The Diff is your weekly Wednesday WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week’s article was a (mostly futile) attempt at looking at 40 recent NBA mock drafts before the Cavaliers’ big day. This week, we’re talking Tribe.
Of late, I’ve been getting lots of questions on Twitter that all cover the same topic about the 2013 Indians: Do they have staying power? Obviously, there’s a bit of burnout with the previous two seasons seeing similar hot starts, yet disappointing finishes. Thus, from a statistical perspective, I’m here today to give another update about where things stand 83 games through the year, with 79 left to go. How well do 45-38 teams usually do? What other main differences exist at this point in the year from years prior? What are the likely playoff odds for this team? Let’s take a look.
The historical context
Fans, of course, will vividly remember the last two seasons of hot starts. What is important to keep in mind however, is that while those collapses were Cleveland-esque, they weren’t really typical for teams off to such good starts (obviously).
At their best winning percentage in 2012, the Indians were 26-18 on May 24th (they were then 43-40 at the 83-game point and still mediocre at 50-49). In total, they collapsed to the tune of 18-45 in their final 63 games en route to a 68-94 final record. I previously noted this was the worst record ever for a team that started 26-18.
At their best winning percentage in 2011, the Indians were 30-15 on May 23rd (they were then 45-38 at the 83-game point and still above .500 at 51-44). In total, they fell to the tune of 29-38 in their final 67 games en route to an 80-82 final record. This collapse was not as severe, but still quite irritable for fans.
So, in order to place some historical context and averages on the team’s 45-38 start to 2013, I decided to look up the 45-38 starts only since the final expansion took place in 1998. In total, there were 31 such teams. (And, as I noted on Twitter, the last three World Series champions started 45-38 or worse.) Here are those 31 teams, as sorted by run differential through 83 games:
The Indians’ run differential following last night’s narrow victory over Kansas City: +29. The last team to start 45-38 with a +29 run differential? That would be the 2011 World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals (caveat).
Obviously, that precise comparison is a clearly too small of a sample. But 31 teams show the average: about 86 wins and 40% playoff odds (give a little bump to this with the new two Wild Card system). There was no perfectly clear correlation between run differential and eventual wins for the rest of the season. So the average is the best we’ve got to work with.
Relatively speaking, as we figured heading into the season, the pitching wasn’t going to be significantly improved in 2013. That’s been the case. So instead, let’s simply focus on the much-improved offense. The chart below shows some basic rate statistics at this point in the season, compared to the first halves and season totals of the last three years.
Most significantly different about this team: They’re slugging much better and they’re faster. I suppose that would have been obvious from the offseason additions of Mark Reynolds, Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Drew Stubbs. But it’s materialized in the creation of one of the AL’s five best offenses thus far in 2013.
Each of the last two years, the team did have an above-average offense before slumping in the second half. The on-base percentage in 2012, in fact, is higher than the one so far in 2013. But the one difference: The power was never there. And as has been written before, that’s a consistent skill set that usually is quite consistent throughout months and years.
Think about the players that have been slumping, too:
— Nick Swisher has a .756 OPS with 8.4% XBH/PA. In the previous four seasons, he averaged a .850 OPS with 11.4% XBH/PA. He slumped badly around the time he sat for over a week.
— Mark Reynolds is batting .190/.288/.268 in his last 49 games since May 10th. His 2.6% XBH/PA in this span would actually rank worse than anyone in baseball since 2011. He’s supposed to be a slugger, too.
— The Indians’ OPS from third baseman is .630, which ranks 24th in baseball. Lonnie Chisenhall (.640) has largely been a disappointment.
— Jason Kipnis started .180/.250/.230 in his first 15 games through April 28th, while Asdrubal Cabrera started .162/.230/.279 in his first 18 games through April 27th.
Obviously, Kipnis’ revival has sparked the team’s offensive turnaround of late, but there still is upside to go for the second half of the season based on the roster’s talent. Swisher and Reynolds certainly can improve over the next few weeks and months. That gives hope that at least, this team should still produce above-average overall offensive numbers down the stretch.
