April 18, 2014

What the Indians Can Learn from the World Series

This has been, for me, one of the more exciting playoffs in memory.  The games have been tight.  There’s been a nice mix of offense and pitching.  Managerial decisions have played a huge role.  In other words, I’m enjoying these games about as much as I’m able, considering the Indians aren’t participating.

And while I wouldn’t put too much stock in the crapshoot that is the MLB playoffs, I find it interesting that the two teams that have made the World Series happen to be teams that don’t spend gobs and gobs of money—at least not relatively speaking.

The St. Louis Cardinals opening day payroll this year was about $110 million, up from $94 million in 2010 and $88 million in 2009.  The Rangers were at $92 million on opening day 2011, up considerably from 2010 and 2009 where their figures were at $64 million and $68 million respectively.

In other words, these two teams have averaged about $86 million in payroll over the last three years.

Granted, that’s considerably more than the Indians payroll has been these last couple of years.  But it wasn’t all that long ago that the Dolans were able to pony up $82 million in payroll of their own in 2009.  Will that be the exception more than the rule?  Probably, yes.  But the Rangers made the World Series last year too with a payroll of only $64 million.  I wonder: is there anything we can learn from these “mid-market” teams that can’t afford to compete with the deep pockets lining the Eastern and Western seaboards but who still field competitive teams?

In looking over the rosters, here are some of the lessons I think the Indians might be able to glean from the construction of these two teams.

Fear the Mid-Rotation Free Agent.  The Rangers second-highest paid pitcher is Scott Feldman, whom they signed to a two year, $11.5 million contract before the season.  He makes more than Matt Harrison (4.2 WAR), Derrek Holland (3.6 WAR), and Alexi Ogando (3.5 WAR)—combined.  Scott Feldman pitched 11 innings in the rotation this season, before the Rangers realized he had to be moved to the bullpen.  For the entire season, he contributed 0.3 WAR.  In other words, the Rangers paid Scott Feldman $4.4 million for almost no value, while the previous three $1.2 million combined for 11.3 wins.

The Cardinals, similarly, paid Jake Westbrook $8 million this season.  For that money, he produced 1.1 WAR and was left off the NLCS roster altogether.  Their second-best pitcher was, on the other hand, Jaime Garcia, a home-grown pitcher in his second full season still making the league minimum.  Sure, their best pitcher was Chris Carpenter, who was locked into a pretty hefty contract, but beyond him, they got as many wins from Jaime Garcia and Fernando Salas (4.6 WAR for $850,000) as they did from Westbrook and Kyle Lohse (3.6 WAR for $20.1 million).

THE LESSON: Free agent, middle-of-the-rotation pitchers are rarely worth their cost.  Most teams are likely able to simulate their production for a fraction of the cost with homegrown or pre-arbitration players.  Big money should be spent elsewhere.

Closer Schmoser. Interestingly, both these teams have closers making the league minimum.  They also did not come to their role in the traditional manner.  The Rangers couldn’t seem to decide between Alexi Ogando and Neftali Feliz during Spring Training.  The smart money had them trying Feliz in the rotation (to replace Cliff Lee) while letting Ogando close games.  Of course, they eventually flipped these roles, sending Feliz back to the ‘pen and Ogando to the rotation—to great success on both counts.

The Cardinals, after suffering through the death throes of Ryan Franklin’s tenure as closer, couldn’t settle on anyone for most of the season.  Eight different players recorded a save for the Cardinals before (informally) settling on Jason Motte in September.  I wrote about Jason Motte earlier this week, especially in regard to Chris Perez.

THE LESSON: don’t be afraid to think outside of the box when it comes to the closer role: flexibility is a good thing, and re-imagining how a bullpen and rotation might be managed can uncover some hidden value.  Also, DON’T OVERPAY CLOSERS.  Which is to say, don’t pay for closers.  If you do, I’m gonna go all Kerry Wood on you, and nobody wants that.

Cornering the Market. The old cliché goes that good teams are built up the middle of the diamond, meaning that the best teams invest in the middle infield positions, catcher and center field.

These teams seem to be calling poppycock on that one.  The Cardinals three most expensive position players are Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman—all corner guys (these were also their best players, by WAR).  Texas’ three highest paid position players are Michael Young (DH), Adrian Beltre (3B) and Josh Hamilton (CF/LF).  Rather than investing heavily in the middle of the diamond players, both teams have focused resources on corner spots.

