April 22, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
Are The Indians For Real?
On Sunday, Grady Sizemore returned to the Indians lineup for the first time since last May 16. After grounding out inauspiciously in his first at-bat, he hit a towering home run to right field in his second, and laced a double in his third. It was a performance much more reminiscent of the three-time All-Star center fielder who hit .281/.372/.496 from 2005-2008 than the shell of one who batted just .239/.328/.410 in 2009-2010, as troubles with his left knee set him on the road to microfracture surgery.
Sizemore's hits helped the Indians not only to a win over the Orioles but to an 11-4 record, the first time they've been above .500 at the 15-game mark since 2007, the last time they won the AL Central. Through 18 games going into Thursday night, the Indians now sit atop the combined Hit List, and the question must be asked: are they for real?
It's been a rough decade for the Tribe. After making the playoffs six times in a seven-year span from 1995-2001 while winning at a .569 clip (third-best in the majors), Cleveland posted just two winning seasons from 2002-2010 and slipped to a .483 winning percentage. True, the Indians also turned in 81-81 and 80-82 campaigns in which they were respectable if not impressive, and came within one win of a World Series berth in 2007.
Those were different times, though. The recent Indians have been a far cry from their former dominance, and their fall from that 2007 perch led then-GM Mark Shapiro to plunge into a rebuilding cycle by trading AL Cy Young winners CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in back-to-back summers, while unloading three-time All-Star Victor Martinez along the way. The club lost 97 games in 2009 and 93 in 2010, their first back-to-back 90-loss seasons since 1977-1978, the era of Jeff Torborg, Duane Kuiper, and all-red uniforms.
Coming into the season, PECOTA wasn't terribly optimistic regarding the Indians' chances, projecting them to finish at 74-88, the third-worst record in the AL. Even so, with the Tigers forecast to top the AL Central at a mere 83-79, and the White Sox and Twins both ticketed for 82-80, those projections alone suggested a reasonable chance of Cleveland joining the fray given the system's margin for error, around eight games in either direction. After their hot start, the Indians came into Thursday with a 24.8 percent chance at reaching the playoffs, according to our Playoff Odds report.
Even at this early date, a team doesn't get to the top of the Hit List or sustain a double-digit percentage chance of reaching October without a strong run differential. Through Wednesday, the Indians had outscored their opponents by 34 runs, 10 more than any other team. They've excelled on both sides of the ball: the offense is scoring 5.4 runs per game, second in the AL, while the pitching staff is allowing 3.5 per game, third in the league. Not surprisingly, both units are far above their heads.
The Indians offense was projected to rank just 11th in the league in scoring, less due to an inability to get on base (their .335 on-base percentage forecast was the league's fifth-best) than to provide pop (their .395 projected slugging percentage ranked 10th). Thus far, the team leads the league in batting average (.270) and OBP (.342), and ranks fourth in slugging percentage (.424). It's not hard to see that their standing in the first two categories is propped up by a .311 batting average on balls in play, which is virtually tied for the league lead and a whopping 29 points above the league average (a surprisingly low .282, possibly due to the cold weather). On the other hand, the offense has been multidimensional, ranking fourth in the league in isolated power (.154) and sixth in unintentional walk rate (9.1 percent), all while calling one of the majors' more pitcher-friendly parks home.
Looking at the lineup, you can see where it could jell into a respectable unit. Though he's off to a sluggish start thus far, Carlos Santana is a star in the making, back in action after an LCL tear ended his rookie season after just 46 games of .260/.401/.467 hitting. He's projected for a .301 True Average and a team-high 4.6 WARP. First baseman Matt LaPorta, a former first-round pick who's been a bust so far at the big league level (.232/.307/.388 in 623 PA), is hitting .259/.369/.463, with much-improved walk and strikeout rates. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, an asset given his respectable .284/.347/.394 through his first four seasons, is hitting .284/.341/.500 with four homers, one more than he hit all of last year; if he can sustain some of his new-found power to go with his glove, he'll be an even more valuable cog at a position where talent is suddenly scarce. Michael Brantley, who played center field in Sizemore's absence, is hitting a torrid .328/.413/.391 with 10 walks in 76 plate appearances, having improved his approach after drawing just 30 passes in his first 446 major league PA. All of those players are 26 and under, and Cabrera's the only one who has reached his arbitration years. This is a nucleus to build on.
To that bunch, add the heavy hitters. Shin-Soo Choo is off to a slow start (.214/.278/.329), but after his .302/.397/.500 from 2008-2010, there's no reason to think he won't come around. Travis Hafner is hitting .351/.406/.632 thanks to a recent hot streak; he has four homers through his first 64 PA, roughly double the clip at which he went yard over the past three seasons amid shoulder injuries. Then there's Sizemore, who added another double in his second game back. Prior to his homer on Sunday, he hadn't hit one out since August 27, 2009, because his knee woes cost him his ability to generate power by driving off his back leg.
