20xx Indians Preview (Repeat As Necessary)

Note: I published this on April 15. Probably would have helped if I had set the status to “public.” My bad. I’ve resisted the temptation to reread or edit anything.

Opening day, for a baseball fan, should be one of the most exciting times of the year. The Indians have had winning records for the last three seasons– granted they’ve dropped from 92 wins to 85 and 81– and they needed a game cancelled to ensure they stayed above .500.

But they have a youngish lineup– the six starters returning to the team are all under 30. They had a colon cleanse in late fall and winter: Mike Aviles, Nick Swisher and Ryan Raburn (all 34) are gone, as are David Murphy (33), Michael Bourn (32) and Brandon Moss (31). 

None of the five pitchers with the most starts in 2015 is 30. Neither are any of the relievers who appeared in the most games last season.

It should be a really good year. But it probably won’t be– for the same reason the Indians have finished at or below .500 in nine of the past 14 seasons. They don’t understand how to run a team– and they resist learning.

The Indians consistency makes them a little frustrating to analyze. The Browns lose a lot too– but they commit a laundry list of errors, many of which are innovative and instructive. The Cavs are a psychodrama– a team run by a supremely selfish trio of superstars, with a cadre of enablers. If I enjoyed writing about basketball, they’d provide source material for several hundred thousand words.

Jim Donovan recently said that the players coach themselves– that it doesn’t matter who is standing on the sidelines. He’s right.

The Indians, under 16 years of management by Mark Shapiro, have been the same old story. They’re unwilling to accept analytics and terrified of the risks involved in using prospects. If they bring young players up from the minors, it’s almost certain that:

  • The team is underperforming expectations by a wide margin.
  • The veterans who were supposed to play are either injured or doing so badly that even Terry Pluto can’t defend them.
  • They don’t have any other options.

This mindset began when Shapiro ascended to power after Dan O’Dowd left for Colorado in the late 1990’s. Suddenly the deployment of young talent virtually halted. A lot of it was John Hart desperately trying to find a veteran quick-fix to get a title. Manny Ramirez leaves; he turns to 31-year-old Juan Gonzalez and 36-year-old Ellis Burks. He needs a second baseman, he gets 31-year-old Roberto Alomar. They need another starter? Time for 37-year-old Chuck Finley.

Shapiro’s apologists like to say that he became GM as the Dolans realized they couldn’t afford to buy more over-the-hill stars. But the players he brought in were just as old. And while some of them were less expensive, almost all of them were worse values.

Ellis Burks, for example, signed a 3-year deal for $19.5 million (scroll to the bottom for the salary data). He was 7.6 wins above replacement (3.0, 3.9 and 0.6). Shapiro brings in Matt Lawton for four years and pays him $27 million for 4.5 wins above replacement (1.2, 1.2, 1.3 and 0.8). There isn’t a single valuable year.

Kerry Wood cost him $20.5 million for two years. I’m trying to block out Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds. He kept bringing old, worthless players in until the day he was moved up to team president– and then he kept pushing Chris Antonetti to do it.

I had hoped this season might be different. The Indians have improved of late because Antonetti became GM (which gave him final control over players). Terry Francona (who had been exposed to analytics during his time in Boston) became manager, providing a second voice of sanity. With Shapiro off to Toronto, it seemed like the Indians might put this failed strategy behind them.

They haven’t. In the off-season, the Indians added a slew of players who probably won’t help– and definitely will impede their progress. They have enough talent to win the AL Central– but they probably won’t. And there is a good chance they’ll continue the slide down from 92 wins to 85 to 81 (over .500 only because they didn’t play a rainout).

Until they break themselves of their bad habits, this will keep happening. One can hope 2016 will be this season– but I honestly have no timeline on when that will be.

I became aware of certain basic facts about baseball when I read the 1982 Bill James Baseball Abstract. Like many people over the past 34 years, I have refined that initial understanding by reading more research, performing studies– and simply watching what happened to thousands of players in that time.

In the San Diego team comment of the 1988 Abstract (the final one he published), Bill identified the ten concepts he had championed that he felt were the most valuable to a team. Listed in the order he deemed most important, they were:

  1. Minor-league batting statistics will predict major league performance, if you adjust for a few illusions.
  2. Talent in baseball is not normally distributed (like a bell curve). It is like a pyramid. For every player 10% above average, there and 20 who are 10% below average.
  3. What a player hits in a certain ballpark (or city) can and often will be wildly different than what he does in other parks or cities.
  4. Players reach their peak sooner– and decline faster– than most people believe.
  5. As a group. draft picks with at least two years of college outperform high school players.
  6. A team that can evaluate talent can do more with a compensation draft pick than it can with a free agent.
  7. Power pitchers outperform finesse pitchers– both in peak value and length of career.
  8. Won-loss records for pitchers have virtually no relationship to how well a pitcher pitched.
  9. The key to scoring runs in an inning is getting the leadoff hitter on base. Players with low on-base percentages reduce scoring.
  10. A great deal of what people attribute to “pitching” is in fact defense.

These concepts were not understood or accepted in 1988. They were ignored through most of the 1990’s. By the late 90’s, some teams were beginning to make use of them.

Mark Shapiro, at the time he took over as GM in 2002, understood and accepted none of those concepts. You could see it in the player decisions he made. Many, I’m sure, are ideas he still dismisses. That failure to grasp analytics is the reason the Indians keep falling short.

Rule #4: Players reach their peak sooner– and decline faster– than most people believe.

Research into the careers of decades of players has shown that there are four stages of an athlete’s physical development:

  • Young players: Until their 24th year, players are still developing physically
  • Prime: From 25-28, their bodies are at their physical peak, and they will have their best seasons
  • Past-Prime: From 29-32, they’re past their physical prime and their bodies begin to decline
  • Old: From age 33 on, they’re old.

