The Cleveland Indians’ most notable offseason roster move was a subtraction. Is it any surprise that PECOTA has subtracted from their 2019 win total?
Every year before teams begin spring training in earnest, Baseball Prospectus releases its PECOTA projections both for teams and individual players. In 2019, the faceless system pegged the Chicago Cubs as an 82-win team that wouldn’t make it to October.
Even though PECOTA is a compilation of an endless array of numbers with no human element behind its projections, Cubs fans were predictably irate at the suggestion that their team would finish the season just barely above .500.
PECOTA is indiscriminate; it has no feelings or opinions, it has never seen the Cubs play, it does not know who Anthony Rizzo or Javier Baez or Kris Bryant are. It simply churns its way through a formula to spit out a final set of numbers.
And in the case of the 2019 Cubs, it was almost dead-on. Chicago went on to finish 84-78 and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
If PECOTA’s accuracy is such that it will hit the nail on the head with another unfavorable prediction in 2020, the Cleveland Indians might well be the victim. The Indians are slated to finish this season with a record of 86-76, just behind the American League’s two projected wild-card teams, the Los Angeles Angels and Tampa Bay Rays.
There are cases to be made both for and against PECOTA’s assessment of the Tribe’s chances in 2020.
On one hand, the Indians won 93 games in 2019, which is usually enough to make it to the postseason in a wild-card capacity at the very least. They reached this win total despite losing Corey Kluber for virtually the entire season; despite trading Trevor Bauer at the July 31 deadline; despite Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger, Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, Jose Ramirez, Tyler Naquin, and Jordan Luplow all missing significant time due to injury or health concerns.
With most of its key contributors who were actually on the field for the majority of last season still on the roster, as well as some of those who were absent for various stretches in line to begin the 2020 season healthy, it would stand to reason that Cleveland would be in a position to challenge the 93-win threshold again.
Conversely, perhaps it’s true that the short-handed 2019 Indians had to have a wide variety of things fall perfectly in line in order to climb back into the postseason hunt after a sluggish month of May, not the least of which included Shane Bieber emerging as an ace, and Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac exceeding even the most optimistic outlooks for their debut tours.
The way the Indians have operated this winter, one could be forgiven for believing their master plan boils down to the following philosophy:
- We expect that none of the tough luck from last year will bite us again.
- We expect that all of the things that broke right last year will do so again.
In what parallel universe is that not a horribly ill-fated strategy? It’s like believing an outhouse is a safe place to hide during a tornado just because you did it once and lived to tell about it. What are the odds of that working out in your favor twice?
The Indians had thin margins for error to begin with, and they’ve actively gone out of their way to narrow those margins even further this winter.
Sure, the argument can be made that trading Kluber doesn’t put the Indians in any less favorable a position than they were in for most of last year. The difference is that the 2019 Indians didn’t plan on missing Kluber for the whole season. The Indians did a fine job rolling with the punches in 2019; in 2020, they’re practically inviting those punches upon themselves.
In addition to permanently losing two workhorses from the starting rotation in a span of six months in Kluber and Bauer, the Indians also haven’t done themselves any favors elsewhere on the roster.
Cleveland has seemingly been without a complete stable of everyday outfielders for the entirety of its so-called championship window, which began by default in the second half of 2016. Despite rather obvious evidence that addressing this in some capacity at any point in the last three years might have been the final brush stroke in painting the Indians as an actual championship team, the two-month rental of Yasiel Puig is about as far as they have been willing to push the envelope.
Fresh off a 93-win season, the Indians appear poised to reach Opening Day with a shallower rotation than they had at this time last year, and the outfield remains a radiant jumble of mysteries.
Furthermore, while the Indians have made most of their offseason headlines by subtracting (or attempting to subtract) from their roster, the once-futile Chicago White Sox have cast their name into the competitive fray with an encouraging tour through free agency this winter.
The Indians finished last season with a losing record against the White Sox; an improved version of the same divisional foe one year later can reasonably be expected to result in a few more losses for the Tribe.
In the end, it is ultimately up to the players on the field whether the Indians reach the playoffs or make PECOTA appear to be some sort of all-knowing entity. Cleveland’s core is solid enough to carry the team, provided its role players step up in the same way many of them did last year. It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see the Indians dramatically exceed a projection of 86 wins in 2020 with a few luckier draws than they had in 2019.
But there is no questioning why PECOTA would project the Indians to miss the playoffs this year. It doesn’t know who Lindor, or Ramirez, or Carrasco, or Bieber, or Clevinger are. It just processes a bunch of numbers that, if it were sentient, would be interpreted as the result of a disinterested owner who has done next to nothing to improve his team. And its final number for the 2020 Indians reflects just that.