Obviously, those are a lot of ifs required for this team to maintain an above-average offense, starting with the heath of those last two players, and significant advances from two more who have yet to produce at levels appropriate to cornermen. The bigger obstacle to the team stepping forward, though, is the pitching staff. The Indians were projected to allow 781 runs, the league's third-highest total, in large part because they don't miss many bats; their forecasts of 3.6 walks per nine and 6.6 strikeouts per nine both rank as the league's third-worst as well, and their projected rate of allowing homers is just seventh at 1.0 per nine.
When I did the AL Rotation Rumble last month, Cleveland's starters ranked 13th, ahead of only the Royals. None of their five starters (Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco, Mitch Talbot, and Josh Tomlin) project to have an ERA below 4.20, and no combination of any number of them stacks up well against a like number of any other team, particularly among the AL Central contenders. Looking at the Rumble table, which expresses the total PECOTA WARP of each team's top nstarters:
Masterson and Carrasco are the only starters who project to strike out more than 7.0 per nine; at 7.1 apiece, their forecasts are right at league average based on the data in the Player Forecast Manager. The other three are in the 5.6-6.2 range, 10 to 20 percent below league average. Carmona and Masterson both figure to have groundball rates around 54 percent, while Talbot and Carrasco are neutral, and Tomlin is a flyballer. PECOTA sees the latter two as having significant gopher-ball problems.
Through four turns from Carmona, Masterson, and Carrasco, three from Tomlin, and two from Talbot, there is good news to be had. The team has gotten a league-high 14 quality starts in its first 18 games, and is fifth in innings per start at 6.3. Masterson hasn't allowed more than two runs in any start, while getting anywhere from zero to nine strikeouts. Carmona, unlike previous years, is missing bats while not walking many hitters (20/7 K/BB ratio in 24.1 innings), though he has yielded a team-high four homers. As a unit, the rotation's strikeout and walk rates both rank ninth, propped up by an unsustainably low home run rate (0.6 per nine) that's sure to rise as the weather warms.
As for the relievers, they ranked 11th in my AL Bullpen Blowout, done in by high walk and homer rates that led to a projected 3.79 ERA. In that evaluation, I went just five deep into the bullpens to avoid weighing the projections down with too many sub-replacement-level contributions, but it's telling that the Indians' resultant unit projected for just 292 innings, the third-lowest total; in other words, we've only looked at the top of the iceberg, and what's below the waterline ain't pretty. Chris Perez is a decent closer, and lefty Rafael Perez has had some success dating back to 2007, but this is a team that has thus far used Chad Durbin in a high-leverage role. Good luck with that.
Both the rotation and the bullpen are being propped up by the defense, which ranks second in the league with a .737 Defensive Efficiency, 33 points above league average. Expect that to fall; the team ranked 12th in the league last year, and while second baseman Orlando Cabrera was once a standout defender, he was well below average at shortstop in each of the past two seasons, and is just learning his new position. Jason Donald, who began the year on the disabled list due to a broken middle finger, is penciled in at third base, a spot he's played just six times in the minors. There's no telling yet how the knee injury will affect Sizemore in center; like Carlos Beltran, he may have to move to a corner. It's possible that Donald could move back to second base later this summer if the team deems top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall ready for the big time, but that's not a game-changer on the defensive side.
The good news is that this hot start avoids a problem that dogged previous Cleveland clubs. Under Eric Wedge, the team was a combined 23 games below .500 in March and April from 2003 through 2009, while running 11 games above .500 the rest of the time. Such slow starts cost the team a playoff spot in 2005 and led to the quick dismantling of the 2007 ALCS participants, to say nothing of what it must have done to the clubhouse. Whatever he is thus far in his young managerial career, Manny Acta is not Wedge, and having a team that leaves the gate strongly could be a confidence builder for the skipper as well as his charges.
The Indians are playing above their heads, and while they figure to come back to earth, they've already gotten a significant leg up on the Tigers, White Sox, and Twins, all of whom are below .500 and facing problems of their own. The Tigers' rotation behind Justin Verlander has looked shaky, they just lost Victor Martinez to a groin strain, and the 2010 version of Austin Jackson is now appearing on the side of milk cartons. The White Sox aren't sure what they're going to get out of Jake Peavy, who began the year on the DL, and their bullpen is the top plotline in the ongoing South Side soap opera. The Twins have gotten lousy performances from Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano, have yet to see Joe Nathan or Justin Morneau approach their pre-injury form, and are down Joe Mauer for the immediate future.
Given all of that, it's not outside the realm of possibility that the Indians can contend, and at the very least, it appears they may be about to emerge from the doldrums. That alone would make this a positive season in Cleveland; anything else would be just gravy.