I think my most recent seven posts here at FanGraphs were about the Giants or the Royals or both, a necessary side effect of being a regular baseball writer during the World Series. Sometimes it feels like there’s only so much you can say about James Shields or Joe Panik or Lorenzo Cain, but really, why bother talking about something else during the most important games of the year?
With that finally behind us, we can look forward to 2015, and I keep thinking about the team that seems most likely, at this far-too-early date before any real offseason moves have been made, to make a move next year. You probably think I’m talking about the Cubs. I’m not talking about the Cubs. I’m talking about the Cleveland Indians. I was asked, during a live chat of one of the World Series games, whether I thought the Royals could hold off the Tigers in the AL Central next season. At the time, I said I thought Cleveland might be better than both, and now it’s time to put some words behind that feeling. In fact, let’s do this internet style. On to the <h3>’s!
Because good lord, that starting rotation
There’s a lot of ways to evaluate pitching, and WAR is both an acceptable and imperfect one. Let’s sort starting rotations over the second half of the season by that, and while second-half performance is hardly a guarantee of future success — it feels like we have that conversation about the Padres every year — I’m also not certain that enough people noticed just how good the Cleveland rotation was down the stretch. I’ve bolded each stat that they either led baseball in or came within 0.5 percentage point of doing so, which is more than close enough — and if not for Washington, they’d have ERA too.
|2014 second half starting rotations|
|Indians||25.4%||5.8%||44.4%||6.9%||2.95||2.72||11||19.6%||23 – 29|
|Tigers||22.0%||5.5%||43.0%||6.8%||3.95||2.98||10.7||16.5%||22 – 31|
|Nationals||21.0%||4.8%||43.3%||8.4%||2.74||3.20||7.9||16.2%||25 – 30|
|Yankees||20.8%||4.9%||46.1%||10.4%||3.45||3.37||7.7||15.9%||23 – 39|
|Royals||17.2%||6.7%||41.8%||6.6%||3.29||3.63||6.8||10.5%||23 – 37|
|Orioles||20.0%||6.8%||39.5%||8.5%||2.98||3.66||6.6||13.2%||23 – 30|
|Blue Jays||19.8%||5.7%||44.5%||10.0%||4.04||3.72||6.4||14.1%||21 – 39|
|Dodgers||23.1%||5.8%||44.9%||10.8%||3.39||3.32||6.2||17.2%||24 – 39|
|Rays||22.1%||6.8%||40.3%||8.5%||2.99||3.50||6.1||15.3%||24 – 28|
|Astros||16.9%||6.4%||46.9%||8.5%||3.46||3.70||5.9||10.5%||23 – 31|
|White Sox||18.5%||7.0%||42.5%||9.8%||4.17||3.96||5.7||11.6%||25 – 29|
|Athletics||21.2%||6.2%||44.6%||11.2%||3.70||3.73||5.5||14.9%||24 – 31|
|Rockies||16.7%||8.0%||49.3%||10.2%||4.29||4.07||5.5||8.7%||23 – 34|
|Mariners||21.7%||7.8%||46.6%||9.7%||3.41||3.60||5.4||13.8%||21 – 35|
|Braves||20.5%||7.3%||40.2%||8.3%||3.41||3.59||5.1||13.2%||23 – 36|
|Twins||18.1%||6.1%||41.1%||9.8%||5.35||3.94||4.9||12.0%||24 – 33|
|Angels||19.3%||7.9%||37.8%||7.0%||3.32||3.69||4.6||11.4%||22 – 33|
|Brewers||19.7%||7.0%||45.3%||9.8%||3.44||3.81||4.5||12.7%||25 – 35|
|Cubs||18.3%||7.2%||40.2%||8.4%||4.28||3.81||4.5||11.1%||23 – 33|
|Mets||21.1%||6.7%||45.8%||10.1%||3.65||3.61||4.4||14.3%||23 – 41|
|Pirates||20.9%||8.8%||52.3%||9.5%||3.14||3.63||4.2||12.1%||23 – 30|
|Rangers||15.6%||7.4%||38.0%||9.0%||4.15||4.39||4.1||8.3%||23 – 34|
|Diamondbacks||19.5%||8.1%||44.8%||9.4%||4.22||3.82||4.1||11.4%||24 – 28|
|Marlins||15.6%||6.9%||49.3%||8.3%||3.92||3.76||3.9||8.7%||23 – 36|
|Cardinals||19.0%||7.1%||43.6%||9.9%||3.59||3.90||3.5||11.9%||22 – 35|
|Red Sox||15.5%||9.6%||47.2%||9.0%||4.84||4.44||3.5||6.0%||24 – 35|
|Reds||19.2%||7.5%||44.6%||11.4%||3.45||4.15||3.2||11.7%||22 – 33|
|Phillies||17.7%||7.2%||48.0%||10.2%||3.72||4.00||3.2||10.5%||25 – 37|
|Giants||20.4%||5.9%||41.6%||10.4%||3.84||3.74||3||14.5%||24 – 38|
