For the Cleveland Indians, their magical turnaround in 2013 wound up being bittersweet. After losing 447 games from 2008-12, the team returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. In true Cleveland fashion, it was a bitter disappointment as the Indians were shut out by the Tampa Bay Rays in the play-in wild card game and their season ended abruptly in front of a raucous home crowd that had little to cheer for as the Indians failed to score a run.
You have to go all the way back to 2000-01 for the last time the Indians had consecutive seasons above .500. For a fan base that was spoiled by five straight American League Central Division titles from 1995-99 and a sixth in seven years in 2001, the new millennium has been rough on Indians fans. Hope and optimism surround the ballclub entering the 2014 season, as the Indians improved in almost every way possible under the leadership of Manager Terry Francona.
The Indians took advantage of a soft September schedule to win their final 10 games in a row. It was a continuation of what the team had done all season long, as the Indians went 56-18 against teams under .500 and just 36-52 against the league’s better teams. Because of that late season push, the Indians finished just one game behind the Detroit Tigers in the Central Division. That number is a little misleading, as the Tigers had locked up the Central Division title on September 25 and coasted to the end of the season.
Sportsbooks are significantly less optimistic about the Indians than a lot of fans and media, as LVH Superbook opened the Tribe’s win total at 80. Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno, NV hung an 82.5, while William Hill posted an 83. Offshore, BetOnline opened the Indians at 80.5. The Indians have entered seasons with expectations before and have fallen flat on their faces. Sportsbooks don’t even project the Indians to be in contention in 2014.
Key additions: David Murphy, John Axford, Shaun Marcum, Josh Outman
Key losses: Ubaldo Jimenez, Scott Kazmir, Matt Albers, Joe Smith, Chris Perez
Cleveland Indians General Manager Chris Antonetti had a great offseason prior to the start of the 2013 season. He took advantage of the sale of SportsTime Ohio, the cable network owned by Cleveland Indians owners Paul and Larry Dolan, to Fox Sports, which gave the team a lucrative television rights deal and additional capital from the sale of the network. That money, along with the hire of Terry Francona, led to Mark Reynolds, Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, and Brett Myers joining the team. The trade of Shin-Soo Choo netted top pitching prospect Trevor Bauer and relievers Bryan Shaw and Matt Albers from the Arizona Diamondbacks, as well as Drew Stubbs from the Cincinnati Reds.
Not every move worked out. Bourn and Swisher both had down seasons, Myers started three games and then spent the rest of the season on the disabled list, Reynolds carried the offense for the month of April and was designated for assignment later in the season, and Bauer was not impressive at any level. Shaw became one of the team’s primary setup men and Albers added depth to a bullpen that wound up needing it desperately.
Where Antonetti did succeed was in changing the culture of baseball in Cleveland. Those moves and the money it took signified the beginning of a window of competitiveness for the Indians. While not as headline-grabbing, Antonetti’s current offseason has continued that trend. The addition of David Murphy to replace Drew Stubbs gives the Indians a favorable platoon situation in right field. Between 2013 trade deadline acquisition Marc Rzepczynski and recently-acquired lefty Josh Outman, the Indians filled a huge need in their bullpen. John Axford replaces malcontent closer Chris Perez at a very reasonable cost.
The perception of the Indians is down because of the losses of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir. The Indians never really attempted to keep either guy, but they’ll have to replace 340.2 innings and 5.7 fWAR from their starting rotation. Joe Smith was a very steady reliever for the Indians over the last several seasons and he took a very lucrative free agent contract with the Angels. Chris Perez, who drew the ire of Indians fans on numerous occasions, was a rather reliable closer, but came with a lot of baggage.
Antonetti has not generated the same buzz with this offseason that he did during the last and the perception of the Indians is clearly built into their win total.
Why bet the over?
The Indians offense ranked in the top six in wOBA, wRC+, and runs scored last season. They did this despite a down year from Michael Bourn, a down year from injured Nick Swisher, a terrible year from shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, and below average production from third base.
Taking a look at Michael Bourn’s season, you can see that he was not everything that the Indians expected him to be. Bourn’s on-base percentage was 19 points below his career average and his 23 stolen bases were the fewest since 2007, when he played only 105 games. Bourn missed time from April 14 to May 10 due to a lacerated finger and that forced him into essentially going through Spring Training all over again because he had not gotten into a groove with his new team in a new league.
Nick Swisher was, arguably, the biggest disappointment for the Indians. Plagued by a shoulder injury, Swisher struggled mightily against right-handed pitching. His .220/.310/.370 slash line was well below his career averages of .247/.339/.467. The massive power drop kept Swisher from performing at the same level he had in each of the previous four seasons. He made up for it by hammering left-handed pitching, but since nearly 65 percent of his plate appearances came from the left side, the Indians got less than they had hoped for.
