Last Updated: 2018-03-24
The Cleveland Indians set the all-time record for consecutive wins with 22 during the 2017 season. They won 102 games. They finished with the best record in the American League. They had the best pitching staff in history per Fangraphs. They also blew a 2-0 lead to the New York Yankees in the ALDS and extended their World Series drought to a not-so-nice 69 years.
For those that don’t know, I am, unapologetically, an Indians fan. As I’ve talked about before, my desire to learn and understand sabermetrics came from wanting to know how the Indians made decisions. I wanted to know what they used to evaluate players. It has served me well and it has served the team well. You can @me on Twitter if you want (that’s @SkatingTripods, by the way), but I’ll take the Indians of 2013-17 over the Indians of 1995-99.
One day, that will resonate more with me than it does right now. The Tournament of Variance known as the MLB playoffs winds up defining a team’s season. It is one of my greatest dilemmas because a 19-game sprint to a World Championship doesn’t always go to the best team. That flag will fly forever when the Indians get one. But, what happens over 162 games is often more impressive. The team that gets hot for four weeks wins the World Series. The team that wins 102 games was (generally) hot for most of the six months of the regular season. A 22-game win streak is special, in that nobody had ever done it before. There have been 112 World Series champions as the World Series, which started in 1903, was skipped in 1904 and 1994 because of strikes. There has been one team that has won 22 straight games. And, yet, the bigger takeaway for me from the 2017 season is that the Indians blew a 2-0 lead in the ALDS and went home before they should have.
As we head into 2018, the Indians have basically already won the Central Division. Sorry to Twins, Tigers, Royals, and White Sox fans, but those are the facts. Barring the worst run of injuries imaginable, the Indians are punching their postseason tickets sometime in the month of September. They finished 17 games clear of the Twins last season. By Pythagorean Win-Loss, the Indians were more like a 108-54 team and by BaseRuns, they were more like a 107-55 team. Those two marks were easily the best in baseball.
Expectations are certainly high and they should be. Nearly 47 percent of the schedule will be played within the division, where the Indians were 50-26. The Indians were 44-13 over the final 57 games of the season and 55-20 after the All-Star Break. They had a .654 winning percentage on the road. The division hasn’t gotten any better.
The division is a formality, but the season win total is not. This is a high number with a slim margin for error. After all, the Indians were 47-40 at the All-Star Break last year. A .540 win percentage in the second half would have been 87-88 wins. The schedule was backloaded with AL Central doormats, so .540 was a low expectation, but still. This was a team that used a 22-game win streak to put distance in the AL Central and to pole vault to the top of the AL. Those don’t come around every day.
While I am an Indians fan, I’m always fair and balanced in these write-ups and you’ll get nothing less from me this season.
Season Win Total Odds:
5Dimes: 94.5 (-120/100)
BetOnline: 94.5 (-110/-110)
Bovada: 94.5 (-125/-105)
Additions: Yonder Alonso, Melvin Upton Jr., Carlos Torres, Matt Belisle, Brandon Barnes, Rob Refsnyder, Stephen Fife, Adam Wilk, Ben Taylor, Evan Marshall, Jeff Beliveau, Neil Ramirez, Preston Claiborne, Alexi Ogando
Losses: Carlos Santana (sigh), Jay Bruce, Austin Jackson, Boone Logan, Bryan Shaw, Joe Smith, Tim Cooney, Carlos Frias, Craig Breslow, Kyle Crockett, Shawn Armstrong
The optics of this offseason for the Indians have not been good. At all. They picked up Michael Brantley’s $12 million option in a market that has been tremendous for teams that operate on lower budgets, much like the Indians. The dead horse has been beaten ad nauseum on Indians Twitter because the Indians do have weaknesses in the bullpen and opted to gamble on a player with a bum shoulder, a bad ankle, and just 101 games and 418 plate appearances over the last two seasons at a price that appears to be well above market value.
While Houston and New York have gotten noticeably stronger, the Indians have not. The loss of Carlos Santana has been mitigated a bit by the addition of Yonder Alonso. The losses of Bryan Shaw and Joe Smith were addressed once Spring Training already started with the signings of Carlos Torres and Matt Belisle. As you know, I’m focusing heavily on bullpen strength and the Indians appear thin in middle relief at this point. The losses of Jay Bruce and Austin Jackson have allowed the holes in the SS Outfield to get even bigger, while the front office hopes that Melvin Upton Jr. can play the Rajai Davis/Austin Jackson role this season.
It isn’t the type of offseason that you want to see from a World Series contender that was one-and-done in the playoffs. To be fair, the Indians had no way of knowing how the market would crater this winter and had to make a snap call on Brantley’s option just days after the World Series. That still doesn’t excuse the team’s inability to strengthen the bullpen with relievers going for some really affordable deals. Speculation seems to be that the Indians are tapped out financially, but then they’ve been in until the end on Lorenzo Cain and continue to sniff around on Manny Machado, so who knows.
Why bet the over?
The Indians have four of the top-15 pitchers in the American League. Corey Kluber is the reigning Cy Young Award winner. Andrew Miller is a human cheat code. Cody Allen is an elite reliever. Carlos Carrasco is the best pitcher in baseball that nobody talks about. As a team last season, the Indians pitching staff posted a 3.30 ERA, a 3.33 FIP, and a 3.41 xFIP. The team’s 31.7 fWAR was the best ever tracked by Fangraphs. It was 7.3 fWAR above the next closest team in 2017, which was the Yankees. Indians pitchers struck out 27.5 percent of batters faced, which easily led the league, AND walked the lowest percentage of batters, which is absolutely incredible. Think about hitters that strike out a lot. Most of them have decent walk rates because they work deep counts and see a lot of pitches. It’s hard to strike MLB hitters out on three or four pitches and walks generally become part of the equation. Not with the Indians. They were simply dominant. This is what I mean about living in the moment. I know how good this pitching staff has been, but I probably don’t appreciate it to the degree that I should. This pitching staff is precisely the reason why I said I’d take 2013-17 teams over 1995-99 teams.
