The 5 Best Cleveland Indians’ Single Season Performances Since I Started Caring About Baseball
Sometime in the summer of ’94, I looked up from my Lego bricks and Sega Genesis, and noticed my dad being more interested in baseball than usual. Games were on the TV, and I was stopping longer to watch them. For whatever reason, I suddenly was also aware of the newspaper sitting on the kitchen table. In particular, all those numbers in the baseball section. The standings, the expected starters, the statistics. There were bold names (the home team). On Sundays, they listed all qualified batters and pitchers, on weekdays the leaders. Home runs… Griffey, Thomas, Belle. ERA… Nagy in the top 10 (who is Steve Ontiveros?). Batting average was the biggest thrill- always some variation of O’Neill, Belle, and Lofton. The Indians were good, and I was hooked.
#5: Sandy Alomar — 1997
.324 AVG / 21 HR / 83 RBI / 3,237 Warm Fuzzies
There’s a few dozens seasons that are better than this one in both terms of raw stats and sabermetrics, but there’s only one Sandy Alomar in 1997. The game-winning All-Star Game homer at Jacobs Field, the 30-game hitting streak, the game winning hits in the playoffs, the coming totally out of nowhere to absolutely crush it all year. People still talk about this season.
Apologies to: Roberto Alomar, 1999 (.323 AVG, 24 HR, 37 SB, 138 flippin’ runs scored, Gold Glove (duh)).
#4: Grady Sizemore — 2006
.290 AVG / 53 (!) doubles / 28 HR / 76 RBI / 134 R / 22 SB / 535 Swooning Ladies
It’s easy to forget Grady’s short prime after watching him fall apart/ not play for the last 5 years of his time with the Indians. 2006 is when sports magazines began piping up with the Duke Snider comparisons. Imagine an alternate reality where most Francisco Lindor talk is about whether he can fill the huge void left when Grady signed with the Yankees for eleventy-billion dollars. This is the opposite of Sandy’s 1997- nobody talks about this season, and it really was impressive even by the stat buffs’ standards.
Apologies t0: Jim Thome, 1996 (.311 AVG, .450 OBP, .612 SLG, 38 HR, 116 RBI). Unless I’m missing something, this might be the highest (Baseball Reference) WAR season by an Indian since 1994. Another not-talked-about-much season.
#3: Manny Ramirez — 1999
.333 AVG / .442 OBP / .663 SLG / 44 HR / 165 (!!!) RBI / 1 vial of human chorionic gonadotropin
I now find RBI’s to be a useless distraction- a stat accumulated by pure luck. In 1999, I thought they were a great measurement of “clutch” and the marker of a true great. Someone with a lot of RBI’s selflessly clustered their best at-bats with their fellow teammates on base.
Still, love RBI’s or hate them, accumulating 165 of them must mean you’re pretty good at baseball. I remember thinking that Manny might catch Hack Wilson that year. He could have been real close if not for missing a handful of games with some minor injuries and I believe a short suspension. And, of course, this was just the beginning of Peak Manny, a ten-year span that would see him eclipse 1.000 OPS eight times and cement himself as one of the greatest right-handed hitters- and certainly the greatest to take female fertility drugs- of all time.
Apologies to: Albert Belle, 1994 (.357 AVG, 36 HR, 101 RBI). Kenny Lofton, 1994 (.349 AVG, 60 SB). Carried out past the strike to the end of the season, these could have been the two gaudiest stat lines in team history.
#2: Cliff Lee — 2008
22–3 / 2.54 ERA / 1 Cy Young Award / 77 nonchalant I’m-gonna-crush-you-but-whatevs stares
It’s hard to explain exactly what it was, but there’s no pitcher I’d rather watch pitch than Cliff Lee. He was totally stoic, kind of unassuming, and then he’d just dominate you. His pitches seemed to just loop around bats. It was like he was carefully cutting a path through construction paper, just barely avoiding any contact with the lines. Just watch this video here- I nearly cried just now.
Oh, and let’s not forget he did this after getting absolutely hammered in 2007. He was dropped from the rotation in favor of Aaron Laffey and left off the playoff roster.
Apologies to: Corey Kluber, 2014 (18–9, 2.44 ERA, 269 K, 1 Cy Young Award). Kluber’s even more stoic, his rise even more improbable, and his season was arguably even better. So, why Cliff? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
#1 Albert Belle — 1995
.317 AVG / .690 SLG / 50 HR/ 52 doubles / 126 RBI / 1 highway robbery of an MVP award
I wish I could find a head-on picture of Albert Belle in his batting stance just before the pitch- like what you’d see from the behind-the-pitcher view on TV. Discounting that the positioning of his posterior looks a bit like he is perhaps nursing a hemorrhoid, he is like a tiger ready to pounce. Completely still, alert but somewhat at rest. Absolutely ready to crush his prey. Can’t think of a more intimidating pose on a sports field.
Belle did absolutely everything right in ’95, besides going nuts on Hannah Storm. He topped the league in every category relevant to a cleanup hitter, rounding off the numbers in service of aesthetic perfection, like he wasn’t just a slugger but an artist, committed a complete work of art across 143 games.
Later in the decade, Jim Thome emerged as the One True Greatest Power Hitter in Indians History, with his folksy lumberjack persona, wind-up swing, and towering taters. It was easy to bundle him up into a friendly legend to bronze into a statue just beyond centerfield. But it’s hard for me to imagine a pitcher fearing Thome quite like I imagine pitchers feared Belle in his all-to-brief prime.
Apologies to: Nobody.