish the year with 14 of their final 17 games against play-off contending teams.
One of those series the Mariners will play at the end of the year is against the Blue Jays, who face a daunting gauntlet of their own. Along with the Rays and Yankees, each Eastern team has nine series left against contending teams (compared to just six for the Indians and Royals including single game series), mostly against each other. Since the Orioles already have a decent lead, unless one Eastern team can really stand out and defeat all comers, it will be very difficult for any of the other three contenders to actually break through to the postseason. The Rays have a particularly difficult stretch set from September 9th through the 17th with nine games against the Yankees and Blue Jays while the Yankees will be tested even harder, from the 5th through the 25th with 21 straight games against contending teams including eight with Baltimore and three with Kansas City. It is hard to imagine their aging and largely disabled team maintaining through this stretch.
The corollary to the Eastern teams beating themselves is that someone will still be winning those games, one of the main reasons the Indians are still slated to come in sixth of the seven teams listed above. In order for Cleveland to improve their chances, they will have to take care of things themselves and can’t rely on any other team choking.
The Indians have 12 series left (two are four games and an extra single game will be played with the Angels on September 8th) and they are projected to win seven, split two and lose three of these based on winning percent alone, but it would make their final winning percent equal their Pythagorean winning percent (.512) as well so it is a legitimate expectation. Of course, this would end up seeing the Indians finish two games above .500 and far out of the play-offs, so while it is likely more accurate, it is not what Tribe fans want to see.
Using 90 games as the cut off for the Wild Card, the Indians will have to add seven wins in addition to those they are already expected to take. This could be an insurmountable wall, but there are a few places they could grab some. To start, the next three series are against three of the four worst teams in the American League with the Indians expected to win all three. From now on, any series win they can turn into the sweep would cut into those seven extra wins needed. After this comes an expected loss and split with Kansas City and Detroit. Every win against one of these teams counts for double as it will hand a contender a loss as well.
Anymore extrapolation from this point will lead to exceeding inaccuracies, so the prognosticating will end here with the knowledge that the Indians are not yet out of the play-off race. As the season continues, the view will become more clear and this idea will be revisited. For now, the Indians should already know that need to outplay their current performance and should focus on the next three series, looking to win at least seven of nine. If that happens, get ready for a Central Division show down starting August 29th.