"I felt last year at this point we had played our best baseball. You couldn't play any better than the way we played the first 45 games. Unfortunately, we had some guys go down. But I still don't think we have played our best baseball [this year]." -- Indians manager Manny Acta
For the first two months of last season, the Cleveland Indians looked like a fairy-tale team. On May 22, fresh off their 28th win in 43 games, they sat atop the AL Central with a winning percentage 50 points higher than any other team's and a lead over the second-place Detroit Tigers that had stretched to seven games. The Indians were among the best in baseball at almost everything: Their hitters' .276 true average (TAv) was the highest in the American League, their defense had converted 72.9 percent of balls in play into outs (the AL's third-highest rate), and their pitching staff's 4.30 fair run average (FRA) ranked a respectable fifth.
Their third-order winning percentage, an estimate of how successful they should have been based on their underlying statistics and the quality of their opponents, was an AL-high .613. Quite simply, the Indians were playing like the league's best team.
Baseball Prospectus wasn't buying it. We projected the 28-15 Indians to regress to a sub-.460 mark during the rest of the season. Our seemingly pessimistic projection turned out to be too generous: Cleveland actually won at a .437 clip from May 22 on, going 52-67 to finish at 80-82. By the end of the season, the Indians had completed a transition from all systems go to full system failure: their TAv fell to .261 (ninth), their defensive efficiency declined to 70.7 percent (ninth), and their FRA inflated to .463 (sixth). The fairy tale had an unhappy ending.
Fast forward to 2012: Through 44 games, the Indians are again exceeding expectations. At 26-18, this year's edition is three games behind the pace set by last year's club, and its 4-game lead in the AL Central is only half as large as the 2011 team's was at the same point last season. Given that most pundits pegged the Tigers to run away with the division, though, the Indians' presence in first place is surprising no matter the margin. Last year's Indians turned out to be a tease, but there is good reason to believe that this team can make it to the playoffs this year.