The 2016 Cleveland Indians: A Ball-in-Play Snapshot

There’s a chill in the air, as Halloween and the long winter that follows have begun to beckon for those of us who make their home in the Midwest. This is a special fall season for many Midwesterners, as someone’s long regional nightmare is about to end: either the Indians or Cubs are going to win the World Series for the first time since either Truman beat Dewey, or Taft beat Bryan.

This week, let’s take a macro, ball-in-play-oriented look at each team and its key players. Today, it’s the AL champs in the barrel, as we examine granular data such as BIP frequencies, exit speeds and launch angles to get a feel for what made the Indians tick in 2016.

First, let’s take a step back and look at the club as a whole, using team-wide BIP data to projects its true-talent level:

Projected Team Record Based On BIP Data
CLE 5.29 5.37 0.493 4.08 3.76 0.540 4.08 3.60 0.562 91 71 94 67 3

The left two-thirds of the table is broken into three sections, projecting team winning percentages first solely via projected runs scored/allowed based on BIP exit speed/angle (first three columns), and then by first adding in actual offensive and defensive K and BB (next three columns) and, lastly, by incorporating net team defense vis-à-vis their opponents (next three columns). Cells throughout this analysis are color-coded; numbers over two full standard deviations above league average are in red, over one STD above are in orange, over one-half STD above are in yellow, and over one half STD below average are in blue. Ran out of colors at this point; over one STD below are in black; on occasions when the value is over two STD below average, it will be noted in the text.

The Indians aren’t a particularly eye-catching offensive club (as illustrated by some of the specifics included in the next table). They’re an average ball-striking club, and their strikeout rate is also in the league-average range. Their offensive walk rate is over a half STD higher than league-average range, but not enough to boost their overall offense materially above league average.

The strength of the club lies on the run-prevention side. Even then, the BIP authority allowed by the Indians’ staff was rather unremarkable, falling squarely within the league-average range. It’s not until you add back the staff’s Ks and BBs that its excellence starts to become apparent. The projected pitching staff ERA (before team defense) of 3.76 is over a full STD below league average.

I measure team defense by comparing a club’s actual and projected production versus its opposition’s. An average defense grades out at 100, with a better-than-average one earning a figure below 100 and a worse than average one, above 100. Team defense is the Indians’ friend. They rated as the second-best defense in the AL, behind the Red Sox, providing above-average defense on fly balls, line drives and grounders, as indicated by their defensive multipliers of .981, .969 and .911 in those areas, respectively. Their defensive strength is foremost in the infield, especially on the left side where two shortstops reside in the persons of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. Their overall defensive multiplier of .957 reduces their projected team ERA to 3.60.

On BIP alone, the Indians’ projected winning percentage is a mediocre .493. Adding back the K and BB puts them into the playoff mix, but short of a wild-card spot, at .540, while their strong team defense catapults them fractionally past the Tigers into the top spot in the AL Central at .562. Their projected record of 91-71 falls 2.5 games short of their actual regular-season mark.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the particulars of our team-wide and player-specific BIP analysis, looking at the components that support the general conclusions above.

Indians Team/Player BIP Profile
CLE – HIT 89.1 89.8 91.9 87.7 3.7% 32.9% 20.8% 42.6% 97 20.2% 8.6% 100 97
HIT ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———–
Santana 91.6 92.0 96.2 90.5 4.5% 36.7% 16.0% 42.8% 116 14.4% 14.4% 132 146
Napoli 90.6 95.1 93.3 83.7 6.5% 38.6% 18.5% 36.4% 139 30.1% 12.1% 111 110
Kipnis 90.3 91.4 95.4 86.5 2.6% 34.8% 23.7% 38.9% 106 21.2% 8.7% 113 104
Lindor 89.3 88.1 89.9 90.3 1.5% 26.9% 22.4% 49.2% 90 12.9% 8.3% 111 107
J. Ramirez 88.8 88.5 91.1 88.8 3.6% 32.7% 22.8% 40.9% 81 10.0% 7.1% 121 102
Crisp 85.6 87.0 88.6 82.7 1.6% 36.5% 21.9% 40.0% 62 15.7% 9.2% 86 75
Naquin 91.5 92.4 92.7 90.8 2.4% 27.7% 23.4% 46.4% 139 30.7% 9.9% 134 103
Chisenhall 86.6 85.0 89.3 88.1 4.7% 36.5% 23.9% 34.9% 75 16.7% 5.5% 101 78
R. Perez 90.0 92.8 92.3 88.1 3.6% 27.3% 15.5% 53.6% 90 23.9% 12.5% 60 91
———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———–
CLE – PIT 89.1 89.7 92.6 87.4 2.7% 30.4% 20.2% 46.7% 98 23.2% 7.6% 90 92 90
PIT ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———– ———–
Kluber 87.0 88.1 89.6 85.7 2.3% 34.0% 19.3% 44.5% 88 26.4% 6.6% 73 76 74
T. Bauer 90.4 89.4 94.2 89.7 2.7% 28.1% 20.4% 48.7% 98 20.7% 8.6% 100 93 97
Tomlin 88.2 90.2 92.2 84.6 2.8% 32.4% 21.0% 43.8% 104 16.3% 2.8% 103 114 101
A. Miller 87.8 89.7 88.7 86.3 1.4% 27.2% 17.1% 54.3% 79 44.7% 3.3% 34 38 35