Those periods don’t always conform to the best years in a player’s career, because several factors can change the period when the career peak hits:

1. Maturity: Some players are really stupid. Or stubborn. Or lazy. Or careless. Cliff Lee and Randy Johnson didn’t decide to stop trying to throw fastballs by everyone– to change speeds, use different locations and mix up their pitches– until they turned 29. Nolan Ryan was 32 when he finally realized that not walking people mattered– and getting ground balls or fly outs wasn’t cheating. Omar Vizquel waited to begin eating properly and doing weight training until he was in his 30’s.

Latin players– because they are still learning English early in their careers (and many teams don’t have spanish-speaking coaches) often take longer to develop.

As a player learns more about the game– if he gets to the right coach– or if he just gets tired of losing by doing things his way– he can have his best years in his late 20’s or even early 30’s. But his body is still aging.

2. Injuries. If a young player can’t stay healthy, it sets back his development. You can only learn to play by playing. Some players have their careers slowed by sprained ankles and pulled hamstrings. Conversely, other players get hurt in their prime years and their career shortens measurably.

3. Playing conditions. Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax are famous examples of players whose careers were enhanced when they moved into parks (Atlanta boosted Aaron’s home runs; Dodger Stadium, opened in 1962, was a pitcher’s park). A guy going from a park that kills him to one that helps him can have what appears to be a resurgence.

4. Drugs. A player can have his career blighted or ended by “lifestyle issues”. Conversely, performance-enhancing drugs have allowed people who chose to break the rules to extend or revive their careers.

5. Lying. Latin players have been known to lie about their ages, to make them seem like better prospects to scouts. “Fausto Carmona turned Roberto Hernandez” is the most recent example.

6. Exceptions: A small handful of people get their final growth spurts a few years early or several years later. It seems to be less than 1%.

There are many other concepts that a general manager needs to understand, but the aging curve (in my view) is by far the most important. If you “get” this one concept, it can be enough to let you run a winning team, simply because you will avoid making expensive mistakes.

A very young team– a team with most of their players aged 26 or less– has a 75% chance of winning more games the following season, simply because players get better as they grow up and gain experience. There’s a 15% chance it will stay about the same and 10% chance to decline.

A very old team– most of the players 29 or older– has a 40% chance of improving, a 30% chance of staying the same and a 30% chance of getting worse. 25% of the time, that team will lose 10 or more games.

The Indians simply don’t understand this. The main reason they’ve struggled for most of the 21st century is their decision to give a substantial percentage of starting jobs– and roster spots– to players that everyone else can see are too old to play well (usually at the expense of players in Columbus).

As the season progresses, the old guys struggle; Cleveland dumps them in a fire sale. Sometimes the new guys come up and play well enough to make everyone say “Gosh, it’s a shame they didn’t come up sooner.” Other years they don’t play long enough (or they struggle) and the cycle repeats.

It wasn’t a surprise to anyone with a functioning brain stem surprise that Brandon Moss hit .217 with a substandard .695 On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage– he was 31 and coming off a major surgery. Oakland traded him because they thought he was going to fall off the deep end– the Indians got him because nobody else wanted him.

Michael Bourn was 32 in 2015– the majority of players his age will hit .246 with a .608 OPS if they play a full season. The only reason they don’t is that most of them are out of baseball before they turn 32. Of the 213 major-league hitters born in 1982, 163 were out of the majors before 2015. Since Bourn’s career was almost entirely about speed, it’s not shocking that his career is over. Rather, it’s surprising he lasted this long.

Mike Aviles (.231 and .599) was 34 and he was never (except for the 2008, 2010 and 2012 seasons) a good player. Last year is simply the season the Indians realized it. Nick Swisher (.198 and .558) is 34 and he’s been unable to play since he signed the ridiculous free-agent contract the Indians offered.

The shock was that Ryan Raburn, at 34, hit .301 with a .936 OPS or that 33-year-old David Murphy (.296 and .781) contributed. The Indians were lucky to have batted .300 with their six old guys.

And yet, here we go again. 11 players on the opening-day roster will be 30 or older before July 1:

  • 38: Marlon Byrd
  • 37: Juan Uribe
  • 35: Rajai Davis
  • 34: Mike Napoli
  • 31: Jeff Manship, Dan Otero, Josh Tomlin
  • 30: Collin Cowgill, Carlos Santana, Ross Detwiler, Corey Kluber

Certainly you can understand Santana or Kluber being there– they’ve been part of the team for years. Making Tomlin the long reliever and emergency starter (I know he won’t be that) makes sense.

Manship had six consecutive seasons with ERAs between 5.28 and 8.10. I don’t think 39.2 good innings last year cancels out the previous 139– but he’s only one of 15 middle relievers, so the damage he can do is limited.

The rest?

Marlon Byrd will be 38 this year. He can play three outfield positions, but his defense is below average at all of them. He hasn’t has an on-base percentage over .340 since 2010– and that was in Wrigley, which bumps offenses. The only other time he reached base more than 34% of the time was in Texas in 2008– an even better place to hit.

So he hurts your defense and he won’t get on base, which will hurt the offense (see James’s rule #9). He strikes out three times as often as he walks, so he’ll leave people on base.

Also– like Michael Bourn– Byrd is a National League hitter. He’ll do some damage if you throw him fastballs. If you change speeds and throw breaking pitches, you tie him in knots. According to Frangraphs, he’s produced 69.4 runs above average when opponents throw him fastballs (which they have 58.5% of the time), He’s -24.0 runs when they throw sliders and cutters (which they have 22.1% of the time).

This will be Mark Reynolds and Zach Walters all over again. The Indians will say that he gives them flexibility and that he can be used as a platoon player– ignoring the obvious issue that Bryd will go through the roof if they try it. Except for the 2012 season, where an injury limited him to 47 games, Byrd has had 454 plate appearances of more in every season since 2007.

