July 22, 2014

The Diff: Analyzing the struggling Cleveland Indians offense

The Diff is your weekly WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, I wrote a comprehensive article on all of the top Tribe prospects. Now, I’ve dissecting the mediocre Cleveland offense.

The Diff

There might not be a better time than shortly after a sleep-inducing 14-inning game to write about the Cleveland Indians’ struggling offense. After a sensationally (and perhaps, unsustainably) hot start to the season, the Tribe has been much cooler of late. The offense has been a major reason for this decline, as the starting pitching actually has been achieving some historic feats. Today, I’ll be diving deep into the stats of this offensive fall and reflecting back on some previous predictions.

The decline

It was pretty clear to many that the Indians were off to a fantastic offensive start to the 2013 season. Aided by MVP candidate Mark Reynolds (yes, that was a real tweet from CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman), Cleveland had the best OPS in baseball through April. That continued on for the next few weeks, with the team cruising to a 27-19 start.

Then, just like in the past few seasons, the struggles began. Overall, leading up to Tuesday night’s marathon, the Indians were just 40-39 in their latest 79 games dating back to May 24. Let’s take a look at the stats.

struggling indians offense

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you: A .100 OPS swing in a sample size as large as this is quite notable. This isn’t some one-week vs. two-week small sample. This a six-week vs. three-month behemoth of sample. With a .795 OPS, the Indians would rank easily as the best in baseball right now. At .697, they’d rank 19th, just barely ahead of the offensively anemic Nationals and Giants.

Removing Mark Reynolds

But, as MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian and Indians Baseball Insider’s Tony Lastoria quickly retorted on Tuesday night on Twitter, that precipitous drop is likely mostly due to a certain Mark Reynolds. I had written previously about the historically awful two-month stretch for the veteran slugger, which preceded his disappointing release by another whole month of whiffs.

struggling indians offense sans Reynolds

Alas, Reynolds’ impact alone changes the .098 OPS team decline to one of just .075. Still, quite notable. At .711, the Indians would still be slightly below average for a nearly three-month span. And even with the improvements of the pitching staff, it’s tough to compete for a playoff spot with a mediocre offense and mediocre pitching (Yes, as good as they’ve been of late, the Indians still have allowed 4.35 runs per game. That’s worse than the MLB average of 4.20 and the AL average of 4.33. It’s notably a gigantic improvement, however, over last year’s gruesome 5.22 mark.)

The rest of the lineup

So if Reynolds is only to blame for about one-fourth of the overall drop, it still means that the rest of the Indians roster has regressed since late May. The chart below shares all of the 13 regular position player’s stats over these two splits. Keep in mind that the MLB average for OPS is .715.

struggling indians offense player stats

In the season’s first 46 games, nearly every single Indians regular was hitting at an above-average pace. Buoyed by the dominant starts for Reynolds and Carlos Santana, Terry Francona’s club got off to a hot start, despite the pitching.

The reality of the next 79 games was much, much different. Instead, the pitching, especially the starters, became a true strength. And only one of the team’s nine-most played regulars was more than 10 points greater than league average: streaking second baseman Jason Kipnis. In fact, the bench of Raburn, Gomes and Giambi have the next-best OPS marks after Kipnis since May 24.

Previously, I wrote about Michael Brantley and his comparisons to Santana. But it speaks volumes when a team’s second-best everyday position player in terms of OPS over a near three-month span has an OPS of just .723. The AL average for OPS is .726. Yikes.

The strikeouts

Switching offensive-related topics momentarily. …

Anthony Pokorny brought up a great point on Twitter on Tuesday night: “Well as much as the Indians strike out, they may be top 10, but they don’t lead the league in that category. Three other good teams ahead.” Much later on, the great @IndiansAccounts wrote: “That was Bourn’s 100th strikeout of the season. 5th #Indians player to hit that mark on the season.”

While the final stat seems moderately arbitrary and I admittedly would bicker with Anthony on the definition of three good teams1, these items reminded me of one of my first editions of The Diff back on Jan. 30: “Cleveland Indians embrace the strikeout.”

