The Indians Have Won Despite Themselves by Jeff Sullivan August 17, 2017 It’s been a long season, so let me remind you of the start. These days, Sam Dyson is pretty good, and he pitches for the Giants. In April, Sam Dyson was pretty bad, and he was pitching for the Rangers. In the first game of the season, the Rangers led the Indians 5-3 in the seventh. The lead slipped away, and Dyson allowed three runs in the ninth to take the loss. In the third game of the season, the Rangers led the Indians 6-4 in the ninth. The lead slipped away, and Dyson allowed five runs to take the loss. The big knock was a one-out grand slam by Francisco Lindor; that currently stands as having been the third-highest-leverage plate appearance of the Indians’ year. The half-inning was as unforgettable as any half-inning can be in the first week of April. The Indians got things started with a sweep, a sweep that featured plenty of good clutch hitting. That’s a great way to kick off a campaign, and it comes as little surprise that, in the middle of August, the team’s sitting fairly comfortably atop the AL Central. They’ve done well to hold off the Twins. They’ve done well to hold off the Royals. Ask the Indians, and they’d probably tell you they’ve expected to return to the playoffs from day one. They are plenty good enough. And yet in one sense, while the Indians have a good record, they’ve won despite their own efforts. This page shows the current BaseRuns records. The super-quick summary of BaseRuns is that it estimates wins and losses based on underlying performances. It attempts to strip away factors it interprets as lucky or unsustainable. By actual winning percentage, league-wide, the Indians rank sixth. By BaseRuns winning percentage, league-wide, the Indians rank third. Within the Central, they’re clear of the Royals by 5.5 games, and they have a six-game lead over the Twins. Turn to BaseRuns, however, and the lead grows to 15.5 games over the Royals, and 20 games over the Twins. A comfortable lead becomes a laughable one. BaseRuns thinks the Indians have been all by themselves. Nobody wins championships based on BaseRuns. And when there are deviations, the reasons are often numerous. There are reasons why the Twins and the Royals have both overachieved. I’m choosing here to highlight but one single factor. Why haven’t the Indians been quite as good as it seems like they should’ve been? I’m going to borrow from the Baseball Reference team-splits page. 2017 Indians Offense Leverage BA OBP SLG OPS tOPS+ High 0.231 0.309 0.369 0.678 77 Medium 0.262 0.342 0.450 0.792 106 Low 0.266 0.338 0.450 0.788 105 SOURCE: Baseball-Reference Of course, FanGraphs has its own leverage splits, and I am contractually obligated to be brand-loyal, but I’m using data from Baseball Reference because of that tOPS+ statistic. It’s like regular OPS+, except for any given split, it’s calculated for a player or team relative to his or its overall performance. As always, with OPS+, average is 100. The key number in that table is 77. It’s a reflection of how poorly the Indians have produced in the most important spots. Is this something the Indians have done before? Not so much. 2016 Indians Offense Leverage BA OBP SLG OPS tOPS+ High 0.264 0.340 0.427 0.767 103 Medium 0.266 0.335 0.440 0.775 104 Low 0.257 0.320 0.423 0.743 96 SOURCE: Baseball-Reference A year ago, in high-leverage situations, the Indians ranked 11th in baseball in tOPS+. Neither great nor bad. Just totally normal. This year, they’re dead last. I probably don’t need to spell out for you the link between high-leverage under-performance and overall team under-performance. A metric like BaseRuns tries to strip away the influence of timing. But, in reality, those high-leverage situations are the most critical. There’s the most to gain or lose. If you are unusually lousy in the biggest spots, that’s going to mean more than going hitless for a few too many first innings. Using the Play Index, I examined the Indians as a franchise, going back to 1960. This information doesn’t exist for the entirety of baseball history, so I went with 1960 as a simple cutoff. On a year-to-year basis, here is how the Indians have done in the high-leverage split, by tOPS+. This year, again, they’re at 77. Their previous low was 89. One would expect this season’s figure to move, as there’s still time for good ol’ regression to take place, but if the season were to end today, the Indians would have one of the very worst marks on record. Here’s the bottom 10, with the Indians highlighted. Worst High-Leverage Hitting Team Season tOPS+ Athletics 1994 74 Twins 1978 77 Angels 1981 77 Rangers 2001 77 Indians 2017 77 White Sox 1970 80 Brewers 1980 80 Devil Rays 1999 80 Tigers 2003 80 Devil Rays 2006 80 SOURCE: Baseball-Reference If you figure all the 77s are tied, then only one team has been worse — the 1994 A’s, who played 114 games. It’s not a coincidence such a number would’ve been achieved in a strike-shortened season. Again, the probability is that the Indians finish higher than 77 — if you look at their breakdown, this isn’t the kind of thing anyone would’ve expected. Indians High-Leverage Hitting Player PA 2017 tOPS+ Career tOPS+ Carlos Santana 95 84 106 Jose Ramirez 91 26 91 Edwin Encarnacion 89 118 97 Francisco Lindor 83 137 94 Yan Gomes 64 70 91 Michael Brantley 61 98 110 Jason Kipnis 47 50 98 Bradley Zimmer 46 43 43 Austin Jackson 44 75 103 Brandon Guyer 37 72 54 Roberto Perez 32 201 108 Lonnie Chisenhall 32 52 121 Abraham Almonte 30 35 105 SOURCE: Baseball-Reference Zimmer is a rookie, without a track record. Out of the other players, four are exceeding their career high-leverage tOPS+ marks, while eight have under-performed. There’s no good reason why these Indians ought to be unclutch, and there’s still time for them to find their level. You could say it’s already happening. This is somewhat reflected by our own Clutch statistic, available on the team leaderboards. In April, by batting Clutch, the Indians ranked 23rd. In May, they were 29th. In June, 26th, and in July, 30th. So far in August, they’re 10th. It’s getting better. It’s gotten better. The Indians have stretched their advantage. They’re better than this, and they’re likely to play better than this. That’s generally the conclusion of any and every post that discusses unclutch performance. You’ve read enough of them before. The Indians shouldn’t finish with that tOPS+ of 77, but the fact of the matter is that, three-quarters of the way through the year, this is where they stand. That’s what they’ve done. It’s a mark that would quality as historically poor, and it helps to explain why the Indians’ record isn’t what it probably should be. Which isn’t to say they’re not responsible for their own outs, but I can’t imagine why it would be a talent issue. My assumption is it’s more of a timing issue. It’s a thing that’s just kind of happened. The Indians have been legitimately unclutch. On the offensive side, anyway. They’ve been below-average in this regard on the pitching side as well, but it hasn’t been nearly so dramatic. It’s been the lack of big hits that’s prevented the Indians from rising even higher in the standings. That seems like a bad thing, and indeed, no team would want this to be true. But the Indians get to move forward assuming this is going to normalize. That only makes them look even better.