Sure he’s just temporary. But he’ll be with the Indians long after Lonnie Chisenhall and Tyler Naquin are off the roster.

Juan Uribe: He’s a poor man’s Byrd– never had an on-base percentage over .340; a career 1,175 strikeouts and 373 walks. He has a big swing, so he’s slump prone. He’ll go 3-32 or 7-40 two or three times a year— and the only cure anyone has ever been able to find is “let’s just let him play and eventually he’ll get himself out of it.”

Uribe is also a National League hitter– he thinks it’s unfair of pitchers to throw breaking balls and will scream at them to challenge him. That’s why he’s been in the NL since his five-year stretch (2004-08) with the White Sox. He didn’t do well in that stretch– he hit .251 with a .724 back in the days when offense was still inflated (his OPS was 85% of the league average). And he was 25-29 back then.

If the Indians are lucky, Uribe will give them what Mark Reynolds did in 2013– start the season on a tear and ice up in mid-May, so they get six weeks before they bench him and them dump him. If they’re not he’ll limp along for three months, blocking Ursehla and causing defensive issues to Lindor’s right.

Rajai Davis: He’s one of those ballplayers who people used to believe were valuable, because his career average is .269, he doesn’t strike out much and he steals lots of bases (29 or better between 2007-11). As soon as you understand that (a) a walk is as good as a hit, and (b) a double is as good as two hits, his value evaporates.

Davis’s career on-base percentage is .315. He’s had only two seasons (2007 and 2009) where it was over .320. He’s had three seasons where he had acceptable power for an outfielder (2009, 2014 and 2015). Back in his 20’s, when he was a decent centerfielder, he was below-average. At 35, when he has to play left field to provide above-average fielding, he’s costing his team games.

Mike Napoli: Here’s one of those moves that is genuinely mind-boggling. You signed someone that the Red Sox and the Rangers gave up on last year? Those are the teams that do better at finding hitters with “below the line” value than anyone else. It’s like signing a starting pitcher that the Cardinals and Dodgers decided to ditch.

Yes, Napoli has been a nice player over his career– his OPS has been between 10% and 70% over the league average every season until 2014. That number is not as impressive as it appears, because he’s a first baseman-DH. They’re supposed to be above-average hitters– you don’t play them for defense, baserunning or veteran influence (even though the Indians did just that with Jason Giambi).

He isn’t a catcher anymore. He hasn’t caught since 2012 and hasn’t caught more than 72 since 2008.

Napoli is 34. After a pretty consistent career (he was between 110% of league OPS and 130% in every season except his career years in 2008 and 2011), he fell to 96% last year. The Indians are hoping maybe it was a fluke.

At the age of 34.

The mind boggles. Yeah, platoon him with Santana at first. Santana has merely been in the top three in walks for five consecutive years and has 18 or more homers every year and his worst OPS was .752. Let’s see how well they can make that work.

The one benefit is that Napoli hits lefties, so he and Uribe and Byrd can maybe have good games on the 55-60 times opponents will start lefties. That’s not a winning proposition.

Shapiro was often described as “smart” or “shrewd”– one of the many high-aptitude youngsters from elite schools with an understanding of the mechanics of the sport. I find this mind-boggling. Shapiro is a more polished version of Gabe Paul or Phil Seghi, the old-time stogie-chewing baseball men in plaid leisure suits. His willful ignorance of reality– or his stubborn refusal to accept it– is manifest in his behavior.

I mean, screw the Moneyball stuff– what about his reluctance to accept physical laws? Another reason the Indians struggle is their refusal to believe that injuries take a fixed amount of time to heal.

Becoming an expert about sports medicine doesn’t require a degree– or even work experience. Just read the stories about injured players and keep a database (or a spreadsheet, file cards– or just mental notes) on how many games they miss. If the last 10 major leaguers who suffered what the paper reported as a “strained medial collateral ligament” missed between six to ten weeks, you can be pretty sure that the next player who gets one will miss two to three months.

You might have to adjust the estimate a little by position. A DH or first baseman– who doesn’t need to move that much– might come back sooner than a shortstop or second baseman. A catcher will take even longer. A pitcher will probably take the longest. It isn’t rocket science- I know an 11-year-old (now in medical school) who used to do it.

But the Indians have never, in this century, been able to do that.

Yan Gomes was diagnosed with an MCL sprain on April 11th, 2015. I said to my wife “He won’t be ready until at least the middle of June– July more likely.” The Indians said Gomes would be out for 6-8 weeks.

I called a friend who works a team that handles injuries arguably better than any other franchise. I asked if that was possible. He said the Indians were nuts– especially for a catcher. He said they were risking a re-injury if they let him out there before June 15th.

Gomes returned on May 24th– six weeks later. Here are his splits by month:

Month Batting OPS
May .158 .385
June .230 .626
July .260 .720
August .209 .662
September .264 .757

They brought him back a month and a half too soon, he tried to play anyway and he struggled. A friend told me that the injury flared up again in August, but they kept it quiet.

Why the Indians did this is something sane and intelligent people will never understand. During the time when Gomes was out, the Indians brought up 26-year-old Roberto Perez, who performed like an old-fashioned backup catcher– very low average (.228), but enough walks (33 in 226 plate appearances) to give him a respectable .348 on-base percentage and so many extra-base hits (17, including 7 homers) that his slugging percentage was .402. His .750 OPS wasn’t the level of 2014 Gomes (.785), but it was way superior to what they got from Gomes in May, June, July and August.

The Indians nearly gave up on Carlos Carrasco because they refused to accept that pitchers take two seasons to recover from Tommy John surgery. He needed one (2012) to let the arm heal and another (2013) to regain the velocity and pitch movement that he had before the injury.

