By Cliff Corcoran
The Cleveland Indians won their 12th consecutive game Monday afternoon, defeating the White Sox 5-3 to break a three-way tie with the Dodgers and Astros for the longest winning streak of the 2017 season. In the process, they have more than doubled their lead in the American League Central, from 4 1/2 games to a full 10 with what is now just 25 games left to play, effectively putting the division on ice. That streak has also served as the defending American League pennant winners' declaration that they will be a major factor in the postseason yet again this year and may, in fact, be better than the Indians team that made it to the tenth inning Game 7 of last year's World Series.
Cleveland's streak isn't merely the longest of the season. It has been the most dominant. Through their first 11 games, the Indians had outscored opponents by 61 runs, compared to the Dodgers' 50 in their 11-game winning streak in July and the mere 28 runs by which the Astros outscored their opponents during an 11-game winning streak from late May into June. Adding in the 12th game, Cleveland has averaged a full seven runs scored per game during its streak while allowing just 21 runs scored total over the entire streak (1.75 runs per game). Cleveland has shut out its opponent four times during the past 12 games. That is more shutouts than the Giants, Tigers or White Sox have as a team over the entire 2017 season.
Those past 12 games have been an extreme performance, but it has not been a fluke. In truth, the Cleveland's hot streak stretches back to mid-June. After losing the first two games of a home series against the Dodgers on June 13 and 14, the Indians were a break-even team, 31-31, in second place in the Central, two games behind the Twins with a mere +11 run differential. On June 15, they salvaged the final game of that Dodgers series by beating up Rich Hill in a 12-5 victory. From that game through Monday afternoon's, they have gone 50-25 (.667), a record surpassed over that stretch only by the Dodgers' 51-20 performance, and have outscored their opponents by a whopping 170 runs, by far the best run differential in the majors over that stretch. That run differential (410-240) translates to a .727 winning percentage, or a 118-win pace over the past 75 games, which is nearly half the season and is, in fact, more than half of the part of the 2017 season that has been played.
Credit for that turnaround can be scattered about the roster, coaching staff and front office. Among the more easily demonstrated causes is the delayed arrival of the bat of the team's biggest offseason addition, designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion. The slugger hit just .244/.355/.441 through June 14 but has hit .258/.396/.543 since. Similarly, first baseman Carlos Santana, a pending free agent and should-be DH, hit .211/.305/.384 through June 14 and .299/.411/.545 since. Jose Ramirez slumped badly in August, but has rediscovered his stroke during the streak (20-for-47, 5 HR, .957 slugging), and was so good in late June and July that his aggregate line since June 15 remains .330/.379/.615.
In the outfield, Lonnie Chisenhall hit .358/.436/.605 from June 15 to July 9 before a calf injury shelved him for the rest of that month and all of August. Roughly two weeks later, Austin Jackson returned from a quad injury and has since hit .330/.377/.491. August 1 brought the waiver-trade addition of Jay Bruce, who has hit .278/.354/.542 since arriving from the Mets. More recently, 26-year-old Cuban rookie third baseman Yandy Diaz has wielded a hot bat, going 13-for-35 (.371) with 11 walks against eight strikeouts to help fill in for yet another injury to Jason Kipnis, who has struggled at the plate all season.
All of that, plus consistent excellence from third-year shortstop Francisco Lindor, astute outfield platooning by manager Terry Francona, and the best team strikeout-to-walk ratio in the Majors (1.75 K/BB for the Cleveland offense on the season as a whole) has added up to 5.5 runs per game for Cleveland since June 15. However, the real reason the Indians are not merely good but great this season is their pitching.
Forget that June 15 cutoff. On the season as a whole, only the Dodgers have a lower staff ERA than Cleveland's 3.50 or a lower WHIP than Cleveland's 1.19. Adjust for ballparks, and it's Cleveland that has the best ERA+ in the Majors (133 entering Monday's action). That's despite the Indians' sub-par fielding, thanks to the team's MLB-best 10.0 K/9 and 3.74 strikeout-to-walkout ratio, which contribute to an MLB-best 3.43 fielding independent pitching figure. As for those four shutouts from the last 12 games, they have increased Cleveland's season total to an MLB-best 16 team shutouts on the season. Leading the way has been ace Corey Kluber -- who since returning from a back injury on June 1, has gone 11-2 with a 1.85 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 12.4 K/9, and 9.05 K/BB in 18 starts -- leads the AL in ERA (2.56), ERA+ (182), and WHIP (0.90), and may steal the AL Cy Young award from Chris Sale.
Despite relief ace Andrew Miller's knee injury, the vaunted Cleveland bullpen has been excellent once again, leading the Majors in unadjusted relief ERA with a 2.98 ERA mark over 410 1/3 innings. Veteran deadline addition Joe Smith and minor league journeyman Tyler Olson have been excellent late-season additions to that group from the right and left side, respectively. The hope there is that the depth of the Cleveland 'pen will allow the Indians to give Miller, the lynchpin of their 2016 postseason run, as much time as he needs to get healthy. Miller lasted just 20 in-game pitches between disabled list stays for the right patellar tendonitis which first bothered him with the Marlins in 2008 and took seven weeks to heal on that occasion.
Meanwhile, righty Danny Salazar returns from elbow inflammation to start against the White Sox on Tuesday in an effort to extend Cleveland's streak to 13 games. With the recent activation of Josh Tomlin (left hamstring strain), what has thus far been a rare healthy season from Carlos Carrasco, and a recent hot streak from Trevor Bauer, who beat Chicago on Monday, Francona could have one key thing he lacked in last year's postseason: a healthy, robust rotation.
Add in a healthy Miller and perhaps even left fielder Michael Brantley, another piece missing from last year's team, and the Indians, the team with the longest title drought in the Majors, could very easily bring a better team into this year's playoffs than they did last year, when they were one win away from ending that drought. In fact, only the Dodgers might be able to best Cleveland on paper heading into October. As it stands, Cleveland is only three games behind the Astros for the second-best record in all of baseball, is second only to the Dodgers in third-order winning percentage (.650 to .681 entering Monday's action), and entering Tuesday's games is just eight runs behind L.A.'s Major League-leading run differential (+181 to +189).
Impressive as Cleveland's streak has been, like the team's franchise-best 14-game winning streak of a year ago, it may be a mere tease for what's to come.
Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.