Can the Indians Live up to the Preseason Hype?

New York Giants manager – and Hall of Famer – John McGraw once theorized baseball is 50% offense, 33% pitching, and 17% defense. Roughly a century later sabermetric godfather Bill James more or less arrived at the same conclusion in his Win Shares statistic: 48% offense, 35% pitching, and 17% defense.

For the Indians, the trendy pre-season pick heading into 2015, it’s the last 17% that likely means finishing slightly above .500 or genuinely contending for a World Series title as both ESPN and Sports Illustrated have suggested.

Despite down years – or flat out pitiful showings – from Jason Kipnis, Nick Swisher, Ryan Raburn, and Mike Aviles, the Tribe’s offense was one of the most efficient, potent lineups in baseball last season. They scored the 11th most runs, finished with seventh highest Weighted Runs Created Plus (102), and averaged more than 145 pitches per game, an important statistic I wrote about two years ago.

Their rotation, led by AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, paced all of baseball in strikeout rate (8.92 K/9), finished second in Excepted Fielding Independent Pitching, and three arms – Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and Danny Salazar – finished in the top 27 for average fastball velocity among starters (100+ innings). And the bullpen was remarkably solid: fifth in xFIP (3.48), seventh in ERA (3.12), and the 12th best strikeout rate.

But it was the club’s defense, that last 17%, that completely undid – and eventually sunk – the Indians’ 2014 campaign.

Pick a defensive metric, any one, and they all come to the same conclusion: the Indians did remarkably well in the field for a team comprised of the walking dead. They finished last in Defensive Runs Saved (-75), last in Ultimate Zone Rating (-72.4), second to last in Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 Games, and second to last in Defense, a position-adjusted metric.

Quite frankly, they were putrid. So much so, in fact, that their defensive lapses cost the team about five to six wins had the team been AVERAGE.

Now, there’s a lot of year-to-year variance when dealing with defensive value (it’s accepted that a three-year view is needed for consistency), so can the Tribe bounce back in 2015?

Well, not likely.

Of the club’s projected starting eight – Yan Gomes, Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Jose Ramirez, Lonnie Chisenhall, Michael Brantley, Michael Bourn, and Brandon Moss – only Gomes and Ramirez look to be above-average defenders; and Bourn, once heralded as an elite center fielder, has been mediocre in the field since coming to Cleveland.

The club does have defensive wunderkind Francisco Lindor knocking on the big league door, but as I mentioned in my book, The 2015 Prospect Digest Handbook, I have some rather large reservations about his immediate ability to hit. But promoting him sooner rather than later would – potentially – allow Terry Francona to push Ramirez to third base and Lonnie Chisenhall into a useful platoon role.

In the end, no, I don’t think the Tribe will be able to live up to the preseason hype. They’ll likely finish around an 86-win campaign and on the fringes of the playoff picture (barring some moves by the front office).

 

Photo Courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr.com



About

After serving as a video scout/analyst for Baseball Info Solutions, Joe Werner began writing at his original site, ReleasePoints.com. He’s since transitioned into his current niche, prospect analysis, at ProspectDigest.com. He has been fortunate — and incredibly blessed — to have some of his work published and mentioned by several major media outlets, including: ESPN, Cleveland.com and the Baseball Research Journal. He can be reached at: JosephMWerner@yahoo.com.