Cleveland’s win over the Cardinals on Saturday (CLE 2, STL 1 in 12 innings) in tandem with the Twins’ fourth straight loss means Cleveland is now alone in first place in the American League Central. So how does a team rise to the top of what’s been baseball’s toughest division despite an offense that’s solidly below average in pretty much every regard? There’s no surer way to overcome lackluster hitting than by dominating on the slab, and that’s precisely what Cleveland has done in 2020. 

Right now, Cleveland leads the majors with a team ERA of 2.75, which puts them just ahead of the second-place Dodgers, who have a team ERA of 2.76. However, the Dodgers play in a park that suppresses run-scoring, while Cleveland’s home yard benefits the hitter. As well, the Dodgers have allowed 14 unearned runs in 34 games, while Cleveland has allowed four unearned runs in 33 games. Despite the earned/unearned distinctions, pitchers bear a great deal of responsibility for unearned runs. On top of all that, Cleveland has been significantly stronger than the Dodgers when it comes to underlying pitching indicators. 

Really, though, saying Cleveland “merely” has the best pitching staff of 2020 thus far undersells how dominant they’ve been. So let’s put their performance in context. To do that, we’ll use a stat called “ERA+,” which is sometimes known as Adjusted ERA. ERA+ is a pitcher’s or pitching staff’s ERA adjusted to reflect home ballpark and league environment. It’s scaled so that a mark of 100 is league average, and the higher the mark the better from the pitcher’s standpoint. An ERA+ of 110 means that the pitcher’s park- and league-adjusted ERA was 10 percent better than the league mean. Likewise, an ERA+ of 90 means that the pitcher’s park- and league-adjusted ERA was 10 percent worse than the league mean.

With that freshly in mind, let’s look at the top 10 team ERA+ figures of all-time. 

Rank

Team

ERA+

1.

2020 Cleveland

164

2.

2020 Dodgers

159

3.

1906 Cubs

151

4.

1909 Cubs

147

5.

1905 Cubs

146

6.

1907 Cubs

143

7.

1926 Athletics

139

8.

2017 Cleveland

138

9.

1942 Cardinals

135

10.

2018 Astros

134

These numbers from the very excellent Stathead are current as of Saturday morning, so they don’t reflect the fact that Cleveland later on Saturday allowed one run in 12 innings. So that 164 figure is even higher now. Things as they are, Cleveland is on pace to set the all-time team record and then some. Yes, the 2020 regular season will span just 60 games, so discount accordingly because of the small sample size. Even so, that’s dominance on a historic scale. 

Speaking of dominance, the 2020 Cleveland pitching staff has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.26. The current single-season record belongs to the 2017 Cleveland staff with a mark of 3.98. As you can see, the current Cleveland model is on pace to smash that record to bits. That also means their sparkling ERA+ is backed up by excellence at the command-and-control level. 

It’s further impressive that Cleveland has been able to achieve this given that they traded Trevor Bauer last season and Corey Kluber this past winter. As well, Mike Clevinger and Zach Plesac have been limited to seven combined starts because of their decisions to violate COVID-19 protocols. The personnel turns over, and Cleveland just keeps conjuring up arms who keep runs off the board. It’s hard to overstate just how excellent the organization has been at developing pitching. To put a finer point on it, five of the seven pitchers who have made starts for Cleveland this season are homegrown — that includes AL Cy Young front-runner Shane Bieber. 

There’s also this bit of aesthetically pleasing balance: Cleveland this season ranks first in MLB with a rotation ERA of 2.95 and third in MLB with a bullpen ERA of 2.38. No matter the inning — early, middle, or late — it’s difficult to score runs against this team. More precisely, it’s difficult to unprecedented extremes. 

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