After falling short of the 2016 World Series title in extra innings of Game 7, the Cleveland Indians picked themselves up and spent the 2017 season building toward one of the most dominating campaigns in baseball history. After a meager start, they slowly began playing to their impressive underlying metrics, finally reaching their peak with an American League record 22-game winning streak in August and September. By the end of the season, they’d staked their claim as not only the best team in baseball this season, but also one of the top regular-season teams of all time.
And in a week of October baseball, it was all over. On Wednesday night, the New York Yankees eliminated Cleveland from the postseason in Game 5 of their AL Division Series matchup, completing an epic comeback after being down two games to none. Now the Indians will have five months to ponder how they let it all slip away.
The Indians’ bats, which were solid all year (despite a slight lack of star power), went ice-cold against Yankee pitching. Cleveland hit .171 with a .550 on-base plus slugging (OPS) during the series, a far cry from their numbers in each category during the regular season. Of the nine Indian hitters with at least 10 at-bats during the ALDS, all but two – right fielder Jay Bruce and catcher Roberto Perez – saw their OPS drop at least 130 points from its regular-season level. (Second baseman Jose Ramirez, Cleveland’s best hitter this year, looked lost at the plate all series; his OPS was down a shocking 675 points from the regular season.)
It didn’t help that Cleveland ace Corey Kluber, who ranked as baseball’s best pitcher during the regular season, struggled in both of his ALDS starts. According to game score ( our metric for judging a starting pitcher’s performance), Kluber produced the worst performance of his postseason career in Game 2 – a game that he was lucky the Tribe eventually came back and won – and then followed it up with another clunker in the do-or-die Game 5. After compiling one of the great pitching seasons of the millennium, Kluber saved two of his worst five starts this year for the playoffs:
But maybe the biggest lesson of Cleveland’s quick playoff exit is that this kind of thing can happen to even the most dominant of baseball teams. According to WAR per game, the 2017 Indians were the 13th-best regular-season team of the World Series era, sandwiched between the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers and the 1922 St. Louis Browns. And even among such impressive company, their postseason result doesn’t stand out. Of those top 25 teams by WAR, fewer than half ended up winning a championship. For every 1927 New York Yankees, who dominated the season all the way through a World Series sweep, there were more cases like the 1969 Baltimore Orioles – an absurdly fearsome team on paper, stacked at every position, who nonetheless were upset in the playoffs by a team with lesser credentials.
Baseball’s best teams don’t always win
Teams with the highest regular-season wins above replacement and their furthest playoff round reached, 1903-2017
Unlike pro basketball, in which the best team wins with metronomic consistency, baseball still delivers plenty of upsets like the Yankees’ win. It’s part of what makes the sport great – even though that’s surely of little consolation to the Tribe’s long-suffering fans right now. It will be another offseason without a World Series champion for Clevelanders to celebrate. Even after 69 straight years, it never gets easier.