How the Indians Made It Into First Place

The Indians lead the Royals by two games in the Central. They lead the Tigers by a little more than that, and they lead the White Sox by a little more than that. The Twins are also a baseball team. These things have a tendency to shuffle, and it’s not like the Indians are guaranteed to remain where they are all season, but this is what anyone would want. They’re right where they want to be. They happen to be the only team in the division with more runs scored than allowed. The Indians loom as the greatest threat to the defending champs.

A first-place campaign is built upon an intricate foundation, one comprising many parts. Francisco Lindor, for example, has completely changed the look of the team since he first arrived. It helps the Indians to have the Royals playing without Alex Gordon. It helps the Indians to have the Royals playing without Mike Moustakas. The various issues of the White Sox and Tigers have also been rather indirect good news. A baseball team isn’t one of those big things you can boil down to a little thing. But if I can exaggerate just a bit, I prefer one key, at least besides the presence of Lindor. The Indians are in first in large part because of Lindor, and they’re in first in large part because of their surprising group outfield.

We figured the Indians would be competitive. A team capable of knocking off the Royals, unless you really didn’t agree with the projection for the Royals. In recent years, when one has thought about the Indians, one has thought about their pitching, and indeed, that’s mostly held up its end of the bargain. The Indians have had a top-10 rotation, and probably a top-half bullpen. The pitching has been there more often than it hasn’t, and there’s the matter of Lindor behind the pitchers, turning everything possible into an out.

The biggest question this year was going to be the outfield. You might remember all the conversations from spring training. The Indians would be connected to every available outfielder in the rumors, because it seemed like they’d have such a need. At the end of spring training, we had the Indians outfield projected for a combined 5.4 WAR, which ranked them 20th. Michael Brantley accounted for about half that. Brantley was slated to miss the start of the year due to rehab, and he’s currently back on the DL. In limited action, he was worth a WAR of 0.0.

The Indians outfield was projected to be pretty bad, and that was with Brantley for most of the year. Brantley has done nothing. Abraham Almonte is only just now on the verge of coming back from a PED suspension. It felt like the Indians were going to be desperate. Instead, as I look today, the Indians outfield ranks 10th in wRC+, and eighth in WAR. So, without the best player — the best player by far — the Indians’ outfield has been collectively good. It’s helped to prop the Indians up as the league approaches the trade deadline.

Six players we list as outfielders have batted at least 50 times. They are:

You can see why people would’ve been justifiably skeptical. And many of them probably still are. But, you know, some numbers are in the books, and I decided to whip up the following plot. You see the six WARs for those players, and then you see the preseason projected WARs for those players, given the same amount of plate appearances.

actual-projected-outfielder-war-indians

Every single player, by this measure, has over-achieved. Before the year, we would’ve projected this group for 1.7 WAR by this point in time. They’ve been worth a combined 5.3, so if you take that for what it is, that’s a difference of nearly four wins. In other words, plenty enough to drop the Indians down into the pack. Of course, you could also drop them down into the pack by just removing any really good player, like Lindor or Corey Kluber, but the outfield has probably been the most surprising successful component. A big, bright, glaring weakness has been right there with many of the better outfields in the game.

You note the presence of Marlon Byrd. He’s out. Cheated. So he won’t be helping the Indians anymore, in any facet. Davis has over-achieved, relative to his projection, but then he’s not really doing anything he didn’t do the previous two years. Martinez has hardly played. Chisenhall is doing stuff he’s done before. The most significant names here might be Ramirez and Naquin. Ramirez got displaced by Lindor, but he’s learned the outfield just as he’s learned to hit more line drives. He could already draw walks and make contact. Naquin is differently fascinating, as a one-time high draft pick in his first big-league exposure. Naquin didn’t show much power in the minors, and he didn’t show much power in April or May, but he’s already homered five times in June, flashing strength and batted-ball elevation. There’s reason to believe both Ramirez and Naquin have turned themselves into assets, and this is how a team survives an absent star and two suspensions. The Indians elected to do it their way, and for nearly three months, it’s worked.

The downside of over-achieving is that it’s hard to know whether to trust it. Regression to the mean, and everything. The Indians have gotten more than they expected from the outfield, and Brantley is sidelined for an indefinite amount of time. So perhaps this could crash and burn, which is why the Indians might begin to explore the outfield market. There’s nothing wrong with getting better. But the Indians are at least in a position where they don’t need to address the outfield, not more than they might need to address, say, the bullpen. There’s less pressure there, especially if they think Brantley’s getting close. This outfield was supposed to be a wreck. This outfield has instead been a strength. It’s not the whole reason why the Indians are where they are, but if it weren’t for this surprise, the Royals might be the team casting the shadow.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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David Palardy
6 years ago

“The Twins are also a baseball team.”

Lines like this are why I come here.

Dougmember
6 years ago
Reply to  David Palardy

I don’t know, I think that may be the least accurate sentence in the article.

scooter262
6 years ago
Reply to  Doug

I won’t quibble with this sentence by Jeff. If, on the other hand, he had said something along the lines of them being a *major-league-caliber* team, then I would have taken issue.

t
6 years ago
Reply to  Doug

They’ve got uniforms and everything!