Reliving the 2017 Season: Cleveland Indians Edition | The Process Report

Reliving the 2017 Season: Cleveland Indians Edition

With the end of the regular season comes a time for reflection for the majority of baseball fans. What went right? What went wrong? You probably have a few ideas where your teams fell short or exceeded expectations, but what about a completely emotionless point of view? Throughout this season I have shown what batter and pitcher production looks like when we regress balls in play to look more like what the players should have seen using exit velocity and launch angle. The offseason will be no different as I take a team by team look at how the season fared for the team, while going a little deeper on a handful of players from each team. The order will mirror next June’s draft slotting so you can expect to find some depression leading to elation here. It’s going to take some time, but I would like to get two to three of these out each week which should allow for every team being covered before our glorious game returns to continue threshing our hearts.

Past:

30 – 21: DET SFG PHI CWS CIN NYM SDP ATL OAK PIT

20 – 11:  BAL TOR MIA SEA TEX TBR LAA KCR STL MIN

10 – 1:  MIL COL NYY CHC ARI BOS WAS HOU

In the last review we saw that the Houston Astros ran a prolific offense in the middle parts of the season, that mostly collapsed over the second half, while their pitching started strong, but got progressively worse as the season wore on. They were still a great team, but when looking at the Cleveland Indians you can see another great team that got there on a completely different ride. Early on they pitched and hit a little better than average, but things were fairly tight. After about the first quarter things started to diverge, such that, by the end of the season their gap between production suppressed and provided was utterly enormous. This was mostly driven by a ridiculous pitching unit that leveraged good starters, but also had a lights out bullpen that could be turned to with regularity. The bats mostly hunt around the above average to good range before going absolutely ape over the last few weeks of the season.

It is never interesting or enlightening to read a sportswriter use the results to attribute whether late-season performance was a highway to rest or rust. The Astros were playing like a .500 team, while the Indians were lapping their opponents heading into the postseason, but it was Houston that was able to conquer the Yankees before winning their ring. On the other hand, it was Cleveland that might have had the better team at the right time that just happened to run into a tougher matchup in the Divisional Series. The playoffs aren’t the utter crapshoot they are made out to be, however, you are still looking at a bunch of good teams that can win on any given day. It looks like this very good Indians team fell just short despite having the best team in the game last year with only the Dodgers left to be reviewed.

It would have been hard to ask for anything more from the Cleveland pitchers last season. They faced a league low number of batters, while striking out the most and walking the least. Extreme peripherals like that are all a team could ask for, but they also threw in league average production on balls in play that they actually outperformed to a small degree. At nearly 125 runs better than average I have the Indians amongst the league elites on the pitching side, but none of those other teams also featured the best offense in the game.

In a copycat league it isn’t long before a team’s advantages become uncovered. Much like the Astros, the Indians shoved strikeouts on the pitching side, while running away from them at the dish where they also walked at an above average rate. Pairing this with league average production on balls in play is how you can really leverage all those extra runners and balls in play, something the Red Sox failed to do despite their own commitment to striking out opponents and limiting their ability in return. I have the unit at a league best 84 runs better than average pushing the team to lead the league in combined xwRAA of thus reviewed teams.

With much of the league beginning to embrace the idea that the supply of very good starting pitching necessitates finding a workaround it has never been a better time to have one of those rare, elite starters that can pitch deep into games and the season, alike, with incredible production. Corey Kluber gives the team that solid base to build upon. The predictably strong performances he provides has the added benefit of allowing the team to get a little more creative in the backend or the bullpen letting other players avoid their weaknesses a little better. Carlos Carrasco is a fine second fiddle who gives up hard contact a bit too frequently, but provided volume and wonderful results when the ball wasn’t put in play. The next most heavily-rode starter was Trevor Bauer who always seems to be re-inventing himself, which must make it awfully tough for batters. Midrotation guys like Danny Salazar and Mike Clevinger walk too many while giving up awful and above average results on balls in play, respectively, but the punchouts they provide allow them to still be average or better pitchers. Rounding out the rotation was Josh Tomlin who wasn’t very good last year mostly due to contact. He might be an example of how walks aren’t the worst thing in the world since he doesn’t put anybody on.