|Padres||18.9%||8.4%||46.0%||8.9%||3.62||3.80||2.8||10.5%||23 – 37|
I’ve also included a column we don’t use a ton around here, which is “age range,” and that’s not meant to be scientific — the Dodgers, for example, see their column skewed by the single two-inning start that 39-year-old Jamey Wright gave them as part of a bullpen game in late September — it’s also a little instructive. 29 teams had at least one start made by a pitcher 30 or older. The Dodgers had seven such pitchers, thanks to guys like Wright, Josh Beckett, Kevin Correia, and others. Half of baseball had at least three such pitchers. 27 teams had at least two. Two teams, the White Sox (Felipe Paulino) and Nationals (Doug Fister) had one. Only one team in baseball had zero starts by a pitcher 30 or older. You already know who it is.
Youth doesn’t exactly correlate to success, of course, so the point is not to simply say that “young equals good,” but to note that the Cleveland rotation was both outstandingly productive and particularly youthful for the last three months of the season. When you have a very young group of pitchers, and they’re striking out more than anyone, basically walking fewer than anyone, and not allowing homers, you’re off to an extremely good start.
Corey Kluber, obviously, is a big part of that, as his late-season run is going to get him some well-deserved Cy Young talk, though probably not enough to overcome Felix Hernandez, and he won’t even be 29 until April. Kluber alone isn’t going to make a rotation great, and so I direct you to what was one of my favorite pieces to write all season, an investigation into the resurgence of Carlos Carrasco. The short version: Carrasco credited an early-2014 demotion to the bullpen with allowing him to change his focus and realize how much better he is out of the stretch, along with using his fastball less in favor of, well, this:
Carrasco rejoined the rotation on Aug. 10, making 10 starts. In 69 innings, he allowed 10 earned runs with a 78/11 (!) K/BB. Steamer has him for 2.5 WAR next year. I’m taking the over, because I’m considering this an actual change in a talented pitcher, rather than simply a hot streak.
Beyond those two: Danny Salazar, not 25 until January, who was a mess in the first half (4.71 FIP) before a rebound in the second half (2.83 FIP) for health and mechanical reasons August Fagerstrom outlined in September. T.J. House, headed into his age-25 season and coming off a surprisingly useful 1.8 WAR / 3.69 FIP in 18 starts. Trevor Bauer, still not 24 until January, who put up a 21.6% K rate in his first full season. Even the moderately useful Zach McAllister, 27 next month, showed some utility as a starter, though he seems like a great candidate to be an off-brand Wade Davis in the bullpen instead.
It’s not an infallible rotation, because everyone other than Kluber carries some risk. But’s also a very talented one, especially since Carrasco finally began to show the promise that made Cleveland ask for him in the Cliff Lee trade so many years ago. Since we’re talking about pitching, let’s toss in closer Cody Allen as well, who just finished his second consecutive high-strikeout season in the bullpen.
Because look what’s happening to the AL Central
The Twins are going to be fun someday, what with Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Nick Gordon, Kohl Stewart, and Alex Meyer. But “someday” isn’t going to be 2015, not with Phil Hughes and… ???… in the rotation, along with questions up and down the lineup. The White Sox are a little further along on the same path, but still need big work outside of their core of Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Jose Abreu, and Adam Eaton.
