Let me start by saying this clearly: I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the Indians’ off-season. Not only have they been able to add some good players—via both trade and free agency—but they’ve also managed to buy back some PR points with the fanbase. Bringing Terry Francona on was clearly a coup. Capturing a hot prospect like Trevor Bauer caused some excitement. Signing Nick Swisher to the largest free agent deal in club history sent a message that apparently needed to be sent: the club was NOT rebuilding. They were pushing forward in an attempt to win now.
And I think as fans we can all certainly feel happy about that decision. It’s nice to be reassured that your ownership and front office take winning as seriously as you do as a fan. One of the things that Craig was demanding of the new Browns’ regime was that they announce their intentions to contend immediately. Patience is a virtue, but one taken best in limited serving sizes. The Indians front office and ownership appeared to have learned their lesson. Either that, or they just didn’t have the chutzpah to blow it all up again and ask for five more years.
On the other hand, I think we might want to look a bit more critically at the team, so that we can at least manage our expectations. I also think that we’re allowed to simultaneously be happy the team is trying to contend while still wondering how in the world they think they’ll actually do it. More on that in a second.
Let’s start by pulling some standard data. The table below shows every player who appeared in a game for the Indians in 2012, along with his total fWAR (fangraphs), rWAR (housed at Baseball-Reference) and an average of the two.1
You should notice a few things here. First, we had no outstanding players last season. That, I’m afraid, probably comes as no surprise. Our most valuable player was Carlos Santana (whose value was nearly all with the bat, especially his late-season power surge that no one saw or remembers) followed by Jason Kipnis (whose value was mostly glove-related, believe it or not). You’ll also notice that our most valuable pitcher was Vinnie Pestano. Which is both awesome and staggeringly heartbreaking.
One other thing on this table. Look at that total number at the bottom. The 2012 team provided about 17 more wins than a replacement level team would have. And if we’re to trust David Schoenfield who suggests a replacement level team would win “about 50 games”, the Indians should have won 67 games last season (50 for replacement plus 17 more “above” replacement). They actually won 68. Pretty nifty stat, huh? I like it when these things work out.
Those 17 wins above replacement, we should at least point out, made them the second worst team in baseball last season. Let that sink in for just a moment, because it’s important.
Now let’s try to summarize this info a bit, since that’s a lot of data to actually think about in any meaningful way. Here’s another chart—same data but with players categorized into buckets.
*I’m counting catchers and DHs as infielders here.
If that doesn’t smack you right in the face, I don’t know what will. The 2012 rotation played slightly worse than your run-of-the-mill Triple-A rotation. The position players contributed roughly 13 wins, which isn’t too bad. But the pitching staff was only able to contribute three or so more wins, almost all of which was contributed by Vinnie Pestano and (believe it or not) Justin Masterson.
You might be curious as to the typical WAR distribution across a roster—on average, how much of a team’s value is pitching related versus how much is position player related.2 Turns out that roughly 60% of the league’s WAR was generated by position players last season with the remaining 40% composed of pitcher performance. Check this out, based strictly on 2012 fWAR across all teams:
So the cliché about 90% of the game being pitching? Yeah. That’s not true. Try 40%, grandpa. ALSO: LIQUOR AND MENTHOL CIGARETTES DON’T CURE COLDS, OLD MAN. SCIENCE!!
So just for some quick giggles, let’s pretend that instead of being terrible, the pitching staff had contributed proportionally—which is to say, pretend that they accounted for 40% of the team’s value. If we hold the position players’ contribution steady at 13.3 wins, that would mean that an equally talented pitching staff would’ve contributed about nine wins above replacement rather than 3.3 Almost all of that difference is on the rotation, which was, as we’ve pointed out, just unbelievably terrible. But even if we’d had a proportionally performing rotation, we would’ve generated 22 WAR rather than 17. That takes the team to 72 wins–still pretty awful.
But Jon, I can hear you shouting, the Indians are a different team in 2013 than they were last year! It’s not FAIR to compare the two. After all, NICKY SWISHMAS AND DREW STUBBS AND TREVOR BAUER AND MIKE AVILES AND WINDMILL REYNOLDS AND BRETT…..well, no. I will not celebrate Brett Myers.
