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August 4, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Going Down

by Jay Jaffe

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Two seasons after they fell one win shy of a pennant, the Indians are flying the white flag over Progressive Field. For the second straight summer, they've traded the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner in exchange for prospects, this after a squad projected to win its division fell flat on its face out of the gate. Cliff Lee's trade to the Phillies was just one of five forward-looking deals general manager Mark Shapiro made to dismantle this lost Tribe, with Mark DeRosa, Victor Martinez, Ryan Garko, and Rafael Betancourt leaving town as well.

It's tough to quantify disappointment, at least beyond "61 years without a World Champion." While we've already given the Indians their equivalent of a Golden Raspberry on the PECOTA front, that system's relatively brief existence (since 2003) requires turning to a different forecasting method for a deeper historical perspective. Years ago, BP co-founder Rany Jazayerli demonstrated that a team's recent history-their three previous years of performance, to be exact-is useful in predicting their winning percentage. Along the way, he confirmed a 20-year-old Bill James finding called the "Whirlpool Principle," the strong tendency of teams to be drawn towards .500, a concept that's more commonly known as regression to the mean. Based upon a multivariate regression analysis of 70 years of historical data, the formula Jazayerli emerged with was Y = .1557 + (.4517 * X1) + (.1401 * X2) + (.0968 * X3), where X1, X2, and X3 are the team's winning percentages one, two and three years ago, respectively.

Whereas PECOTA uses performance and playing-time projections, Jazayerli's formula is blind to a team's personnel, their skills and deployment, but it's available and effective over a much larger historical range. Via this formula, the Indians projected to post a .511 winning percentage after showings of .481, .593 and .500 over the past three years. As such, they rank as this year's second-most disappointing team, even given their modest projections:


Team            Pro    Act     +/-
Nationals      .427   .314   -.113
Indians        .511   .419   -.092
Diamondbacks   .508   .438   -.069
Royals         .462   .394   -.067
Athletics      .487   .423   -.064
Mets           .538   .481   -.057
Padres         .460   .406   -.055
Reds           .472   .433   -.039
Blue Jays      .519   .486   -.034
Twins          .525   .495   -.030
Brewers        .523   .495   -.028
Orioles        .448   .423   -.025
Astros         .509   .495   -.014
White Sox      .518   .509   -.009
Pirates        .441   .433   -.009
Cubs           .541   .534   -.007
Rays           .520   .543    .023
Cardinals      .513   .537    .024
Marlins        .499   .524    .024
Braves         .476   .505    .028
Tigers         .495   .524    .029
Phillies       .540   .573    .033
Red Sox        .555   .596    .041
Angels         .569   .612    .043
Yankees        .543   .600    .057
Mariners       .448   .514    .066
Rockies        .485   .552    .068
Rangers        .489   .573    .084
Giants         .464   .552    .089
Dodgers        .513   .619    .106

That 92-point shortfall would rank as the 22nd-highest of the post-strike era (1996 onward), while the Nationals' 113-point gap is one point out of 10th place. The Tribe figures to rise in those historical rankings given their recent trades; Clay Davenport estimates that their PECOTA-projected record for the remainder of the year dropped 50 points over the past 10 days, even while the team went 7-3.

What's gone wrong in Cleveland? PECOTA's division-winning projection called for a meager 86 wins (around three more than the above method suggests) and a 38 percent chance of making the postseason, casting them as weak favorites over the Tigers. Despite injuries to Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore, the offense has essentially lived up to expectations; projected to rank fourth in the league in scoring, they actually rank fifth. The pitching, however, ranks dead stinking last instead of the projected seventh.

The responsibility for that showing rests with both the rotation (13th in SNLVAR in the AL) and the bullpen (14th in WXRL). Blame Shapiro for assembling the rotation which has put up a 5.95 ERA beyond Lee. While his acquisition of Anthony Reyes was a worthwhile gambit that went sour due to elbow problems culminating in Tommy John surgery, his signing of Carl Pavano has brought plenty of bad (five disaster starts, those with more runs than innings pitched) to go with the good (10 quality starts), with a 5.37 ERA and 1.4 homers per nine. Wedge and his coaching staff own a share of the blame for failing to straighten out Fausto Carmona; hoping the sinkerballer would regain his stellar 2007 form after mechanical and injury woes ruined 2008, they suffered a 7.42 ERA over 12 gruesome starts before farming him out in June. The rest of the rotation-fillers-Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, Zach Jackson, David Huff, and Scott Lewis-apparently arrived from a big-box store where hittable lefties are sold by the gross; that quintet has given the Tribe 36 starts with a 5.73 ERA and just 4.7 strikeouts per nine.

The bullpen's been worse, a major reason the team is an AL-high 7.7 wins behind their projected third-order record, their Pythagorean record after adjusting for scoring environment, run elements, and quality of opposition. Poor early-season performances by Kerry Wood, Rafael Betancourt (since traded to Colorado), Rafael Perez (since demoted), and Jensen Lewis (recalled this past weekend after a five-week demotion) dug the team an early hole; they were already 4.7 games behind their third-order projection by mid-May. That was around the time the buzzards started circling Wedge, who presided over an uncannily similar debacle last year, when the relievers he rode hard late in 2007 spit the bit. Wedge has now presided over three slow-starting teams in the past four years, and while his overall record stands at 540-537, just two of his seven teams have finished above .500, and they've fallen a cumulative 29 games shy of their Pythagorean projections.

Shapiro will have to answer for his pledge to keep his skipper in place, and ultimately, for the drying up of the team's talent pipeline amid years of unimpressive drafts. From 1997 through 2008, the Indians' organization produced more major league talent than any other AL Central team, according to the Value Production Standings work which Steve Treder presented at the most recent SABR convention. Alas, an increasing proportion of that value, from Manny Ramirez and C.C. Sabathia down through Jeremy Guthrie, was delivered for other teams. As ESPN's Jerry Crasnick pointed out recently, Guthrie has been the most successful of the 19 first-round or supplemental pics on Shapiro's watch, but all of that success has been with the Orioles. Among those on their major league roster, top 2004 pick Sowers and top 2006 pick Huff, are among the glut of low-upside southpaws, while top 2005 pick Trevor Crowe looks like a card-carrying member of the Future Fourth Outfielders of America.

Ultimately, a failure to produce top talent from within is the bane of a mid-market franchise's existence, for magnifies a team's more expensive mishaps, such as the injuries sapping the value of Hafner's four-year, $57 million deal and Jake Westbrook's three-year, $33 million pact. This season is bitter enough given the dashed expectations the Indians, and unless the prospects they've acquired in recent weeks can develop to cover for the system's recent mediocrity, it will only keep disappointing.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

4 comments have been left for this article.

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