Obviously, the division had two teams make the playoffs in Kansas City and Detroit, and that can’t be discounted. Then again, it’s hard to be particularly high on either club right now, again understanding that the as yet unseen moves of the 2014-15 winter will have a big impact. At the risk of making this another “FanGraphs bashes the Royals” session, it’s hard to ignore that BaseRuns considered them to be the luckiest team in the game, that they’ll likely need to replace James Shields in the rotation, and that there’s at least a non-zero chance financial issues require them to break up their late-inning trio. They may very well be back in the mix; they aren’t a dominant force in the division.
As for the Tigers, who have been that dominant force, they have other concerns. Victor Martinez & Max Scherzer, their best hitter and best pitcher in 2014, might leave. So could Torii Hunter. No one knows if Justin Verlander will ever be anything more than a mid-rotation starter again. Their bullpen is a disaster and could lose Joba Chamberlain; Miguel Cabrera’s October ankle surgery revealed previously unknown stress fractures that could impact his availability for spring training.
Obviously, the moves we see over the next few months can change all this. The door is open, is what I’m saying.
What team do the Indians try to take through that door? If they want, their 2015 can look nearly identical to the 2014 group. Jason Giambi is a free agent, and little-used backup infielder Justin Sellers, who was traded to Pittsburgh in October, are the only two members of the season-ending Cleveland roster who aren’t currently under control. That’s great for continuity, and for keeping talented young pitching. It might be less great for solving the biggest issues the 2014 Indians had:
Because they had two massive issues that are solvable
Way back in April, I pointed out how awful the Cleveland defense had been, even in the first few weeks. In August, Jeff Sullivan followed up to check just how bad the defense was on a historical scale. Even before the season, Eno Sarris was worried about this group. Regardless of how you feel about defensive metrics, it’s been a problem, and easily the worst unit in the AL. (On the other hand, imagine this rotation with a decent team behind them?)
There may be nothing the team can do to make it a good defense, but some of these problems are going to fix themselves. The “let’s play Carlos Santana at third base” experiment is mercifully over, Asdrubal Cabrera, long one of the worst regular shortstops in baseball, was traded to Washington. Once he was gone, shortstop was handled by Jose Ramirez, who impressed in a short sample…
…and is merely keeping things ready until Francisco Lindor arrives. David Murphy, over-exposed as a starter, was one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball, and simply getting him a platoon partner would help that immensely. This won’t solve the Jason Kipnis & Lonnie Chisenhall issues, but it’s difficult to see this all being quite as bad as it was in 2014.
The other issue? Good lord, that designated hitter play. Here’s the worst performances, by team offensive runs, by AL teams at DH since Ron Blomberg first stepped into the box in 1973. There’s 582 team seasons. This is bad.
582) 1977 A’s, -46.2
581t) 1983 White Sox, -38.1
581t) 2014 Indians, -38.1
This is slightly misleading, because it’s comprised of players who saw time at DH rather than showing only the performance at DH — the historical season splits don’t work that way at the moment — but you get the idea. Nick Swisher was awful. So was Ryan Raburn. So was Giambi. If Swisher, coming off two knee surgeries, looks more like his 2013 production or even his mediocre 2015 Steamer projection, this is an upgrade. Maybe this is where Zach Walters shows up, since he’s not really a shortstop.
The offense overall, fueled by Michael Brantley’s breakout and another quality season from Yan Gomes was better than you think it was, anyway, because while they certainly didn’t look like a team with the seventh-best wRC+ in baseball, that’s how they finished. (Also not hurting: The second-most value added on the bases, behind Washington, in MLB.)
* * *
Including arbitration, Cleveland has about $70 million committed towards next year’s club. Based on last year’s payroll, that leaves them with maybe $10 million or so to work with, which isn’t a ton. Then again, maybe this team doesn’t have a ton of problems. The rotation could be excellent. The defense has to be better. The offense could use an OF/DH bat, and maybe it’s time to investigate moving on from Chisenhall, who collapsed after a great first half. If you believe that at least one of Swisher, Michael Bourn, and Kipnis can bounce back from lousy seasons to even meet Steamer projections, maybe you have something here.
And if not? Well, there’s still plenty of time to go back on this one.