An elite starter, a solid wingman, and some stuff behind it sounds more ok than great, but a three-headed bullpen monster allows everything else to play up. The combined efforts of Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen were worth basically the same as what Corey Kluber provided. Imagine whittling together another Corey Kluber out of around $20M, and unlike the two-time Cy Young Voltron with this unit they can break him down to play matchups or give guys rest always ensuring two of the three can go on a given day ensuring that the team shouldn’t have to worry about at least 2-3 innings every single game. Other parts of the pen chipped in with Nick Goody emerging as a rather useful, unheralded arm. Soaking up the low leverage were Zach McAllister and Dan Otero showing this beast was a little more top-heavy than some of the other super pens we have seen.

Coming off a World Series appearance, in which, he pitched a boatload of innings, there were questions related around what Kluber might look like over the 2017 season. It looks like he got off to a pedestrian start that saw him looking a little better than average before missing nearly all of May to get things right. He did. What he put up following the disabled list stint was legendary stuff. He pitched like a relief ace while giving great volume, as well. Striking out over a third of batters while walking them at half the league average rate is a great start that few can match. Those that do often struggle with balls in play, but Kluber looks a good deal better than average there, too, even if observed results were a little more generous than they should have been. The model feels that Chris Sale was a little better due to the difference in workload, but this looks like a fine choice for Cy Young. He will enter 2018 looking for his third that might be his ticket to immortality as this late bloomer has little chance to amass counting stats like the relative beer leaguers that fill the Hall from before the game was taken so seriously. Even with the month off it was a lot of work so the start of the season could be fairly similar in ’18, but I wouldn’t be afraid to push over market value for him if you’re looking to build your rotation on a stud.

For a guy that many felt would never rise above swingman, Carlos Carrasco has lived something of a charmed life. There are few questions about the type of stuff he has. His issues relate more to how much will he give the team as injuries seem to be an annual event. It ain’t easy being an ace even if Carrasco has the stuff of one. He got off to a nice start, but was having an issue with pectoral tightness in an early May start. Things seemed to more or less oscillate around the average while he dealt with that, though things were trending worse and very much so when looking at the observed results. He was able to figure it out down the stretch with the last third of his season being fairly incredible at a time when the team was absolutely ripping through the league. I have enjoyed the risk-reward balance that comes with Carrasco in leagues in the past, but wonder if the reward is now smaller since he is a much bigger name than a mere couple of seasons past. The injuries are scary enough to keep me away, but varied enough to see him having a season where he avoids them altogether to put up one of the better seasons in the league.

As a student of the game it is always fun to read the insights of Trevor Bauer, the tinkerer, who really understands and appreciates his craft. He knows when things aren’t working, why, and then hits the lab to figure out how he can solve that hole. It is fairly similar to a batter trying to figure out how to cover that enormous plate space without giving too much away. A less open-minded pitcher might keep going with the things that always worked even if those tricks no longer seem up to snuff, but Bauer uses the rough stretches as fuel for the next iteration of himself. You can see why he needs to do this. There are a couple of peaks where he was of very little use to his club. Terrible performance from both the expected and observed perspectives. Doing that all year would see him out of a job fairly quickly, but he reinvents himself, looks like a league average guy between the peaks, suffers more failure, learns from it, and moves on to be quite good to close out the season. I cannot speak to his personality, but this looks like a guy that is going to make a heck of a pitching coach someday, and it is hard not to admire what he is capable of putting together today.

Looking at the Tribe at this level one thing becomes apparent. They love pitchers that can get the punchout. Ideally, they don’t walk anybody, either, but those types are rare. They have plenty of leash, however, for guys that can sit ’em down, and Clevinger looks like the newest addition. He walks too many at 12%, but with the top of the rotation well settled the team doesn’t need him to be a monster, merely a torch-bearer of their philosophy invading foreign lands to teach them all they need to know about earning strike three. He was fairly fortunate on balls in play as he should have yielded production that was a little worse than average, but instead saw much better results in reality. You can see this in the early-middle part of the season, but even more so to close things out. As far as backend guys go you could do a lot worse and there could be another gear here if he is able to curb the walks or see his expectations meet his observed results on balls in play somewhere in the middle. This feels like a guy with more utility in real life than fantasy, but with that level of strikeout you could be looking at a guy with some breakout potential.

