I was listening to Craig and Scott on the podcast the other night, and I heard Craig say something about how projecting a player’s performance in any given year seems, to him, a fool’s errand. He argued that there’s just so much that we don’t know about baseball teams—too many moving parts—and all that stuff we don’t know a lot about can count toward winning games just as much as a player’s prior year wOBA or his ERA or the cut of his jib. There’s stuff, he said, about team chemistry or lineup protection or the euphoria of playing for a good manager or the simple effects of hope that can help a team win games, and projection systems just can’t (or don’t) account for any of this.
And far be it from me to bash hope. I like hope. I’m down with hope. It’s the new opiate of the masses, and as someone who’s had several minor surgeries in his life, I can assure you that opiates are AWESOME.
But if I followed Craig’s argument correctly in regard to the 2013 Indians, he seemed to be suggesting that most projection systems were too conservative—that simply by adding a bunch of wins-above-replacement figures from prior years and coming up with anywhere between 79 and 86 projected wins for this squad missed a lot of what this off-season makeover was all about. Without coming out and saying it, Craig seemed to suggest that there might be a multiplier effect to getting better players and overhauling the roster—not only would those better players add wins, but simply by being a part of the team, they’d make our existing players better too.
There are, by the way, arguments to be made about all this stuff; I’m just not going to make them. People have charts and histograms and long arguments about lineup protection or the effect of good managers or team chemistry on overall team performance. You can google them if you like when you’re bored at work.
What I’m more interested in is the basic optimism regarding this team. You could hear Craig making the argument that people didn’t believe enough in this group. And that, in and of itself, was so strange to hear about a team that’s failed to win 70 games in three of its last five seasons. Optimism regarding the Indians? Wherefore?
Obviously these good vibes spring mostly from watching something happen that we’ve not seen in a few decades with this team—a stockpiling of free agent talent to rival the coastal powerhouses. All this influx of player acumen has been so disorienting to our collective fan system that we’re left questioning truths we’ve long since decided to be self-evident. 1 And if what used to be the status quo has been turned on its head, doesn’t it follow that what used to happen to Indians teams won’t happen to this one?
And here’s where I wonder if we’re not all getting carried away with all this optimism. Is there reason to think that a roster that’s become appreciably older this off-season will be less likely to endure major catastrophic injuries? Is there reason to think that the front two arms in the rotation will be fine, using the “they can’t get any worse” logic? Is there reason to believe that our new FA acquisitions won’t underperform their contracts, like most free agents do?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, by the way. And I’m as hopeful as the next guy that with a few good breaks (or a few bad ones for Detroit) this team can win the division and bring us our first taste of exciting baseball in more than half a decade. Maybe it’s the contrarian in me that got me thinking too much—if everybody is excited, maybe I’ll piss on their parade to show them how interesting I am. God, I hope I’m not that guy, but sometimes it’s hard to tell.
Anyway, here are something that get me a bit worried about this team.
What if Michael Bourn becomes Juan Pierre? There’s been a lot of debate about speedy players and how they tend to age compared to power-hitting, big guys. Do they age better because they are inherently more athletic or do they fall apart because so much of their value resides in their legs, which tend to go sooner than brute strength does? And you can really get anecdoted to death on this issue. Kenny Lofton did fine from his age 29-33 seasons, for instance—not as good as he was in his 20s, but not any dramatic drop off either. So did Marquis Grissom, to name another. Brett Butler was arguably better in his 30s than in his late 20s, as was a guy like Dave Roberts, who never really had an opportunity to play until he was 30 anyway.
But the other day, somebody on TV mentioned Juan Pierre as a good comp for Michael Bourn, and I ‘bout lost my bowels. Here is their first six years, side by side:
By almost every measure, Pierre was a better offensive player than Bourn—he hit for more power, stole more bases, and made fewer outs. Granted, I’m leaving out defense for now, and that’s a big piece, but still.
