2014 Team Previews: Cleveland Indians

Jason Miller

After letting Sabathia and Lee slip away, the Indians appear revamped and recovered. In 2013, the Tribe saw their first postseason berth since 2007, will they make it two in a row?

2014 brings another year of hope to the city of Cleveland, and I don’t have to remind the readers how long it has been since this city has seen a championship. Okay, I will anyway! Yes, Cleveland has not won a championship in any sport since 1964 when the Browns beat the Colts in the NFL Championship Game, so this year actually marks the 50th anniversary! Congratulations? Anyway, the Browns are rebuilding, the Cavaliers are forever cursed until Lebron returns, and I don't think Case Western Reserve University is going to win any NCAA championships in the near future. That brings us to the only team in the city that has a shot at winning it all, the Indians. The Indians' 2013 playoff berth was certainly a pleasant surprise, and made for an excellent story last season.

But enough about what Cleveland hasn’t accomplished. I’m here to discuss one of the most intriguing franchises in MLB today! The Cleveland Indians made several smart moves this offseason to remain playoff contenders in the AL Central. Their young starting rotation and balanced lineup make the Indians one of the most well rounded teams, so the expectations of winning are realistic. The Indians are moving in the right direction and are making all the moves to remain competitive, so we will analyze the team’s 2013 success , front office moves this offseason, as well as key players who need to develop in order to provide a precise expectation for this team in 2014.

2013 Season in Review

The Indians in 2013 might not have been the most exciting team to follow, but they did a lot of little things right in order to win games and clinch the AL wildcard. A large part of their success can be explained by their offensive approach. Ranking third in MLB in pitchers per plate appearance (PIT/PA = 3.95), along with the second lowest percentage of balls swung at outside of the strike zone (O-Swing% = 27.9), the Indians were one of the toughest teams in the league to get out. Therefore, the Indians exceptional plate discipline enabled the team to be more selective, which in return contributed to their success in other statistical categories while also directly expedited the fatigue of the opposing pitcher.

To provide further analysis, I wanted to look at the Indians’ rate of transition from states with two outs to an absorbing state of three outs. I imported 2013 play by play data (courtesy of Retrosheet) into an R program and calculated the bayesian probability that the Indians would transition to three outs given they were in a current state of two outs. The results are displayed below:

Figure 1: Probability of Transitioning to 3 Outs Given an Initial State of 2 Outs

Initial State CLE League Avg
Zero Runners on Base 0.679 0.686
Runner on First Base 0.606 0.625
Runner on Second Base 0.597 0.627
Runner on Third Base 0.672 0.636
Runners on First and Second Base 0.677 0.678
Runners on First and Third Base 0.533 0.605
Runners on Second and Third Base 0.558 0.623
Based Loaded 0.768 0.707

Conclusion: The Cleveland Indians were below league average for 6 of the 8 initial states.

A change in philosophy this past season can be attributed to their manager, Terry Francona. For a moment, I would like to take a look at the World Champion Boston Red Sox teams of 2004 and 2007 (where Francona the manager). In 2004, the Red Sox led all of MLB in Pit/PA = 3.93. Additionally, the 2004 Red Sox swung at the first pitch seen in a given plate appearance at a frequency of 25.9%, which supports the notion that this team was successful at seeing more pitches and being more selective hitters. The same philosophy holds true for the 2007 Red Sox, given this team also led MLB in Pit/PA = 3.94 and swung at the first pitch at a frequency of only 23.8%.

In case you were wondering, I ran the same R program against the 2004 and 2007 Red Sox teams and yielded similar results. To conclude, this formula for success may not apply to every team in the league; however, it is evident that in his first year as the manager of the Cleveland Indians, Francona resorted to the same strategy he found success with in Boston.