In that post, I broke down correlation levels between strikeout rates and good offenses, detailed the offseason movement for Indians position players, and then forecasted the team’s strikeout totals with the additions of, chiefly, Reynolds, Swisher and Stubbs. Notably, this also was before the team’s signing of Michael Bourn, which led to another edition of The Diff two weeks later.

In my post about strikeouts, I projected the team for a strikeout rate of about 20% in 2013. Multiplied by the usual number of team plate appearances in a season (I said 6,130), and that’s about 1,220 strikeouts. This would clearly be above average, but not necessarily top five most in baseball.

So how does it stand? Looking at non-pitcher data exclusively again, the Indians already had 1,003 strikeouts in 4,742 plate appearances entering last night’s game. That’s a strikeout rate of 21.2%. At the time, that total ranked eighth in baseball. So above average as expected, but not historic.

indians strikeout rates

Check out the footnote for some extraneous explanations2 Looking at the differences between the historic rates and the actual rates, the first thing that comes to my mind is that they aren’t that awful. The two biggest culprits, in terms of high strikeout rates than expected with ample previous MLB sample sizes: Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera.

But again, even with the addition of four high-profile players that all strikeout at a rate higher than the league average – Swisher, Bourn, Stubbs and Reynolds – the Indians aren’t really that bad overall. Employing Michael Brantley and Mike Aviles helps to that end, but it’s also notable that strikeouts again don’t matter all that much. If you don’t believe me, just read that post again from January.

The concern

While the strikeouts aren’t concerning in my mind, the lack of offensive production certainly is. Dating back to the start of the weekend series in Miami Aug. 2-4, the Indians had tallied only 58 runs in 17 games before Tuesday’s marathon snoozer. That’s an average of 3.41, at the opposite end of the spectrum of the team’s hot start.

I first shared my real worries for the team’s offense two weeks ago in The Diff. At that time, I said that they’ve really been struggling since July and a bat would have been a worthwhile addition at the deadline. Digging deeper, this really has been a mediocre offensive team for nearly three months.

My colleague TD wrote about a possible pursuit of San Diego Padres third baseman Chase Headley yesterday. I’ll add to the Headley dialogue that if you throw out that his awesome (age-28) 2012 season, Headley is sort of like a poor man’s Nick Swisher. He has very solid on-base rates, but his slugging leaves a lot to be desired. His career slugging is .410, but he knocked at a .498 rate last season.

Cleveland also lacks MLB-ready offensive talent. While Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and a handful of relievers should be expected to contribute in 2014, there isn’t much in the form of position player talent in the upper levels.

Francisco Lindor and Tyler Naquin were recently promoted to Double-A and, at best, won’t reach the majors until later 2014. Even then, they wouldn’t be much better than replacement level as rookies. The Columbus Clippers offense is pretty woeful in terms of legitimate prospects. Do Tim Fedroff, Jeremy Hermida, Matt Carson, Juan Diaz, Cord Phelps and Matt LaPorta have you excited for playoff baseball?

In the end, despite the salary difficulties that may arise, it’s likely necessary for Chris Antonetti and the Indians to make some type of major offensive splash before next season. Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn were starts, but it’s appearing more and more likely that the Indians merely have a league average offensive unit.

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Footnotes:

  1. Atlanta and Boston both have better offenses than Cleveland. Pittsburgh, albeit a much better team, has a league-average offense. []
  2. Chisenhall and Gomes have asterisks since they didn’t have sufficient MLB experience. For Giambi, it’s just his last five seasons, which had featured a much higher strikeout rate than earlier in his career. Again, my projections were before Bourn joined the roster. []
  • The_Real_Shamrock

    The Red Sox can afford the strikeouts the lineup is loaded compared to the Indians. And with plenty of more help still in the minors. But the last paragraph is exactly how I feel. The work that began this past winter is obviously far from complete. Unfortunately for the Dolans who will have to realize a one time spending spree just isn’t enough if you want to win consistently. And go a decade without drafting well too.

  • nj0

    AL league average r/g is 4.35. Are we really going to call the offense “struggling” because they’re averaging 0.06 runs under the average over the last 80 games? Over the whole season, we have the fifth best offense by r/g.