Corey Kluber is really good and somehow getting better. Kluber posted a 2.25 ERA with a 2.50 FIP and a 2.52 xFIP. He had a career-high K% of 34.1 percent and a career-best walk rate of 4.6 percent. His K-BB% of 29.5 percent was second to Chris Sale among qualified pitchers and Sale became the first AL pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 1999 to strike out 300 batters. Kluber’s mastery of the strike zone also allowed him to induce the weakest contact of his career per Baseball Info Solutions’ Soft%, Med%, and Hard% data. Unfortunately the formula is proprietary, but the Statcast data at Baseball Savant backs that up, as Kluber had an 85.3 mph average exit velocity this season compared with 86 mph in 2016 and 86.8 mph in 2015. He scaled back the usage on his sinker, which is an average to below average pitch for him, and increased the usage of his curveball, which was a trend that we saw in the 2016 playoffs. As an aside, his slider was reclassified as a cutter by PITCHf/x last year. There were a few classified as sliders based on the horizontal and vertical movement, so the total percentage of cutters/sliders and curves was north of 50 percent for the first time in his career. By lowering the usage of his worst pitch, Kluber took that next step. Over the last four seasons, Kluber’s curveball is 94.4 runs above average per PITCHf/x Pitch Values. Per the Pitch Values, Kluber’s curveball was the best by more than double in baseball last year. Aaron Nola was the closest at 18.3 runs above average. On a standardized Pitch Values per 100 pitches (wCU/C) grading scale, only Carlos Martinez came close. Kluber also had the third-best cutter per 100 pitches as well.
When you look at Kluber and see a .267 BABIP relative to his career .300 BABIP, you probably assume that some regression is coming. Same thing with his 34.1 percent K% and 27.4 percent career mark. That’s certainly a possibility, especially with the huge K% spike, but he has changed his arsenal dramatically. He’s limited the usage of his worst pitch and has thrown his best pitch more often. That adds to the sustainability of these developments. Kluber is going to be an elite-level talent no matter what, but last season’s spikes and improvements look more sustainable than I expected. His swinging strike rate jumped three percent last season from 12.6 percent to 15.6 percent. That’s how you spike in K%. His Z-Contact% fell to 84.8 percent. His Chase Rate (O-Swing%) jumped to 38.3 percent. All of these things are part and parcel with the arsenal changes. Don’t be surprised if Kluber racks up a third Cy Young.
Lost in Kluber’s Cy Young season, the 22-game winning streak, and everything else was the fact that Carlos Carrasco also had a career year. The soon-to-be 31-year-old right-hander had a 5.5-fWAR season and worked 200 innings for the first time in his career. Carrasco didn’t set a K% career mark and had some BABIP misfortune, but he continued to post a BB% under six percent and also relied a little bit more on the breaking stuff. He had three pitches that graded out well above average, with a changeup that was 20.5 runs above average, a curveball that was 7.4 runs above average, and a slider that was 11.6 runs above average. Had Carrasco simply posted an average fastball, he would have really stood out. That fastball command is the only thing separating Carrasco from being in the elite category, but he’s pretty damn close anyway. Carrasco had a 3.29 ERA with a 3.10 FIP and a 3.24 xFIP. He allowed 21 HR in 146.1 innings in 2016 and 21 HR in 200 innings in 2017. Carrasco finally avoided the freak injuries like popping a hamstring running to first or comebackers off his head and hand. The weirdest thing for me is that Carrasco actually threw his changeup at a lower frequency last season and it may be his best pitch. I’m very excited about what 2018 could bring for him as long as he can stay healthy.
Andrew Miller’s contract year is here, so the most talented reliever in Indians history will be moving on. Cleveland has certainly gotten its value out of Miller, who has been worth 3.4 fWAR in just 83 games. Miller worked through some injuries last season, namely a bum knee that altered his mechanics a bit and caused a big spike in his walk rate. He also had his lowest K% since 2013, which is laughable because he still struck out 38.9 percent of opposing hitters. Miller’s injury was a root cause of some issues, but his 2016 BB% was actually the outlier, so what we saw from Miller last season may be more of what we can expect, but I still think the K% climbs. Either way, he’s an elite reliever.
Cody Allen’s swan song with the Indians will also likely come this season. He’ll be a free agent after the year and he has been one of the game’s most reliable relievers. Allen’s consistency is remarkable. From 2013-17, he has worked an average of 72 appearances per year with an ERA range of 2.07 to 2.99, a FIP range of 1.82 to 3.31, and an xFIP range of 2.83 to 3.46. His K% has fallen between 29.2 percent and 34.6 percent. His BB% has ranged between 7.5 percent and 10.2 percent. Last season was that low point at 7.5 percent, so Allen can be counted on for another strong season with that fastball/knuckle curve mix.
One of the biggest keys to the 2017 season was the breakout of Trevor Bauer. I am a huge Bauer fan. I love the way that he studies his craft and I find it so interesting how he spent the offseason trying to develop a hybrid of Marcus Stroman’s slider and Corey Kluber’s curve. Supposedly the pitch is ready to be deployed. I’m still holding out hope to see him bust out the knuckler that he throws at the end of his long toss routine. I’m on the Bauer train for 2018 and I think he might be one of the best secret(ish) weapons in baseball this season.
Bauer had a 4.19 ERA, but posted a 3.88 FIP and a 3.60 xFIP. His BABIP was out of control in the first half and was still high by season’s end at .337. It was .292 in 2016 and even with this season’s bad batted ball luck, his ERA was lower and so were his other run metrics. Bauer fell four strikeouts short of a 200 season, but drove his K% up to 26.2 percent, which was a career high. He also posted an eight percent walk rate, which will bust the myth for some that he walks too many guys. That’s right around the league average for starters of 8.1 percent.
How much does sequencing matter? Over 400 plate appearances in the first half, Bauer allowed a .267/.333/.454 slash. Over 349 in the second half, Bauer allowed a .263/.324/.436 slash. He hit the Break with a 5.24 ERA. In the second half, he had a 3.01 ERA. Why? Because he only stranded 67.9 percent of runners in the first half and stranded 87.1 percent of runners in the second half. The BABIP stayed high, but the hits came at better times. Basically, Bauer should fall somewhere in the middle, but I’m optimistic of the upside. Bauer’s career-best 3.2-win season was not by accident and I think there’s clear room for growth.