THE LESSON: This one is deceiving, with some chicken and egg issues.  The older a player gets, the more likely he is to move to an easier defensive position.  Also, the older a player gets, the more money he makes due to free agency and arbitration.  Therefore, more money is spent on the corners than up the middle.  But I think there is still something here worth noticing: good teams fill the middle of their diamond with young (and therefore, cheap) players because young players are—by and large—better defensively than old players.  As players get older and less able to play the more difficult positions, you shift them to corner spots and rely on their bats to produce most of their value.  Does this make me think twice about trying to keep Grady?  Yes.  Yes it does.

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I don’t think that we should read too much into any one facet that I’ve mentioned, apples being different from oranges and whatnot.

But the Indians should be taking notice of what good teams are doing, especially when those strategies are easily transferrable.  No, the Indians can’t just add “Draft Albert Pujols” to their strategy list, but there are little things that good teams do that the front office can emulate.  Where and how should we spend on free agents?  What is the most valuable use of pre-arbitration years?  What age do you want to bring someone to the majors to maximize his impact on your club?  I think the Rangers and Cardinals have mastered some of these more nuanced moves, and one of them will be rewarded with a pretty nifty trophy for it.

  • Pale Dragon

    As much as the Indians have underachieved at the corner positions over the last decade, they have equally overachieved up the middle, with VMart, Santana, Droobs, Healthy Grady, and that one time Peralta was good for us. It would appear that Shapiro’s theory is that it doesn’t matter where the production is coming from, as long as it is coming.

  • mgbode

    I got bored with the LCS to be honest. Didn’t watch much of the ALCS, but the NLCS was just which pitcher would screw up the least. Couldn’t believe that neither side could get a QS and I am very thankful that I no longer have to be subjected to the Brewers defense (can we really call it that?)

    Very happy with the WS so far though. Good pitching, good defense, timely hitting, and LaRussa being LaRussa.

  • Ghost To Most

    When do pitchers and catchers report?

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Scott

    Love the playoffs/WS this year. Not only was I emotionally invested due to the midwestern flavor of the LCS, but the first two games of the World Series have been stellar.

    Also, props to Kinsler for stealing second last night in the high-pressure situation after getting shot down in Game 1. Kids a stud.

  • oribiasi

    I’m with Ghost To Most, when do pitchers/catchers report? What do we think the changes are that we sign Fielder?

  • mgbode

    @Oribiasi – there is a good chance we sign a fielder. We have some needs around the diamond and I don’t think we only sign pitchers this offseason. So, we’ll sign someone who fields.

    oh, you wrote (F)ielder, well, what are the odds that I win the lottery this weekend despite the fact that I have not bought a ticket? that’s about where those odds are at.

  • NJ

    I think when all is said and done, we’ll be happy to NOT have Fielder.

    Not sure how widely reported it was, but I read that the Indians more than DOUBLED their local TV ratings this year (+108%). We also led the league in attendance increase. So yeah for Cleveland fans. Hopefully that money can find it’s way to the field in the form of some quality talent.

  • Ghost To Most

    Another note, I think the Cardinals payroll will be significantly less next season. The Albert Pujols situation is beginning to take on a LeBron James-esque feel. I think he’s moving on regardless of what happens in this series.

  • DWiggles

    A note on the middle of rotation pitchers lesson – while I agree that they’re not usually worth spending big money on, I’d like to point out that you’re using two teams that are in the World Series to demonstrate that you can get more value from home grown talent. If you can actually get that kind of value from your home grown talent, you’re going to do very well, but I don’t think it’s exactly easy to do (see: Sowers, Jeremy or Laffey, Aaron).

  • NJ

    And Texas has a suprising lack of homegrown (at least drafted) talent. Granted, there are a few great players amongst that group, but I want to say they represent only three or four guys on their WS roster.

  • Hermie13

    What are the chances we sign Fielder? Well…slighly higher than the chances of Jesus Christ coming down from heaven and signing with the Indians….but not much higher.

