For the second straight season, the Cleveland Indians surpassed expectations and went over their win total. This time, they fell short of the playoffs and only won 85 games, but it was another fine season in Cleveland for Terry Francona’s team. The league’s worst defense, by a wide margin, was to blame for the fact that the Indians’ season ended in September instead of October, but some tremendous individual development has fans and media thinking big things for the team this season.
Admittedly, I’m a diehard Indians fan, but I think that helps readers of this analysis because I know this team better than the other 29 and have no problem removing my inherent biases. The Indians were one of my strongest opinions during last season’s win total series and they did not disappoint bettors that followed along. The under the radar label has to be taken off this season because Corey Kluber won the Cy Young, Michael Brantley was the league’s only .300 hitter with 20+ HR, 20+ SB, 200-hit player, and the Indians have gone above and beyond expectations over the last two seasons. Carlos Carrasco’s second half was dynamite and the Indians will rely heavily on him this season.
The Indians had back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2000-01. They finished five games behind the Detroit Tigers for the division crown, four games behind the Kansas City Royals for the first wild card spot, and three games behind Oakland for the second wild card spot. The Indians never led the division because they got off to a terrible 11-17 start through the month of April. The rest of the way, the Indians were 14 games over .500, which could be a sign of things to come in 2015.
It was a tale of two seasons for the Indians. The Indians were 39-43 through the end of June and had a -22 run differential and had allowed 4.3 runs per game. Over the final three months of the season, the Indians allowed 274 runs in 80 games. That’s an average of just 3.4 runs per game. Is it sustainable? Is this the season that the Indians take the next step?
After Atlantis Sportsbook posted an 81 and money flooded the market on over, BetOnline and Westgate Superbook learned the lesson in a hurry and opened the Indians at 84.5. The Indians are a hot team entering the season and they’re getting a lot of love in the media.
Key additions: Brandon Moss, Gavin Floyd
Key losses: Jason Giambi
To call Jason Giambi a “key loss” is a bit misleading, because he was nothing more than an extension of the coaching staff that occasionally stepped into the batter’s box. Brandon Moss is quite an addition for the Indians because he adds an element of power that they were lacking. Moss is coming off of offseason hip surgery, so there is some risk involved, but he has hit 76 home runs over the last three seasons. The list of players with more home runs from 2012-14 is 17 players long. None of those players played in the pitcher-friendly haven that is O.co Coliseum.
Gavin Floyd is the prototypical Indians signing. The Indians have been burned (so far) by big free agent contracts to Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher. Instead, the Indians look for cheap value on damaged or undervalued goods during the offseason. Remember when the Indians signed Scott Kazmir to a minor league deal? Floyd is of similar ilk, though he got $4M guaranteed. Floyd is coming off of two straight lost seasons with Tommy John surgery in 2013 and an olecranon injury to his pitching elbow in 2014. Floyd did pitch well in his nine starts with Atlanta, though the Braves had a good defense last season and a good park to pitch in. The idea behind signing Floyd is that depth is a good thing and the Indians have two pitchers, Danny Salazar and TJ House, with minor league options. Cost-conscious franchises like the Indians treat minor league options like gold and that’s part of the rationale behind Floyd here.
Other than that, it was a quiet offseason for the Indians because there wasn’t a whole lot of money allotted from ownership and the core group is locked in place for quite some time. Expect the Indians to go bargain bin shopping for a few more depth pieces with so many players still unsigned.
Why bet the over?
I promise you that this statement is made without bias. The Indians are a World Series contender. They’re going to fall into a perfect storm in the AL Central and there’s a lot of talent on this club. The Detroit Tigers have major health concerns with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, to go along with the loss of Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. That’s a lot of innings that the Tigers need to replace. The Kansas City Royals did not have a very good winter from a transaction standpoint and replacing James Shields’s 200 innings will not be easy. The Chicago White Sox are trending up, but still have a lot of problems and the Minnesota Twins are still a doormat until Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Alex Meyer make the job. The fact that the Indians face such long odds to win the AL pennant and the World Series is ridiculous because they could very well win this division.
Michael Brantley put up a special season in 2015. Regression is coming, but it may not be as severe as some people think. Brantley became the 26th player in MLB HISTORY to post a .325 average, with 20 HR, 20 SB, 90 runs, and 95 RBI. The regression is going to come in the home run category, but better health from Jason Kipnis and the addition of Brandon Moss should give the Indians the power they need from the left side. Brantley swung and missed 3.6 percent of the time last season. That’s right in line with his career mark and we’ve seen the importance of putting the ball in play in today’s strikeout-dominated landscape. Brantley has one of the sweetest, most consistent swings in the game and he’s a lock to produce again.