Coming off a World Series appearance prior to last offseason the Indians had to feel like they didn’t have many holes left to fill. Then the market for Edwin Encarnacion dragged to the point that it made sense for the club to join the pursuit. The signing paid off in spades as the masher put up one of the highest xwRAA totals in the game. He saw a fairly large discrepancy between his observed and actual, which might be something that lingers due to his slow speed and pull heavy approach. The since departed Carlos Santana clocks in next after a good-sized gap with his own bit of underperformance on balls in play, but a similarly solid plate approach. Phenoms Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez were the next best with each also earning strong marks with production fairly similar. Low strikeout, average walk, average or a little worse on contact. Even with Santana moving on this is a wonderful nucleus of talent that will stay in house for several years to go.

We then get to the part-timers as we move down the list. Brantley’s limited usage is rarely a conscious decision as his body has been known to betray him, while Austin Jackson thrived seeming mostly lefties. Lonnie Chisenhall can’t play centerfield, but he is another platoon-heavy guy that filled his role well enough. Acquired during the season, Jay Bruce had a strong close to the season to help the team showing good walk and power to go with a league average strikeout rate.

The lesser hitters didn’t really get enough time to do real damage. Yan Gomes and Gio Urshela were two of the weaker bats, but they’re here for their gloves being a catcher and utility infielder, respectively. Jason Kipnis and Bradley Zimmer represent the old and the new for the club with Kipnis putting in what of his worst seasons as injuries dragged him down. Zimmer could be a fine player in the league someday. He showed a solid batted ball profile while walking at the average, but the massive strikeout rate is a major limiting factor. Gains there are easier said than done, but would allow him to become an exciting young player at a position of dire need.

Often, the hardest thing about a good team is making it better. Having above average to good players at most positions can force a team to be less flexible when it comes to filling those last few holes. Luckily enough for the Indians, by having a very strong infield they were able to go get the best bat they could once Encarnacion dropped back to market rates. You’ll note a good deal of underperformance outweighing the one stretch where he did show a little better than expected. That is probably a fair expectation going forward, which might limit your opinion of the masher, but not me. I’d be a little more concerned with his age if you’re in a dynasty league, but seeing his production carry over the course of the year, while still sitting in a good spot in a good lineup, you should have faith he can do something similar next year.

The bar for his offensive production is fairly low being a shortstop, and all, but Lindor cares little for what his peers do. Much of the season saw him as an average or so player with as much time above as below, but beginning with that first hump in the middle and then the bounceback to close the year you’re looking at a savage second half for one of the young bright lights in the game. It looks fully earned, too. Fantasy players will probably have to pay as if he was something like the second half guy, so I’m sure there will be some disappointment mixed in, but if you can buy him like the total line that includes his relatively lesser performance early on then you could be in for a goody good treat.

Looking strictly at the expected results for Jose Ramirez shows a guy that any fan would be more than happy to play all over the field for their team. You’re looking at an above average hitter who’s only foray into the negative zone came after some jerk tried to break his forearm with a heater. To say he bounced back would be an understatement as his close to the season was his very best stretch. Yes, the observed results are wildly, incredibly higher during the middle and end of the season, though otherwise line up fairly well, at least in direction if not amplitude. What he did last year probably isn’t coming back as the power displays were just too sexy, but as a guy with positional flexibility that is going to be an above average to quite good hitter you and the Indians could do a lot worse.

This past season for Jason Kipnis reminds this analyst quite a bit of his 2014 when he played, poorly, through a myriad of injuries. He missed more games this time around, but the greater lesson should be that despite the poor 2014 he was still incredibly good in 2015 – 16. Carry that logic forward and I think you shouldn’t be overly sour on one of the better hitting second basemen in the league, and he will come with the benefit of extra position eligibility this year in many leagues. The slow start gave way to a more typical stretch where he was quite good for awhile, but then the second half of the season showed just how enveloped he was by these maladies. He never broke average again with things seemingly getting worse as time went on. He looks like a fine buy low as kind of a forgotten man in his own room, let alone in your fantasy circles. I’d be happy to have him if the discount is real.

Leaderboards

Here are the top and bottom 20 pitchers and hitters for thus reviewed teams. Below that you will find the team aggregate lines for each aspect before totaling the xwRAA components to get a feel for how well the team should have performed. We have a new leader, but with only one team left will they be able to stay astride the top?



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