    Has been a good WS so far. Defense has been pretty bad though. Freese makes Chiz look like a gold glover over at 3B. Pujols had that good stop in game 1 but that was a weak effort in the 9th to cut that ball off. Yeah bad throw but even a Matt LaPorta should have been able to cut that throw. Watching Hamilton and Berkman run in the OF is painful too. Perez has a good arm out there but is shaky.

    I agree with most of the points made here. Will say that the Pavano/Milwood type mid-rotation free agent signings make sense. Long-term deals though…tend not too.

    Not sure about the ‘corner vs middle’ arguement though. Corner guys are gonna make more because that’s where your power comes from and power gets paid, it’s that simple. You want to be fundementally sound up the middle though….Rangers have a GG caliber SS and 2B (catcher and CF are weak though). Cards have a GG catcher, upgraded their infield for the series with Furcal at SS and playing Punto at 2B and upgraded in CF by using Jay and trading Rasmus.

    As far as the Tribe…we are weak here. Catcher we are above average (Marson is very good and Santana is not close to as bas as some make him out to be, he actually grades out very average). SS and 2B we are below average….not much we can do there though. CF…with Grady there you’re above average still. He’s lost more than a step but still covers ground. Carrera is solid too (struggled as a rookie though). Fear using Brantley there as he’s pretty awful in CF….Tribe knows this and is why they’ve said they aren’t sold on him there and why I think they ultimately bring back Grady (or trade for a guy like Upton).

    Agree 100% on closers. CP isn’t gonna kill ya with his salary but I’d look at moving him for the right price. Correct me if I’m wrong too…but only once in the history of baseball has a team won the World Series with their closer making $10M+ (the 2009 Yanks)? So basically unless you can afford a $200M payroll (and have the greatest closer ever), don’t pay him $10M (looking at you Shapiro). Perez probably comes in under $5M…but he’ll start to get pricier.

  • mgbode

    @Hermie – “SS and 2B we are below average….not much we can do there though”

    I assume you are talking merely about defense, right? I know Asdrubel isn’t liked by the sabermetrics, but he seems to do allright. kipnis has his struggles, but none more than Zeke who you grade out okay. anyways, the hope is that their contributions at the plate make up for any lapses in the field anyway.

    Santana struggled a ton later in the year behind the plate. Passed balls, struggling to get solid throws off, everything. maybe just a mental thing, maybe the playing part-time at 1B, but he needs to fix it if we keep him there (which is likely).

    as far as Grady, I assume he is gone. if not, then we need to move him to LF. we cannot afford to leave him in CF because his knees are shot and much more likely to go on him again taking the pounding of CF (see Beltran on his shift to LF and how it helped him).

  • Chucky Brown

    I foresee Theo poaching both Pujols and Wilson ( or Sabathia) for the Cubs

  • Shamrock

    Lol Fielder coming here

  • mannyman

    One crucial position none of you have mentioned…right field. Choo has proven to be a defensive liability out there, he looked terrible out there when he was healthy. Fukudome was a band-aid acquisition to help offensively, but he looks to be a MUCH better right fielder than Choo will ever be. The only problem is, Fukudome (who is really a CF) doesn’t hit for much power, which you expect from a corner position. The solution maybe is to move Choo back to left field where he belongs, make Fukudome the starting CF and if we are going to keep Grady, move him to RF. It makes sense since he obviously has lost a step or two and just had knee surgery and it addresses the “up the middle” issue you mentioned. But the outfield issue also needs to be addressed from the bottom up. Who was the last regular starting Indians OF that was actually drafted by the Indians? Manny Ramirez who came up to stay in 1994. That’s 17 years ago, folks! We haven’t drafted an OF who later became a regular starter on the Indians since then! Everyone else since then was acquired through trades or free agency. So a lot of the problems, not just the OF one, need to at least partially be solved through the draft. As to the middle infield, I remember Orel Hershiser and some of the other pitchers used to bitch about Carlos Baerga’s defense…but they didn’t bitch about his offense. Kipnis is fine and will get better. Cabrera also. Or would you rather have Jhonny Peralta and Andy Marte back, two guys who cost us more games with their gloves than won for us with their bats…
    BTW, on a personal note, I’ve been following the Indians since the early ’60s and saw Rocky Colavito’s last game as an Indian in 1967…I’m beginning to wonder if any Cleveland team (besides the ’64 Browns, which I fortunately am old enough to remember) will win a championship in my lifetime…