Indians fans are unbelievably naïve about Carlos Santana. Many fans think that Santana underperforms, which is mind-numbing. Santana batted .231 last season, leaving traditionalists to whine and complain about his performance. While they focused on the wrong things, Santana walked 113 times, which was more than anybody else in the league. He also hit 27 home runs. Santana was victimized by a .249 BABIP and an awful first half in which he batted .207 with a .238 BABIP. He hit .265 in the second half. Santana is a victim of the shift, because he’s a dead pull hitter from the left side, but he was the 30th most valuable hitter by wRC+. To top it off, once the third base experiment ended, he became a serviceable first baseman, which was huge in the absence of Nick Swisher. Perhaps the ill-informed have a negative perception of Santana because 35 percent of his plate appearances end without a ball in play, but he’s a very valuable player. Among 149 qualified hitters, Santana had the fifth-worst BABIP. Some modest normalization in that and Santana is looking at a chance at a .255/.380/.450 season and that’s really good.
There may not be a more underappreciated player in baseball than Yan Gomes. Gomes is a well above average offensive catcher and one of the best defensive players at the position. Gomes was worth 4.6 fWAR last season and he will be in just his third full season in the league at one of the toughest positions to play. He’s a bit of a free swinger, yet he has enough bat control to use the whole field. He’s a special player and his defensive value is something that oddsmakers and bettors fail to respect.
With a small-to-mid market teams that can’t be players in the free agent market, they have to hope for bounce back seasons from their key contributors. In Cleveland’s case, two of those key contributors spent the majority of the 2014 season dealing with injury. Jason Kipnis strained an oblique on April 30 and came back much too quickly. The result was a power-less season in which Kipnis posted a .240/.310/.330 slash line and was terrible defensively. Kipnis’s wOBA dropped by nearly 70 points and his power evaporated. He still stole 22 bags to provide some offensive value, but Kipnis will be better in 2015 as long as he can avoid injury.
Speaking of avoiding injuries, Nick Swisher was significantly hurt for the first time in his career last season. Swisher was so bad that he accumulated -1.6 fWAR over his 97 games. The 34-year-old will be off of surgeries on both knees, but he recently spoke with the media about just how bad the pain was, including “crawling to the bathroom in the middle of the night” and about how hard he worked this offseason. The charismatic Swisher may have been paying lip service, but there are some areas he should improve, even in his mid-30s. Swisher abandoned plate discipline in an attempt to do damage any chance he could to try and validate his contract. He struck out nearly 28 percent of the time and walked only nine percent of the time. Both of those rates should climb back to somewhere around his career averages of 12.9 percent and 21.8 percent. Even if the power is gone, he’ll be a tougher out and get on base more. He was also atrocious defensively and with Moss and Santana in the picture, Swisher will see more DH at bats.
Brandon Moss has some question marks off of hip surgery that decimated his production late in the season last year, but he still hit 25 dongs. The hip injury really did a number on Moss. In the first half, he slashed .268/.349/.530 and in the second half he slashed .173/.310/.274. What’s exciting about the second, if you can call it that, is that Moss became a more patient hitter and walked 14.8 percent of the time, a five percent increase from the first half. He also struck out nearly eight percent more, but he wasn’t driving the baseball and opted to be patient instead of swing away. He’s a major bounce back candidate and he’s only 31.
Do you know who Jose Ramirez is? You should. A lot of people will view him as nothing more than the placeholder for Francisco Lindor at shortstop. In 57 games in the second half once he became Cleveland’s everyday shortstop after Asdrubal Cabrera was traded, Ramirez was worth 2.2 fWAR. He was slightly above average offensively, but he was terrific defensively. Which is a great segue into the next set of players.
Corey Kluber has #rig. In every sense of the word. The reigning AL Cy Young winner was incredible from start to finish last season. He struck out 269 batters in 235.2 innings of work and Doug Thorburn of Baseball Prospectus has raved about his near-perfect mechanics, so he should stay in one piece. If he doesn’t, the Indians are probably in trouble. But, Kluber posted a 2.44 ERA, a 2.35 FIP, and a 2.57 ERA with the league’s worst defense behind him. His stuff is outright disgusting with a 94 mph sinker, a two-seamer that has stupid movement, a deadly cutter, a nasty curve ball, and elite command. I wouldn’t bet on him to win the Cy Young again, but he will unquestionably be a top-10 pitcher in the AL and probably top five, as long as he stays healthy.
