Among the Ruins: The Indians’ Collapse and Looking Forward

Minnesota Twins v Cleveland IndiansIt’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:

 

2013 Salary

fWAR

rWAR

jWAR*

Michael Bourn

$7.00

1.8

1.7

1.8

Nick Swisher

$11.00

2.5

2.7

2.6

Drew Stubbs

$2.83

1.1

0.6

0.9

Mark Reynolds

$6.00

-0.4

0.9

0.3

Brett Myers

$7.00

-0.7

-0.6

-0.7

Trevor Bauer

$0.60

-0.3

-0.1

-0.2

TOTAL

$34.43

4.0

5.2

4.6

*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)

  1. Per Baseball Prospectus. []
  2. 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. []
  • The_Real_Shamrock

    That 2012 roster sets the bar pretty low too though.

  • nj0

    That’s what I don’t get about the Tigers – if you don’t care about turning a profit why not go hog wild and spend, spend, spend?

    Iglesias has been good. His bat hasn’t been terrible either.

  • nj0

    But that was the bar! It goes to show what a great off-season this was. And that’s with missing on Myers and Reynolds.

  • Jason Hurley

    6 weeks.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    No clue maybe what was out there was even to expensive for Detroit.

    Iglesias was a steal you don’t have to remind me being a BoSox fan.

  • Jason Hurley

    I said it after the Bourn signing – and I’ll say it again. Even if the Indians bottom out next year, the Swisher and Bourn contracts aren’t un-tradable, which is a HUGE benefit if they feel the need to rebuild.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    You are preaching to the choir fella the winter got me pretty excited. Sure they blew a couple in Myers and Reynolds and overpaid for Swisher but at least they tried to do something. The test however is coming. Lets see if they do anything this winter. I’m still bitter about the failure to do much of anything at the trade deadline.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    You are preaching to the choir fella the winter got me pretty excited. Sure they blew a couple in Myers and Reynolds and overpaid for Swisher but at least they tried to do something. The test however is coming. Lets see if they do anything this winter. I’m still bitter about the failure to do much of anything at the trade deadline.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Wow that fast? I am hoping for no sooner then week eight myself but then again we’re talking the Browns.

  • nj0

    Peavy has been great though.

  • Harv 21

    If you’re just talking about the CBA and signing slots, paying the most is not how the Tampa and other orgs good at drafting/developing do it, nor how the tribe do it 20 years ago. And they’re way more likely to trade Masterson for a number of players already succeeding in the minors than a single bottom of the first round pick who hasn’t even started professionally. It’s hard to imagine Masterson gone but he’s pretty soon gone.

    Whatever their position player methodology has been is broken. They have to re-think that in a major way just to become average at it.

  • nj0

    Great point. I remember thinking at the time (and mentioning it later) that the Bourn contract might effectively be a one-year rental that we’d flip this off-season. Not sure if that’s realistic since it’s probably poor form (for a variety of reasons) to sign and then instantly trade a guy, but still – the contract wouldn’t be an issue.

  • nj0

    Well, there was no most when the Rays and Pirates built up their farm systems which let them overpay and just straight up get better talent.

    I agree that we can and should get better at drafting, but I don’t think spending more necessarily does that. If it was as easy as signing a blank check I think everyone would do it.

    As I said else where, Brad Grant seems like he has done a quality job over the last five or so years. I think we are thinking in different ways and have been for a while now. Thanks to how long it takes to develop MLB talent, we’re only just seeing the fruits of that labor (Kipnis being the most obvious example).

    We’ll have to disagree on Masterson. I bet he’s here opening day 2014. And I bet he’s here through September as long as we’re competing. Only way I see us dealing him is if we get MLB caliber style starters that can help us now.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I suppose with Buchholz down but Clay is getting closer to a return finally.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    I shouldn’t say “can’t” compete. But the bar is too high for a mid-market team compared to a large-market team. Large-market teams need only to make good signings, and that doesn’t even necessarily take great skill; they just need to avoid making horrible ones. Anything else is a bonus for them.

    For the Indians, everything has to go perfectly to have a chance, and that window lasts a very short time.

  • nj0

    I really think the new CBA is going to help even things out. There’s finally something of a cap in the form of a luxury tax that teams like the Yankees are actually worried about. Losing draft picks to sign FAs has worked as a deterrent and resulted in small/mid market teams signing guys they couldn’t in the past (see Swisher and Bourn). And the new draft rules mean bad teams can actually draft the best players (when Scott Boras hates something, it’s a good thing in my book).

    So while I don’t think the days are completely gone of big market teams having an advantage, I think the field has evened somewhat. It’s just going to take some time for us to see the results.

    And honestly, the Indians are one good 3-4 win player away from being a playoff team. That’s ACab not sucking or Laporta not being a bust or Chisenhall breaking out etc etc etc.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    I don’t know enough about the new CBA to comment, and I guess we’ll have to see. Hopefully you’re right about that.

    ACab/LaPorta/Chisenhall I think prove my point, though: The Indians as a mid-market can’t afford to not have something pan out, and that’s just to have a chance (also, the being close with all that either points to the Indians’ FO greatness at getting it so close or failure at missing those big ones). The big-market teams can replace their biggest stars at the drop of a hat.

  • nj0

    That’s true. I guess I just look at it in a glass half full kind of way: we’ve made a lot of poor choices and seen a lot of bad breaks, yet all it took was one good off-season to at least be in the playoff hunt.

    I get it: only sustained success over several years will convince people. But seriously, we went from being one of the worst teams in the league to playing meaningful baseball in September! If the Browns go into December and are fighting for a playoff spot this year, people will most likely consider the year a huge success. Yet the Indians did just that and it’s all pretty much doom and gloom from the Tribe “faithful”.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Right, and I’m one of those people, admittedly.

    For me though what I said above is that difference: The feeling with the Browns in that situation is “wow, we’re close, we can keep growing and get there”. No other team is going to steal away all our players; no other team even can.

    In MLB, the feeling is “well, that was nice, but to get those next 10 Ws requires about $50M, and, well… that ain’t happening.” Or “that was fun – bye guys! Enjoy your new big shiny contracts!” It’s too hard to get amped when you feel it can’t be built on.

  • Porckchop

    The for the photo above should read: Tribe falls a few Ks short on Klan night.

  • Harv 21

    “I don’t think spending more necessarily does that. If it was as easy as signing a blank check I think everyone would do it.” Agree. Didn’t mean it so simplistically.

    “Brad Grant seems like he has done a quality job over the last five or so years.” Four to five years should result in a few excellent position players and stiff competition going on in the minors. There’s Kipnis. And then there’s Kipnis, and his evil twin Kipnis. The team’s fighting for survival and even with expanded rosters there’s zippo to replace or even challenge Chiz, or Astrubal or Swisher or … Grant seems to be producing some pitchers (or maybe really it’s the pitching coach is primarily responsible for miracle-working with Kluber, McAlister and Ubaldo and returning Masterson to his ’11 form), but let’s not anoint a guy yet because so far he’s mediocre at best as opposed to his epically awful predecessors.

  • cmm13

    and by “Browns” you mean “Buckeyes”.

  • mgbode

    no, the Buckeyes don’t need support until October. By then, most years, the Browns are out of the playoff race, so we can put our attention to Ohio State’s conference schedule.

  • Jaker

    two months, unless the Browns are magically .500