Sep 23, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona (17) watches from the dugout in the fifth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
Well, you can play games with math but you can’t make it lie. The Indians more or less needed to sweep the Royals to have a serious shot at the postseason, and the “split” of last night’s two games rules out that possibility. As things stand now, the Indians must tonight’s game against the Royals to have any chance, then sweep the rays over the weekend and hope the Royals lose every game against the White Sox. As it stands now, Chris Sale will make his final start of the season Wednesday night against Detroit and will therefore not be pitching any of the games against the Royals. That doesn’t help. Oh yeah, even if all of those things happen, the Indians would still need the Mariners to lose at least two of their six remaining games. That combination of events would still only get us a three team playoff, meaning the Indians would need a couple of more breaks to actually face Oakland in the one-and-done playoff game.
Odds are, then, that we will be writing postmortems on the season sometime between now and the weekend. So, now that the Indians have neared the precipice of mathematical elimination from playoff contention, the choices are to play the what-if game or to look to the future. As a way of combining both options, I am trying to figure out what has to be different next year in order to end with a better outcome.
Even though the Indians have been on the fringe of contention throughout the season, the truth is that this was a .500 team. They were six games under at the end of April, rallied a little but never got above .500 to stay until August, and have never been more than seven games above .500 at any point. Their run differential is +16; by the Pythagorean formula they should have been expected to win 83 games. To put this into perspective, the ten teams who would make the playoffs if the season ended today have an average run differential of +82. Now, the Indians can look to follow the example of St. Louis (+20) or Kansas City (+17) and assume that a minor improvement in run differential could put them into the playoffs next year, but such teams are heavily reliant on luck and whatever you want to think of as “clutch play” to get in, ingredients that are often beyond a team’s control and highly inconsistent from year to year. The truth is that the Indians, in order to be a legitimate playoff team next year, will need to improve their run differential by about half a run per game.
How hard is that? Well, let’s see.
1) The average American League team has given up 50 unearned runs this year. The Indians have given up 71. While we don’t expect Lonnie Chisenhall to be Brooks Robinson, it is reasonable to expect the front office to fix this problem. The replacement of Asdrubel (14 errors in 92 games) Cabrera by Jose Ramirez (three errors in 51 games) is a good start. Carlos Santana (five errors in 89 games at first base) instead of Nick Swisher (nine errors in 52 games) was another positive. Again, simply making the routine plays at an average rate would save this team twenty runs. That seems like a reasonable expectation. One suggestion: stop trying to make everyone into a utility man. Mike Aviles is the utility guy. For everyone else, pick a position and put them there long enough that they can be comfortable.
2) If the Indians had traded Justin Masterson in spring training and replaced him with someone with an ERA of 3.48, which is the team ERA if Masterson is excluded from the total, it would have improved the run differential by 21 runs.
3) If Jason Kipnis matches his 2013 statistics next season, he would be responsible for 99 runs created, compared to the 53 he has created so far this season. Now there is not an exact equivalency between individual runs created and total runs scored, and part of the difference is that Kipnis has about seventy fewer plate appearances than he did last year, but it is obvious that his struggles have been a big reason why the Indians are on pace to score about seventy fewer runs than last year. I could have thrown Nick Swisher, Ryan Raburn, or a couple of other guys under the bus as well, but to me Kipnis is the guy most likely to rebound.
So there it is, a playoff contender in three easy steps. We still need Michael Brantley and Corey Kluber to perform like All-Stars, and guys like Chisenhall and Gomes need to build on the progress made this year. The bottom line, though, is that this team doesn’t need to make a lot of changes to be a playoff team in 2015.