Cleveland Indians: Panic or Don’t Panic?

Posted: 05/31/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

I wrote about three teams who are performing better than expectations (KC, Minnesota, Houston) and decided whether or not their starts were sustainable. Now, I’m going to go over a couple of teams who are under performing compared to preseason hype in the Cleveland Indians, San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners. I wanted to pick more than one NL team to go over, but I had trouble simply because the American League has been the much more interesting division to this point. The National League has been pretty straightforward. We thought the Nationals, Cardinals, and Dodgers would be the class of their respective divisions, and they have been. We thought the Pirates, Cubs, Giants, Padres, and Mets would all fight for the two wild card spots, and they are doing just that. The Padres got a lot of hype, so I’m going to look at why they are under .500, but even their (relatively) poor start isn’t that surprising. Simply put, the AL has been the more surprising (and intriguing) league thus far, and I haven’t even touched the AL East, which is so thoroughly mediocre that all five teams, each of whom has huge holes, has a good shot at winning the division. The 22-29 Red Sox would qualify as an underachieving team, but they are still just four games out in the AL East, so I don’t really see the point. The AL East is still a total tossup. But that’s a post for another day, so I’ll move on to the first under performing team: the Cleveland Indians.

In hindsight (and at the time), some of the hype surrounding the Indians heading into this season was just outrageous. Sports Illustrated, which usually picks conservatively, had Cleveland going to the World Series. ESPN, which published predictions from 15 experts, had more people choose the Indians to win the AL Central (6) than the Royals and Tigers combined (5). Predictably, the team started slowly. They were nine games under .500 on May 9th, which was even more painful given the fact that their rivals had started quickly. In the last three weeks, though, things have gotten better. The Indians are 14-7 in their last 21 games and have posted a +29 run differential in that time. They’re still just 24-26, though, so the question remains: will the Indians rebound to win the division or at least a wild card, or will they be a .500 team?

The offense has been pretty good, if not elite. They have the ninth best OPS in baseball and rank fourth in Fangraphs’ comprehensive offensive value stat. They walk more than any other team, strike out fewer than everyone but the Royals and Red Sox, and rank third in baserunning runs added behind the Blue Jays and Astros. And looking at the team, they should have a good offense. Jason Kipnis, third in baseball in WAR, is having a terrific season and especially month. He ended up with 51 hits in the month of May and an OPS well over 1.200. Kipnis had a poor year last season but has certainly reestablished himself as a top tier second baseman this season. Kipnis is joined by Michael Brantley, who finished third in the MVP voting last season and is hitting .307 this year, on-base king Carlos Santana, slugger Brandon Moss, and a few effective platoons. It’s an offense that utilizes its bench, takes walks, and hits for good power. That, along with two studs hitting first and third, seems like a recipe for success.

But while the offense has been good, the fielding has been atrocious. I think this is something I, among other people, underestimated when it comes to the Indians. They were a terrible fielding team last season and didn’t really make many changes to improve heading into this season. As a result, they rank ahead of only the Oakland Athletics and San Diego Padres with a -14.6 Fangraphs Def value. As an aside, I’d like to note that the three teams who rank as the most underachieving compared to preseason hype happen to rank 27th, 28th, and 30th in defense. You think people are underrating defensive value a bit? Anyway, the defensive issues aren’t going away. For all Brantley’s offense value, he gives a lot of it back defensively. Michael Bourn used to be a good defensive centerfielder, but he’s slower now and his instincts aren’t very good. The result has been a poor few seasons defensively. And Santana, a former catcher (and not a very good defensive one), is now one of the worst defensive first basemen in baseball. Kipnis and third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall help a little bit, and Moss has actually been a pretty solid defensive right fielder, but the defensive outlook remains grim and nullifies much of the excitement generated by the offensive improvement.

The Indians’ rotation, 1-4 at least, is so tantalizingly talented. Corey Kluber, unlucky start aside, is one of the five best pitchers in baseball. He won the Cy Young award last year and has posted an incredible 50:2 K:BB ratio in his last four starts (32 innings). He now has a 96:13 K:BB this season and a 3.52 ERA that will only come down. No worries at the top of the rotation. Then come the three starters, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, and Carlos Carrasco, who will make or break Cleveland’s season. They’re three of the most interesting young pitchers in baseball in that they’ve all struggled at times but have electric stuff. Bauer, with a 2.99 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 63.2 innings, has been the best of the three so far this season, but the walks (25) are still an issue. Meanwhile, Carrasco has a 4.24 ERA but a 2.67 FIP. He’s another strikeout pitcher but walks fewer hitters than Bauer. And Salazar, with 71 strikeouts and 16 walks in 54.2 innings, throws harder than almost any starter. His fastball’s average of 95.3 miles per hour ranks fourth and is just  .4 MPH behind first place Nathan Eovaldi. But he has just a 3.79 ERA, and his bugaboo is the same as it’s always been: the long ball. He’s given up eight homers this year and 28 in 217 career innings. Predictably, Indians’ starters have a FIP (3.38) that’s way better than their ERA (4.48). They strike out nearly a batter and a half more per nine innings (10.29 to 8.89) than any other team. Normally, I would say the ERA would creep down into the 3.50 range, but Cleveland’s defense is really bad, which helps explain a .323 BABIP that’s baseball’s highest. There’s hope, though: Cleveland pitchers had the sixth highest BABIP last season but still managed to post a 3.57 ERA that was only slightly higher than their 3.42 FIP. To put this simply, Kluber, Carrasco, and Salazar are going to get luckier and give up fewer runs as the season continues. So to will closer Cody Allen, who has great stuff and a 2.78 FIP to go along with his 5.24 ERA. It’s a good staff and particularly rotation, and it’s important to note that the Indians just got catcher Yan Gomes, a very good defensive catcher (and game caller) back. The Indians are giving up just 3.5 runs per game with Gomes behind the plate and are 6-4 in games he’s started. It’s a small sample size, but there’s little doubt that they are a better all-around team with Gomes playing catcher.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this is a good team. In Kluber, Kipnis, and Brantley, the Indians have three true stars, something very few teams (especially among the lower payroll clubs) can say. They also have a very talented rotation and a good, balanced offense that will more than make up for some defensive deficiencies. I think the Indians are just fine, and I think they’ll still win the division despite currently residing in fourth place. My verdict is…

Don’t panic

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