Danny Salazar is a tremendous wild card for the Indians. He could be a prominent starter in the rotation or could be a shutdown reliever as a complement to Andrew Miller. Salazar, Mike Clevinger, and Josh Tomlin will go into Spring Training battling it out for two spots, or so it would seem. Salazar missed a good chunk of last season, but managed 103 innings over 19 starts and four relief outings. He managed to be worth 2.2 fWAR with a 4.28 ERA, a 3.48 FIP, and a 3.21 xFIP. He had BABIP issues as well as some walk rate issues for the second straight season. Salazar’s health has been the primary thing to hold him back, but he possesses an elite split-change that is one of the best in baseball over the last three years despite the injuries. I don’t know what the plan is for him, but he’ll be a weapon somewhere.
Clevinger posted a 3.11 ERA with a 3.85 FIP and a 4.05 xFIP in his 121.2 innings of work. Like seemingly every arm the Indians put out there, Clevinger missed a high percentage of bats and had a 27 percent strikeout rate. The big thing for him is contact management. Clevinger induced a ton of weak contact last year, which allowed him to carry a .273 BABIP against and overcome a 12 percent walk rate. We’re placing more emphasis on contact management in the Statcast era and guys that can miss the barrel are extremely valuable in today’s homer-happy MLB. Clevinger did allow 13, but had a very respectable 11.9 percent HR/FB%. At worst, he’s a back end of the rotation guy that should give the Indians average or better innings.
I have a soft spot in my heart for Josh Tomlin. In this era of velocity and specialization, Tomlin is a throwback. He wouldn’t break a grape in a fruit fight, but he knows it. He embraces it. He changes speeds, he mixes pitches, he battles, he fights. Ironically, as MLB was undergoing a massive launch angle revolution that led to dingers, dingers, and more dingers, Tomlin had his lowest HR/9 since 2011 and his lowest HR/FB% since 2012. Like Kluber, Tomlin’s CB has become a more prominent pitch. Last year’s 24 percent usage was far and away a career high and the pitch comfortably graded above average. You have to remember that the league average FIP and xFIP for starters is now in the 4.40-4.50 range. Tomlin, despite a 4.98 ERA, had a 4.12 FIP and a 4.11 xFIP. He was the victim of a .329 BABIP against and a 68.5 percent LOB%. He was technically above average for the Indians in his 141 innings last season. So the Indians have at least two elite starters and four above average starters for the rotation.
That’s good because the middle relief looks like the weakest part of the team. Nick Goody impressed me last year in his 56 appearances with a 2.80/3.45/3.74 pitcher slash and a 32.6 percent K%. Tyler Olson, who didn’t allow a run over 30 appearances, tied for the eighth-lowest exit velocity against minimum 50 batted ball events (Andrew Miller was second, btw). Ryan Merritt, who has to either make the rotation or the bullpen, was 18th in that department. Zach McAllister had over a strikeout per inning and may see some more leverage work this season. He had a 2.61 ERA but a 3.77 FIP and a 4.04 xFIP, so he was an above average relief arm in his 62 innings. There are some good pitchers here, but replacing Bryan Shaw and replicating his durability will likely be a joint effort.
The additions of Carlos Torres and Matt Belisle illustrate what the Indians are going for in the bullpen. Elite weapons like Andrew Miller and Cody Allen don’t come around everyday. Finding guys that have the command skills to miss the barrel are essential. Torres was fourth in average exit velocity against and Belisle was 31st in average exit velocity against if we set a minimum of 150 batted ball events from the 2017 season. The Indians are looking for contact management skills out of the bullpen. It makes sense. Even the hardest throwers can give up dingers. Teams aren’t manufacturing innings anymore. Relievers get hurt by the home run. So the Indians, who are often ahead of most trends, are focused on guys that don’t do that because they stay off the barrel.
So, the Indians offense is pretty solid, too. With a .336 wOBA last season, the Indians tied for second and stood alone in third place with a 107 wRC+. They were tied for third with a 9.7 percent BB%. The scary thing is that the Indians offense could have been even better. Cleveland was second to the Astros in plate appearances with a runner in scoring position, but 20th in wOBA. Cleveland’s .279 BABIP with RISP tied with the Padres for 26th in baseball. Mind you, this was an Indians team that still finished sixth in runs scored. The Indians won 22 games in a row, won 102 games, had the best record in the AL and still could have been even better.
Say what you will about the offseason, with the losses of Carlos Santana, Jay Bruce, and Austin Jackson, but this is still a pretty good offense. Who knows if Jose Ramirez can be a 6.6-win player against, but he was pretty special last season. JRam probably won’t post a .396 wOBA again and a 29-homer season would catch me by surprise, but he’s certainly capable of carrying a high batting average, OBP, and SLG because he’s got excellent speed and great contact skills. He has 104 doubles over the last two seasons to go along with 40 home runs and 39 stolen bases. He contributes in a lot of ways and he has been an average or better fielder at two infield positions. He’s also signed to one of the best contracts in baseball. It is perfectly reasonable to regress his numbers, which the projection systems have, but he’s still a .360 wOBA and a 125 wRC+ type of guy. Only 43 players had a .360 or better wOBA last season. Add in his defense and speed and his floor is a 4.5-win player with a lot of room for more. Ramirez had a Statcast xwOBA of .351, but an actual wOBA of .406, so he is definitely a guy to watch in that regard, but the floor is high.
Francisco Lindor is a franchise building block. I’ve said this before, but as good of a player as Lindor is, he is an even better human being. He has become the face of this franchise before he can even rent a car without a surcharge. Last year’s power spike took me by surprise in a big way. He sacrificed some BABIP to hit dingers and improve his launch angle. Lindor’s FB% increased by 14 percent last season and the home runs came with it. He hit 33 of them. His K% and BB% were exactly even to 2016, so he hit for more power without sacrificing contact. Some positive regression in his BABIP should be coming, especially with his speed and contact quality, so I think we’re looking at a career-best offensive year from the 24-year-old. He should be a six-win player for the Indians once again and this may be the season in which he breaks out and does more. He’s a special talent and a special person. I don’t want to get sentimental in these because I want to sound as impartial as possible, but it is a true honor to watch him play.
Edwin Encarnacion is tough for me to figure out. I’ll talk more about it in my glass half-empty approach, but he had another strong season in 2017. Eddie’s walk rate jumped from 12.4 percent to 15.5 percent. His SLG did drop from .529 to .504, as he hit four fewer home runs and had 14 fewer doubles. His 104 walks was a career high, so that made up for a few of the extra bases lost, but obviously not in the SLG department. He’s an everyday DH for the most part now, so his fWAR will reflect the fact that he’s not a capable fielder, but he’s a good bat in the middle of this lineup.
