Cleveland Is Now the Underdog

79 years ago Friday, Germany invaded France and the Low Countries, triggering a new phase of World War II and leading to France’s surrender six weeks later. Contrary to popular belief, the French army was not weak, and fought well. In the end, their failure was one of planning and imagination. While the Maginot Line actually held until everything else collapsed — again, contrary to what many people today think — the French leadership widely assumed they could easily take the offensive in Belgium, keeping the fighting on their left out of France, and that the Ardennes were unsuitable for any kind of invasion. Neither of those things turned out to be true and what with most of the reserve the French had in Northern Belgium or the Netherlands, they were unable to counterattack; the German crossing of the Meuse in the first week doomed them.

The Cleveland Indians, while obviously finding themselves in a considerably sunnier position than being in a life-or-death struggle with an invader trying to wipe them off the map, have struggled in 2019 and are currently looking up at the Minnesota Twins by a four-game margin; their scuffling is largely the result of same failures of planning and imagination the French exhibited. The team had a viable plan for winning this season, but it involved believing in a number of very specific things being true. Now that some of those things have turned out not to be true, the team finds itself backed into a corner, with many weaknesses that can’t be easily painted over. The fight for the AL Central is very real.

Cleveland’s argument for winning the Central relied on the team’s strengths, the things that no other team in the division could match. There was a very good case to be made for the projected five-man rotation to be the best in baseball; ZiPS pegged them to go 71-41 with a 3.47 ERA in 911 innings, combining for 20.5 WAR. The other four teams in the division combined only possessed a single starting pitcher who projected at a level high enough to even make Cleveland’s rotation — Jose Berrios of the Twins.

The team’s offense in 2018 could hardly be described as a poor one, ranking third in the American League in runs scored. But it was also an unbalanced offense, with two-thirds of the team’s position player WAR coming from just three players: the two MVP candidates in Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, and a healthy Michael Brantley. Brantley departed in free agency, with the team not even making him a qualifying offer that could have kept him on a one-year, $17.9 million contract, but the other two remained. Both still just in their mid-twenties and at key positions, the offense could hold the line with Lindor and Ramirez.

The bottom 18 players on the 25-man roster were expected to be mostly even with those of each of the other teams in the division; the rotation, Lindor, and Ramirez were thought to provide a top-of-the-team nobody could match. And if something went wrong, well, it was a two-team division thanks to the rebuilds, and Cleveland had bested the Twins by 13 and 17 wins in the previous two years.

Like the French in 1940, Cleveland believed a lot of things to be true that turned out to not be so. Mike Clevinger had back issues in his second start, knocking him off the roster; he can’t even theoretically return until June. Corey Kluber’s ERA was two runs worse than his FIP. There was an expectation that he’d be fine, but those expectations were dashed by a 102 mph liner off the bat of Brian Anderson that shattered Kluber’s forearm. He has no timetable for return, but the seriousness of the fracture means it won’t be quick, and Kluber believing he can “pitch again in 2019” is largely damning with faint optimism.

On the offense, Jose Ramirez’s missing BABIP from the final two months of the 2018 season has not returned. And while Lindor came back from a spring training ankle injury fairly quickly, his bat, while better than J-Ram’s, is still missing more than 100 points of OPS compared to 2018. Based on the preseason ZiPS projections, Lindor and Ramirez ought to have been worth 2.9 WAR by this point of the season. Instead, they’ve been worth 0.3, lopping an instant 2.6 wins off Cleveland’s record so far.

It’s worse than that. Projections aren’t set in stone, but are instead snapshots of a player at a given point. Every plate appearance or inning pitched provides new information, and projections change over time as a result. So to add to the 2.6 wins already lost is an additional number of future wins, stemming from the decreased rest-of-season projections due to the poor starts of Lindor and especially Ramirez. That’s another 1.2 wins, putting the Indians at four wins that they’re now unlikely to get back.

With the Kluber/Clevinger injuries, and only a minor projection downgrade for Carlos Carrasco, ZiPS now projects the front five to be worth 15.2 wins when 2019 is all said and done. Add in the likely replacements, none of whom ZiPS is excited about (in 2019 at least), and their increased playing time adds about half of a win back to the total rotation projection.

