Sep 28, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians left fielder Michael Brantley (23) and second baseman Jason Kipnis (22) leave the field after the Indians
One of my favorite sports talk show gimmicks is when the hosts go through an NFL team’s schedule and say with certainty months in advance which games the team will win and lose. The Browns play Tampa Bay at home Week Nine? THAT’S A WIN. The next week they face Cincinnati on the road? OH THAT’S A TOUGH GAME THEY’LL PROBABLY LOSE THAT ONE. It’s a great way for people to delude themselves into thinking season after season that the Browns will go 9-7 and fight for a playoff spot.
Baseball is not inoculated from similar “punditry”, but since there are 162 games rather than 16, it generally takes a different form. Prior to the Indians’ 2014 campaign, that type of analysis would have gone something like this:
“Well, Bourn, Swisher, Asdrubal, and Bauer will probably be better this year; Kipnis, Santana, Brantley, Gomes, Masterson, Kluber, Salazar, Allen, and Shaw will probably be as good as they were last year. Murphy and Axford should be decent, and if they get something out of Chisenhall or Carrasco, or if they call up Lindor in June, the Indians should win as many games this season as they did in 2013.”
It’s understandable that people are quick to use this heuristic, because the narratives behind it make sense. Young guys will improve, older veterans will bounce back to their previous level of performance, and the guys in their primes will keep chugging along as they were. Throw it all together, and it made sense to predict the Indians would challenge for another Wild Card berth.
But ultimately the surprise with the 2014 Indians wasn’t that they finished with 85 wins; the surprise was how they got there. When you see preseason player projections such as Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS, or any other projection model, they’re guessing what a player is most likely to do. But doing so requires more than just spitting out a single projection. As Alan Schwarz notes here, part of what makes a system like PECOTA special is that it takes not just one but several projections for a player ranging from optimistic to pessimistic, weighs them based on the possibility of each one occurring, then distills them down to the single stat line. (The Indians have their own proprietary projection system: DiamondView.)
The point is that while each player may get a projected stat line that measures up closely with his 50th-perctile projection, each player also has a much wider range of possible performance outcomes over the course of a single season.
So while the Indians may have hit a reasonably expected win total, they didn’t exactly ride a wave of 50th-percentiale performances to get there. Here are the preseason ZiPS projections for Indians hitters (I’m using ZiPS here because PECOTA projections are subscriber-only). Here are their actual statistics. Using wOBA for shorthand, only Carlos Santana, Michael Bourn, David Murphy, and Jose Ramirez came close to hitting their projection. Throw in plate appearances, and only Santana and Murphy were close. On the pitching side of things (using FIP-), only Danny Salazar, Zach McAllister, and Bryan Shaw came close.
But even though on a granular level the player performances were all over the place (and that’s before accounting for the team’s defense), in the bigger picture the end result wasn’t so strange. Over the course of 162 games the Indians outscored their opponents by 16 runs. They averaged 4.13 runs per game and allowed 4.03 runs per game. Their Pythagorean Expectation was 83-79. Their Base Runs Expectation was 84-78. At the end, the Indians played to their level of talent, even if the path to get there was a little strange.
Looking forward however, the Indians are well-positioned to improve on that talent level. The starting rotation was perhaps the best in baseball over the past several weeks, the bullpen is full of options at the end of games, and the lineup is more or less set to the point where there are no major holes to address.
This offseason, the Indians have the opportunity to add the best contract, not player but contract, they can without having to worry about plugging any particular hole. If they want to add a veteran starter to augment an already promising rotation, they can do that. If they want to scour for that right-handed bat they’ve needed for seemingly forever, they can do that. They can investigate the trade market and see what a little payroll flexibility and emerging young talent can net them. The whole offseason playbook is open to them. Throw in that Detroit’s top-heavy construction is starting to show deterioration in the foundation and that the Kansas City Smoke and Mirrors Show Sequel will struggle to be as good as the 2014 original, and the AL Central may be ripe for the taking.
There’s an exciting core of talent here, and an 85-77 record doesn’t change that. With an already strong roster, an excellent coaching staff, continuity in the front office, and an offseason to further supplement what’s already on-hand, the Indians are poised to take the next step from Wild Card pretender to playoff-bound contender.