The half full version of Carlos Carrasco will go here, while the half empty version will come later. Carrasco was exiled to the bullpen, where new Rays manager Kevin Cash and magic man Mickey Callaway were able to iron out mechanical problems with Carrasco. When Carrasco rejoined the rotation, he pitched exclusively from the stretch and his command was much better. Carrasco had major mechanical problems from the stretch before 2014 and often struggled with men on base. The only pitchers to accumulate a higher fWAR in the second half than Carrasco were Kluber, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, and Max Scherzer. That’s some decent company.
The starting rotation has long been a question for the Indians, but those days appear to be gone. Even though Gavin Floyd may slot into the #2 spot behind Kluber for reasons unbeknownst to everybody but Terry Francona, the rest of the rotation includes Trevor Bauer, and one of Danny Salazar or TJ House. Bauer worked deep into games and flashed great swing-and-miss potential while trying to iron out some mechanical flaws. Salazar has upper 90s gas with a nasty trap-door changeup. After shaking off some early triceps soreness, Salazar posted a 3.50 ERA, a 2.83 FIP, and a 3.25 xFIP in the second half. TJ House has a league average strikeout rate and a huge ground ball split that gives him huge potential at the back of the starting rotation. House just missed the cut-off among qualified pitchers, but one more start and the Indians would have had four of the top 45 qualified pitchers in fWAR in the second half.
Once the Indians sent John Axford packing, Cody Allen took over and thrived in the closer’s role with 24 saves. For the season, Allen posted a 2.07 ERA and a strikeout rate of 32.7 percent. The former 23rd round pick out of High Point University is one of the game’s top strikeout pitchers and relished the closer’s role. Bryan Shaw and Scott Atchison were the two right-handed bridges to Allen, but the Indians have another name of interest in that role.
Zach McAllister is out of options and he’s not going to make the starting rotation that already runs seven deep. McAllister is a big bodied righty with a good two-seamer, but he’s a guy that consistently ran into problems when he turned the lineup over. The breaking stuff isn’t quite there, but in short bursts, he could be a valuable reliever. CC Lee is a sleeper candidate that I really like with a mid-90s fastball and a sweepy slider that reminds me of a poor man’s Joe Smith, who was hell on righties during his Indians tenure.
The matchup lefties are in good hands with Kyle Crockett and Marc Rzepcynski. Another name to keep an eye on is Nick Hagadone. Hagadone throws upper 90s with a tall release point at 6’5”. He showed signs of coming into his own last season, but look for him to take a big step forward this season.
Team defense was the Indians downfall last season. They were -75 in defensive runs saved. The loose formula for defensive runs saved to wins is that 10 DRS is equal to one win. In theory, the Indians defense cost them 7.5 wins. That would have been a 92-70 or 93-69 season and the Indians would have won the Central Division going away. It’s not foolproof by any means, but the defense should be a lot better with Ramirez in there every day, Swisher as the DH, Santana at 1B, and Moss represents a huge upgrade over David Murphy (-16 DRS last season) if he can patrol right field given the hip injury.
Why bet the under?
The glass half empty approach to Carlos Carrasco has to lead off this part of the analysis. Carrasco was outstanding in a 10-start span in which everything worked for him. He spotted pitches where he wanted to and the velocity he gained in the bullpen stayed. Carrasco’s problem has never been with his raw stuff. It has been with refinement and repeating his mechanics. But, he’s also had maturity problems. Pitching in high-leverage situations out of the bullpen did wonders for him, but he never really struggled once he was pitching every five days. How will Carrasco fare when the chips are down? Can he navigate through five or six innings without imploding? Can he make it work without his best stuff.
Statistically, the breakout was legit. But, the space between Carrasco’s ears cannot be quantified. That’s worrisome for the Indians and over backers. If Carrasco falters in a big way, the Indians rotation goes from possibly the best in the AL to possibly fifth or sixth, which is a precipitous drop.
