Brad Wochomurka talks with Sheldon Ocker about Cleveland’s chances in the Indians Hope and Faith edition of Baseball Prospectus Radio. Click to download the mp3.

“We’re a front office that craves information, craves it in every form…We’re going to use that information and what’s important is the framework you put that information into, how you weight it, and the decisions you make.”
–Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro during the Fantasy Summit last month at Jacobs Field.

There are more than a few teams that will present, shall we say, a challenge for our talented array of writers as they consider this particular byline. The Indians, despite a 78-84 record and fourth place finish in the division, are not one of them. There is indeed reason for hope and faith at the Jake by the Lake in 2007.

It would, however, be an affront to this author’s “baseball worldview” to suggest that any team has a very good shot at winning the World Series, permeated as the playoffs are with that admixture of circumstance and contingency. But still, there are at least five good reasons to believe that the Tribe in 2007 will challenge for the division title in the supposed “best division in baseball.” As the 2006 Cardinals showed, once you get to the dance almost anything can happen.

#1 A Bullpen Resurrection

Just how bad was the bullpen last season? Historically bad. After recording a WXRL (wins above replacement level, taking into account game context and closer-usage patterns) of 12.5 in 2005 (in the top 5% of all bullpens since 1959) largely on the back of Bob Wickman, the club fell to -1.53 in 2006, ahead of only the Royals and in the bottom 3% of all teams since 1959 (the 1999 Royals are the reigning worst in this regard, delivering a ghastly -7.59).

As documented in Baseball Prospectus 2007 it wasn’t just that the pen performed poorly, but that they did so when the game was on the line. They lost seven games in which the team was leading after eight innings, racked up 27 losses, blew 21 saves in 45 opportunities, and allowed 45.9% of runners on base when a reliever entered the game to score besting only the Giants (50.0%) and White Sox (46.9%). The finished second from the bottom in team WXRL.

As discussed by John Perrotto on Wednesday, to address this issue Shapiro signed a bevy of veteran free agents, bringing in Joe Borowski, Keith Foulke, Roberto Hernandez, and Aaron Fultz at a cost of over $9 million, as well as signing Cliff Politte to a minor league contract, although he won’t be immediately ready to throw off the mound.

This appears to be a strategy formulated both on the idea of “quality from quantity,” and away from a reliance on young pitchers in the bullpen. Although the latter strategy manifestly didn’t work for Dan O’Dowd in Colorado in 2006, Shapiro also didn’t have a lot of options in his system. With the retirement of Foulke in mid February those options have diminished. A respectable performance from Borowski and/or Hernandez and the projected development of Fernando Cabrera–who could claim the closer role sooner rather than later–easily could add three to four wins to their total over 2006. Coupled with another helping of Rafael Betancourt (who seems to be fully recovered from the back injury that shelved him early in 2006), and the best of Jason Davis, Matt Miller, Tom Mastny, Juan Lara, Rafael Perez and Ed Mujica and the bullpen could contribute as many of five to seven additional wins.

#2 The Offense Holds Serve

Despite playing in a pitcher’s park (park factor .961) the 2006 Indians were second in the league in runs scored per game (5.37) behind the Yankees. They were also second in team EqA (.273).

Yes, it may be a stretch to believe that Grady Sizemore and especially Travis Hafner will duplicate their offensive output from 2006, but even some regression from both, as forecasted by PECOTA, will likely be offset by a rebound from Jhonny Peralta and possibly productive Earl Weaver-style corner outfield platoons with Jason Michaels and David Dellucci in left and Trot Nixon and Casey Blake in right. Along with Shin-Soo Choo and Franklin Gutierrez waiting in the wings, the club now boasts plenty of depth, offering a solid hedge against some declines from Nixon and/or Blake.

There is little cause to expect decline in the infield. The acquisition of a PETCO-free Josh Barfield and ensconcing Andy Marte at third makes it likely they’ll together do at least as well as Ron Belliard/Joe Inglett and Aaron Boone did in 2006. The Indians may be sitting on gold, as PECOTA likes Marte (40% breakout, 61% improve) and Barfield made an appearance on Peter Gammons’ short list of breakout candidates with Nate Silver noting that PECOTA largely agrees save for a caveat related to league difficulty.

Victor Martinez may continue his increasing OBP and decreasing power trends, but that still makes him among the best offensive catchers in the game, and therefore an excellent reason for leaving him primarily behind the plate (a “competitive advantage” Assistant GM Chris Antonetti said recently). First base provides the only cause for concern, since PECOTA doesn’t see a lot of upside for Ryan Garko (despite 45 RBI in 50 games that has some writers all aglow with excitement) while splitting time with Blake and Martinez in yet another platoon.

Still, all of that makes for a lineup with no easy outs, which means it doesn’t take that much hope nor faith to conclude that they’re poised to approximate their 2006 success.

#3 A Reliable Rotation

History has shown that the average team is going to give upwards of 25% of its starts to pitchers who were not in the rotation on Opening Day. In 2005 the Indians were the exception to the rule, getting 158 starts from its top five. Last season, however, C.C. Sabbathia‘s early-season quadriceps strain and Jason Johnson‘s general ineffectiveness limited the top five to 124 starts. Still, the starters performed well enough, ranking third in the league in ERA at 4.31 ERA behind Detroit (4.00) and Los Angeles (4.16).

