Wait 'Til Next Year: Punchless Indians fall short of contender predictions
While so much of our day-to-day attention in this space is devoted to the teams still battling for playoff spots, we feel as though it’s only fitting to acknowledge the teams that have been mathematically eliminated from contention, giving them a brief sendoff that should suffice until Hot Stove season. Thus, the Wait ‘Til Next Year series. Next up: the Cleveland Indians. (They've got uniforms and everything!)
Current Record: 78–80 (.494, third in the AL Central)
Mathematically Eliminated: Sept. 30
What went right in 2015: Led by second-year closer Cody Allen, workhorse setup man Bryan Shaw, converted starter Zach McAllister, free-agent addition Ryan Webb and reclamation project Jeff Manship, Cleveland’s bullpen was one of the best in the majors in 2015. Among AL teams, only the Royals' vaunted relief corps had a lower ERA or fewer loses, only the Yankees had a higher save percentage, and no team had blown fewer saves entering the season’s final weekend.
The starting rotation, from which so much was expected, didn’t fare as well. Still, Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco pitched extremely well, even if their results didn’t reflect it. Twenty-five-year-old fireballer Danny Salazar lasted an entire season, leading Cleveland’s four qualified pitchers with a 122 ERA+. Twenty-five-year-old rookie Cody Anderson got good results across 15 starts, and Josh Tomlin returned from April shoulder surgery to pitch well down the stretch. Altogether, through Thursday night’s games, Cleveland’s rotation was leading the majors in strikeouts, strikeouts per nine and complete games, was second in batting average against, was tied with the Mets for third in WHIP and ranked fifth in strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Meanwhile, Michael Brantley proved his 2014 breakout season wasn’t a fluke, hitting .310/.379/.480 for a 130 OPS+. Jason Kipnis put his dismal 2014 behind him with a big rebound season (.302/.372/.452) that had him in the MVP conversation mid-year, and 21-year-old rookie shortstop Francisco Lindor exceeded his considerable prospect hype by proving as capable with the bat (.319/.357/.491) as the glove at the major league level after his mid-June callup; he enters the final weekend with a good chance to beat out Astros phenom Carlos Correa for the AL Rookie of the Year award.
The team also had some minor successes on the trade market, acquiring righthander Rob Kaminsky, a 2013 first-round pick, from the Cardinals for Brandon Moss and getting cheaper and younger in a salary-dump waiver trade with the Braves that saw Cleveland ship 34-year-old Nick Swisher and 32-year-old Michael Bourn to Atlanta for 30-year-old Chris Johnson and roughly $9 million in savings.
What went wrong in 2015: Despite all of the excellent pitching turned in by Cleveland’s rotation, the Indians ranked just 13th in rotation ERA, an incongruously middling performance. Consider Kluber and Carrasco in particular. Both struck out more than a man per inning and posted strikeout-to-walk ratios better than 5.00 with league-average home-run rates, resulting in fielding independent pitching figures of 3.01 and 2.84, respectively. Their actual ERAs, however, were 3.62 and 3.63. Poor team defense, including sub-par pitch framing from Yan Gomes, may have contributed to that. But both got their share of strikeouts, neither had an inflated batting average on balls in play, and the defense improved dramatically with the installation of Lindor at shortstop and Giovanny Urshela at third base in mid-June (though Cleveland still ranked 24th in park-adjusted defensive efficiency entering the season’s final weekend).
The component values in Baseball Prospectus’s Deserved Run Average calculations suggest that the bigger problem was the ballparks those two pitched in, a notion supported by the spike in Progressive Field’s park factors on Baseball-Reference and Carrasco’s extreme home/road split (5.03 ERA at home, 2.49 on the road). However, Kluber had a more expected split with an ERA more than a run lower at home, and though Progressive Field did undergo some renovations over the off-season, none of them altered the dimensions of the field.
Still, if Progressive Field was indeed more hitter-friendly in 2015, the failure of the offense outside of Brantley, Kipnis and Lindor is even more striking. Gomes, who suffered a fluke medial collateral ligament sprain in his right knee on a play at home plate in just the fifth game of the season, missed the rest of April and most of May and never got his bat going all season. First baseman Carlos Santana had his worst year at the plate, compounding his .227 batting average with a drop in power. Off-season acquisition Moss hit his share of home runs but contributed little else, his production steadily declining until the team traded him to St. Louis at the non-waiver deadline.
Rather than build on what looked like a breakout age-25 season last year, third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall had his worst year with the bat and made what seems likely to be a permanent move to the outfield. Despite his fine play in the field, Chisenhall’s replacement, 23-year-old rookie Urshela, was even less productive at the plate. The team stuck with Jose Ramirez at shortstop too long in an effort to prevent Lindor from achieving Super Two status, and Bourn slugged just .294 before being flipped to Atlanta along with Swisher, who missed most of the season following August 2014 surgery on both knees and didn’t hit during his limited window of availability.
Altogether, the Cleveland offense ranked 11th in the American League in runs scored per game despite the contributions of Brantley, Kipnis and Lindor and despite playing in a ballpark that appears to have been more friendly to hitters than ever before. That, more than anything else, is why the Indians not only failed to deliver on the many pie-in-the-sky predictions foisted upon them before the season, but also performed worse in 2015 than in '14. Speaking of which, I must point out that I was never on the Cleveland bandwagon, though my AL and World Series picks don’t look that much better, in retrospect.
Overall Outlook: There’s good reason to remain optimistic about Cleveland's rotation in 2016, but the bullpen should regress, and the lineup needs reinforcements. With Lindor already up, their best position prospect on the verge of the majors is Tyler Naquin, a glove-first centerfielder. That means general manager Chris Antonetti—who will no longer be working under predecessor and team president Mark Shapiro, who is jumping to the Blue Jays—will have to look outside the organization for bats. Given Cleveland’s limited payroll and existing commitments to Santana, Kipnis, Brantley, Kluber, Carrasco, Gomes and Johnson, that’s a tall order, particularly with hitting being in shorter supply in the game right now than pitching.
From this vantage point, I find it hard to expect much more than continued mediocrity from Cleveland, which is exactly how I felt about them before the season, as well.