Actions speak louder than words and that’s the case for Nick Swisher. Swisher talks a big game, as everybody knows, but he needs to prove it on the field. I have little doubt that Swisher was severely hurt last season and his complete lack of range as first and all-arms swing was all the proof that was needed. But, Swisher is also in his mid-30s and played at least 130 games in every season from 2005-13. There’s just not a lot of mileage left on him. With his contract, he’ll have to play and his days of productivity could be in the past.
Michael Bourn is another player that falls into that category. Bourn was brought in because the Indians hoped to find the over-the-top push they needed from his defensive and baserunning value. Bourn is not a prototypical leadoff hitter this decade. He doesn’t walk and he’s no longer a high average player. Bourn stole 10 bases last season, which was a good month for him a few years ago. His defensive value has also suffered. On the wrong side of 30, chronic hamstring problems have derailed the last two seasons. Bourn has been working with a track coach this offseason, but it’s hard to buy into a 32-year-old outfielder that made his living with his legs and those legs have failed him.
Who is Lonnie Chisenhall? He’s a subpar defender with a good hit tool that shows up periodically. Chisenhall has a great line drive swing from the left side, but he can’t hit lefties and struggles with pitches on the inner half of the plate. Last season, Chisenhall’s production was aided by an absurd BABIP in the first half. Through his first 189 plate appearances, Chisenhall had a .429 BABIP. Over his final 344 PA, he had a .269 BABIP and his power production dropped off in a big way. He can deepen and lengthen the lineup if he hits. If he doesn’t, he’s not a positive player because of his bad defense. He was -14 DRS last season. Even though there’s not a high correlation in DRS from year-to-year, the eyes also tell you that Chisenhall is bad at the hot corner.
Normally this area is reserved for the possibility of injuries, which every team has, but there’s a different way to approach it with the Indians. Corey Kluber threw over 235 innings last season. Good mechanics or not, that’s a huge workload and a hangover is possible. Bryan Shaw was a main cog of a bullpen that set an American League record with 573 appearances. Over the last two seasons, Shaw has pitched in 150 out of 324 games and has pitched over 150 innings. That’s an enormous amount of work for a reliever that previously had 97 appearances over two seasons with the Diamondbacks.
The same can be said about Cody Allen, who worked in 76 games, and ageless wonder Scott Atchison, who made 70 appearances. We often see this type of next season regression from teams that make deep playoff runs, but some Indians pitchers really racked up some huge totals this past season and that has to be a concern for 2015.
Jason Kipnis was -11 DRS last season while having his worst offensive year. Was the oblique to blame or is there something more there? Second base is not generally viewed as an offensive position, but Kipnis has to hit in order to overshadow what he costs the team defensively.
Finally, how will the team perform with high expectations? Oddsmakers aren’t all that high on the Indians, but the media is and the players themselves know what’s at stake this season. After winning 92 games and losing the wild card play-in game, the Indians started 2014 with an 11-17 record. They caught up to go over their win total, but they couldn’t get back to the playoffs. Will they be able to avoid that same fate early this season?
Pick: Over 84.5
This is hardly a surprise, but, again, I swear to you that there is no bias in this pick. This is a really good team with the potential to be great if everything that went right last season is sustainable and everything that went wrong is fixable. If Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar are for real, this is a top-three starting rotation in baseball. Keep in mind that the team really took off from a run prevention standpoint once Jose Ramirez was inserted at shortstop and that’s not a coincidence with a ground ball slanted staff outside of Trevor Bauer.
Even if Nick Swisher gives the team a big bowl of nothing, there’s some good depth in the organization with players like Zach Walters and James Ramsey. Francisco Lindor will arrive on the scene at some point and that could push Jose Ramirez to second base in place of Jason Kipnis if necessary. Brandon Moss adds a power dynamic that the Indians were lacking and he draws walks as well. Moss goes from Oakland, a bad park for lefties, to Cleveland, which is above league average.
The bullpen is in good shape. The rotation has elite potential. The lineup is good. The defense should be improved. The Indians aren’t getting enough respect. This may be the last season to grab value on their win total, but take it with a smile here because this is a team that should win at least 85 like last season and has the potential for a whole lot more.
I loved this number at 81 and I couldn’t have played it fast enough at Atlantis when it opened. At 84.5, there’s definitely some risk involved, but the Indians have an exceptional amount of depth. That’s the most important thing about these six-month investments. Injuries will happen. The teams that can withstand them are the teams to bet on and the Indians can withstand them.
-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-
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.