There’s no reason to think that the top three in Sabathia, Jake Westbrook, and Cliff Lee won’t be solid and continue to take their turns regularly. And beyond hope and faith, it’s just possible that Sabbathia will improve slightly, that groundballer Westbrook will be greatly aided by a better infield defense, and that Lee, despite PECOTA’s skepticism, will finally have a breakout season. That optimism is shared both by Shapiro, who has mentioned that he thinks Lee has the highest upside of his starters, and Buster Olney of ESPN, who ranked Lee as the most intriguing starter of 2007. Some of this optimism is predicated on the idea that he has ample room to increase his pitch efficiency, as evidenced by the fact that his pitches per batter faced increased last season from 3.70 in 2005 to 3.81 in 2006. By making adjustments in how he attacks hitters, primarily by being more aggressive but also through pitch selection, he’ll be able to bring his strikeout rate back up (it fell to 5.3 K/9 last season) while minimizing his pitch count. In any case, what is clear is that it was Lee who was most hurt by the bullpen woes of 2006, losing five of his twelve quality starts over a four-month span.

The test will be in the final two spots, where Paul Byrd will attempt to stave off additional age-related decline, and where lefty Jeremy Sowers will be handed the ball. Indians fans may be more concerned about the latter than the former–Sowers was the beneficiary of a .257 batting average on balls in play despite having a good but not great groundball/fly ball ratio, and striking out a ridiculously low 3.58 batters per nine innings. For this reason PECOTA is very pessimistic, generation a range where Sowers has a 1% shot at a breakout, 9% for his ability to improve, and 65% chance of collapse. That said, in his favor he’s thrown less than 350 innings in his professional career, recorded respectable strikeout rates in the early minor leagues (7.1 K/9 overall although 5.06 at AAA) and college (9.2 K/9 in his final two college seasons at Vanderbilt), and by all accounts has a history of being able to make adjustments. But even if his development doesn’t go as planned it appears 22-year-old Adam Miller should be ready to step in, with 23-year-old Fausto Carmona waiting in the wings in Buffalo.

With comparatively few questions in the core of the rotation and the possibility of improvement over 2006 it’s just possible that the starting pitching will once again prove to be a strength.

#4 Filling the Holes

In 2006 the Indians had a team defensive efficiency of .686, 25th in all of baseball. Much of the club’s problems in that regard have been heaped on the supposed defensive nosedive of Peralta, with an emphasis on his loss of range, his weight, and his 13 first-half errors. At first glance the numbers appear to tell a different story. Peralta rated as +24 in FRAA (fielding runs above average) and a very respectable 11th among shortstops in 2006 in David Pinto’s probabilistic model of range. Looking more closely, however, one notes that Peralta was likely a beneficiary of the poor defenders around him, and as a result took more than his share of pop-ups while performing below average on groundballs near normal shortstop positioning.

Be that as it may, an offseason conditioning program at the Indians academy in the Dominican Republic and LASIK surgery have things looking up for Jhonny in just the first weeks of camp.

The real improvement should come from those surrounding Peralta. The acquisition of Barfield at second base was made as much for his defense (+10 FRAA) and baserunning (he ranked 20th in my total baserunning metrics at +3.64 runs) as his offense, at least in the short term. A full season of Marte at third (+7 FRAA) could be another boon. The combination of Barfield and Marte–as opposed to Boone and Belliard–could save an additional 20+ runs as well as helping to stabilize Peralta’s status as the shortstop for the immediate future.

Indians fans can also be hopeful that the defensive troubles of Victor Martinez, especially as concerns 100 stolen bases in 122 attempts on him in 2006, has been corrected. The second half looked much more promising, as he threw out 13 of 52 runners, and he has worked on his throwing mechanics this winter.

#5 What Goes Around Comes Around

In 2006 the Indians were anywhere from -9.6 to -11.3 in first to third order wins. In other words, given their ratio of runs scored (870) to runs allowed (782) and the aggregate of their offensive events and those of their opponents as calculated by EqR, they should have won anywhere from 88 to 90 games.

Now, some of that poor showing can be squarely laid at the feet of the bullpen who, as we’ve documented, had a penchant for blowing games that were otherwise won. The team was also a mere 18-26 in one-run contests. Even so, given that the club has oscillated from overshooting the mark in 2005 to a poor performance in 2006, lady luck (the title of this series is Hope and Faith, after all) would tell you in 2007 that they’ll at least break even, which could add an additional seven to nine wins.

Further, there is little indication in their run distribution from 2006 (as shown below) that they were inconsistent in scoring between four and seven runs, a feat that often allows a team to win their fair share of one-run games. What is interesting, however, is that when scoring seven, eight, or nine runs the Indians were just 18-9 (.667), while the rest of the league won at a .861 rate. From this it would seem that indeed there were many days when the offense was engaging in a Sisyphean battle against the pitching staff.

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A Little Faith

The core of the Indians remains among the youngest in baseball (sixth-youngest overall in 2006) but when the rubber meets the road, the hopes for 2007 rest in large part on the performances of a trio of ancient relievers. Their performance, along with those of starting pitchers Cliff Lee and Jeremy Sowers, and infielders Andy Marte and Jhonny Peralta, will likely tell the tale.

Put another way, the upside is that an improved pen, a pitching staff, an offense that replicates their 2006 output, a defense that picks up a couple extra wins, and a little help from lady luck could all combine to put the Indians right back at the 90-95 win level. That should be enough to put them in the hunt come September.

Brad talks with Sheldon Ocker about Cleveland’s chances in the Indians edition of Hope and Faith Radio:

Click to download mp3
(4.1 MB)