Where the Indians Are Baseball’s Most Valuable Team

It’s funny. The team I know the most about is the team I try hardest not to write about for FanGraphs. I write about the Indians enough as it is for my job, and it’s nice to be able to write about other teams once in a while. But also, I don’t want my posts to be viewed as tainted with potential homerism. I’d like to believe I don’t let much, if any, bias slip into my writing, but it could be viewed that way. Nevertheless, here I am writing a post called “Where the Indians Are Baseball’s Most Valuable Team.”

But! I’m not the only one who is high on the Indians for 2015. A couple weeks back, Mike Petriello called the Indians his sleeper team for 2015, and when he claimed the post on our internal message board, he called them “your 2015 World Champion Indians.” That’s right, Petriello. I just put you on blast. You all should call him out on this when it doesn’t happen.

Then, yesterday afternoon, the always excellent Jonah Keri sent out a tweet that inspired me to write a post I’ve been considering writing for several weeks now.

Let’s get a couple things straight. The Indians, obviously, are not baseball’s best team. Far from it. Right now, our depth charts have them 11th in projected WAR, which is higher than the two teams that just played in the ALCS, but worse than the division rival Tigers. This is why I went with the word “value” in the title. There’s a difference.

Then we’ve got the word “where.” This implies that the team itself is not the best value team, but that one part of it is. Let’s start talking about that specific part of the team, since that’s what this post is about.

The most recent version of the Indians starting rotation that we saw was pretty amazing. Carson Cistulli wrote about their month of September, which he called their “Cy Young month.” Corey Kluber actually did win a Cy Young due in part to his strong finish, and he wasn’t even the Indians best pitcher down the stretch. What we saw most recently in the past was great, and what we can see looking ahead appears to be pretty great, too.

Head on over to our depth charts and you’ll find the top projected rotation in the MLB belonging to the Washington Nationals. Makes sense. They led the majors in pitching WAR last year and are bringing back the same five guys. Right behind the Nationals, and tied with the Mariners, are the Indians. The Indians are projected to have the second-best rotation in baseball in 2015, and that’s with a forecast that absolutely hates Trevor Bauer. Bauer was almost impossibly bad through his first eight career starts, which masks the fact that he put together a pretty decent season in 2014. If you think he’s closer to a +1.0 WAR pitcher in 2015 than replacement-level pitcher, and you trust the rest of the projections, you could reasonably conclude that the Indians current rotation projects to be the best in the MLB, according to Steamer.

A little earlier, I mentioned the difference between production and value. There’s no problem with paying for production. The Marlins just gave Giancarlo Stanton $325 million and it doesn’t seem so crazy. The Dodgers aren’t regretting all the money they gave to Clayton Kershaw. But not everyone’s got that kind of money. The Indians are one of those teams, so they need to find value where they can. Value, most simply, can be viewed as the difference between cost and production. We’ve already established that the Indians starting rotation projects to be very productive. Let’s use Baseball Prospectus’ Cot’s Contracts and MLBTradeRumors’ projected arbitration salaries to estimate what they’ll cost.

So in Cleveland, you’ve got a rotation projected to be one of the best in the MLB under contract for a grand total of about three and a half million dollars. For comparison, John Danks is set to earn $15.75 million in 2015. The Nationals will pay their staff an estimated $48 million. The Tigers, as they currently stand, will pay what projects to be an inferior rotation about $76 million.

Those five guys, who will earn less than $4 million dollars, are projected to be worth about 11 WAR in an era where 1 WAR generally gets about $7 million on the open market. That’s the definition of value, and a blueprint of how to run a small market franchise.

Obviously, in terms of $/WAR, no rotation can best the current Indians staff. But I was interested to see just how far ahead of the pack they are. What I did was use the aforementioned salary tools, along with our depth charts, to project dollars and WAR for every five-man rotation in the MLB. For the surplus value column, I assumed the standard $7M/WAR. There’s some guesswork here, as not all teams have a set five, but there’s no perfect way to do this and this should be close enough. Here’s the table that spawned from my research:

Team Salary ($M) Proj. WAR $/WAR Value
Indians $3.50 11.0 $0.32 +$73.50
Marlins $9.35 8.4 $1.11 +$49.45
Rays $12.26 8.5 $1.44 +$47.24
Mariners $33.43 11.5 $2.91 +$47.07
Athletics $24.50 9.8 $2.50 +$44.10
Cardinals $26.60 9.8 $2.71 +$42.00
Rangers $19.65 7.8 $2.52 +$34.95
Nationals $47.70 11.8 $4.04 +$34.90
Astros $12.40 6.5 $1.91 +$33.10
White Sox $23.75 7.8 $3.04 +$30.85
Braves $10.99 5.9 $1.86 +$30.31
Pirates $20.97 7.3 $2.87 +$30.13
Mets $19.75 7.1 $2.78 +$29.95
Blue Jays $39.75 9.8 $4.06 +$28.85
Red Sox $14.34 6.0 $2.39 +$27.66
Royals $21.20 6.6 $3.21 +$25.00
Cubs $11.88 5.2 $2.28 +$24.53
Rockies $23.30 6.6 $3.53 +$22.90
Orioles $23.05 6.3 $3.66 +$21.05
Padres $21.30 6.0 $3.55 +$20.70
D-backs $22.35 6.0 $3.73 +$19.65
Twins $28.85 6.8 $4.24 +$18.75
Yankees $50.90 9.9 $5.14 +$18.40
Reds $43.00 7.5 $5.73 +$9.50
Giants $59.38 9.7 $6.12 +$8.52
Angels $43.80 7.2 $6.08 +$6.60
Brewers $37.55 6.3 $5.96 +$6.55
Dodgers $72.90 11.1 $6.57 +$4.80
Tigers $76.40 11.4 $6.70 +$3.40
Phillies $54.66 6.5 $8.41 -$9.16

So, yeah. That bodes well for the Indians. This isn’t necessarily a table where the top is the best place to be and the bottom is the worst. The Dodgers and Tigers aren’t in terrible spots, for example, because their payroll allows them to do what they’re doing and they’re getting what they paid for. But nothing beats the combination of elite production at a cheap cost. The Rays and Marlins have productive, cheap rotations, but no team even comes close to what the Indians are getting.

This says a lot about the Indians in the present, but it could say more about the Indians in the future. Talks have already begun swirling about a Corey Kluber extension, but the Indians shouldn’t be in any rush to get that done as Kluber is under team control through the 2018 season, when he’ll be 32. Salazar and Bauer aren’t even arbitration eligible until 2017 and House won’t be until later than that. When you consider that $30 million of their ~$80 million annual payroll is wrapped up in Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, who could come off the books in 2018, this cost effective rotation could allow a team that is close to contention to fill whatever holes they have in free agency when the time comes.

The Indians project to have one of the best five-man rotations in baseball, and those five will earn a third as much as the next cheapest rotation in the league. That’s not a bad situation to be in.

August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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8 years ago

Wow that is incredible. Great article.