[extremely 30 for 30 voice]
What if I told you there was a professional sports team based in Ohio that wore blue, featured an experienced coach leading a young, talented team, and which surpassed expectations in a quest for postseason glory?
What if I told you this applied to several teams over the last year?
I’ve been a die hard Cleveland Indians since before the Blue Jackets were a gleam in John McConnell’s eye. That 1990s dynasty is why I became a baseball fan, and the 2016 season was reminiscent of those teams. It was a blast watching them win the American League pennant (apologies to site manager and Toronto Blue Jays fan Mike McLean) and take the World Series to extra innings of Game 7.
Once that postseason run came to an abrupt end (damn you, rain delay), my hometown Columbus Blue Jackets were there to pick me up, as they started getting hot in November, then did not lose in December.
I thought I’d take a look at how similar these teams are:
June was an exciting moment in Cleveland sports history, as the Cleveland Monsters won the Calder Cup on June 12. On June 17, the Indians began a sweep of the Chicago White Sox. After the third game, the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA title in thrilling fashion over the Golden State Warriors, for the first major professional title in Cleveland in 52 years. After that, the Indians won 11 more times for a 14 game win streak. It was the longest streak in franchise history and the longest in MLB since Oakland won 20 in 2002.
The Blue Jackets shocked the hockey world by going on a win streak of their own. That 16 game win streak was, of course, a franchise record. But it was also the second longest win streak in league history, just one behind the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins. The whole league was paying attention to Columbus, and one could feel all of Central Ohio buzzing about the Jackets for the first time in a long time.
In addition to the win streaks, both teams avoided losing streaks. The 2016 Indians did not lose more than 3 games in a row. No other MLB team last season could say that. Before a 6 game losing streak near the end of this season, the Blue Jackets were the only the NHL team this season not to have lost more than 2 games in a row.
How did those teams avoid losing streaks? A couple major reasons:
Both teams relied on a single important player when they needed a big stop. For the Blue Jackets, that was goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. He already won the Vezina Trophy in 2013, and he’s a strong contender to win it again this season. Bob leads the league in goals against average and save percentage, is second in wins and third in shutouts.
The Indians rode the arm of ace pitcher Corey Kluber. Kluber had won the 2014 AL Cy Young Award, and he finished 3rd in 2016. He led MLB in shutouts, ERA+ and FIP. In the playoffs, he was called upon to pitch the biggest games. In the World Series, a shorthanded rotation meant he had to start 3 games in a 7 game series.
The other reason these teams avoided extended stretches is the head coach, though both have very different approaches.
Both Terry Francona and John Tortorella had won titles at previous stops. Francona won two titles in Boston, including their first in 86 years. Torts won a Stanley Cup in 2004 in Tampa Bay.
Both had left their previous stop in a cloud of controversy. Tito was fired after a late season collapse in 2011. Torts was fired after a losing season and a series of public explosions in Vancouver. Each came to Ohio seeking redemption.
Their approaches are different, however. Torts is known for being a task master, while Tito is a quintessential players’ coach. The similarity is that each demands accountability from their players, but also trusts them to do the work necessary.
Francona won AL Coach of the Year, and Tortorella is a favorite to win the Jack Adams Award for best coach in the NHL.
The Kids are Alright
Each team had a contender for their respective league’s Rookie of the Year award. Tyler Naquin finished third to Detroit Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer, while Zach Werenski is likely to finish third for the Calder Trophy behind Toronto Maple Leaves superstar Auston Matthews.
The 2016-17 Jackets took a leap forward thanks to veterans of the 2015-16 Monsters, including Werenski, Josh Anderson, and Oliver BJORKSTRAND. The 2016 Indians featured players who had played for the 2015 Columbus Clippers, who won the International League title. This includes Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. The Clippers also won in 2010 and 2011, while the Akron RubberDucks won in 2009 and 2012. A successful farm system built the foundation for a successful major league team.
It’s not just the rookies: each team had players in their low 20s carrying the team. For Cleveland it includes Lindor and Ramirez, while for Columbus it is Seth Jones and Brandon Saad.
Veterans are important - if they’re the right fit
In the offseason, the Indians signed some free agents to one year deals. The most important of these were Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis. Davis played solid defense in centerfield and led the league in stolen bases. Perhaps the greatest moment in the season was his game-tying home run in Game 7 of the World Series. Napoli was signed for his power bat, but also for his clubhouse presence. “Party at Napoli’s” became a popular rallying cry of Tribe players and fans.
A Napoli-type presence for the Blue Jackets is Scott Hartnell. He was acquired because of his playoff experience and his physical playing style. Despite his advanced age, he always seems to thrive on a line with younger players. This year that includes rookie center Lukas Sedlak.
The lone free agent acquisition for the Jackets was Sam Gagner. Like Davis, he exceeded expectations and provided an important offensive spark. His work on the power play was critical to its success in the first half of the season.
In 2013, the first year of the Francona Era, the Indians reached the AL Wild Card Game. This was the first playoff appearance since 2007. Despite home field advantage, they lost to Tampa Bay, then failed to return the next two seasons, due to a combination of injuries and underperformance.
The Blue Jackets lost a thrilling first round playoff series in 2014. People thought they had arrived, but the next season was derailed by injuries. The season after that started with an 8 game losing streak and never recovered.
These bounceback seasons were the result of each front office sticking to a long term building plan, and that experience with adversity certainly helped the players persevere THIS season.
In September, while clinching the AL Central title, the Indians lost both Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar to injury. So the Indians advanced to the World Series with only 60% of a starting rotation. Indians beat writer Paul Hoynes famously claimed that the chances of winning a postseason series died with Carrasco’s injury. (He made up for his missed prediction by literally jumping in a lake)
The Blue Jackets enter the Stanley Cup Playoffs at less than 100%. Ryan Murray, Zach Werenski, and Lukas Sedlak have missed time in the final weeks. If Werenski is not ready for game 1, hopefully the Indians’ path shows that the Blue Jackets can overcome it.