In sum, the combination of injuries and underperformance has cost the Indians about eight wins from the pre-2019 assumptions, at least in the eyes of ZiPS. How serious would lopping off eight wins from Cleveland in the preseason projections have been? Quite serious.

The consequences of losing eight wins, even with ZiPS believing Cleveland was clearly the best team in the division, look especially dire when you put the preseason divisional projection next to a reconfigured one, taking those wins away from the team in March.

ZiPS Mean Projected Standings – AL Central Preseason
Team W L GB PCT DIV% WC% PLAYOFF% WS WIN% #1 PICK AVG DRAFT POS
Cleveland Indians 96 66 .593 92.3% 3.6% 95.9% 14.2% 0.0% 26.3
Minnesota Twins 83 79 13 .512 7.7% 19.8% 27.4% 1.6% 0.0% 17.0
Kansas City Royals 68 94 28 .420 0.0% 0.1% 0.1% 0.0% 2.2% 6.0
Chicago White Sox 68 94 28 .420 0.0% 0.1% 0.1% 0.0% 2.4% 6.0
Detroit Tigers 68 94 28 .420 0.0% 0.1% 0.1% 0.0% 2.5% 5.9

ZiPS Mean Projected Standings – AL Central Preseason (-8 CLE Wins)
Team W L GB PCT DIV% WC% PLAYOFF% WS WIN% #1 PICK AVG DRAFT POS
Cleveland Indians 88 74 .543 66.7% 5.3% 72.0% 6.9% 0.0% 20.8
Minnesota Twins 84 78 4 .519 32.4% 8.0% 40.4% 3.2% 0.0% 17.4
Chicago White Sox 69 93 19 .426 0.4% 0.1% 0.4% 0.0% 0.4% 6.4
Kansas City Royals 69 93 19 .426 0.3% 0.0% 0.4% 0.0% 0.3% 6.3
Detroit Tigers 69 93 19 .426 0.3% 0.1% 0.3% 0.0% 0.5% 6.1

Those missing wins are enough to knock Cleveland’s projected edge from 13 games to four. And remember, these projections consider no improvement in any other AL Central team from their projections other than the additional wins they’d swipe from the Indians. So that much slimmer four-game edge doesn’t consider Martin Perez’s new cutter and surprising velocity, or that Jorge Polanco is already more than halfway to his career-best home run total. It doesn’t consider the surprising resilience of the Tigers and White Sox have shown at staying in the neighborhood of .500.

These reconfigured projections peg Cleveland with a four-game lead when everyone starts at zero. As of today, they do not start at zero, but four wins behind. You don’t need a mathemagician to tell you that, or really, even a certain middle-aged sportswriter who does weird math-projection things.

The assumptions made here knock a full quarter of a playoff run and a full quarter of a divisional title from Cleveland. When you look at today’s projections, which include the wins already baked into the cake and the changed projection assumptions from the other teams, it gets considerably worse.

ZiPS Mean Projections – AL Central – 5/9/19
Team W L GB PCT DIV% WC% PLAYOFF% WS WIN% #1 PICK AVG DRAFT POS
Minnesota Twins 95 67 .586 69.0% 18.9% 87.9% 11.7% 0.0% 26.1
Cleveland Indians 91 71 4 .562 30.9% 35.4% 66.2% 6.1% 0.0% 23.4
Detroit Tigers 75 87 20 .463 0.2% 0.8% 0.9% 0.0% 0.0% 10.0
Kansas City Royals 71 91 24 .438 0.0% 0.1% 0.1% 0.0% 0.1% 7.1
Chicago White Sox 70 92 25 .432 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.3% 6.5

Simply put, assuming 50 innings from Kluber in August and September, Cleveland is now projected to have only as strong a roster as the Minnesota Twins. The season’s far from over, but Cleveland is now the underdog.