As far as the rest of the offense goes, it is kind of hard to gauge. Jason Kipnis is just one year removed from posting 4.9 and 4.8 fWAR in the previous two seasons. Injuries limited him to 90 games and 373 plate appearances. He also switched positions to fill the glaring hole in center field left by Bradley Zimmer’s broken hand. Kipnis had no contact quality to speak of with a .256 BABIP and a .232/.291/.414 slash line. But, he’s had three four-win seasons in his career and a season with 3.4 fWAR, so there is a lot of potential there for average to above average defense and a 115-120 wRC+. That would be a huge boost for this lineup.
Much has been made of the Michael Brantley option that seems to have strapped the Indians’ financial resources this season. Brantley posted a .299/.357/.444 slash in 375 plate appearances last season and managed 1.6 fWAR in just 90 games. Similar production would more than validate the cost of the $12 million option, even in this market, where $/WAR has gone down in free agency. Another question mark in the outfield is Bradley Zimmer. Zimmer is a high-floor player because he is an excellent baserunner and fielder, but his offense is a major unknown. Zimmer strikes out a ton and didn’t walk enough to make up the gap last season. He also showed very little power with a .385 SLG. But, the defense and the baserunning would put his floor around two wins, so any offensive gains are a bonus.
Neither Yan Gomes nor Roberto Perez project to be average offensively, but both are above average catchers. Indians catchers gunned down 43 percent of would-be base stealers last season. Cleveland also had the sixth-fewest wild pitches and was one of nine teams with fewer than 10 passed balls. Perez is also a tremendous pitch framer. Given the stuff the pitchers on this staff possess, those wild pitch and passed ball numbers are exceptional.
Yonder Alonso is another question mark. Alonso used the fly ball revolution to post the best season of his career with a .266/.365/.501 slash line, 28 dingers, a .366 wOBA and a 132 wRC+. Unfortunately, he hit 20 of his 28 HR in the first half and only had eight doubles, so the power production fell off dramatically. As a result, he was available at a pretty cheap price. He’s got a pretty high offensive floor because he walks and is also now in a better park for left-handed power, so there are a lot of reasons to be excited.
I have long-winded takes on Francona that I’ll save for another day, but it is hard to argue the results that he has produced with this collection of talent. He is very good behind the scenes, which is something I’m obviously not privy to and I also can’t quantify what that means, so it’s hard to for me to focus on. Players love playing for him and that seems to have had an impact on this run. Since we aren’t really sure how to quantify managers anyway, it certainly seems like the Indians are in good hands and he has to be respected as one of the game’s best.
Why bet the under?
If you’re still reading nearly 4,400 words into this, you’re the real MVP. I just start writing and I can’t stop. As bad as the Central Division is, and, believe me, it’s baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad, this is a lofty season win total for any team. The Indians were just 47-40 going into the All-Star Break last year with what was most likely a better roster and a similarly bad division. At that point, they were on pace to win 87 or 88 games. A 22-game win streak can cover up a lot of early-season inconsistencies and that is precisely what happened.
To play the over, you’re asking a team with a ticket punched to October before pitchers and catchers even reported to play at a high level all season. Last year, the Indians pushed their chips in and kept playing hard to get the #1 seed and home field advantage. Instead of drawing the Red Sox, the Indians drew the Yankees and got bounced right away. I’m not sure if the plans will change this season or not. Corey Kluber ran out of gas in the playoffs after a deep run in 2016 and another 200-inning season in 2017. Jose Ramirez seemed to run on empty in the playoffs. Do the Indians adopt a bit different of an approach this season in that they try to hold some energy back for the postseason? Let’s be very clear. You’re asking a team to play about .586 ball over six months to get you on the plus side of this line. That requires a remarkable amount of consistency and a lot of health.
Speaking of health, even though Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis missed good chunks of the season, the Indians only used 20 pitchers last season and 41 players total. Colorado also only used 41 players and was a bit of a surprise playoff participant. The Indians were incredibly lucky to use only 20 pitchers. Seattle used 40. League average was around 25. Depth is a bit of a concern for the Indians this season. They don’t have any in the outfield. They can move somebody like Jose Ramirez around in case of injury to Francisco Lindor or Jason Kipnis, but that would bring a below average player into the mix at another position. Beyond Mike Clevinger and/or Josh Tomlin is Ryan Merritt, who is a pitchability left-hander that would likely struggle over an extended stint. Behind him, there isn’t a whole lot of MLB experience with guys like Adam Plutko, Shawn Morimando, or Julian Merryweather, who has more of a bullpen profile anyway. We could see Shane Bieber, who has outstanding control metrics in the minors, but he’s unproven.
The biggest depth issues are in the bullpen. I’ve been harping on bullpens thus far and will continue to do so. The Indians are much weaker in a relief capacity than they have been in the past. Maybe Cody Anderson comes back from Tommy John and proves he can be in that role, but an injury to Andrew Miller or Cody Allen would now be catastrophic. As it is, guys like Nick Goody, Zach McAllister, Carlos Torres, Matt Belisle, and Dan Otero have been promoted to the leverage spots once held by Bryan Shaw. The weakest position in the organization from a depth standpoint is the bullpen. Unless the Indians get surprising efforts from the Alexi Ogandos, Evan Marshalls, and Neil Ramirezes of the world, they’ll have to move some starters around and try to find some workable arms for the bullpen. Trades are always a possibility, but the bullpen is a worry for me in a lot of ways. Miller was hurt last year. Allen has stayed remarkably healthy, but his five-year workload has been very high. Only Bryan Shaw and Tony Watson have made more appearances since 2013. Andrew Miller is 34th on that list.
The outfield is a hodgepodge of dudes at this point. Nobody knows what to expect from Michael Brantley, who isn’t expected to be ready for Opening Day after his 67th surgery in the last three years. Bradley Zimmer has a high floor as a defensive player and a runner, but his offensive profile is still a great unknown at the MLB level. Greg Allen is a speedster with a light offensive profile. Lonnie Chisenhall quietly posted a .369 wOBA last season, but only played 82 games with various injuries. Jason Kipnis may be an outfielder or may be a second baseman. He also may be neither. I mentioned Kipnis’s four good years, but he also had a 2014 season with a .289 wOBA and an 82 wRC+ and then last year’s poor showing. We honestly don’t know what to expect from him and he may not even be a league average player.
