August 1, 2014

Playoff Baseball and What the Indians Did Wrong

The past few nights have been tremendous fun for baseball fans around the world. Obviously, the results did not go in the underdog’s favor, but several extra-inning games and a record 4/4 five-game division series make for tons of drama.

Just last season, fans would be amazed by the fact that the Washington Nationals, Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics even made it to the playoffs, let alone pushed historical champions to the brink.1 Pre-2012, many would have considered the Cleveland Indians to be at least better than the latter two teams on that playoff exit list, but they faltered to an abysmal 68-94 finish.

Yes, all three of those surprising teams had their seasons end in the last couple days. But at least they made it to the October showdown. That’s something the Indians haven’t done since 2007 and the midges. So, despite annoying little insects, what do these three teams from meager backgrounds have that the Indians don’t? Well, three common trends are great leadership, great drafting and fantastic pitching. Let’s explore a bit more:

Washington Nationals

All-Stars: SS Ian Desmond (1st), OF Bryce Harper (1st), RHP Stephen Strasburg (1st), LHP Gio Gonzalez (2nd)
GM/Manager: Mike Rizzo (51) and Davey Johnson (69)
Storyline: Young team filled with top picks takes city, NL by storm; #Natitude

Over the past few years, no team in baseball has drafted better than the Washington Nationals. Sure, it helps to have two No. 1 picks that coincide with once-in-a-generation-esque talents in Harper (2010) and Strasburg (2009), but there are some other great homegrown talents on this team as well. Just in terms of top-3 round regulars, I could track down these names as well: Desmond (2004, 3rd round), Ryan Zimmerman (2005, 1st round), Ross Detwiler (2007, 1st round), Jordan Zimmermann (2007, 2nd round), Danny Espinoza (2008, 3rd round), Drew Storen (2009, 1st round).

That’s an awful good success rate in just the past eight years. Zimmerman was the first pick by the team after the move from Montreal and has been the unquestioned face of the franchise. Throw in a pair of great trades — for ace Gonzalez and eventual starting catcher Kurt Suzuki — and that leads to a 98-64 first-place finish in 2012.2 The Nats just happened to then run into the freight train that just happens to be the St. Louis Cardinals in October, but the sky is the limit for their future.

Baltimore Orioles

All-Stars: C Matt Wieters (2nd), OF Adam Jones (2nd), RHP Jim Johnson (1st)
GM/Manager: Dan Duquette (54) and Buck Showalter (56)
Storyline: Showalter leads ragtag team to playoffs with spectacular record in close games

Let’s take a look at these two incredible statistics: The Orioles led the AL with a 16-2 (.889) record in extra inning games and a 29-9 (.763) record in one-run games. At first, to the statistical mind, that screams flukey and unrepeatable. How on earth could a team possibly win 16 consecutive extra-inning games! Well, maybe it’s because of a bullpen that ranked fifth in baseball with a 3.00 ERA or a closer (Johnson) who set a franchise record with 51 saves.

Showalter, who became the team’s manager in July 2010, also has been credited as a source of the team’s late-game heroics. The veteran manager who had decently successful stints with the Diamondbacks and Yankees left a cushy job at ESPN to take over this long-time AL East doormat. But the team’s offense fluttered the stretch without injured slugger Nick Markakis, wasting their impressive pitching performances against the Yankees. I’m not as confident in the Orioles in returning to the postseason in 2013, but that’s more on the tough division than it is on their talent.

Oakland Athletics

All-Star: RHP Ryan Cook (1st)
GM/Manager: Billy Beane (50) and Bob Melvin (50)
Storyline: A’s shock the AL West behind dominant young starting pitching

When speaking of difficult divisions, however, no one at all expected the A’s to be the last AL West team standing. The Rangers and Angels were the two high-profiled teams with major offseason transactions, while poor Oakland hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2006 and was just 26-35 on June 10. Billy Beane’s crew then went on a ridiculous 68-33 finish to win the division, led by a no-name cast of characters.3 Maybe they should make a movie about this comeback team, too.

