The Indians Did It Again

Officially, now, the Indians are going to the World Series, representing the American League. When they get there, they’re going to be fully rested. Some will speculate that they might be too rested. That’s for then. For now, it’s another celebration in Cleveland, which is a weird thing to write.

So how did the Indians manage to pull this off, doing away with the Blue Jays in five games? Let’s be honest. You already know the answer.

The Indians aren’t going to the World Series because of Michael Brantley. The star outfielder has been of just about zero use this year, owing to a messed-up shoulder. They’re not going to the World Series because of Carlos Carrasco. He helped them plenty during the year, but then he got knocked out. They’re not going to the World Series because of Danny Salazar. Like Carrasco, he also helped plenty during the year, but he hasn’t pitched in over a month.

And this is important, in the little picture: They’re not going to the World Series because of the offense. The offense has been underrated this season, and in the playoffs it’s been fairly timely. But in the ALCS, in which the Indians outscored the Blue Jays just 12 to 8, the Indians had a .544 OPS, to the Blue Jays’ .534. By wOBA, the Blue Jays were actually better, by a margin of .237 to .231. The hitting in the whole series sucked. The Indians’ lineup was the offensive equivalent of Ryan Goins. The Blue Jays’ lineup was the offensive equivalent of J.B. Shuck. The teams didn’t hit. The Indians just hit at a few more of the good moments.

The pitching has carried the Indians. The bullpen has carried the Indians. We’ve already been over this, but it worked perfectly again on Wednesday.

After the Indians swept the Red Sox in the ALDS, I put up a post that included a plot almost exactly like this one:

indians-alds

Why did I just go to the trouble of re-making a plot I’d already made? Don’t worry about it. That right there shows how the Indians distributed their plate appearances among pitchers. I observed that, in the past, Mariano Rivera would throw about 10% of the Yankees’ innings in the playoffs. And the Yankees were never shy about using Rivera fairly aggressively. Andrew Miller handled 15% of the workload in the ALDS. Cody Allen was right behind, at 14%. The Indians were able to get the ball into the right hands.

Here is the same plot, but this time for the five-game ALCS:

indians-alcs

Corey Kluber leads, again. Kluber is The Guy in the starting rotation. Miller, again, shows up at 15%. Allen dropped to a perfectly acceptable 9%. Bryan Shaw’s at 10%. A third of all the Blue Jays’ plate appearances came against the Indians’ three best relievers. The usage pattern here is a little less extreme than what the Indians did against Boston, but still, this is heavy bullpen usage, and now let’s put it all together!

indians-playoffs

The Indians have played eight playoff games. Kluber has handled more than a quarter of the workload. Miller is in second, tied with Josh Tomlin, and Miller, Allen, and Shaw combine here for a rate of 35%. To make the same point I made in the post after the ALDS, the Indians in August and September gave the ball to those same three relievers a combined 12.5% of the time. Their usage has nearly tripled, and with so many days off before the start of the next and final series, every arm gets to start fresh. This is something the Indians’ next opponent has to prepare for.

There’s one more thing I want to show. The distribution of playing time is interesting, but it doesn’t do anything in its raw form to account for the stakes. That’s where Leverage Index, or LI, comes in. For a given situation, an LI of 1.0 is average. If a plate appearance has an LI of 2.0, that means it’s twice as important as a normal plate appearance. So what I did for every Indians pitcher was multiply their actual batters faced by their average Leverage Index, and so I came up with an adjusted playing-time distribution:

indians-li-adjusted

When you adjust the numbers situationally, Allen takes over the top spot, having handled about 22% of the “effective” plate appearances. Then, in order, it’s Kluber, Miller, Tomlin, and Shaw. Focusing one more time on the top three relievers, they get a combined rate here of 49%. Basically half. In August and September, after Miller was acquired, the same three relievers in the same stat combined for a rate of 21%. So even when you take leverage into account, Terry Francona has leaned on these guys way more than twice as much as he did down the stretch. Fold in Kluber and, over the final two months, those four pitchers handled a third of the Indians’ effective playing time. In the playoffs, they’re at 69%. Kluber’s positioned to start at least two more times. Unless, you know, there’s a sweep.

Things are definitely at least a little weird here. You don’t want to say it’s been all about the bullpen, because so far in the playoffs, Josh Tomlin has a 2.53 ERA, and Ryan Merritt somehow just blanked the Blue Jays for 4.1 astonishing innings. I don’t know what to say about the bullpen’s success when Tomlin and Merritt have a combined ERA of 1.80. If it weren’t for Tomlin doing so well, this wouldn’t have gone so smoothly. And if it weren’t for Merritt doing so well, this wouldn’t have gone so smoothly. That’s a part of the picture, as the Indians haven’t badly missed their fallen star starters.

But ultimately, there’s no getting around it: The Indians have had the bullpen in lockdown mode. Francona hasn’t hesitated to get to his relievers, and he hasn’t hesitated to get to his best ones. He’s been extremely aggressive in doing so, and to this point they haven’t shown signs of wearing down. We’ve never really been that sure about how hard you can push an important reliever or two come playoff time. Francona has one more round to go, and then they all get the offseason off. There’s no real reason to go away from this formula. And this formula is trying to win the Indians a damn World Series. They don’t have much further to go.





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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