Edwin Encarnacion is a weird one for me. He’s going to hit, but to what degree. Encarnacion fell to 2.5 fWAR last season, his lowest mark since 2011. Part of that wasn’t his fault because what he does well became something that everybody does well in today’s homer-happy environment. He carried a career-high walk rate of 15.5 percent, which I’m not sure is sustainable. His 20-point OBP spike canceled out his 25-point SLG drop. Apparently the parrot weighed down Encarnacion’s ability to get to second base, as he only had 20 doubles last season, which represented the big drop in BsR, Fangraphs’s all-encompassing Baserunning metric. Since he can’t play a position, resembling something of a league average runner is a big help to his overall WAR. Encarnacion has struck out over 19 percent of the time in his last two seasons, which is something he hadn’t done since 2009. He is on the wrong side of the traditional aging curve, so I am concerned that there could be a drop offensively.
In a vacuum, that wouldn’t be bad, but I worry about the same with Jose Ramirez, who doesn’t really have the offensive profile of a guy with a .390 wOBA. Projection systems are regressing his offensive profile to his 2016 season, which certainly wasn’t bad with a .312/.363/.462 slash line. I can’t see an MVP-caliber season for JRam again, but he’s still going to be a very valuable player. This is more of a matter of a bunch of small parts adding up to a greater sum in the regression department. Again, keep in mind, you have to nitpick with a team that has to win at least 95 games. If elite players fall back to great players or great players fall back to good players or good players fall back to average players, that snowball effect matters in the grand scheme of things with a win total.
Pick: Over 94.5 (-110, BetOnline)
As I mentioned with both the Tigers and the Royals, playing season win totals with the extremes is not something that I’m interested in for the most part. There isn’t a whole lot of equity in asking the far and away best team in the division to be far and away the best team in the division. The Indians will win at least 90 games and it probably won’t even take that many to win the division. How far they want to push it is something I don’t want to wager money on.
Look, this is a top-three team in the American League. The Indians are right there with the Yankees and the Astros. PECOTA pegs them for 99 wins. Fangraphs has them with 93, which is one behind the Yankees and eight behind the Astros, who are just absurd. The Indians aren’t coming off of a short offseason. They aren’t coming off of a “let’s hold our heads high” Game 7 loss to the Cubs. They’re pissed off about blowing a 2-0 lead. They’re as motivated as any team in baseball.
What does that mean, though? What does that mean in a division where the other four teams could easily finish below .500 (and before you get started on Minnesota, PECOTA had 80 wins and the season win total is only 83 wins, so it isn’t a stretch)? I don’t know. What I do know is that the Indians will be very good. I’d rather bet on them to stay healthy and fly over this win total with more than half of it coming from the 76 division games than go low. If the Indians win 50 of the 76 games against a horrible division for the second straight year, they have to go 45-41 against the rest of the league. That really doesn’t seem very challenging.
The better bet with the Indians is to play them at 8/1 or higher to win the World Series. They’re going to win the division. They’re going to play October baseball. At that point, you can start hedging if you want. If you want some money on this team long-term, that’s the way to play it.
-END OF 2018 PREVIEW-
You know I’ve been waiting for this. My beloved Cleveland Indians are among the favorites to win the American League and could very well return to the World Series. On a personal level, I’ve spent the last four months trying to process what I saw last season. That team had no business being in the World Series. That team had no business taking a 3-1 lead in the World Series. Yet, there they were, with three shots to slay the mighty dragon.
Michael Martinez made the last out of the World Series. Even in Cleveland, as I shuffled with slumped shoulders off of the Home Run Porch, laughing to keep from crying about the fact that one of the 10 worst MLB players this century made the final out of a stunning run to the Fall Classic, jubilant Cubs fans to my left, to my right, behind me, and in front of me celebrated the end of 108 years of heartache. Mine, well, it continued. It still hurts like the day it happened. I won’t get over it until I can feel the jubilation and sheer enjoyment that I saw all around me that day from fans that invaded my city. I’m in tears as I write this.
I still haven’t watched the last out from that game. I’ve only seen playoff highlights in passing, of Carlos Santana’s catch of the final out in the ALCS and Rajai Davis’s game-tying home run, which is unquestionably a top-two moment in my life. It’s not denial. It’s one of those stages of grief, but I don’t know which one. Hell, with my expectations for this season, it may not fully hit me until this year’s outcome is determined.
The 2016 season for the Indians was the highest of highs that ended in the lowest of lows. The irony, and what keeps me going every day, is how closely this parallels what happened with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015 and the Kansas City Royals in 2014. The Cavaliers were gassed by the time they got to the NBA Finals. LeBron James had a team and a city on his shoulders and left every ounce of everything that he had on that floor. Retribution came the next season against the same team. The Royals and Indians are strikingly similar. The key difference is that the Indians have a much better starting rotation. Major League Baseball teams use the copycat approach. When something works, everybody tries to do it. The Indians saw firsthand what a focus on defense, relief pitching, and contact could do. That’s the blueprint that they have adopted over the last few seasons. Now, it has them in a position to be one of the best teams in baseball.
You’re probably reading this wondering how I’m going to remain impartial. That’s fine. You don’t have to believe me, but I am. I picked my favorite team and last year’s American League Champions to go under their season win total. That wasn’t for show. That was because I saw a flawed team that had some major question marks. I have questions about this year’s team. I have concerns. Do I have optimism? You bet your ass I do. But, I also have an obligation to my readers and to myself to give you an unbiased view. I’ll do that to the best of my ability.
The Indians finished 94-67 with one game against the Detroit Tigers that didn’t need to be made up after a late-season rainout. Per the Pythagorean Win-Loss metric, the Indians overachieved by three games. They were 28-21 in one-run games, but managed to go 11 games over .500 in the second half with just a +20 run differential. That really made up the three-game difference. By BaseRuns, an alternative, context-neutral standings metric, the Indians also posted a 91-70 mark, even though they also showed a better overall run differential.
The stage is set. The expectations are high. The division seems like a formality. Are those expectations reachable?
