A Season of Improbabilities in Cleveland

Cleveland entered last offseason with one of the better rosters in baseball, but they spent the winter not offering Michael Brantley a qualifying offer, not bringing in an MLB-level replacement, switching out Edwin Encarnacion for Carlos Santana and Jake Bauers, trading away Yan Gomes, and then went through months of rumors that it would trade one of the best starting pitchers in the game, be it Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer. In the end, they kept the rotation intact, but did nothing for the outfield, relying on stars on the pitching staff as well as Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez on the position player side. In short, the team left itself vulnerable, and two months into the season, it looked like the chickens had come home to roost. With another two months in the books, the club is almost where they were expected to be to start the year.

At the beginning of every season, FanGraphs puts together Positional Power rankings. This is where Cleveland ranked at every position.

2019 Preseason Positional Power Rankings
Indians 17 21 20 1 1 29 22 25 1 15 9

There’s Lindor, Ramirez, the starting rotation, and then a bunch of below-average or worse players. Those rankings netted Cleveland an expected 97-win season, but they were heavily reliant on the stars delivering. Through 59 games, Cleveland was 29-30. Here are the main reasons.

  • Lindor missed the first several weeks of the season. In just three weeks, his replacements Max Moroff and Eric Stamets were nearly a full win below replacement. Stamets got two hits in 48 plate appearances while Moroff hit better than that with a wRC+ of 3. Lindor came back and performed up to his normal standards, but instead of the two wins Cleveland expected from shortstop, they ended up with around one-third of that amount.
  • Ramirez was terrible for two months. Instead of generating a win per month, he was a replacement-level player.
  • The outfield was even worse than expected. Bauers, Leonys Martin, Carlos Gonzalez, and Greg Allen were a combined 1.5 wins below replacement. Slightly below-average play from Tyler Naquin, Jordan Luplow, and Oscar Mercado in fewer plate appearances were not enough to bring the outfield to even replacement level during this time.
  • Mike Clevinger was hurt after just a few starts while Kluber missed a month. Even with Carlos Carrasco, Bauer, and Shane Bieber all pitching reasonably well, the rotation took a hit.

Based on the projections, we would have expected Cleveland to be 35-24 after 59 games. It’s not difficult to look at those bullet points and take away six wins even if we account for positive performances from Santana and Roberto Perez. If we gave Cleveland a 60% chance to win every one of their first 59 games, they’d end up with exactly 29 wins just 2.5% of the time and 29 or fewer wins just 6% of the time. Of course, Cleveland didn’t really have a 60% chance to win every game, because they missed Lindor and the expected Ramirez as well as Kluber and Clevinger. They played like a .500 team because they were a .500 team.

Since June 4, Cleveland has doubled their win total, but they have done so in just 40 games. Here’s what has changed.

  • Lindor has been healthy. In a quarter of a season, Lindor has put up a 115 wRC+ and been worth 1.4 WAR, nearly a six-win pace.
  • Ramirez has not been terrible. Since June 4, Ramirez has a 104 wRC+ and been worth nearly a win. That’s not a six-win pace, but a four-win pace will do. Since June 21, Ramirez has a 153 wRC+ with a .292 ISO in 97 plate appearances.
  • Gone are Martin and Gonzalez while Allen has just 23 plate appearances. Bauers has hit closer to average while Mercado, Naquin, and Luplow have been worth a combined 2.6 wins with individual wRC+ marks over 125 for each player.
  • The pitching staff has been a bit lucky with a higher left-on-base rate and a lower BABIP. Zach Plesac and Adam Plutko have combined to make 14 of the team’s 40 starts and have FIPs in the mid-to-high fives but ERAs in the low fours. The team still doesn’t have Kluber back and Carrasco is now attempting to recover from leukemia, Bieber has been great while Bauer and Clevinger have been solid. Adam Cimber and Nick Goody have posted excellent ERAs while Brad Hand has pitched very well.

Based on the projections, we would expect Cleveland to go 24-16 over 40 games. Again, it’s not too hard to look at the outfield play and few breaks on the pitching side and see how the team ended up 29-11 over that span. If we gave Cleveland a 60% chance to win every game, we’d expect them to win 29 games around 3.5% of the time and win at least 29 games 7% of the time. Without knowing the details, Cleveland’s start was less likely than their current run of play.

Going forward, Cleveland does still have some issues. Mercado’s start has been good, and while Naquin and Luplow are playing well, they are pretty clearly playing over their expected level of play. That’s not likely to continue. In the rotation, the team is hoping to get Kluber back, but Carrasco’s return is more uncertain. They might be able to get by without another starter, but that’s a risk. The team’s ERA might outperform its FIP by a little, but it’s not likely to keep up the nearly half-run differential from the beginning of June. Assuming there are no more injuries, this Cleveland team should win around 92 games and get itself into the wild card game. For a team expected to win the division, that has to be considered a disappointment. For a team that had seemingly little shot after seven weeks, a wild card appearance would be a success. There’s still more than two months to go, and there are areas where Cleveland could make themselves better to try and chase down Minnesota, but it will take more action than we saw this past winter.

Cleveland’s playoff odds do a pretty good job of representing how their season has gone up to this point.

The team is still heavily reliant on its stars, and if those stars deliver, Cleveland could be in pretty good shape. The team’s recent run of play hasn’t completely eliminated the results of the club’s poor offseason, but the team is going to have a chance to help the organization do what it planned to do all season long: thread the needle.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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4 years ago

I remember a couple years ago the Cardinals were trying to consolidate some of their depth into a star player. It seems like Cleveland is in the opposite position with great front end talent, but severely lacking in depth. Even though I don’t think trading Bauer makes much sense, I could see the reasoning in trying to get some depth by trading away one of their front end players.