Every intelligent team in baseball understands this, but the Indians were prepared to write him off in 2013. Only manager Terry Francona– who loved his arm– saved him.

I have no idea why the Indians do this. Neither does anyone else I know who is working in baseball.

What does this bode for Michael Brantley‘s injured shoulder? Probably nothing good. He should miss about two months, but the Indians said he only needed to sit out April– and now they have him on the 15-day disabled list. They even had him playing in spring.

Who knows what sort of 2016 he’ll have? Or any player who gets injured this year.

Let’s talk about player development. Shapiro has said repeatedly that he believes a player needs 12 to 18 months at each level to fully develop. That’s not merely wrong– it’s counterproductive.

Most teams have a rough understanding of the concept I set out two sections ago– that players’ bodies develop along a predictable timeline. Hence they have a de facto age limit– a point at which a player will be cut if he hasn’t been promoted. Hence each level of the minors has an average age. Here they are:

  • The average age of all players in AAA ball (the Indians have their team in Columbus) is 27
  • Average age in AA (Akron) is 24.5
  • Average age in a high A league (Lynchburg) is 23
  • Average age in a low A league (Lake County) is 21.5

Obviously the older the players in the league are, the stronger their bodies are and the more experience they’ve gathered. It’s substantially harder to hit against a pitcher who has already learned the value of a good breaking pitch– even harder if he has already been taught how to throw one.

AAA players are much older than AA players because teams use it as a reserve squad. They’ll have half a dozen players– a catcher, a corner and middle infielder, two outfielders, a veteran starter or reliever– in case something goes wrong.

Also, look the average ages. Notice the 18-month jump in average age from low “A” to high “A” to AA? I’m pretty sure that’s where Shapiro gets the “12-18 months at a level” thing. He thinks a player shouldn’t be substantially below the average age in a league. The notion that a player should progress as quickly as his talent can carry him– is a concept he clearly disagrees with.

The age difference accounts for the higher degree of difficulty. It also means that the age at which a prospect can “hold his own” against the players in a league tells you almost as much as his performance. This matrix gives you a good rule of thumb. Plug in the player’s age, look at the level where he’s holding his own and you have a projection of his future:

High A
Regular Good Player Star Superstar
Major-leaguer Regular Good Player Star
Scrub Major-Leaguer Regular Good Player
Scrub Major Leaguer Regular
Scrub Major Leaguer

Let me define a few terms. By “holding his own”, I mean “showing that he isn’t obviously overmatched.” If a prospect has had 100 at-bats and he’s hitting .214 with 1 homer and 40 strikeouts, he’s in over his head– you shouldn’t keep him there and let him get beat up. A .254 average with 3 homers? Clearly he belongs at the level.

This isn’t an ironclad rule. If the player suffered a major injury at 22 and he needed a year to rehab, it’s not the kiss of death if he starts out in A ball at 23. Same deal if he’s being shifted from third base to catcher (as Carlos Santana was). You can give the guy an extra year to get himself back on schedule.

Two conditions here

1. Some people cut a college player a little slack. If a 21 or 22-year-old player signs and gets sent to Lake County or a rookie league to get his feet wet, they don’t automatically write him off as a bust. I do that grudgingly– there are players that age who can handle the majors. And if he hasn’t blown through a couple of levels after a year, I don’t cut slack.

2. Being a year behind– but tearing up a league– doesn’t compensate. People think it should. History shows that it doesn’t.

The value of the matrix is that it gives you a framework with which to judge players. Anyone can see that a shortstop who hits .321 with 6 homers and 12 doubles in 38 games of AAA is “ready” to be promoted. This matrix tells you a 20-year-old shortstop hitting .273 with 5 homers and 4 doubles in AAA (as Francisco Lindor did in 2014) is performing like a superstar. He’s not only ready for the majors, he’s potentially ready for Cooperstown.

There has been a lot of debate about whether Giovanny Urshela can hit. There shouldn’t be. Let me take the matrix and plug in his state:

High A
(676 OPS)
(.914 PS)
(.804 OPS)
(.767 OPS)
(608 OPS)

A 22-year-old who hits .300 in AA and .276 at AAA is somewhere between a “regular” and a “good player.” Which means that– oh, why don’t I just give you the terms?

  1. Superstar: Fixture on All-Star teams, often gets post-season awards (MVP, Cy Young, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger), mentioned as possible Hall of Famer.
  2. Star: Often makes All-Star teams, sometimes wins awards, always mentioned on lists of top players.
  3. Good Player: Will start every season, can play for almost any team, might make an All-Star team in his best years.
  4. Regular: Always in the majors, starter on many teams, can be traded for a player who can help.
  5. Major Leaguer: Usually on the bench, might start a few years in career years or in emergencies, moves from team to team.
  6. Scrub: Spends part of every season in the majors, but usually bounces between AAA and the show.

Ursehla’s stats as a 23-year-old don’t look impressive until you remember that he was 23 and that he sprained his posterior cruciate ligament playing winter ball in the 2014-205 offseason. The Indians– as you might guess from reading the previous section– decided that he wouldn’t need surgery and could start the 2015 season on schedule… then wondered why he wasn’t hitting.

If the Indians had any sense, they would simply have said “If he has an off-season to get stronger, he’ll come into spring training and do fine.” So when he hit .308 this spring— with 5 homers, 3 doubles, 2 walks and only 5 strikeouts in 39 at-bats (.769 slugging and 1.126 OPS)– they would not have been surprised, and his 2016 season would be off to a flying start.

But because the Indians don’t understand player development (James’s Rule #4) and they can’t read minor-league batting statistics (rule #1), they dashed out to get Uribe. He’ll be the starter until June– maybe later– while they keep Urshela in Columbus.

If Urshela responds to being demoted by thinking that his career is over and limping dispritedly through the season– as many players will– they’ll have a self-fulfilling prophesy. They didn’t think he was ready, didn’t give him a chance… and he didn’t make it.