What may have been equally as impressive for the Indians in 2013 was the value of their starting rotation. My previous research has emphasized the importance of 0-2%, and the Indians were the third best team in MLB with 0-2% = 26. Ubaldo Jimenez had an outstanding comeback campaign in 2013, and it was a joy to watch him transition away from his fastball and curveball that were the cause of his inflated home run to fly ball ratios over the past two seasons. The transition facilitated the development of his slider and splitter that not only helped him have the seventh best K/9 in MLB, but also allowed him to obtain a swinging strike percentage (S/Str) closer to what we saw in 2010 when he was pitching at Coors Field. Scott Kazmir and Corey Kluber were more than serviceable in 2013, given both pitchers contributed impressive K/9’s at 9.23 and 8.31 respectfully. Who can forget the 23 year old pitching phenomenon, Danny Salazar! Salazar emerged in 2013 as the Cleveland Indians flame throwing, strike out sensation with 65 K’s in just 52 IP. Given Salazar threw an overwhelming amount of fastballs last season (65.2%), it will be interesting to see whether he can develop his changeup into a more effective pitch because batters were simply unable to adjust to him in the small sample of just 52 innings.

The success of the Indians in 2013 was based on a general team approach to the game rather than a focus on any particular player. The team was introduced to a new philosophy by Francona, and responded positively. Expect the Indians to build off of the 2013 season going into 2014.

Key Offseason Moves

The Indians had a successful 2013 campaign that ended in a wild card playoff loss. What did the Indians front office do this offseason to better the team and guarantee consistent contention in the AL Central? I can tell you they did not gain many supporters after seeing both Jimenez and Kazmir leave the organization to pitch elsewhere. That being said, the Indians elected to put their fate in the hands of younger players who have developed from within the organization. Here are two key offseason decisions:

Carlos Santana Moves From Catcher to Third Base

The Indians are well aware of the hole that was third base for this team in 2013, so rather than bringing a talent in to play the position, they chose to move arguably their best offensive contributor to the hot corner. The move is beneficial for obvious reasons such as the reduced stress on Santana’s body that will enable him to be an everyday bat in the Indians lineup. However, the move not only works out for Santana, but the Indians are giving his job to Yan Gomes who is a better defensive catcher. Since Santana was promoted to the Tribe in 2010, he has been nothing short of spectacular. He has been a consistent 3 WAR player, and the move to third base should help him stay in the lineup so he can maintain a high wOBA that has contributed significantly to his value. It is to be determined how well Santana will field his new position, but if we simply focus on his hitting ability, the increase in plate appearances should atone for his projected mediocre fielding. Look for him to capitalize on the transition to third base in what could end up being a dangerously productive year for the 27 year old.

John Axford signs for one year, $4.5 million

With the departure of Chris Perez, the Indians were in the market for a new man to take the ball in the 9th inning. The acquisition of Axford was an optimistic signing that could very easily back fire. He demonstrated dominance as the Brewer’s closer in 2010 and 2011; however, it appears that his fastball and curveball have actually regressed in recent years. For example, I compared Axford’s curveball accuracy based on release speed for 2010/2011 and 2012/2013. The results are presented below:

Figure 2: John Axford's Curve Ball Zone Location Dependent on Release Speed (2010 & 2011)

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Figure 3: John Axford's Curve Ball Zone Location Dependent on Release Speed (2012 & 2013)

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From 2010 to 2013 we can see a considerable difference in Axford’s curveball accuracy, so this downward trend is a red flag for the upcoming season. His lack in command witnessed an immediate spike in his HR/FB ratio. The Ax Man's 2.4 and 6.0 HR/FB in 2010 and 2011 shot all the way up to 19.2 and 17.2 in 2012 and 2013 respectfully, hence his inability to find the strike zone left hitters waiting for the hanging curveball to drive out of the park. Bottom line, Axford’s best days may very well behind him. Nevertheless, there does not appear to be any decrease in velocity, so if he can improve his pitch location then the Indians might have gotten a bargain on the 30 year old right hander.

One to Watch: Danny Salazar

There were many exciting players on the Tribe to choose from, but none more exciting than the 23-year-old RHP from the Dominican Republic. Salazar displayed excellence on the mound during his short 52-inning stretch in MLB last season, emerging as the Cleveland Indians flame throwing, strike out sensation with 65 K’s. Given Salazar threw an overwhelming amount of fastballs last season (65.2%), it will be interesting to see whether he can develop his changeup into a more effective pitch to throw more often. If his pitching selection continues in a predictable pattern, then opposing batters will adjust and gain a competitive advantage. Therefore, although Salazar’s fastball poses an immediate threat, his potential will be actualized through the development of his other pitches.

