It’s a cliché largely because it’s so true: baseball is a game of failure. Even the best hitters make outs sixty percent of the time. Pitcher skill is approximated by measuring degrees of incompetence (earned runs allowed). All but one team goes home a loser each year. The game is designed to hurt us, and it’s not letting down Cleveland fans this year.
After losing five of six to the Braves and Tigers, on Monday, the Indians lost again to Baltimore in disheartening fashion. The loss dropped them to 8.5 games out of the Division lead and 3.5 games out of a play-in wild card berth. There are now five teams ahead of them competing for just two wild card spots. Oh, and they lost their best pitcher to what sounds an awful lot like an oblique strain. Baseball Prospectus currently has the Indians’ playoff odds at about 11.6%1, but I have to admit that sounds a tad high. Things are going badly.
For whatever reason though, I’m feeling more hopeful about this team’s long-term prospects than I have those in the past. For instance, last year when I came to terms with the Indians’ failure, I struggled not just with the interminable losing, but the fact that the team was as bad as it had ever been, five years into an ostensible rebuild. After all the purposeful losing we suffered from 2007 on, I thought that last year’s collapse was a slap in the face to all of us, but especially to losers like me who kept preaching light at the end of the tunnel. Last year’s squad was supposed to be a culmination of smart planning and restocking and arbitrage—all those things we watch smart, poor teams do all the time. The results looked pretty damning—this is what you took five years to build? Brent-freaking-Lillibridge?
It would seem that the team’s ownership and front office may have shared some of my disgust with the 2012 vintage, as they spent the off-season completely tearing down the roster and rebuilding it with free agent moves and trades. This was, understandably, exciting for the fanbase: a group that had been conditioned to expect only table scraps on the free agent market was now readying itself to boast about two of the biggest acquisitions of the winter along with a move to acquire a top-of-the-rotation talent in a blockbuster trade. The team would surely be improved; the question was only a matter of degree.
Here’s the output of all that wild spending:
*A simple average of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement calculations.
On these six players alone, the Indians spent north of $34 million in 2013 for fewer than five additional wins. On average, that’s less than one win above replacement per player added. Eep.
I only point out those misses to underscore something that I think might be missing from the way we’ve been assessing this team. If all those additions haven’t really made this team a whole lot better, then what has? After all, last year’s team was outscored by 178 runs on the season, the worst in the American League.2 This year’s team has somehow managed to outscore its opponents by 25 runs, a net shift of more than 200 runs (or twenty wins), and there’s still a month of the season to go against some pretty scrubby competition. How in the world did they manage to improve so much with such poor contributions from their headlining acquisitions?
I imagine you know where this is going, but let’s go there anyway. Last year’s team scored 667 runs; this year’s team is on pace to score 722, or about 55 more runs. That means about 150 runs of the team’s improvement (or about 75% of it) has come from the pitching staff. Last year’s Indians allowed a god-awful 845 runs—the most for any team that doesn’t play half its games in Coors Field. The 2013 group is on pace to allow only 692. That’s a massive improvement, and one that likely none of us really saw coming given the names slated into the rotation. How’d they do that?
The answer is probably just good old-fashioned development—something this organization hasn’t been able to do consistently since at least the early 2000s. Justin Masterson went from a questionable top-of-the-rotation option with some bad platoon splits to a guy who can strike a batter per inning while leading the League in groundball-rate. Corey Kluber, a nobody with a funny name, emerged as the team’s best all-around starter by way of a 4.46 K/BB ratio and sub-3.00 xFIP. While Zach McAllister has endured some struggles and injuries this year, he still managed an ERA below 4.00 and continues to strikeout more than twice as many batters as he walks. Danny Salazar looks to have all the tools to be a long-term front-end starter. Even Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez have managed to exorcise some of their past demons, both posting respectable seasons for the first time since 2010.
These are all pitchers about whom there were significant questions entering this season, and they’ve all pitched far better than we would have predicted. Furthermore the best four will all be under team control for the 2014 season, along with their manager and pitching coach. For the first time since our Cy Young winners, I’m going to feel good about our starting rotation next season, and that’s not nothing. On top of that, there’s every reason in the world to believe that Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn will be better than they were this year. The same goes for Asdrubal Cabrera (if he’s here) and Lonnie Chisenhall (if he’s not benched). If this team can replicate their improved pitching and hit like they were supposed to, who knows….
And that’s when I catch myself. It’s far too early to be writing a piece like this, not because the Indians might make the playoffs this season, but because they probably won’t. This season is still ending—somewhat horribly—and feels untoward to be writing a piece about how things might be better, once again, next year.
Sure, there’s the chance that they beat up on the dregs of the league for the next three weeks and find themselves right back in it, but what’s far more likely is that the Indians continue to play like what they are: a slightly above average team about whom we should never have allowed ourselves to become overly excited in the first place. Most teams fail, and this one probably will too. Before I look too far ahead to a season that’s still seven months away, I suppose I should at least bear some witness to the present—even if it looks a lot like one that’s going to end badly. I have all winter to explain why next year will be different, and so it’s somewhat depressing that I’m already entering off-season apologist mode in early September.
(Photo by John Grieshop/Getty Images)
- Per Baseball Prospectus. [↩]
- Might want to let that sink in: five years into a rebuild and primed to contend, the Cleveland Indians were the worst team in the LEAGUE. The only team worse than Cleveland last year from a run differential perspective was the Houston Astros, who could at least claim that they were trying to lose. It was a colossal cluster-cluck. [↩]