An incredibly young starting rotation almost entirely acquired through trades/free agency — outside of 23-year-old A.J. Griffin — limited the fire power of their divisional opponents. Meanwhile, Yoenis Cespedes (.505 slugging) and Josh Reddick (32 homers) surprisingly slugged their way to near All-Star seasons in leading the mediocre offense. But Oakland couldn’t muster enough baserunners in the decisive Game 5 against Justin Verlander and the Tigers, but with the Houston Astros joining the AL West in 2013, there’s no reason why this team can’t compete for another wild card spot next season.

Looking these respective rosters, you see such young blooming talent on all three clubs. Whether it’s Harper/Strasburg, Wieters/Jones or Reddick/Jarrod Parker, all of these teams have under-25 stars that would be admired by any other team in baseball. The Indians just don’t have that type of firepower, whether acquired through impressive trades or scrupulous drafting. Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana are good, don’t get me wrong, but they aren’t as dynamic or game-changing as these playoff contributors.

These teams all also have excellent pitching: Washington (2nd in MLB, 3.33 ERA), Oakland (6th, 3.48 ERA), Baltimore (14th, 3.90 ERA). The Indians posted a 4.78 ERA this season, good for 29th in baseball. And as I pointed out earlier, all three were led by excellent, deep bullpens — especially in Oakland and Baltimore. Outside of the trio of Perez-Pestano-Smith, Cleveland couldn’t hardly trust anyone with the ball after their below-average starters left the game.

But most importantly, when looking at the composition of these three playoff teams, you can really see what the Indians did poorly: Drafting and taking advantage of trades. Washington has easily been the best drafting team in baseball since 2005, Baltimore has developed its young talent perfectly leading up to the big leagues and Oakland sold off all its talent similar to Cleveland but recovered in no time. The right players make a huge difference, and there’s no reason the Indians couldn’t be in this position today if they had nailed down some of their recent major trades.

It’s going to likely be a while before we can discuss the Indians in the context of postseason baseball. Only Oakland had an incredibly short turnaround here in this list from doormat to playoff team, as Washington and Baltimore were on long-drawn postseason droughts. You’re going to have to give the Indians a few more years before any of their recent draft picks or new acquisitions could contribute to a major level toward a playoff run. And that’s a very, very sad sentence to write.

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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Footnotes:

  1. Cincinnati doesn’t count as an underdog, they’ve been too good recently. Although as a fellow Ohio baseball fan, you have to feel for those fans — they are some diehards. []
  2. It’s kind of funny to throw Suzuki in the same sentence as Gonzalez, one of the best pitchers in baseball. But that mid-season acquisition was huge in locking down the catcher position for the Nats, arguably their weakest spot on their roster. []
  3. Let’s play a game. Before you read the next paragraph and after only seeing the name Ryan Cook above, how many players can you name off the Oakland A’s roster? You’re likely a trueblood baseball diehard if you can name more than three. And even that total might be a bit too generous for most folks. []
  • http://www.facebook.com/davelb87 David W. Elbrecht

    It really comes down to two words…Draft Better. Raise the talent level throughout the system and you will have more chips to move at the deadline and you will be better able to replace players lost through free agency.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    You shouldn’t insult those teams by putting or even eluding to the Cleveland Indians being in the same category especially with the Nationals. As I was tuned in to watch Washington unfortunately pull off one of the biggest choke jobs in history I heard the announcers talking about GM Mike Rizzo. The discussion was about how bad he had evaluated the Nationals drafting and scouting prior to his arrival and how that would be priority one. Maybe this is where the comparison to the Indians would be valid. Anyways the conversation ended with the announcers saying that Rizzo trusted more in what his new scouts saw as opposed to completely relying on the number crunching Sabremetric people. Again, perhaps another Indians comparison.

  • MrCleaveland

    Just off the top of my head, Baltimore’s closer blew game 4 and Washington’s closer blew game 5. Those two blown saves were the difference between winning their series and losing it.

    For good measure, Detroit’s closer blew game 4 but was bailed out by Verlander.