“Now Dan,” you may be saying. “Bad things happen to all teams and it’s unfair to blame Cleveland for injuries or an AL MVP candidate hitting like Ozzie Guillen!” While that’s correct, what’s hurting the roster is that there wasn’t anything to fall back on. When it comes to injuries, Cleveland can’t hold a candle to the Dodgers of the last few years or the Yankees this year, and those teams assembled sufficient depth to deal with emergencies. The Dodgers would have liked if their assumption that A.J. Pollock would be healthy for a full season came true, but they didn’t depend on it; the team has a number of outfield options and has barely missed a beat. The Yankees would prefer to have not lost half their starting lineup, but they have a strategic reserve in the form of DJ LeMahieu, Mike Tauchman, Gio Urshela, and a number of prospects they retained, among others.

Cleveland’s outfield ranks 26th in baseball in WAR and LF/CF/RF, in the depth chart projections, rank 27th, 23rd, and 28th respectively. They even rank 29th in the designated hitter projections, an impressive feat considering 15 teams only play a DH in interleague road games. There was no unfortunate happenstance that caused this; it is simply what ought to have been expected coming into the season. Not a single Indians outfielder projected to collect even two wins in 2019, and the one with the best projection, Leonys Martin, just spent the final months of the 2018 season fighting a life-threatening infection.

The outfield ranked 17th in WAR in 2018, and that was with the presence of Michael Brantley, who hit .309/.364/.468 with 17 homers. But in one of this offseason’s most concerning transactions, Cleveland didn’t even deem Brantley worthy of a qualifying offer. If you’re unwilling to sign your team’s third-best player to a two-year, $32 million contract, pennies in major league terms, at the team’s weakest spot what are you willing to do?

In Cleveland’s case, practically nothing for the outfield. Jake Bauers was acquired in the Seattle/Cleveland/Tampa Bay three-way trade that also brought Santana back to town, but while young, Bauers was an outfielder who had a .700 OPS for the Rays in 2018 and has never had an .800 OPS at any level in the minors. Carlos Gonzalez was brought in after failing to match an .800 OPS in Coors Field each of the last two seasons. Hanley Ramirez was given the DH job on a silver platter after amassing 1.1 WAR over the last four seasons, and Cameron Maybin was signed to hang around in Columbus. He’s now in the Bronx. The team’s big offseason move was re-signing Oliver Perez for a one-year, $2.5 million contract. He was the only player to sign to a major league free agent contract with Cleveland the entire offseason.

When the front lines faltered, Cleveland has found little to fill in the gaps. They can’t be blamed for everything that’s gone wrong this season, but they can be faulted for a lack of ambition. The team’s window of contention is not a wide one and three years down the road, most of the team’s core is likely going to get too expensive for the team to keep. In an offseason in which they should have continued to try to keep that window open as widely as possible, they instead propped it with a flimsy plastic ruler and simply hoped for the best.

We hoped you liked reading Cleveland Is Now the Underdog by Dan Szymborski!

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Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Brandon Warne
Member

Holy Moses — 95 wins is the mean projection for the Twins? I felt bullish at 88 this spring.

timprov
Member
timprov

A 12-win improvement in projections over 35 games is pretty impressive for a team that was already projected over .500.

Sleepy
Member
Sleepy

It’s amazing what 57 games against the rotting corpses of the White Sox, Royals, and Tigers will do…

delv213
Member
delv213

Yup, Cleveland wasn’t over .500 against anyone other division but the AL Central last year and they still won 91 games.

They were 49-27 vs teams in the AL Central
They were only 42-44 in games vs everyone else.

samuraihelmet
Member
Member
samuraihelmet

Well one would assume that dumpstering the bad teams would be included in a projection. It’s the rest of the pack they’ve performed against that’s probably improving their projections.

Francoeurstein
Member
Francoeurstein

I have a really hard time seeing Minnesota as a 95 win team. I’d love to be proved wrong though

cowdisciple
Member
Member
cowdisciple

They’re 23-12 right now, so they’d need to go 72-55 the rest of the way to get to 95 wins, assuming a full 162. That’s .570 ball. I can see it, especially with the unbalanced schedule.

brat0029
Member
brat0029

They already are done with Houston (4-3) and Toronto (4-3) and have only played 4 games against KC/CHI/DET combined so far. They’ve banked some wins.