There are reasons minor league stats do not reflect actual performance. If a player is significantly older that a level, his stats will be inflated. If he’s younger, he won’t look as good as he is. The playing conditions in the park matter:

  • A bandbox minor league park will gouge pitchers and inflate hitters.
  • A huge stadium with bad lights and a heavy wind in can drive averages down

But minor league statistics do mean things. And the Indians absolutely refuse to accept that.

Let’s talk about what ought to be the strength of the team– the rotation.

Over the winter, I overheard a conversation with one of the nitwits covering the team. He was upset with one of the prospects and pounding the drum for one of the suspects. “The Indians have been waiting for Trevor Bauer for how long?” he told the crowd.

“What’s he ever done? Why keep waiting for the head case? Why not just go with The Cowboy!”

The answers are:

  • The Indians have been waiting for Bauer for two years– 2014 and 2015. They acquired him after the 2013 season.
  • He has started 56 games in Cleveland (26 in 2014, 30 in 2015) producing an ERA just slightly worse than league average.
  • He has done that despite the handicap of pitching for the third-worst defense in the majors in 2014– and a very bad defense in the first half of 2015.
  • You keep waiting for Bauer because he was 24 last year and will be 25 this season– the age when players develop.

There are at least six good reasons to not go with “The Cowboy”:

  1. Josh Tomlin is 31 years old– the age at which players begin to decline
  2. His durability is so terrible that he never been healthy enough to have 30 starts or pitch 200 innings
  3. Tomlin hasn’t qualified for the ERA title (162 innings) since 2011
  4. He’s in year five of trying to come back from a serious injury
  5. He has never had a good season (unless you look only at W-L record) until last season
  6. Last season he pitched only 65.2 innings.

But Bauer is going to the bullpen– and most likely back to Columbus– while Tomlin gets to pitch his way to either the DL or a wretched ERA. Why?

One problem is that the local media is populated with birdbrains. Paul Hoynes– senior baseball writer for America’s Worst Newspaper(TM)–intends to be the last sportswriter on earth to give up using wins as a measure of quality. Bauer is 16-20 over the last two seasons; Tomlin 13-11. Hoynes and Zach Meisel seriously believe that disparity could not have happened by accident.

The reality is that it not only could, but has:

  • Bauer has had 17 starts where the Indians scored 2 runs or less (zero once, one run 11 times and two runs five times)
  • Tomlin got 5 or more runs 10 times in 26 starts

To Hoynes and Meisel, that doesn’t matter in the slightest, The Indians still lose more with Bauer pitching. In fact, one dimwit in the media argues that Tomlin’s better support shows good a pitcher Tomlin is. See, when “The Cowboy” is wranglin’, the hitters know he’s gonna give it his all and go down swangin’, so they can relax and pick away at the opposing pitcher. They never know what Bauer will do, so they try too hard and often fail. If he weren’t such a head case, it wouldn’t happen.

But the big reason to pick Bauer over Tomlin is that a good organization looks for long-term solutions to problems, not patches and stopgaps. How many full years– if any– does Tomlin have? Bauer could be a productive starter in 2024.

But the odds are that Bauer won’t be. Not in Cleveland.

Here’s another reason Bauer– and the Indians’ pitchers– often struggle.

Rule 10: A great deal of what people attribute to “pitching” is in fact defense.

The 2001 Indians, the last team where John Hart was the GM, had the worst defense in the American League– a .670 Defensive Efficiency Record. (DER is simply opponents’ batting average on balls put into play, subtracted from 1. If you prefer BABIP, it was .330.

That shouldn’t be surprising– it was an old team and Hart always worried more about offense.

Given Shapiro’s constant harping about pitching, one would imagine that he would have made it a priority to improve the defense , to ensure that the pitchers would have as much help as possible. Shapiro did not. The Indians were 14th– dead last– in DER in 2002. During his tenure, they finished:

  • 13th in 2006
  • 12th in 2010 (his final year)
  • 11th in 2004
  • 10th in 2009
  • 9th in 2008
  • 7th in 2007 (one of three seasons where they were above average)
  • 6th in 2003
  • 3rd in 2005

Not coincidentally, the 2005 and 2007 teams won 90 games and the pitching appeared strong.

You probably don’t remember the 2003 team. It only won 69 games, but they had a 4.21 ERA– fifth best in the American League. It started four players who had been centerfielders (Coco Crisp, Milton Bradley, Jody Gerut and Matt Lawton) in the outfield. Josh Bard, who was only in the majors due to his defense, was the catcher. The infield had four players in their 20’s: Ben Broussard, Brandon Phillips, Jhonny Peralta (who played more games than Omar Vizquel) and Casey Blake. Three (Broussard the exception) were above-average defensively.

The following year Phillips and Bradley were gone, Lawton and Vizquel were a year older, Victor Martinez had taken over at catcher and the DER was down from .698 to .684. Unsurprisingly, team ERA rose from 4.21 (fifth) in 2003 to 4.81 (10th).

Shapiro would routinely use a catcher, shortstop and second baseman who were exceptional hitters, but appalling defensive players. Center field (Bradley, Crisp then Grady Sizemore) was the only spot where he had an excellent defender in a defender’s spot.

Antonetti has been about the same:

  • 7th in DER (.692) in 2011
  • 12th (.685) in 2012
  • 10th (.683) in 2013
  • 13th (.673) in 2014
  • 5th (.699) in 2015

The jump in 2015 occurred for two reasons:

  • Terry Francona decided to call for Urshela (on June 9) and then Lindor (June 14)
  • The fire sale of Moss (last start July 29) and Bourn and Swisher (August 4).

