Expect the Unexpected: 5 of the Biggest Surprises From This Indians Season

T.J. Zuppe

Find a person who says they knew exactly how this weird, pandemic-shortened season would play out. Congratulations! You've found a liar.

"Expect the unexpected" proved to be the mantra that universally applied in 2020. 

After all, even things we knew to be true — Shane Bieber and Jose Ramirez are good! The Indians’ outfield ... well ... about that — were revealed to be the sort of partial truths you told your parents to avoid deeper punishment.

As the 60-game campaign concludes in a year we weren't even certain would ever be played, teams are now headed for even more uncertainty, an expanded postseason filled with enough random variation to make winning the lottery seem simple. 

But before things begin for Cleveland with a best-of-three first-round series against the New York Yankees — how about that for a reward? — let’s revisit a handful of the unexpected elements of this odd season that even the most detailed premonitions likely missed.

CESAR HERNANDEZ WAS BETTER THAN FRANCISCO LINDOR ... WAIT, REALLY?

Hernandez finished the year eight percent better than league average in run creation. But that isn’t the real surprise here. 

He's had seasons of similar offensive production with Philadelphia, and when Cleveland signed the switch-hitter in the offseason, they certainly hoped he could recapture the on-base ability and occasional pop that made him a solid player with the Phillies.

What is surprising is that Hernandez finished with a better wins above replacement, via FanGraphs (1.9), than his double play partner, Francisco Lindor (1.7), who finished exactly at the league average mark in weighted runs created plus (wRC+), 100.

Hernandez also finished with a higher win probability added than Lindor, ranking fourth on the team in WPA behind the possible AL MVP Jose Ramirez, Carlos Santana, and Tyler Naquin.

That doesn’t mean that Hernandez is now somehow worthy of the free-agent contract Lindor hopes to ink following 2021. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that Hernandez meant more than Lindor when including the intangibles we can’t quantify.

It does mean that Hernandez reached the best of team expectations, while Lindor has left everyone hoping he reaches the best of his over the next month.

INDIANS CATCHERS PERFORMED LIKE THEY WERE FACING SHANE BIEBER IN EVERY TRIP TO THE PLATE

That sounds like the stuff of nightmares.

Tribe outfielders managed to just clear this hurdle, posting a .571 OPS, a bit better than the eye-popping .494 OPS that Bieber yielded in his almost certain Cy Young campaign. 

Yet, Cleveland's terrific defensive catchers — Roberto Perez, Sandy Leon, Austin Hedges and Beau Taylor — were less than stellar when holding a bat instead of a glove, posting a .451 OPS (.138/.252/.199) and 28 wRC+.

That number was the lowest by a group of catchers, according to FanGraphs, since the 2015 Mariners also put up a 28 wRC+. 

To find a set of backstops with a lower wRC+ in a single season, you’d need to travel back to the Cardinals of … [checks notes] … 19-, wait that can’t be right … [checks again] … 1902. 

Those Cardinals finished with a mark of 27.

It wouldn’t have been a shock if told before the year that Perez would take a step back from his very solid offensive campaign of 2019 (98 wRC+). It would have been even less surprising if also told that he’d battle a shoulder injury during the season. 

But some of the worst offense ever from the Indians’ eventual quartet of catchers? Now, that was beyond expectation.

THE HIGHEST WAR FROM THE COREY KLUBER TRADE CAME FROM … DELINO DeSHIELDS?!

Well, yeah.

DeShields (.252/.310/.318) ended up earning a lot more time in center field than anyone really anticipated at the time of the Cleveland-Texas swap, but the fact that he led the trade with 0.2 WAR, via FanGraphs, is largely because he was the last man standing.

Emmanuel Clase, the centerpiece of the deal from Cleveland's perspective, never pitched an inning for the Tribe in 2020, serving a 60-game suspension for a performance enhancing substance.

Kluber, meanwhile, tossed just one inning for the Rangers and then exited with shoulder pain. He was diagnosed with a grade 2 tear of the teres major muscle in his right shoulder. That was it.

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Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

BRAD HAND WAS ... GOOD?

The surprise isn’t that Hand had a good year. It wasn’t that long ago that the veteran lefty was one of the most sought after pitchers at the 2018 MLB Trade Deadline.

The shock is that for a big chunk of the season, the general narrative was that Hand wasn’t having a good year, with early calls for rookie James Karinchak to replace the lefty in the team’s final frame. 

Yet, after recording the final four outs of the regular season, Hand stood as the league leader in saves (for whatever that’s worth), posting a 2.05 ERA and 1.37 FIP. Each represent the lowest mark of his career.

And for all the discussion that his stuff had diminished (yes, the velocity has dipped, no doubt), he also finished with the best strikeout minus walk rate of his career, punching out about a third of the batters he faced. 

His expected stats, fueled by quality and frequency of contact paired with walks, also placed him in the top four percent of the league, per MLB Statcast.

Not bad someone seemingly ticketed for middle relief.

As for that velo, Hand's average fastball velocity did climb from 90.8 mph in the first month to 91.8 mph in September, still a drop from past seasons but a much more encouraging trend than early-season concerns.

WHAT EVEN WAS CARLOS SANTANA'S SLASH LINE?

.199/.349/.350. What in the … ?

That’s what you get when you combine a career-best walk rate (18.4) with a career-low batting average on balls in play (.212). Still, that’s just the tip of the weird Santana season iceberg.

In some ways, if anyone was capable of putting up something that resembles Santana’s slash in 2020, it’s the veteran switch-hitter, but I’m not sure anyone could have predicted something like a sub-.200 batting average with almost league average run-creation (95 wRC+).

And it’s not like Santana began striking out more frequently. His 16.9 percent rate is almost exactly in line with his career norm. What was down, however, was his hard-hit rate (the percentage of balls hit 95 mph or harder). The rate in 2020 was eight percent down from his All-Star campaign of 2019, and that was also reflected in his average exit velocity, which was the lowest we’ve seen since they began tracking in 2015.

But, to be fair, Santana also seemed to be at odds with the baseball gods for much of the season, emerging with the fourth-largest negative gap between his wOBA (weighted on-base average) and his expected wOBA, which takes launch angle and exit velocity into account.

If we look at the balls Santana hit solid or better, Statcast suggests he should have earned a .567 batting average and 1.890 slugging. He actually hit .440 with a 1.480 slugging on that contact this season, indicating the first baseman may have been better below the surface.

Still, possessing an expected wOBA that was far above average, it wasn’t all luck, as Santana’s average fly ball distance was slightly down in 2020 compared to the previous two years. Hitting a few more flies over the fence, after all, helps remove luck and defense from the equation, and he failed to barrel balls at the same rate as last year’s stellar season.

Regardless of what happened in the regular season, though, if Cleveland gets more of the Santana that hit a key homer and double in Sunday’s finale, all of the previous woes will be forgiven.

What about this season did you find particularly surprising? Let us know in the comments below.

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