Season Win Total Odds
BetDSI: 93.5 (-105/-115)
BetOnline: 93.5 (-115/-115)
5Dimes: 93.5 (-105/-125)
Additions: Edwin Encarnacion, Austin Jackson, Boone Logan, Chris Colabello, Wily Mo Pena, Carlos Frias, Tim Cooney, Steve Delabar
Losses: Mike Napoli, Rajai Davis, Coco Crisp, Jeff Manship, Austin Adams, Jesus Aguilar
Edwin Encarnacion is just what the Indians needed. Let’s be honest. In this market size, the goal has always been to be in a good position to win the Central Division. The goals have changed. Barring a catastrophe, the division appears to be a lock. Now, it’s about matching up for October. The Indians signed the best free agent hitter on the market and did so at a reasonable cost.
With Encarnacion signed, sealed, and delivered as the replacement to Mike Napoli, it was business as usual. The Indians did go a little bit above their usual comfort zone to snag Boone Logan, but then it was about bargain hunting. Austin Jackson could have real value to a team with nobody that can catch in center field, but he’s coming off of knee surgery. Wily Mo Pena hasn’t played in MLB since 2011. Carlos Frias, Tim Cooney, and Steve Delabar are all about stockpiling arms.
None of the losses are very significant from a performance standpoint. Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis got progressively worse offensively as the season went on and, aside from Davis’s baserunning skills, the Indians won’t miss them.
Why bet the over?
This is a complete team. This is one of the most complete teams you’re going to find in baseball. Let’s put it this way: the weakest spot of the Indians is the starting rotation and that features a former Cy Young winner in Corey Kluber, three righties that throw in the mid-90s, and a starter with elite control.
Let’s start with that starting rotation. The Indians rode Corey Kluber hard last season, so he’s easing into the Spring Training grind, but he has pristine mechanics and has very quietly worked three straight 215+ inning seasons. Over the last three seasons, Kluber trails only David Price, Max Scherzer, and Johnny Cueto in innings pitched. Only Clayton Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard, and Jake Arrieta have a lower FIP. Kluber ranks sixth in K% and sixth in K%-BB%, which is strikeout percentage minus walk percentage. He’s simply elite. He doesn’t get mentioned with the greats in either league, but he’s right there with a lot of those guys.
Here’s the funny part. You know who ranks seventh in K% and K%-BB%? Carlos Carrasco. Carrasco is 10th in FIP and actually has a better SIERA (skill-interactive ERA) than Kluber in that span. Carrasco was limited to 146.1 innings of work last season because he popped a hamstring and got hit on the hand by a comebacker. Had Carrasco not been hit by that line drive, the Indians may be raising a different kind of flag on April 11. It’s tough to evaluate his 2016 because he missed two big chunks of time, but he posted a 3.32 ERA with a 3.32 xFIP. His home run rate spiked a bit, though that was likely due to the fact that he had to miss a month after building up his arm strength. Carrasco made it through four starts before his hamstring gave way against Detroit. Then, it was like going through Spring Training all over again to get back. If Carrasco can stay healthy, and he hasn’t really had any arm issues since his Tommy John surgery in 2011, this may be the year that he takes the next step. That’s scary for the rest of the AL.
Lying in the weeds is Danny Salazar. A bum elbow rendered Salazar mostly useless in the postseason, so the Indians were down two of their top three starters and still took the Cubs to the 10th inning of Game 7. While pitching through some pain, Salazar’s walk rate did spike, but he actually lowered his home run rate and increased his ground ball rate, which are two inspiring things heading into the season. Salazar posted a 3.87 ERA with a 3.74 FIP and xFIP. Considering a big component of FIP is walks, that wasn’t a bad performance. He has 541 strikeouts in 484.1 career MLB innings. At 27, Salazar is in the prime of his career and it seemed like he had a better plan for attacking hitters last season. Even though he didn’t always execute, there’s a learning curve that pitchers need. A lot of people don’t realize this, but Salazar has a truly elite change-up. Referred to by some as more of a split-change, it has been worth 26.1 runs above average per PITCHf/x and 31.6 per Baseball Info Solutions over the last two seasons. The list of pitchers with a more valuable change-up (per PITCHf/x): Kyle Hendricks, Zack Greinke, and David Price. Baseball Info Solutions actually has Salazar with the most valuable change-up over the last two years.
The tools remain in place for Trevor Bauer to live up to his enormous hype coming out of UCLA. He’s carved out a decent MLB career, but last season was his best as a professional, even with a stint in the bullpen. Bauer posted the best walk rate of his career and best ground ball rate of his career. Given the defensive makeup of the Indians, that’s a major plus. This is where I remind readers of what I’ve been talking about with a lot of teams. Having league average fourth and fifth starters is really good. Bauer was above league average and he’s very durable given his training regimen, so this is a good asset for the Indians to have.
Starting pitching depth is essential. The Indians have a lot of it. Josh Tomlin is an adequate fifth starter. Hard-throwing righties Cody Anderson and Mike Clevinger could step in at a moment’s notice. ALCS Game 5 hero Ryan Merritt is a pitchability lefty with great control. The Indians also picked up Tim Cooney from St. Louis and also snagged Carlos Frias from the Dodgers. Add in Shawn Morimando, who made a cameo appearance last season, and UCLA product Adam Plutko and the Indians have a lot of Major League-ready depth. Baseball Prospectus actually had Plutko as the #10 prospect in the Indians system, which did lose some punch with the Clint Frazier/Justus Sheffield trade.
We’ll stick with the pitching theme because the Indians have the best bullpen in baseball. Fight me if you want, but you aren’t going to win. Andrew Miller is the single most valuable weapon in the league as far as relievers go. He can get righties out. He’s hell on lefties. He’s extremely durable and more than capable of going two innings. The Indians rode him hard in the lead-up to the playoffs and in the postseason, but he seems to be the type that thrives on a high workload. The Indians have the bullpen depth to keep Miller fresh throughout the season. He worked 74.1 innings during the season and 18.2 more during the playoffs. But, the Indians have him all season now and that’s a huge plus.
Cody Allen is really good. Allen ranks 16th in FIP among relievers from 2014-16 and seventh in K%. With Allen and Miller at the back end of the pen, the Indians are in great shape. It’s the depth that really stands out. Bryan Shaw has a rubber arm and has been very effective for the Indians. Boone Logan is an excellent addition as a second lefty to limit exposure for Miller during the season. Over the last three seasons, Andrew Miller has the best slider in baseball among RP. Boone Logan is fifth. Dan Otero got back to what worked for him and he posted a 1.6 fWAR for the Indians by not walking anybody and keeping the ball in the park. Zach McAllister takes a lot of flack, but he still misses bats. Terry Francona has a lot of matchup possibilities here and should be able to manage this group responsibly over the long haul.