To analyze Salazar’s progress last season, I explored his performance independent of fielding. Dividing his games started sample in half by date, there is a clear indication of his FIP stabilizing as he threw more innings. This indicates that Salazar was becoming more comfortable on the mound toward the end of 2013. The one concern I have with the young pitcher was his pitches per batter-faced ratio. In the 10 games he started in 2013, he averaged four pitches for every batter he faced. After consulting his pitchf/x data on Texasleaguers, Salazar had a relatively high foul ball percentage off of the various pitches in his repertoire. To illustrate, 48.3% of the two seam fastballs he threw were fouled off, and 16.3% of his changeups were fouled off as well. In fact with the exception of his slider, four of the five different pitches he threw in 2013 had above league average foul%. Hence, he was not able to retire hitters as efficiently because they were able to keep the count alive which directly affected his inability to pitch deeper into games. Although the rookie sensation was impressive last season, the 2014 hype may be unjustified. If Salazar is unable to develop his pitch selection in 2014, there is reason to suspect his performance will regress going forward.

Indians By The Numbers

The projected starting rotation for the Cleveland Indians is: Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister, Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco.

All five of these pitchers started games for the Indians last season, so the analysis is less dependent on ballpark effects and more dependent on pitching efficiency in their given ballpark. That being said, I generated tOPS+ maps for each of the respective pitchers based on their 2013 season. The charts are presented below:

Figure 4: Justin Masterson 2013 tOPS+ by Pitch Count

Kluber13tops_medium

Figure 5: Corey Kluber 2013 tOPS+ by Pitch Count

Mastersontops13_medium

Figure 6: Zach McAllister 2013 tOPS+ by Pitch Count

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Figure 7: Danny Salazar 2013 tOPS+ by Pitch Count

Salazartops13_medium

Figure 8: Carlos Carrasco 2013 tOPS+ by Pitch Count

Carrasco13tops_medium

Figure 9: League Average tOPS+ by Pitch Count

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A brief introduction for how the tOPS+ statistic is used is to ultimately compare a given batter’s actual OPS to the same batter’s OPS in respective pitch counts. If the base level tOPS+ is 100, then values below 100 indicate the batter is performing below his actual OPS. For example, analyzing Masterson’s chart we can see that batters performed against him in an 0-1 count at 55% of their usual OPS. Additionally, batters performed 394% better than their usual OPS when they were in a 3-1 count against Salazar.

The important idea to take away from the research I conducted is not the minor differences between each starter, but rather the drastic spikes each respective starter is responsible for. Much like the research regarding run value by pitch count, there is a general trend that relates the two ball-strike effect experiments with one another. That is, pitchers are more likely to execute a pitch when the count is in their favor. Therefore, it is apparent that each of the pitchers in the Indians starting rotation needs to progress their pitching efficiency by reducing the frequency of pitch counts where batters perform above their usual OPS.

The Indians are going to produce offensively, but their pitching does not appear improved from last season. If the Indians are going to clinch a second consecutive playoff berth, their starting pitching must develop (particularly, the bottom 3).

2014 Team Outlook

If a second consecutive postseason is the goal, the Indians will need to get high quality performances from their home grown talent, as well as the key players they signed during the offseason. Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana will be All Stars yet again, and maybe we will see an Asdrubal Cabrera much like 2011. To conclude the 2014 preview of the Cleveland Indians, I conducted a simulation of the upcoming season to produce my final prediction.

I used a Poisson distribution with corresponding lambda values for the rate at which individual teams will score runs and allow runs in 2014. After a thorough simulation of the 2014 season, I came up with these results:

Figure 10: 2014 American League Central Projected Standings

Num Team W L W% RS/G RA/G
1 Tigers 88 74 0.543 4.41 4.12
2 Royals 82 80 0.506 4.25 4.24
3 Indians 81 81 0.5 4.29 4.32
4 White Sox 75 87 0.463 4.13 4.64
5 Twins 72 90 0.444 4.02 4.69

Cognizant of the adjustments that need to be made to the model for future simulations, the AL Central standings based on a Poisson distribution project the Indians to fall shy of the the playoffs in 2014. Although the team looks poised to make another run this upcoming season, an increased rate of RA/G due to the inexperience of the Indians pitching suggests the team will regress toward the pythagorean expectation.

...

Michael Nestel is a contributor to Beyond The Box Score.

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