Why The Indians Are Winning

Short Answer: Luck.

Long, Depressing Answer: Below the fold…

I’ve been getting a lot of these questions– both from people who respect my opinion and really want to know, and from people who love to point out that I picked the Indians to finish below .500– and yet they have the fifth-highest number of wins. How can that be?
The same two reasons the Indians always win– the only two reasons they ever win:
1. Players they were expecting to play every day managed to wipe themselves out, opening spots for young players.
In the outfield, Michael Brantley turned out to be so badly hurt that even the Indians couldn’t rationalize trying to play him. Also, both Abraham Almonte and Marlon Byrd got suspended for performance enhancers.
That left the Indians with only one veteran (Rajai Davis) to muck up the lineup. They were forced to try Tyler Naquin (.918 OPS) and to give Jose Ramirez (.772) and Lonnie Chisenhall (.820) much more playing time than they normally would have gotten.
Had the veterans been available, the outfield would look the about the same as third base, where Juan Uribe has been mucking things up.
Uribe is 37. He’s hitting .218 (he hit .219 with the Mets last year, one of three teams who tried him and found him wanting). He’s not getting better after a slow start, his monthly OPSes are:
  • .627 in April
  • .685, in May
  • .658 in June
  • .325 in July
As I expected, Uribe has struggled in the AL. His stats for the full season are .218 and .633, Against NL teams, his average jumps to .258, and the OPS to .615.
In a normal season, Byrd would not have gotten suspended and the Indians would be tickled by his performance. They would be insisting that Brantley (who would be hitting like Yan Gomes is) was coming around, Maybe Terry Pluto would be talking about how Cleveland needed something better than Almonte and Davis in center, but that would be it.
On the staff, Cody Anderson flamed out so quickly and spectacularly (8 starts, 1-4, 7.48 ERA, 14.8 walks & hits per 9 inning), that the Indians didn’t have time to suggest that maybe Trevor Bauer ought to go down to Columbus to work on veteran savvy. 
After only 6 relief appearances– the last two when a starter was knocked out before the third inning ended– Bauser was back in the rotation on April 24. As was true in 2007 (with the Player Formerly Known As Fausto Carmona), he pitched well enough that he has never left.

That’s the main reason the Indians are where they are. The other reason is something that also happens only in years when the Indians win.
2. Players have been performing vastly better than one might have expected then to do, given their situation.
In most seasons, the Indians manage to do such a number on their prospects– bringing them to the majors for a brief period, letting them play only a few games, usually going days between appearances, then demoting them– that they wipe out any positive mental state.
I know teams who believe that it takes a player at least a month– sometimes as many as three– to recover from a demotion. Some get depressed and go into the tank; others become angry and difficult. Very few simply accept the demotion and begin thrashing AAA opponents. 
I have learned to factor that into my projections. Jose Ramirez had several factors working in his favor:
  • His age (23),
  • His performance in AAA (.298 hitter with a .785 OPS, in 472 plate appearances at the ages of 21 and 22)
  • His ability to hold his own in the majors at a very young age (many veteran middle infielders hit .239 with a .655 OPS: Ramirez did that in 635 PAs at ages 20-22) 

All of those– but especially his age– would suggest that the Indians had a star who would blossom.

But working against him was being under contract for the Indians, who insist on using a converted outfielder with a history of injuries and a glove best described as OK. Ramirez would need to play some other position– and play well from game one– to have any chance to play.
The odds of that seemed low, so I assumed, in my projection, that he would do about the same as last year.Not only has he got to play, he has played extraordinarily well. Not well enough to play left field, but well enough to be a very good player.
Same deal for Chisenhall, who has gotten even worse treatment. I’m shocked that he has played so well.
Bauer is arguably the best starting pitcher on the team. He’s neck and neck with Danny Salazar; if you exclude his stats in relief (15 hits and 8 walks in 16.1 innings), he’s better.
I do not think Naquin is nearly as good as he has been playing. Actually, I am positive. IN 2015, playing AA and AAA ball, he had 33 extra-base hits in 378 PAs (one every 11.4 trips). Of those 33, 25 were doubles, one was a triple and 7 were homers.
This season in the majors, he has 9 homers, 5 triples and 7 doubles in only 180 PAs. 21 XBHes in 180 PAs works out to one every 8.6 trips.
By comparison, Jim Thome got an XBH every 9.7 trips in his career.
Understandably, I did not expect Naquin to outslug the greatest power hitter in Indians history. I do not expect it to continue. But so far, he has done it, while playing a marginally competent center field.
Then there is Josh Tomlin, of whom I sniffed “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.” He is averaging 6.1 strikeouts, has allowed more hits than innings pitched, and has already given up 21 home runs.
He’s hit 100 innings, but I would be surprised if he gets to the 162 needed to qualify fot the ERA title, much less 200 innings (his career high is 165) or 30 starts (his high is 26).
But he has gone 9-2 and there were yammerheads yammering for him to make the All-Star team. 

So far, this has all worked pretty well. You could even make this team with a few simple moves:

  1. Put Ramirez at second base and let Kipnis go back to center, the position he played in college.
  2. Move Naquian (who plays a little like Jim Thome in center) to right field, where he might win a gold glove
  3. Transfer Chisenhall to third and (as Shakespeare used to say) exeunt Uribe.
  4. Let Davis play until Brantley returns.

Of course if the Indians wanted to do something exciting, they could bring up Clint Frazier, who is 21, hitting 282 with an .858 OPS and major league defense in center for Akron.

To make that switcheroo work offensively, Frazier would only need to hit as well as Uribe. Defensively… assuming Kipnis hasn’t lost too much of his outfield skills, you gain at every spot. (Ramirez tries, but those nubby little legs don’t cover a lot of ground.) That makes the fourth-best defensive team in baseball (.700 in DER) stronger, which makes the pitching look even better.

Then you only need to worry about what you do when The Cowboy’s arm rides off into the sunset.

The Indians won’t do this, of course, which means they have to hope everyone keeps playing as well as they have (or that Gomes hits or Brantley comes back at teh top of his game).

Failing that, they need to hope the three teams lumped behind them don’t get it in gear. That seems more likely to be rewarded.:

  • Detroit doesn’t look likely to do that; new GM Al Avila seems to like old ballplayers
  • Kansas City’s decision to put Danny Duffy in the bullpen and let Johnny Cueto go to San Francisco have both bombed. On Cueto they can’t get a do-over.
  • Chicago is having their customary trouble grasping that players under 30 are better bets than players over that age.

The Indians seem the most likely to make the playoffs, but not likely to win the three playoff serieses required to join the Cavs in the pantheon.


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