As it turns out, the offense is pretty damn good, too. The world got to see just how good Francisco Lindor is during last year’s playoffs and his infectious personality is something that MLB really needs to market. He’s always had exceptional makeup according to scouts and the game has never really sped up on him, so I don’t see a sophomore slump in his second full season. Lindor slashed .301/.358/.435 with an elite rate of contact and he also hit 15 home runs. Lindor stole 19 bases. He’s also absolutely elite defensively. His 6.3 fWAR is a sign of things to come. He won’t turn 24 until after the season, so there’s probably still a ceiling there as he gets more experience against the pitchers and keeps getting stronger. His power production rates were actually down a bit last season with a .134 ISO, 25 points below the previous year, and a 3.1 percent drop in HR/FB%. It sort of reminds me of the power spikes of Michael Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera. Cabrera realized he could take a hack every now and then and went from three HR in 425 PA in 2010 to 25 HR in 667 PA in 2011. Brantley went from 10 to 20 from 2013 to 2014. Hitters just get a better feel for when to take a shot and can pick out pitch sequencing better. Don’t be surprised if Lindor gets close to 20 this year.
Last year’s quiet breakout star was Jose Ramirez. Ramirez, who actually debuted back in 2013 at the age of 21, slashed .312/.363/.462 and became the everyday third baseman. He stole 22 bases and made a ton of contact. Ramirez only struck out 10 percent of the time and actually made the highest-percentage of contact on pitches outside the zone in all of baseball. His plate coverage is exceptional and he’s capable of carrying a high BABIP because he has really good barrel skills. I don’t know if the .462 SLG is repeatable, but he’s got gap power from both sides of the plate and is a very athletic player. Add in basically league average defense at third base and we’re talking about a player with a very high floor, even if he doesn’t replicate last season.
Over the last five seasons, Edwin Encarnacion has hit 193 home runs. The Indians had two guys with 30 dingers last season for the first time in 14 years. Mike Napoli is gone, but Encarnacion is a much more complete hitter. For one thing, he hasn’t struck out more than 20 percent of the time in a season since his rookie year. For another thing, he’s less likely to fall apart in the second half. Encarnacion turned 34 in January, so the aging curve is coming, but he’s had very consistent ISOs over the last five years and consistent HR/FB%. His power production will probably drop a bit in Cleveland because the 19-foot wall in left field hurts right-handed batters, but he’s going to have tons of opportunities to drive in runs with the guys in front of him and he’s going to hit his homers.
Jason Kipnis avoided the second-half letdown last season and once again added the long ball to his arsenal. After hitting 14 and 17 homers in his first two full seasons, Kipnis only hit 15 over 2014-15. Last season, he hit 23. He sacrificed contact for power, but it worked out in his favor, as his slash line was fairly similar. At the top of this order, he’s a really special weapon. The same can be said about Carlos Santana, who is in a contract year. Santana will turn 31 during the first week of the season, but he possesses an elite skill with one of the best BB% in baseball over the last seven years. He hit 34 homers last season and cut his strikeout rate to 14.4 percent. Observers have scoffed at his batting average, which was a respectable .259 last season, and he had one of his best offensive years ever. Batting leadoff simplified his approach and that’s where he should be this season for the majority of the year. Santana and Encarnacion are going to split time at first and DH and that should keep both guys fresh for the long haul.
The catching position could be surprisingly good for the Indians. Yan Gomes says he’s healthy, so we’ll see what that means. His 2016 was a disaster offensively as he suffered two major injuries that limited him to 74 games. He’s now two years removed from the .278/.313/.472 season he had in 2014 when he was worth 4.4 fWAR. Roberto Perez showcased his skills as an elite pitch framer in the playoffs and his plate appearances are works of art. Perez has a 12.1 career BB% in 505 PA. There’s value in that, even if he doesn’t have much BABIP luck. There’s a bit of power there, as shown in the postseason. The biggest thing is that this group has a high floor because of its defensive prowess. If Gomes’s knee is fully healed from his 2015 injury, he can return to being a good pitch framer. That injury affected his balance. On a team loaded with offensive weapons, if this is only a defensive tandem, that’s fine.
The outfield is kind of a hodgepodge of “what if” types of players. Brandon Guyer stands out because he’ll hit lefties and do it very well. Beyond that, there are some unknowns. A best-case scenario is that Tyler Naquin can outhit his defense. The optimal-case scenario is Michael Brantley looks like 80 percent of his former self.
Why bet the under?
The outfield is a mess. Austin Jackson is in camp on a minor league deal and a non-roster invite, but I promise you that the Indians want him to be the starting center fielder. Tyler Naquin looks like a duck in the desert in center field. Jackson is coming off of a knee injury that cost him a large chunk of 2016. Brandon Guyer is getting reps in center field, which is pretty scary. Lonnie Chisenhall is fine in either corner, but we’ve never seen him in center. Carlos Santana may get some left field reps. Michael Brantley should be counted on for absolutely nothing and it’s a fair question as to whether or not he’ll ever play again after some major shoulder surgeries.
The outfield has the potential to really hurt the Indians this season. Regardless of what collection of players is out there on a given day, it’s a below average defensive group. It could be a well below average offensive group as well. Brandon Guyer will do his thing against lefties, so we don’t have to worry much about him, but Michael Brantley is unlikely to be anything close to his former self. Tyler Naquin posted a .234/.331/.331 slash over his final 145 plate appearances and couldn’t hit sand if he fell off a camel in the playoffs. Teams adjusted to his inability to hit anything 92 or harder above the belt and he couldn’t adjust. He also struck out nearly 31 percent of the time.
Lonnie Chisenhall posted a 103 wRC+, so he was a tick above league average, but he didn’t hit for much power and doesn’t walk. Austin Jackson is a bad offensive player. Abraham Almonte hasn’t proven a whole lot at the big league level. The Indians have options in the outfield, but none of them are particularly good options outside of Guyer against left-handed pitching. This was my major concern about the Indians heading into last season and the reason why I liked them to go under the total. Suffice it to say, they haven’t done a whole lot to ease my fears about this group. They got extremely lucky that Rajai Davis and Tyler Naquin shined in small sample sizes to keep this group from being really bad over the long haul. Davis and Naquin were good enough for two-month stretches to bail out this collective outfield.