Asdrubal Cabrera was all sorts of bad in 2013. The big differences for Cabrera were a major spike in strikeouts and a drop in walks. Cabrera’s strikeout rate in 2012 was 16.1 percent, better than average. His walk rate was 8.4 percent, slightly above average. In 2013, Cabrera struck out in over 20 percent of his plate appearances and his walk rate bordered on being poor.
Those are three major contributors that failed to perform up to their capabilities for long stretches of the season and yet the Indians still had one of the game’s top offenses. Any return to normal for those three guys will make a good Indians offense even better. With Bourn in his second year, Swisher’s shoulder healthy, and Cabrera in a contract year looking to rebuild lost value, the Indians offense may be in the top five this season.
One of the things that the Indians did a terrific job of in 2013 was addressing their previous failures against left-handed pitchers. The Indians were 18-35 against left-handed starters in 2012. With the use of switch hitters and platoon advantages, the Indians went 36-20 against southpaw starters in 2013. That was four more wins than anybody else in the American League had against lefties. This is where David Murphy comes in. The Indians had a platoon advantage in 71 percent of their plate appearances last season. A platoon advantage is when a team has an opposite-handed hitter against a pitcher, so a righty against a lefty and vice versa. Outside of third base, the glaring weakness for the Indians was their performance against right-handed pitching, in large part because of guys like Drew Stubbs and Mark Reynolds. With Murphy, the Indians have another left-handed bat to complement Ryan Raburn.
Yan Gomes was special in his first season with the Indians and he is a monumental upgrade over Carlos Santana behind the plate. Santana volunteered to work at third base in the offseason, potentially adding more versatility to a team full of it. Being able to have both Gomes and Santana in the lineup, strengthens this offense immensely. There will be no easy out one through nine in the batting order.
Jason Kipnis has become one of the best second basemen in the game. A big reason why is because of his approach against left-handed pitchers. In 2012, Kipnis was awful against southpaws with a .581 OPS. In 2013, Kipnis actually had a better OPS (.850) against lefties than he did against righties (.801). Between Kipnis and contact hitter Michael Brantley, who had the fifth-lowest swing-and-miss rate among qualified hitters last season, the Indians offense has the potential to cover up a lot of the team’s weaknesses.
That weakness, and glaring concern, is the same as it was entering last season – the starting rotation. The Indians were fortunate last season that Ubaldo Jimenez turned things around and that Scott Kazmir not only stayed healthy, but was very effective for most of the season. Justin Masterson did a complete 180 from his 2012 season to lead the Indians in fWAR among pitchers with 3.4 and post a very solid 3.45 ERA and 3.35 FIP.
Filling the holes of Jimenez and Kazmir will be Corey Kluber and Danny Salazar. Kluber has been of interest for sabermetricians for quite some time now. He’s a guy who strikes out an above average number of hitters coupled with the ability to induce a lot of ground balls with a heavy two-seam fastball. Kluber got a bit unlucky with last season’s 3.85 ERA, as his FIP of 3.30 and his xFIP of 3.10 signal improvement. Here’s something to consider. Among American League pitchers who threw 140 or more innings last season, who were the top six in xFIP? In order, they were Felix Hernandez, Yu Darvish, Anibal Sanchez, Chris Sale, Alex Cobb, and Corey Kluber. AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer was seventh. Even if you don’t know what xFIP means or how it’s calculated, you know those names that Kluber is in the company of.
The wild card in the Tribe’s rotation is Danny Salazar. Salazar has an electric fastball, posting the highest average fastball velocity of any starting pitcher with 50 or more innings pitched last season. Hitters swung and missed 14.6 percent of the time against Salazar. The Indians used extreme caution with Salazar last season, limiting him to around 75 pitches per start in most of his outings. The reins are off this year and Salazar will be one of the league’s most captivating starters.
What the books aren’t realizing about the departures of Jimenez and Kazmir is that they accumulated most of their value late in the season against some of the league’s worst offenses. Through 24 starts, Jimenez had a 4.00 ERA and a 4.33 FIP, which places him below league average. Kazmir entered September with a 4.36 ERA. There’s no denying that both guys were instrumental in the playoff push, but the Indians entered September at 71-64, which put them on pace to win 85 games anyway.
Behind Salazar is a mish mash of candidates for the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation. Contenders include Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, Trevor Bauer, Shaun Marcum, Aaron Harang, and Zach McAllister. As has been said in these analyses before, most back-end of the rotation starters are league average or below. The Indians project to have three above average starters in Masterson, Kluber, and Salazar, so league average or slightly below is more than enough from these guys. If nothing else, the Indians have a lot of starting pitching depth in case of injury, so they should run eight or nine deep with starters.