As Terry Pluto has written multiple times over the course of the year, the defense also was a signature improvement point for GM Chris Antonetti and company. Here’s what my good friend Terry wrote about this side of the game over the weekend:
4. The speed has paid off in the outfield, where Fangraphs rates the Tribe as the best defense in the league. That includes range, arm strength, etc. Last season, Fangraphs had them dead last. Some of this is subjective, but an outfield of Stubbs, Brantley and Bourn runs down a lot of balls in the gap, and also makes pitchers smile. Ryan Raburn also rates well above average in right field.
So, again, I decided to check the numbers on Terry’s commentary. I’m not certain why/how he got to the fact that FanGraphs listed the Indians outfield as No. 1, even in the AL alone (the Royals are better), but here’s the data I could find.
As sparked by the improved outfield defense — three centerfielders are better than just one — the Indians are suddenly at least mediocre overall defensively. This was a factor of the game, although highly popular among statistic-heavy teams like Tampa Bay, that the Indians had not excelled at over most of the last decade. Ever since the bygone days of Omar Vizquel and Kenny Lofton, there just weren’t too many defensive wizards in Cleveland.
Now: Michael Bourn has made some bonehead plays, but has ranked as one of the best centerfielders in the last half-decade. Michael Brantley is off to a fantastic start in left field, and is up there with the most assists in baseball. Drew Stubbs also has made insanely difficult plays look easy at times with his fantastic speed.
The infield defense is still a work-in-progress. Asdrubal Cabrera routinely ranks as one of the worst in baseball, as he makes some spectacular plays but often can’t get to the easy ones. Third base has been suspect all season, while Carlos Santana has been fairly awful behind the plate. There are still ways the team can improve over time defensively (hello, Francisco Lindor in 2015 or 2016), but this is where the offseason moves should help long-term in a oft-overlooked way.
The one-run games
Now, for a potential sign of regression. As I noted last night on Twitter, the Indians are now 18-7 in one-run games this season. That’s the best record in Major League Baseball. Cleveland has won each of their last six decisions in this split.
Overall, the team’s .720 winning percentage is the second-best for any MLB team since 1984. The lone team to do better: the 2012 Baltimore Orioles, who finished the season with an unfathomable 29-9 record in one-run games.
I’m not exactly certain how to explain this stat. The Indians have the 21st-best bullpen ERA at 3.97. They have the 21st-best offensive OPS in innings 7-9 at .665. It’s worth noting that somehow, the really bad 2012 Indians finished second in MLB in this split with a 24-12 record.
Perhaps, the only answer is this one: Cleveland has the second-best record in baseball against teams under .500 at 27-10 (thus meaning they are only 18-28 against teams at .500 or better). This shows how perhaps, the team has just had an odd number of close games against bad teams and has managed to prevail in them.
The Indians also rank last in baseball with a 2-8 record in games decided by exactly two runs. Their 10 such games are tied for the fewest in the game. So again, over time, I’d expect the records to even out in both one-run and two-run games, with a more normal proportion appearing by the end of the season.
Despite what I wrote above, what do I think will be the single-most defining factor over the crucial next month of play for the Indians? The schedule. I wrote back on June 21st about how the team has a relatively favorable outlook through August 4th. They’ve taken advantage of that fact so far, starting off this 40-game stretch with a 9-3 record.
Initially, I had been moderately pessimistic in hoping that the Indians could hang tight and romp through this 40-game stretch with a 22-18 record. That certainly would keep them in the Wild Card race heading down to the final seven weeks of the season.
Now? Best-case scenario could be a 28-12 record. Remember, this stretch ends with seven games against two of the worst teams in baseball in the Chicago White Sox and Miami Marlins. If this hot play continues to such a impressive stretch, the Indians would stand at 64-47. Then, their playoff chances would skyrocket and at the very least, we’d likely be seeing a 85-win team finishing up the season. With all the factors above, there’s no reason to think that can’t happen.