Indians Underperform, and Obviously it's Eric Wedge's Fault

Eric Wedge had been under some heat for a while for two straight disappointing seasons in Cleveland. The Indians were one game away from a World Series appearance two years ago, and two seasons later they were suffering from a 90+ loss season.

The Indians have racked up 31 WAR this season via FanGraphs' calculations, far more than any of the other 90-loss teams in baseball. This was achieved despite not having Grady Sizemore at full health and a set of starting pitchers other than Cliff Lee and Carl Pavano who could not strike out hitters. That 31 WAR should put them at 78 wins, but they currently stand at 65. There's your reason for firing Wedge right there; they're crazy underachieving. Next!

Well, I don't think it's actually so easy. Can Wedge really be blamed for these things? Is Wedge to be blamed for the team's poor defense (-35 runs by UZR, fourth worse in baseball)? Can he be blamed entirely for their lackluster pitching staff (22nd in baseball in WAR)? Probably not. So what can Wedge be blamed for this season? I'd say the two places where managers can be at fault are in bullpen management and lineup construction. Let's take a look at those and see ho Wedge managed (pun not intended).

Bullpen Management

The Indians have around the second worst bullpen in the American League, with a FIP of 4.59 and a park-adjusted 16 runs above average, barely beating out the Detroit Tigers for the worst pen in the AL. Of course, a pen may be terrible, but the manager's job is to best leverage the pen to achieve the best results. Here is the Cleveland Bullpen ordered by most high leverage appearances (from Baseball-Reference) and FIP (from FanGraphs). Pitchers shown here are the only ones to have recorded more than 10 appearances in high leverage situations and recorded more than 30 innings for the team.

Clevepen_medium

All things considered, Wedge seems to have done a decent job with what he had. Perez was a late season acquisition and only made 31 appearances with the Indians, the smallest amount of appearances among the relievers listed. Wood, Betancourt, and Smith were their better relievers, and Wood ended up being good enough to stick in the closer's role despite walking his more usual total. Betancourt was dealt to the Rockies when it was apparent the Indians were not in contention; he only made 29 appearances for the Indians this year. The order of high leverage appearances in general follows in accordance to the reliever's performance this season.

Lineup Construction

The Indians were about middle of the pack in their offense, ranking eighth in the American League in wOBA. Wedge was restricted in his lineup construction this season by in-season moves made by the front office once the team was thoroughly out of contention. His construction of the team involved was of decent given the talent he had, but had some significant holes. Of the most common starters for each position on the team according to Baseball-Reference, Luis Valbuena (-0.2 WAR) and Ben Francisco (0.1 WAR with the Indians) stand out as egregious errors in starting. Valbuena was a young player acquired in the Mariners/Mets deal that saw Franklin Gutierrez go to Seattle, but he showed he wasn't ready yet to handle major league pitching.

Wedge did not have a consistent lineup, in part because he did some platooning and moved Victor Martinez between catcher and first base. Of course, he also did the prototypical managerial move of making small lineup changes due to minor changes in recent player performance, so he definitely deserves some demerits for that. However, among the players who showed up the most in the respective lineup slots, did Wedge get it (mostly) right? To find out, I'll be following the basic lineup optimization rules laid out in The Book and captured in short here. Let's see how many Wedge got right (remember, we're mostly grading on a curve here, because few managers would do such things as "bat your best guy outside of third." You do a halfway decent job if you do stuff like "avoid leading Willy Taveras off." Thanks, Dusty!)

Best hitters are #1, #2, and #4. Best power hitter is at #4, best on-base guy is at #1. Speed is a bonus at #1.

This is the first rule you learn when reading the lineup optimization chapter, and it's one that doesn't come intuitively in terms of traditional baseball logic. How did Wedge fair? Well, he wasn't going to lose in slot #1 with Sizemore. Though Grady was only 7th on the team in on-base percentage, he led the team in walk rate (over 12%) and is one of the team's primary speed threats (career speed score 7.0). Sizemore was not one of the three best hitters on the team by wOBA this season, but he was easily projected to be, and he likely would have been had he stayed healthy all year. At some point Wedge could have moved Shin-Soo Choo to leadoff, as Choo was second in walk rate and lead the team in OBP by a good deal, but that's nitpicking.

Martinez and Choo were the next two best hitters by a while, but Martinez batted third for much of his time here and Choo hit cleanup the most on the team. In that respect, Wedge more or less got it right, except he did the traditional overvaluing of the #3 slot. The #2 slot went to Asdrubal Cabrera most often, and he was fifth on the team in wOBA with an above average OBP, so it wasn't as if Wedge threw Emilio Bonifacio in there. Overall, he did fine compared to other managers.

Best five hitters hit #1-#5, #3 should not be a GDP guy. #5 hitter can steal bases.

Wedge batted Sizemore, Cabrera, Martinez, Choo, and Jhonny Peralta most often in the #1-#5 slots, in that order. Cabrera was not among the top five hitters on the team by preseason ZiPS projections, but was among the top five during the year, so that may be acceptable. However, Peralta was behind both Mark DeRosa and Travis Hafner in projections prior to the seasons' start and performed worse than almost all Indians starters once the season got going; at this point Peralta has a .308 wOBA. Since the trades of Martinez and DeRosa, Wedge hasn't dropped Peralta for his production either; Peralta now primarily occupies the cleanup spot for the Indians despite being the team's worst regular. Meanwhile, Hafner holds the fourth-best wOBA on the team and has been consistently flip-flopped from the #5 and #6 slot. Wedge did not do well in this department.

Wedge's most common #3 hitter, Martinez, did not lead the team in GDP's, though he was in the running and, as a plodding catcher type who in his career hit 44% ground balls, was probably quite prone to them. The team's most common #5 hitter was Peralta who, given his body size, no one will confuse as a speed threat. However, this concern is mostly minor.

Overall, Wedge appeared to be as inadequate at making lineups as most managers. He was able to correctly identify his three best hitters, though he faltered somewhat on his fifth best hitter. He identified his worst hitters well and appropriately hit them at the bottom of the order. Still, these moves would have been minor in any case, and it would have been far more important for Wedge to recognize whom to start, which he did for the most part. The front office did not help by not promoting prospect Matt LaPorta, who could have gotten some play in left field over the defensively-challenged Francisco, but they did not keep LaPorta up past Interleague season and, while LaPorta was in the majors, Wedge did let him see a decent amount of playing time. Wedge receives an average score in this respect.

He really wasn't so bad, was he?

It is difficult to judge how effective a manager was as an outside observer. With respect to the two most important in-game decisions to make, the handing out of playing time/lineup management and bullpen management, Wedge appeared to be no worse than any other manager. He did have his faults in terms of identifying his best and worst hitters, but every manager misses these decisions here and there. For the most part, he had the right relievers going after the right hitters and the right times, so he can't be blamed that the team's bullpen as a whole was ineffective. Fans like to blame managers when their team goes wrong, and there may indeed be something to be said about how the Indians underperformed both their Pythagorean and component WAR win estimates these last two seasons, but in terms of the decisions that affect the game are concerned, Wedge seemed just fine. Can we really blame his inability to motivate them to another five to ten wins?

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