If the offense is the strongest part of the team, the bullpen shouldn’t be far behind. Rather than drive up Cody Allen or Bryan Shaw’s price tag in arbitration, the Indians signed proven closer John Axford. Axford lost his job with the Brewers and was eventually traded to the Cardinals, who informed Axford that he was tipping his pitches. In a small sample size of 10.1 regular season innings with the Cardinals, Axford’s strikeout rate and ground ball rate improved, while his walk rate went down. The Indians are hoping that Axford is a viable one-year solution to their closer conundrum and his track record and the returns from his mechanical adjustments signal that it is likely.
Cody Allen had a meteoric rise through the Indians farm system in 2012, beginning the season in Single-A and finishing the season in the Major Leagues. Allen, with one of the most game’s most unhittable combinations of a 95 mph fastball and an 85 mph curve ball that generated a high number of swinging strikes, will be called upon to pitch in high-leverage spots in front of Axford. Allen was extremely consistent and posted a 2.16 ERA in August and September as the Indians relied heavily on him. He’ll be joined by Bryan Shaw, who drastically improved his splits against left-handed batters to become one of the team’s primary high-leverage guys.
Marc Rzepczynski and Josh Outman give the Indians two reliable matchup lefties for the first time in a long time. Behind them is former top setup man Vinnie Pestano, who was injured during last season’s World Baseball Classic and never got on track. Pestano’s 2.4 fWAR from 2011-12 tied him for 18th among all relief pitchers and fifth among relievers with single-digit saves in that span. Providing other depth are guys like Blake Wood, David Aardsma, Nick Hagadone, and Frank Herrmann.
For a team that won 92 games last season with a spectacular 30-17 record in one-run games, it’s hard to say that they could be better. But an in-depth look at what transpired last season with the offense and an understanding that Jimenez and Kazmir were average or worse for five of the six months of the regular season means that the oddsmakers set this number too low.
Why bet the under?
Maybe Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher are just on their downsides of their careers. The aging process speeds up for players in their 30s, especially guys like Bourn, who are reliant on their legs to help provide the bulk of their value. Even though Bourn had some numbers that were below his career averages, Bourn has been a below average offensive performer throughout his career with a 92 wRC+. Last season, his wRC+ was 91, so it wasn’t some huge drop-off in production.
Terry Francona pushed all of the right buttons last season, milking what could be the last bits of production out of Jason Giambi. Ryan Raburn exceeded any possible projection that could have been made for him. Francona was able to weave his way to victories despite a bullpen that was atrocious in the first half while dealing with injuries and managed to keep everybody happy in the clubhouse.
Yan Gomes opened a lot of eyes last season, but it seems unlikely that he can sustain that type of production. Gomes did not walk, drawing just 18 free passes in 322 plate appearances. For a guy with minimal speed, Gomes posted a .342 BABIP, a number that is unquestionably going to come down. His line drive rate was around league average, so his ground balls just happened to find holes and that’s not something you can count on from year to year.
The collection of back-end of the rotation starters for the Indians could all wind up being unmitigated disasters. Carlos Carrasco has never been able to consistently get outs at the Major League level as a starter. Josh Tomlin made two appearances in his return from Tommy John surgery last season and was nothing special when he was healthy. Trevor Bauer is still trying to outsmart the game in his attempt to be the groundbreaking trailblazer his mind envisions. Shaun Marcum has a very scary medical history. Aaron Harang has been the benefactor of some great pitcher’s parks over the last few seasons and it stands to reason that being back in the AL in a neutral park won’t benefit him.
If John Axford isn’t fixed, the Indians will have to weaken the overall depth of their bullpen by shifting pieces around. There will be a hesitance to use Cody Allen in that role, which will keep him in a setup capacity, which maximizes his value, but Bryan Shaw is probably not closer material. Closers tend to lose their jobs from command issues and wind up being poor middle relief options. A lot of the bullpen’s success depends on Axford.
Pick: Over 80
There’s no way that this ballclub is 12 wins worse than last season’s team. The Jimenez and Kazmir losses are way overblown solely because of how they performed down the stretch. A lot will be made of how the Indians couldn’t beat good teams, but they went 25-8 against the AL West, including 10-3 against Oakland and Texas. They were just 4-15 against the Tigers, making them only five games below .500 against the other .500 or better teams.
With an offense that was very good, bordering on great, expecting to get bounce back performances from key contributors, it’s not a long shot to say that the Indians could have a top three offense in the American League. The rotation will be serviceable and the bullpen should win games when they have a late lead to protect. The oddsmakers have overrated the White Sox, as I explained on Saturday, and the Twins are still a year or two away from being a serious contender. Most people think that the Tigers are a weaker team this season and if that’s the case, the Indians should be more competitive in the season series.
This is a very good Indians team that should comfortably go over this total.
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.