Here are Pierre’s last six seasons (29-35):
That’s a dramatic drop off in nearly every category. His OPS is down 7%; his power 10%; his steals 20%. If that happens to Michael Bourn, and, god forbid, he has to move to a corner OF spot as his defense declines, his value will crater, and the contract will be untradeable. Pronk Part Deux.
Why is our starting rotation going to improve again? It’s one thing to suggest they can’t get much worse—it’s cute to say and I guess it could even be true. But as an organizational strategy? I’m not so sure that’s what we want as our motto. This team needs to see marked improvement year over year, and while there’s some reason to believe the rotation was unlucky last year (both FIP and xFIP suggested expected ERAs well south of the rotation’s 5.25 mark for the year), there’s also a whole lot of evidence to suggest that Masterson and (especially) Ubaldo just aren’t worthy of their respective places atop a Big League rotation.
And if you concede that the rotation is in need of help, who is its knight in shining armor? Is it the untested rookie with an ERA above 6.00 and a potential attitude problem? Is it the veteran retread who’s not had success as a starter in five years? What’s that? We have two of those guys? Are we believing too much that Zach McAllister is the real deal? Or that Carlos Carrasco can return quickly to form after Tommy John where so many others need an extra year? Or that Scott Kazmir will prove the exception to the rule about guys losing 5 mph off their fastball? Because we have to believe in at least one of those narratives if we’re going to get this rotation anywhere near respectable, right?
Nick Swisher isn’t a guarantee. You’ll remember that I liked the risk of the Nick Swisher deal. I thought the front office was gambling that the players around him would be better than they have been, and since that signing they’ve added even more players around him, increasing the likelihood that the team will be even better. If Swisher can consistently be a three or four win player throughout the life of his contract, I think it was a smart move, especially as the team’s win curve approaches relevance.
But can we stop pretending that those three to four wins are a sure thing? Do you know who the most similar hitter in the history of baseball is to Nick Swisher according to baseball-reference? It’s Jason Bay. And do you know how valuable Jason Bay has been since turning 31? He has a .234/.318/.369 line (.687 OPS) and averages fewer than 100 games per season. That is approaching Orly Cabrera levels of production, you guys, and it could easily happen here.
This isn’t, of course, to say that this will happen. Only that it could. This stuff happens all the time. We’ve seen it happen here. Grady Sizemore was a once in a generation talent. Adam Miller was too. The best laid plans go out the window all the time. That’s all I’m saying here.
So while Craig is right that the projection systems don’t account for clubhouse chemistry, the general sense of feel-goodery and their consequent effect on wins, I think we should at least note that the projections also don’t account for the possibility that Michael Bourn may become Juan Pierre over night or that Nick Swisher’s career could be over or that this pitching staff really could be worse than last year—it wouldn’t take too much.
I say this not because I root for it to happen, of course—I root quite explicitly for the opposite to be true.
But for the first time in years people are telling me how great the Indians are going to be, and sometimes that talk gets me worried. Perhaps it’s a simple defense mechanism I’ve built up from watching this team start and stop so much: let’s keep those expectations modest so that the surprises are good ones rather than disappointments.
It wasn’t so long ago this team won more games than any in baseball. They had a young nucleus, primed to dominate the division for the next half decade. They were a legitimate closer and a fluke decision by a third base coach away from the World Series, with open road in front of them as far as you could imagine.
In the off-season between 2007 and 2008, they signed Kerry Wood to fill the closer’s role—the final piece in the masterpiece.
I love the moves the team made this off-season. I’m going to enjoy watching them try to compete for the division in 2013. I give them a decent shot of doing just that, if they get a few breaks.
But I remember saying all that stuff in February of 2008, too. Sometimes the wheels fall off. Sometimes what looked smart at the time condemns a team to five years of irrelevant rebuilding. Sometimes you go all-in and lose.
And we should know that better than most.
- Of course the Indians will be terrible. Of course they’ll suffer an injury that they can’t overcome. Of course they’re stuck with a sub-par manager and a roster that’s a few pieces short of doing much damage. [↩]