It no longer seems adequate to compare the 1995 Cleveland Indians only with the sorry versions that preceded them.
To be fair, you have to measure them against some of the great lineups of the past 20 years - the Brewers of the early 1980s, the Red Sox of the late ‘70s, perhaps even the Reds of the mid-‘70s.
“I don’t compare clubs. I don’t do that,” Sparky Anderson, who managed the Big Red Machine, said after the Indians swept three games from his Tigers at Jacobs Field last week. “But I can tell you, this team is outstanding.
“Yeah, sure, they’re on a roll in this park, and they’re going to be on a roll in every park they play in. Right now they’re the best team in baseball.”
The numbers bear him out. Cleveland leads the American League in virtually every offensive category, including batting average, runs, home runs, slugging percentage and total bases. Its pitching staff leads the league in wins and ERA.
And not just by a little.
At 33-11, the Indians are off to the best start in franchise history. They are 22 games over .500 for the first time since the end of 1959. They absolutely own their home park, where they are 18-4. They’ve won 11 of their last 12 games overall, and eight straight at home.
Even so, the Indians probably don’t yet measure up to the awesome Cincinnati lineup of the ‘70s that included Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Ken Griffey Sr., George Foster, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Dave Concepcion and Cesar Geronimo. But they are intriguingly close.
Like the Big Red Machine, these Indians have a lineup with almost no holes, and plenty of depth.
“A lot of teams rely on their first four or five hitters to win games,” said Wayne Kirby, a reserve outfielder who has hit .333 in the six games he’s started and has helped win a couple others with pinch hits. “This year, we’ve got Paul Sorrento, Jim Thome. There’s ‘sock’ all through that lineup.”
To be sure, the Indians’ leading home run hitters so far have been Thome with 13, batting sixth, and Manny Ramirez and Sorrento with 12 each, batting seventh and eighth. Six different hitters (Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, Eddie Murray, Thome, Ramirez and Sorrento) have driven in at least 30 runs, led by Belle’s 37. Leadoff hitter Kenny Lofton, who until two weeks ago was off to a mediocre start, has recently caught fire, quickly raising his average to .350.
Murray, moving rapidly toward his 3,000th career hit, has hit safely in 13 of his last 14 games, leaving him just 12 hits from the milestone.
It was his acquisition as a free agent before last season, more than any other single move, that solidified Cleveland’s batting order, making it ever more hazardous for opponents to pitch around Belle in the cleanup spot.
“You want to know what makes them good?” Anderson asked. “Tell me one bad player they’ve got … Go ahead, I’m waiting … They don’t have one bad player, and that can help you win some games, can’t it?”
There has been no particular formula to Cleveland’s season, other than the one constant, winning. One night, Dennis Martinez pitches a shutout. Another time, the Indians spot Kansas City’s David Cone an 8-0 lead, then come back to beat the Royals 9-8.
Frequently, Jose Mesa finishes it off; he’s 16 for 16 in saves.
“The good thing about this ballclub is, we have the ability to beat you more ways than just one,” manager Mike Hargrove said.