Francona fixed the infield when the Indians were 27-30 and in fourth place (six games behind). Jose Ramirez had flamed out at shortstop (a position he doesn’t have the physical ability to play), leaving Aviles as the starter. Lonnie Chisenhall was hitting .209 (.545 OPS). With Jason Kipnis at second and Carlos Santana at first– and an outfield of Brantley, Bourn and Moss– they couldn’t field worth a damn. And with those players– and Nick Swisher at DH– they also couldn’t hit.

Francona decided to fix the one thing he could fix. Both Lindor and Urshela will win Gold Gloves if they play (unless Lindor really fills out), so he knew they would help his pitching staff.

The two rookies helped, but they also struggled at the plate. And the outfield defense was still awful. The Indians went 22-28 until they dumped the veterans– and Jason Kipnis finally stopped trying to play hurt and let Jose Ramirez step in at second. From August 5 on, they went 31-22.

It wasn’t entirely defensive. Lindor started to hit. Urshela improved. Ramirez and Chisenhall came on. But a lot of it was just getting the eyesores out of the lineup. Let me repeat James’s rule #2

Talent in baseball is not normally distributed (like a bell curve).
It is like a pyramid. For every player 10% above average,
there and 20 who are 10% below average.

Abraham Almonte, even on performance-enhancers, isn’t a great player. But his .776 OPS was nearly 200 points better than Bourn’s .608.

Jerry Sands is a journeyman– he posted a .676 OPS in 133 plate appearances. It was nearly 120 points higher than the .558 Swisher put up in his 111.

Nobody in his right mind would play Lonnie Chisenhall in the outfield– his OPS was .667, for heaven’s sake. But he is a sight better than Aviles (.599).

If you play someone who is young, healthy and eager to win a job, he is likely to be as good– if not better– than a veteran whose body is quitting on him. Sometimes he can be surprising. Play the kid and see what happens.

But the Indians virtually never will, because they don’t know how to make sense of minor-league performance. Given the choice between entrusting a season to a rookie who has no track record and a veteran who has a declining one, they will always take the old guy and hope he can come back.

Another obstacle the Indians always have– because they create it– is the number of events that go wrong in a season, frequently mushrooming. The front office is always forced to make an enormous number of in-season rebuilding decisions. Those are always difficult to do– especially under pressure.

It happens because the Indians go into a season with half a dozen positions outfitted with coathangers, bungee cords and duct tape. When you combine these entirely predictable failures with the normal collection of injuries, bad breaks and season-to-season fluctuations that occur during players’ careers– it becomes overwhelming.

Often the season produces what I call a “combo fiasco”– two normal events that the Indians juxtapose to produce disaster.

For example, here is a very safe prediction: At some point during the 2016 season, Juan Uribe will have a slump. That happens 2-3 times a season to every player– Uribe more than many– so I’m not worried about losing money if one of you offers to cover.

Here’s another world-shaker: At some point, Urshela will go 5-27 in Columbus. It happens to pretty much everyone.

Given the number of 30 at-bat stretches in a season, there is a 12-16% chance (between one in 6 and one in 8) that the two slumps will occur at the same time.

And if Uribe goes 6-40 with 14 strikeouts during a period where the Indians have lost six of their last nine (scoring only 21 runs in nine games), it will lead to Terry Talking nonsense like this:

“The Indians are worried about Uribe because he seems to be losing heart. Like Brandon Moss did a year ago, he is complaining about the stadium and the way he is being pitched. They had assumed they could call Urshela up, but he has hit .172 over his last six games and they worry a promotion would make things worse.

The Indians have tried Jose Ramirez, but he is not the hitter they want at third; he recently made two costly errors. Lonnie Chisenhall is in a successful platoon with Marlon Byrd in right and the Indians do not want to disturb that.

“They are intrigued by the possibility of using Mike Napoli at third. He might not have Uribe’s range, but the Indians feel he is a level-headed veteran who can steady the team.”

Why would I think they’d use Napoli at third? Because they’re the Indians– they do things like that. They need a third baseman, he’s on the roster, why not? They tried Reynolds and Santana at first base, because both guys had once played there.

A well-run organization won’t have those problems, because they’ll select the third baseman they think has the best chance of playing well over the whole season. They don’t say things like “If Michael Brantley misses most of April and May, we’ll need offensive help. Let’s not bet on a 24-year-old third baseman hitting well– let’s get a 37-year-old.”

When the Indians decided to send Bauer to the bullpen, they told the media one of the reasons was that Tomlin had pitched better against the teams the Indians were scheduled against in April. (Notice again that Hoynes uses W-L, not ERA.)

The shortsightedness and stupidity boggle the mind. And the list goes on.

Jason Kipnis is a weak second baseman who keeps getting hurt because the position puts a strain on him. In the outfield– free to do nothing other than hit– he could probably hit better than he does now. Meanwhile 23-year-old Jose Ramirez— an outstanding defensive player– could settle into his natural position and solidify the infield, rather than playing left field.

Tyler Naquin will turn 25 on April 24th. With 21-year-old Clint Frazier in AA, Naquin has a very limited window to demonstrate that he can play. The Indians need a centerfielder. Why isn’t he playing over Davis?

It’s not rushing Naquin— he’s 25. He spent three season in college ball and has been in the Indians’ system for four years. He’s played 50 games in AAA. Putting him in centerfield is simply not wasting time. Rajai Davis is an old guy who isn’t any good. Let’s see if Naquin can do better.

“Rushing” might be putting Frazier in centerfield in Cleveland. Maybe.

The reluctance to try to think in terms of seasons– or even a full season– makes things even more chaotic. 30-year-old Ross Detwiler has had what I would consider to be a pretty miserable career– last season he had an ERA over 7.00 in relief for two different teams. But he posts an ERA of 3.60 in spring, so the Indians:

  • Send Kyle Crockett to the minors to Detwiler can join the team
  • To put him on the team, they need to put him on the 40-man roster. Since Marlon Byrd needs a spot too, they designate Zach Walters and Giovanni Soto for assignment.