Most of the column headers are self-explanatory, including average BIP speed (overall and by BIP type), BIP type frequency, K and BB rates and Projected Production, which incorporates the exit-speed/angle data. Each hitter/pitcher’s Adjusted Contact Score (ADJ C) is also listed. Adjusted Contact Score applies league-average production to each player’s individual actual BIP type and velocity mix, comparing it to a league average of 100. Some hitters’ Adjusted Contact Score and Projected Production figures are in red fonts. Those hitters both(a) exhibited extreme grounder-pulling tendencies (over five times as many to the pull side as to the opposite field), which (b) resulted in a deficiency in actual versus projected grounder performance. Such hitters’ projected grounder performance was capped at their actual performance level.

Each pitcher’s “Tru” ERA- is listed alongside his ERA- and FIP-. “Tru” ERA incorporates the exit-speed/angle data on all BIP, with actual Ks and BBs added back into the mix.

Indians hitters averaged 89.1 mph on all BIP, almost exactly one-half STD below the AL team average of 89.3. Their average liner authority of 91.9 mph was actually the lowest in the AL, over a full STD below league average. They somewhat compensated by having one of the higher team liner rates in the AL at 20.8%, over a half STD above league average. The same applied to their team fly-ball rate of 33.9%. As a group, they didn’t hit the ball all that hard, but had one of the more desirable batted-ball mixes of any AL club. Overall, both their team Adjusted Contact Score and Projected Production check in at 97, squarely in the league average range.

The only three Indians regulars to hit the ball materially harder than league average were Carlos Santana, Mike Napoli and Tyler Naquin. Santana, who had a huge second half, is their most authoritative slugger. He struck each BIP type materially harder than league average, while hitting plenty of fly balls. He did so despite a very low liner rate — unlike those of other BIP types, liner rates fluctuate significantly from year to year, so regression should be expected going forward — and a distinct grounder-pulling tendency that held down his grounder production. His superior K/BB profile sets a strong foundation for his overall game; his 116 Adjusted Contact Score balloons to 146 Projected Production (a proxy for wRC+). These projections don’t take speed into account; it’ s more a measure of hitting skill, so his somewhat lower 132 Actual Production level isn’t much of a surprise.

Napoli is your typical upper-cutting, aging slugger. Crushes the ball when he elevates it, but hits materially weaker-than-league-average grounders. His K and pop-up rates are through the roof, and he met Criteria A for extreme grounder-pulling status, while missing on B. It’s all or nothing, with his annual production trending downward toward an inevitable cliff. A 139 Adjusted Contact Score and 110 Projected Production is nothing special for his position.

Naquin is an interesting case. Loved him coming out of college, saw him as a hit-before-power middle-of-the-field guy worthy of a first-round pick. He didn’t move as fast as I thought, and he may be more of a power-before-hit guy now. He hits all BIP types harder than league average, though his performance was puffed up by a high liner rate and some seriously good fortune. He batted a ridiculous .519 AVG-1.426 SLG (248 Adjusted Contact Score) on fly balls, and .446 AVG-.770 SLG (191) on all BIP this season. Adjusted for context, his overall Contact Score drops to 139, which when combined with his very high K rate, makes him a barely above league average hitter (103 Projected Production). He’s good, but not as good as his 2016 numbers.