  • Matt underwood

    Take my Chris Perez, please

  • Steve

    Rizzo may have focused on the draft, but it’s a lot easier when you have the #1 picks when Strasburg and Harper come out.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    Cespedes, Crisp, Reddick, Drew, Gomes, Smith, Moss, Milone, Parker, Griffin, Anderson, Balfour, McCarthy…

    #sportissport

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Tired old played out excuse the simple fact is someone had to still select those guys. Next thing you’ll try to tell me is whenever a Cleveland teams drafts there isn’t a clear #1 heck #2, #3, #4 or #5 pick. Bottom line is the Cleveland Indians cannot evaluate talent and that has hurt them probably more then not being able to spend on salaries.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    The anti-nottei? ;-)

  • Steve

    There was no brainpower used in assembling the worst team in baseball for a three year period and then forking over whatever Boras demanded in taking Strasburg or Harper.

    And of course you would try to put words in my mouth. But, the Indians have had just one top five pick in the last twenty years, and Pomeranz was a good selection. The problem for the Indians is that they haven’t absolutely bottomed out for multiple years and been able to take the no-doubt-about-it guy at the top of the draft year after year.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    So the only way to draft successfully is to “bottom out” as you say to select a “no-doubt-about-it” guy at the top of the draft? Dig deep for those excuses Steve Antonetti, dig deep. I guess we’ll see what happens the next draft then when the Indians are drafting near the top of the draft.

  • Steve

    Words in my mouth again. I never said that was the only way. It just makes things a whole lot easier.

    The Indians have taken Pomeranz and Lindor in the top 10 and there is nothing to suggest they haven’t done well with those picks.

  • BisonDeleSightings

    Not only will he close your games, but he will diagnose the ills of your organization!

  • TNB

    As I mentioned previously in an article about the A’s playoff run this year, this article too is fairly revisionist and an unfair comparison.

    The A’s, Nationals, and Orioles have been the jokes of the league for the most part of a decade. The A’s hadnt had a winning season in 6 seasons, and only finished 500 there once. The Nationals have also spent a considerable ammount of money more than they have previously. The Orioles, I’d argue, are the only ones similar to the Indians in this seasons situation.
    To say that the indians performed poorly this year because of these teams success is unfair. As the league is, with teams that have smaller markets like the Indians (even the A’s and Orioles to an extent) have very cyclical teams. Keep in mind that the last time the Indians were in the playoffs, almost all of those teams were at the bottom of their divisions.
    The Indians front office has made some moves that were fantastic, aggressive moves that were designed to keep a team that, by all means, should not have been in contention in the hunt. They didnt pan out.

    We have this amazing ability to look back on things after the fact and say it was ‘so simple’ but the fact is theyre not. You have to find someone willing to play ball with you to trade. You have to be able to spend your money looking into the future wisely. As I mentioned in my previous comment, the Indians front office will be judged primarily by THIS upcoming season. With two of the biggest trade pieces in baseball and our biggest core of young talent on the roster, this team can look at finally being in the hunt as a legitimate team in a very short ammount of time, but thats just on paper. Who knows what the future holds.

  • Matt underwood

    You almost have to TRY to be as horrible as the tribe has been at drafting. No excuses for these yahoos

  • Kman

    It comes down to the disorganization of this organization. A former employee canned by the team expressed sorrow to the cities fans, that they deserved better and if they knew how messed up the front office was they would scream even louder.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000487765616 Jeff Sabattis

    I’m not in total agreement with this article… 1st off there are at least 5 very talented capable young players on our offense… Santana, Kipnis, Cbrera, Choo & Brantly.. All 5 of these players are a real good place to start… I don’t believe we need as much of a complete change over as you think. Now pitching that may be a different story unless we get a tremendous pitching coach that can turn this around. I do believe that the right coach and/or manager can make all the difference in the world. Proof in point, look at our pitching in 2010 both starting and bullpen. As far as starting pitching 10 times better then what we had in 2011, as a matter of fact starting pitching going into this season was expected to be a plus for us. But we fell flat & I believe a lot of that is due to the coach. So get the right coach and that will make a big difference… There again I think it all starts with the manager and recognizing talent not only in your players but in your coaches too and I believe that fancona has that eye… Now yes we do need 1st base, left field and possibly 3rd base, although I believe chissenhall is ready, and if he is that would make 6 good players in our offense. So if we can 1st base and left field figured offensively we will be good to go in my opinion. Of course that is not worth much. I think pitching is our biggest problem going into the off season to be honest with you. The other thing that needs to be addressed is this we need right handed hitters… Give Canzier a chance and carrera platoon them in left field I had heard and think that is a great idea…