Good for you for not celebrating Brett Myers, at least from a moral perspective. But most of that is fair, I think. Let’s try to account for the changes that this team has undergone. First here are the additions, along with their average WAR from 2012:
*In the interest of generosity, I’m counting Myers’ 2011 rather than his 2012, to capture a season in which he was a starter.
So we added about seven wins to the roster. Let’s say that Trevor Bauer throws 125 or so good-to-very-good innings (a bullish prediction to be sure, considering that such a debut is exceedingly rare) and give him an extra three wins above replacement for that contribution. That’s plus 10 wins over last year—taking a 68 win team to a 78 win team and a wild card spot.
Oh. Wait. 78 wins is not good and would not yield a wild card spot. Yuck.
But of course, I’m not even finished here. We lost some players from last season too. Check this table out:
To recap, our new players might be worth 10 wins (and I think I’m being REALLY generous there), while we lost five or six wins from the roster. That would be a net gain of about four or five wins, unless they’ve changed the rules of math on me.
Last season, this team won 68 games. Using my most generous assumptions, I’m getting them to 74 in 2013. That’s….just not going to cut it.
And to be honest, that’s why a lot of scribes were advocating blowing up the roster this off-season. Trade everybody. Start over. This group just doesn’t have the talent to compete, and giving $70 million to Nick Swisher might just be a way of telling fans not to pay too much attention to that man behind the curtain.
Of course this isn’t the whole story. As Chris Antonetti has been saying all off-season, this team will sink or swim based not on the new additions, but on the same core we’ve been watching for years now. Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez have to combine for more than 2 WAR—a lot more. Carlos Santana needs to be the six-win player we thought he could be, not the three-win player he has been. Jason Kipnis needs to be more Robbie Cano and less Orlando Cabrera (did you know that Kipnis hit .257 last season with a .714 OPS? That’s not so good.) Lonnie Who Loved Baseball has to learn to hit LHP and improve his defense. Asdrubal has to find that power stroke that jumped out at us in 2011. Michael Brantley needs to get on base like he did in Columbus. Our best pitcher just CANNOT be a middle reliever, no matter how lovable he may be along the way.
And if all that stuff happens, those extra four or five wins that the club added this off-season might take them from 85 wins to 90. And that’d be great. Nobody would be happier than I would. Juice boxes for everyone, on me. Promise.
But make no mistake: the odds are stacked against them. Most of those players who we’ll be counting on have had adequate time to show us what kind of players they really are—and they aren’t great. Most of the time, players don’t magically become much better versions of themselves in their middle and late 20s. Most of the time, when a pitcher has a calamitous loss of velocity or when a hitter demonstrates an inability to hit same-armed pitching or when a team LOSES 94 FREAKING GAMES….well, they usually don’t just turn it all around and figure out how win their divisions.
The point here is not to rain on the Indians’ shiny off-season parade. Again, I’m happy that the front office believes that this team is closer to contention than it appears to me (and to math)—they’re almost certainly smarter than I am, and I’ll defer to their expertise, especially when it means they spend their time and money trying to make the team better instead of tearing it down and making it (immediately) worse.
No, I just wonder if we’re not doing what we seem always to do this time of year: filling ourselves up with stories about how if everything goes just right….we might……we could…..I mean, it’s possible….don’t say it’s not, because it IS POSSIBLE….
Baseball. The opiate of the optimist masses.
Pitchers and catchers report in 27 days, and the Cleveland Indians are 66-1 to win the World Series. I’ll take those odds. But then again, I always do.
- To get these numbers to tie, you’ll have to add component “position player” WAR and “pitcher” WAR, since a lot of the pitchers had some at bats. Think “SUMIF” function and you should tie fine. [↩]
- Weird things make me curious, you guys. [↩]
- There is a system of equations to solve this little problem, but basically, 9 is about 40% of 9+13. If you’d like to talk about solving systems of equations, then you are not one of the students to whom I taught Algebra. [↩]