The job that Jose Ramirez did last season for the Indians cannot be ignored. With Michael Brantley out, Ramirez patrolled left field and then became the everyday third baseman when it was clear that Juan Uribe couldn’t measure up in the field or at the plate. JRam posted a 4.8 fWAR season, which was borderline unbelievable. He slashed .312/.363/.462. Projection systems are looking for a pretty sizable drop and it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. He had a .333 BABIP with a very low strikeout rate, which seems unsustainable. He also slugged .462, which is something he hadn’t done since he was in Single-A. He had 21 homers across multiple levels of the Indians system from 2011-15 and then hit 11 last season at the big league level. He’s still a high-floor player because of his speed and contact skill set and good fielding ability, but almost a five-win player? That’s a stretch. Regression from him, depending on the severity, could be problematic for the Indians offense.
The second-half swoon for Jason Kipnis had been evident pretty much every season leading into 2016. Kipnis posted a .651 OPS in the second half of 2012. It was .714 in 2013, .594 in 2014, and .717 in 2015. Last season, he managed to stave off that ugly regression to post a .813 OPS in the second half. We’ll see if that stands as the anomaly or if he’s turned a corner. The massive power spike is something I’d be skeptical of for this year. If the K% increase stays, but the power does not, we’re looking at a player that could be 10 percent worse offensively. That’s a big drop. Kipnis is also dealing with a strained rotator cuff that has slowed down his Spring Training. I’m very worried about that.
A Francisco Lindor injury would be crippling, but most teams have that scenario in play. The catching situation is interesting for the Indians because there are two guys there that could be a total negative offensively. A lot of people look at the Indians and see a balanced attack 1 through 9 in the lineup, but there are some scenarios in which this could be a middle of the road offense. Some regression here and there coupled with the limited offensive upside of certain players leaves question marks that cannot be ignored.
On the pitching side of things, Corey Kluber admitted to being physically and mentally exhausted after the season. Even though Kluber’s regular season workload was limited a little bit with a minor injury heading into the postseason, he worked several times on short rest in the playoffs and wound up working 249.1 innings overall. Had Kluber and the Indians been able to seal the deal, we’d be talking about his postseason as one of the best we’ve ever seen from a pitcher. Now, the Indians are left to contend with the risk-reward of it. They really had no choice, ultimately, but we’re going to monitor him closely.
Out of his control or not, Carlos Carrasco still hasn’t worked a 200-inning season. Neither has Danny Salazar, whose balky right elbow is one of my biggest concerns for the upcoming season. Both guys have Tommy John surgery in their pasts and one surgery increases the likelihood of another per the studies that are out there. While the Indians have some adequate starting pitcher depth, we’re talking about a win total in the 90s. There’s very little margin for error when it comes to something like that. Josh Tomlin has also had Tommy John. That means that 60 percent of the Indians projected starting rotation has gone under the knife. Mike Clevinger also had it. The Indians have not shied away from taking on guys with injury histories, as evidenced by how they drafted Brady Aiken in the 2016 MLB Draft, so they ain’t scurred, but, I guarantee Salazar worries them behind the scenes.
Let’s talk bullpen, shall we? Nothing in baseball is more volatile than a bullpen. The Indians have done everything in their power to account for such things. Over the last four seasons, your league leaders in appearances are Bryan Shaw, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Cody Allen, and Tyler Clippard. Two of those guys reside in the Cleveland bullpen. If you sort by innings pitched, the Indians have three of the top 25 in innings pitched from 2013-16 with Shaw, Allen, and Dan Otero. If you change the search parameters to 2014-16, Andrew Miller pops up 21st in appearances and 16th in innings pitched. These are the four most important guys in the Tribe bullpen and all of them have logged a significant workload recently. That’s only regular season innings as well, so they all added some work last postseason and Miller, of course, had some previous work with the Orioles and Yankees.
With the Indians likely to win this division by a large margin, as Fangraphs predictions the Indians to win by 11 games and PECOTA by even more, what’s Cleveland’s incentive to push for home field or push for the win total? The big picture is going to matter throughout the year, but especially in September. Will we see Corey Kluber and/or Carlos Carrasco skipped? Could the Indians adopt a six-man rotation for a bit? Will Cody Allen and Andrew Miller see reduced workloads? None of these things would surprise me, especially with Miller working in the WBC. Cleveland needs to be smart about this. Like I said about the Encarnacion signing, it’s no longer about the division like it has been in past years. It’s solely about the playoffs. That’s a mindset that will carry through the entire season.
Margin for error is very, very small when taking a team expected to post a winning percentage of .570 or above. It’s a long season and that implies a very high level of consistency.
Season Win Total Pick: Over 93.5 (+115; BetDSI)
This is a team on a mission. There was very little sulking about the final out of Game 7. Many Indians told reporters after the game that they would go to Spring Training right now if they could. To get that close, to get that taste, to captivate a city that has been a bad baseball town for 15 years, that meant something. We often see a hangover from teams that made a deep run, especially if they aren’t used to it. I don’t see that from the Indians.
Ownership made a commitment and they made it loud and clear by signing Edwin Encarnacion and Boone Logan. The players feed off of that because some of them have been through the dog days of Cleveland baseball when money was hard to come by. I’m not a big fan of Terry Francona the decision maker, but I’m a huge fan of Terry Francona the leader of men. The players love him. Free agents want to play for him. I know it’s not quantifiable and this is where I deviate a bit from the metrics, but this is a great clubhouse. That means something in the dog days of the season, even if winning is the ultimate clubhouse elixir. The Indians are no longer a team of good guys looking to overachieve. They’re a legitimate contender to win the World Series.
Let’s take the narratives out of the equation and simply look at the personnel. This is the best bullpen in baseball. This is the second or third-best lineup in the American League. This might be the best rotation in the American League, though Boston has a very strong case. This is a team that excels in a lot of areas, including an elite defensive infield. Furthermore, this is a team that should dominate within the division. If the Indians simply go 50-26 against the Central, which is basically what they did last season, they only need to go 43-43 against the rest of baseball. To me, this team is better than last year’s version that went 94-67. The sky’s the limit for the Indians.
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