A big part of Cleveland’s success this year was the contribution of their three middle infielders. Yup, three. Ramirez qualifies for such status alongside Lindor and Jason Kipnis. Kipnis hits the ball harder than his two youthful counterparts, but none of three hit the ball materially harder than the AL average. Kipnis hit his liners over a half STD harder than league average, the other two did the same on the ground. All three had materially higher-than-league-average liner rates, however, while Lindor and Ramirez had two of the lowest K rates among AL regulars. Kipnis pulled the ball excessively on the ground, muting his overall actual and projected production.

No, Lindor and Ramirez don’t crush the baseball, but their Adjusted Contact Scores of 90 and 81, respectively, are plenty good considering their ability to put the ball in play. Lindor, in particular, is only going to get stronger; he’ll eventually be at least an average ball-striker, enabling him to post 120+ Projected Production marks. I’ve said it before in this space: he’s Jeter-esque offensively. Kipnis and Ramirez might be hard-pressed to improved their current production significantly. To have such three athletic, above-average offensive and defensive players at the same time is fairly unique, and a key reason for this club’s success.

Coco Crisp is basically late-career Shane Victorino: plays quality defense, but his offensive game has been basically reduced to look for something to lift and pull just over the fence. He’s a dead-pull grounder hitter, an easy overshift call, with limited offensive value outside of his baserunning. He might have a big October hit left in him, however. Lonnie Chisenhall was very fortunate to hit .724 AVG-1.031 SLG on liners, a 124 Unadjusted Contact Score marked down to 91 for context. His respectable actual 2016 numbers were due to this plus a high liner rate likely to regress moving forward. I kind of like Roberto Perez. His awful part-time 2016 numbers were due to a high grounder rate and .109 AVG-.130 SLG production on those grounders, which didn’t earn him a pulling penalty. He has a good eye, can drive the baseball to all fields when he does elevate it, and looks like a high-quality receiver to me. He has a future at this level.

On the mound, the Indians as a club managed authority well while compiling an admirable BIP mix. They allowed the second weakest liners (92.6 mph average) in the AL, while posting the league’s second-highest grounder rate (46.7%), sandwiched between the Yankees and Blue Jays. Their overall Adjusted Contact Score of 98 was solid, but their above-average K and BB rates reduce their staff “Tru” ERA to 90, just behind the Yankees for the AL lead.

Corey Kluber is obviously their best starter, and a worthy candidate for the AL Cy Young Award; if I had a ballot, I’d place him second behind Chris Sale. He’s also the only Cleveland starter who can truly match up with any of the Cubs’ top three. A pure K/BB guy who allowed loud contact early in his MLB career, Kluber has developed into a solid contact manager, with a solid grounder tendency and the ability to mute authority on all BIP types. This might be as good as it gets for him, as we can expect his low liner rate to regress upward moving forward.

The club’s other two ERA-title-qualifying starters, Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin, are league-average types, though it must be said that there is something to be said for simply being durable enough to qualify. Bauer has developed a solid grounder tendency, but yields some of the hardest grounder contact in the AL, with average velocity over a full STD above the AL norm. He has the raw stuff to be a huge K guy but has struggled with command. He could still have a big performance jump in his future, but for now, he’s merely a bridge to the pen. The world will be watching his bloody finger closely.

It’s a narrow path for success for a low-K-rate starter, but Tomlin has blazed one successfully. He doesn’t walk anyone, and though he doesn’t induce all that many grounders, the ones he does allow are hit very weakly. He did allow 32 homers this season despite adequate suppression of fly-ball authority; this simply illustrates the narrowness of his path. He too, is merely a bridge to…

Andrew Miller. That stratospheric 44.7% K rate sitting next to that 3.3% BB rate leaves an awful lot of room for error with regard to contact management. That said, Miller doesn’t need much margin. His 79 Adjusted Contact Score amplifies his excellence. His grounder rate is excellent if not quite Zach Britton-ian, and he tamps down authority of all types. That 35 “Tru” ERA combined with his quantity of innings thrown makes him a legit Cy Young candidate, more of one than is Britton.

Next time, we’ll take a similar look at the NL Champion Chicago Cubs. Kind of rolls off of the tongue, doesn’t it?

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Now we see that “I kind of like Roberto Perez” is code for “mark Perez down for two homers tonight”.