Crockett is an excellent prospect. Soto hasn’t been a great player— but he’s 24 and he might be a good one. I wouldn’t have moved either guy around for Detwiler… but the Indians did.

Detwiler has two rough outings and now people want him gone. And why not? He doesn’t have a track record that would inspire any confidence– you’d be crazy to say “We know Ross will snap out of this.” So why not cut him?

And that’s the way it goes here. We need a left fielder? Hey, Ramirez isn’t doing anything– he’s as good a choice as any. And, given the choices they make– Byrd, Collin Cowgill– who can argue?

I’ve given up on doing predictions, because doing them requires you to know who will play. An Indian can lose his job with two bad weeks. Or a player can be doing OK– and get benched or demoted because the Indians are losing and someone has an idea about how to spark the team. Also, they never handle injuries well. The front office can turn a pulled hamstring into a three-month soap opera, because they won’t let the player heal

I’ll offer some quick “up or down” predictions, going round the horn:

Yan Gomes: He’s 28; there should be no lasting issues from the knee. I don’t ever expect him to have seasons like his 2013-14, but he’s an above-average player. Not .785 OPS, but certainly 740-ish. Projection: Improved.

Rafael Perez: With the Indians eager to get off to a fast start, he won’t play much. And it is very hard for a guy who plays 1-2 games a week to stay sharp and hit. Plus he isn’t a high-average hitter anyway. I’d expect him to be under .200 for most of the year– OPS under even his .678 in 2014– .and maybe get traded or sent down. Projection: Way, way down.

Mike Napoli: He’s 34. He does much of his damage against lefties, but the Indians won’t platoon him. He doesn’t hit well as a first baseman (.958 OPS at DH, .879 at catcher, .782 at first). He hits fairly well in Cleveland– and he represents an improvement over Swisher or Sands– but I don’t see him improviing on last season’s .734. Projection: Down a bit.

Carlos Santana: By dint of constant position-switching and general mismanagement, the Indians have turned a high-average hitter into a guy who gets by on walks and homers. Could really use a change of scenery– but since the Indians have an option year, they won’t let him go until he bottoms out. He’s 30 and hates being a DH, so his OPS (which has dropped from .832 to .792 to .752) will probably keep sliding. Projection: Down to about .730.

Jason Kipnis: He’s been in the majors five seasons and never had a good season in an even year. OPS is .841, .818 and .823 in the odd years and .714 and .640 in 2012 and 2014. He’s 29 and his defense is enough below average that it hurts the pitching more that shoehorning him into second helps. He;d be so much better off playing center or left. Usually gets hurt at least part of the season. Projection: Down by a lot.

Jose Ramirez: I really like this kid– if he were with any other team, I’d tout him as a star. But he’s 23 and has already played second, short, third, left and DH, and he’s bounced up and down between AA, AAA and the majors since 2013. He came up in September of 2013, so he isn’t out of options yet. By 2017, he will be. Projection: About the same.

Francisco Lindor: He was 4.6 wins above replacement in only 99 games. At age 21. It was the 32nd-best season for a player his age since baseball changed the foul-strike rule in 1904. There are lots of Hall-of-Fame players on that list. There are also players like Buddy Bell and Willie Randolph (good but not Oh My God) and guys like Greg Gross and Justin Upton. Some guys just mature very early.

Normally the opponents catch up to a rookie after a year… but with a player this young and this good, the rules don’t always apply. I’m gonna be conservative here, simply because everyone else is expecting the moon. Projection: A little better; not insane yet.

Juan Uribe: I did him. The over-under on him is July 1. Projection: Bust.

Giovanny Urshela: He’s not extroverted enough to shrug off the demotion and hit well. Might get called up if Uribe flames out, but I’d be surprised if he plays more than 100 at-bats in the majors at all in 2016– unless he gets traded. Projection: Non-factor.

Michael Brantley: Unless the Indians get off to a hot start, they’ll try to have him back by Tax Day (which is the 18th this year). Unfortunately, he’s too soft-spoken to push back. He’ll be this season’s Gomes. Projection: Way down (OPS under .800).

Rajai Davis: Not only is he 35, but he’s going from a park that plenty of gaps for him to slap the ball into– to one that he doesn’t love (OPS of .700 in Cleveland). OPS should drop because he won’t have the extra-base hits. He’ll hit singles, so the PD will figure he’s doing great. Projection: Batting average down a few points, OPS down a lot.

Tyler Naquin: No clue. Normally I’d expect him to hit a few singles, steal some bases, play amazing defense and do absolutely nothing else. Jim Norris had a few years hitting .275 with an OPS around .700 in the 70’s. But I don’t know if he’ll play. When you get, say, 30 at-bats in April, 10 hits makes you a .333 hitter, 8 gives you a ,267 average and 6 makes you a .200 hitter. Whether or not he stays, don’t expect anything other than singles. Projection: Meh.

Collin Cowgill: Same as Naquin, but with a much lower expectation. He’s 30, so if he goes 0-8, he could be back in AAA (or out of the organization) in a heartbeat. Guys with his basic profile are easy to find. Projection: best case Sands, worst case cup of coffee.

Marlon Byrd: The dearth of talent in the outfield– coupled with his power (72 homers in the last three years) will keep him her all season, probably. But that average (.291 to .264 to .247) and OPS (.847, to .757 to .743) should drop– especially when he starts getting breaking balls. Projection: Drew Stubbs II.

Lonnie Chisenhall: In the words of Samuel L. Jackson, “Aw, hell no…” It’s his sixth season, they still don’t think he can play, they made him switch positions and now he’s hurt– and fighting with a bunch of veterans. He’s dog meat.

