I’ve run the full gamut of emotions about the Indians this offseason. I’m cautiously excited and optimistic about the outfield and the bullpen, which are two points of contention for most baseball bettors this season. The bullpen would be crippled by the three-batter minimum that comes into play in 2020, but Terry Francona can keep matching up this season and hide his platoon-heavy pen from exposure.
The outfield is athletic. It is toolsy. It is going to be a lot better defensively than it has been for the last decade. That will aid an already elite starting staff that will lead the league in K% this season. The Indians aren’t going to allow a lot of runners to score.
What makes the Indians hard on a game-by-game basis is that they’ll be heavily favored more often than not because of the starting staff and Shane Bieber is getting a ton of buzz, so there won’t be any Josh Tomlins or Adam Plutkos running out there regularly. On the other hand, the offense may struggle at times. Cleveland will get on base a lot via the walk, but we’ll have to see if those runners get driven in.
I don’t envision many Cleveland bets this season. They went 91-71 last year and underachieved. The Twins are better. The rest of the division is equal or worse. The strength of the rotation will price Cleveland out more often than not. I think totals will be easier to play than money lines.
Money Line Spots
The only competitive lines for the Indians will come when they play good teams. That was a problem for them last season. Cleveland was 68-40 against teams with losing records and just 23-31 against teams .500 or better. They’ll play 117 of their 162 games against teams that had losing records last season.
I do think that there will be some fade spots for the Indians. I think Corey Kluber will be overpriced. I think Shane Bieber will get overpriced. Bieber was the only one of the Indians starters to have problems the second and third time through the batting order. Opposing hitters posted a .326 wOBA the second time through and a .384 wOBA the third time through. I’d expect this to improve, but deep lineups will give him trouble.
I’ll talk more about Kluber in a bit. As far as spots to back the Indians at reasonable prices, it will be hard. The Indians were 82-52-28 from a first five standpoint last season. That is a .612 win percentage in the first five. A 61.2 percent win probability equates to a -157.73 line. The Indians will be much bigger than that on a regular basis, but should be better with Bieber instead of last year’s fifth starters.
Again, though, I just don’t see many spots to back them unless they step up in class. That didn’t go well last year.
This is where we can find some value on the Tribe. The starting staff is great. The bullpen has enough talent, I think. The lineup is a concern. When the Indians face pitch-to-contact guys, I’m curious to see how they fare. They have a lot of unproven hitters in the bottom half of the order with good career walk rates, but not much to show for their efforts in terms of batting average and contact quality.
I expect this to be an under team in a lot of ways. The Indians were 76-75-11 on totals last year, even with the horrible, terrible, no good pitching staffs in the division. The biggest difference to me is that the Indians will be better all over in the field. Even Carlos Santana is an upgrade at first base. The outfield will be light years better. Factor in the low number of balls in play against this pitching staff and opposing teams aren’t going to have many scoring chances. As it is, only the Astros, Dodgers, Angels, and Rays had fewer plate appearances against with runners in scoring position. The Indians actually allowed a .421 SLG in that split, which ranked 19th. I’d also expect that to improve.
Individual Players to Watch
Corey Kluber – My Corey Kluber takes may be a tad incendiary. They may also be dead wrong. I know he still posted elite numbers last season, but I’m skeptical. Kluber allowed his highest HR/9 since 2012. His K% fell back to 2016 levels. His swinging strike rate was his lowest since 2014 and his zone-contact rate was his highest since 2014. His chase rate wasn’t as high. I wonder if the stuff is in decline a little bit.
Furthermore, Kluber has seen a velocity drop each of the last four seasons. He lowered his curveball usage last season. I’m curious to see how he deploys his arsenal this year. I think we could see some regression from Kluber if he keeps throwing the sinker at the same rate. He could be overpriced in the betting markets as a result, particularly against good offenses willing to go to the opposite field.
Shane Bieber – I can’t help but mention Bieber again. The Bieber steam is going to be insane. He’s getting a ton of buzz in Spring Training and his refined changeup looks great. He comes into this season after posting a 4.55 ERA with a 3.23 FIP and a 3.30 xFIP in his first 114.2 innings. He posted a .356 BABIP against and a 69.4 percent LOB%. There are a ton of signs of positive regression in the profile and he checks literally every single box in terms of line movement in his favor.
By no means am I actively going to fade Bieber. I’m just saying that if you want to back him, hit openers immediately. If you want to play some arbitrage or get out, wait until the line completely craters closer to game time.