The reality is that he has a .255 career average and an OPS of .710 in three seasons of playing time (1,577 plate appearances). He’s 6.1 career wins above replacement (an average player is 2.0 in a full season). You could do a lot worse– the Indians have. But he won’t play. Projection: Turn out the lights, the party’s over.

Corey Kluber: As good a pitcher as you can be when you don’t have a defense behind you and also don’t get any runs. I still think he isn’t that good, but he keeps getting people out, so what do I know? Projection: About the same.

Carlos Carrasco: They were talking about moving him in the off-season, so you know they don’t trust him. Plus, he’s only pitched 317 innings, so it isn’t like he’s guaranteed to play well. He did get 30 starts and maybe this is the year he puts it all together. But I’m going to guess it goes south for him and he winds up being traded. Projection: Big disappointment.

Danny Salazar: Despite all the talk about his inconsistency, he’s never had an ERA above 4.25 and he’s always had more strikeouts than innings pitched, with very low walks. He’s 26– if his arm holds up, this should be the year everyone learns his name. Projection: Breakout.

Cody Anderson: In order to succeed long-term, a pitcher normally needs to strike out at least 7.0 batters per nine innings. It’s Bill James’s seventh rule. A pitcher doesn’t need a blazing fastball to do it– you can use a curve or have a funky motion or change speeds. Doug Jones pitched 16 years, saved 300 games and struck out 7.3 men an inning, and his best pitch was a change-up. But if you can’t make hitters swing and miss, you’d better have the mother of all sinkers.

Anderson has averaged 7+ whiffs once– in 2013. Last year he fanned 4.3, and his control was below average (1.83 K/W ratio). There is no way he will make it long term. None. Projection: Bust.

Josh Tomlin: Could we have the Cowboy ride off to the OK Corral? He’s averaged less than 6.0 whiffs in his career, and it’s only a matter of time before his surgically repaired arm goes {POOF} again. Projection: Bust.

Trevor Bauer: There’s no question that he’ll get a chance to start– the question is just whether Tomlin or Anderson flames out first. Whether he’ll be able to help them is the question.

Bauer is about the worst choice to be in the bullpen you can make– he always needs an inning or two to figure out what’s working for him. He’s likely to have an ERA of 8.00 in relief, so they might just bring someone up from Columbus. Projection: Wasted year.

Cody Allen: As close to a guarantee as anyone on the team. The only issue is that a closer probably shouldn’t be getting 70+ appearances and 70+ innings a season– and he’s done it for three seasons. I know I’m just a stupid blogger and Terry Francona has won two world championships, but it’s still a risk. Projection: Probably good. I hope.

Everyone else: After Bauer and Allen, there are six other guys– by the end of the year, there will probably be another dozen. The Indians bring people in, give them a half-dozen outings to see if they can do anything and they move onto the next.

I’d guess that Bryan Shaw and Zach McAlister do well, and I’ve always thought Joba Chamberlain should be doing a lot better than he has. But when you pitch between 20-70 innings, it’s really hard to be consistent. You have arm tightness for 2-3 weeks, if they don’t put you on the DL right away, you can wind up on the street with an ERA of 11.22 if things go badly.

I don’t care for it one bit… but it’s the least of the problems, and it’s usually worked out. Projection: Mostly OK.

Reinforcements: This is biased by the history of the front office, but they got nothin’. Everyone likely to help this year was here last year.

In any other organization, you’d expect to see a few guys fly through levels. Not here. Frazier or OF Brad Zimmer might be in the majors in June, but I’d be shocked if they get from Akron to Columbus and a September callup.

Other than Ryan Merritt (a slender lefty who doesn’t strike out enough men), they don’t have a starting pitcher with the kind of track record they want. Crockett is the only relief help, and they’ve decided he isn’t any good. (That’s what being demoted for Ross Detwiler tells you.)

I’ll give you one sleeper. 1B Nellie Rodriguez is 22 and in Akron. They’ve moved him along really fast– he’s been at least a year and a half younger than his level– so he doesn’t look as good as he probably is. Last year he had 57 extra-base hits and 60 walks in 565 plate appearances, split between Lynchburg and Akron. Low average (.245) but doesn’t strike out too much (159 times)

Guys with big swings often put it together in a hurry. But his chances fight his way here are low.

Terry Pluto picked the Indians to win 87 games and make the playoffs; they could do that. They could also reverse the digits, continuing the decline from 92 to 85 to 81 wins. Because I don’t have any strong belief that the organization will make good decisions, I’ll go with the losing record: 78-84.

As for where they finish… All five teams have issues; each has a front office capable of making genuinely strange decisions. I’d expect the Indians to finish third– ahead of the White Sox and Twins– because I those two clubs decision-making the least. But it might be the Tigers or the Royals. Nobody here is a great team. or a terrible one.

The sad thing is that the Indians absolutely could win it. If you put Kipnis in the outfield– where he wouldn’t have to do gymnastics– he’d stay healthier and hit a lot better than he does. Ramirez would upgrade the defense markedly, especially with Urshela at third, Napoli at first, Naquin in center and Byrd / Davis in right. Plug in Chisenhall and Brantley when they’re 100% and that’s a good enough offense to win. At least with a starting rotation featuring Kluber, Carrasco, Salazar and Bauer.

But when you have people who shouldn’t be on the team playing– or playing in the wrong spot– it’s note likely to happen.

There were writers in Kansas City who thought 25-year-old Yordano Ventura ought to be shifted to the bullpen, because he speaks Spanish and hasn’t done whatever the hell white writers always think hispanic pitchers ought to do. GM Dayton Moore and Manager Ned Yost won’t do it. But Bauer– who isn’t much worse– was shifted so the Indians could go with a couple of finesse pitchers.

As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, “And so it goes..”


One thought on “20xx Indians Preview (Repeat As Necessary)

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