This IS next year
As teenagers, my friends and I followed a tradition to celebrate the rite of spring: we skipped school to attend the Cleveland Indians home opener at the old Municipal Stadium. Surely, the weather was always cold, especially in those old wooden yellow seats where we were perched high in the upper deck.
One memory that stuck with me to this day was that some fan displayed a homemade sign from the top row of the bleachers, scrawled with the hand-written message: “Wait til Next Year”. Overly optimistic kids like us were appalled at this bit of sarcasm, on our Opening Day celebration, nonetheless. We ignored reality and steadfastly believed that the Tribe could compete for the playoffs every year, at least if everything went right.
While in Goodyear Arizona this spring to absorb the wonderful experience that is Cactus League baseball, I met several Indians fans. After initial greetings, and exchanging the basics about where we grew up, we cut to the chase: by discussing the Tribe’s prospects for 2014. Like those teenagers who sat freezing in those wooden yellow seats, everyone was very optimistic that the Indians would field an excellent team this year.
Maybe it was the warm Arizona sun, the azure blue skies, and lack of humidity that affected our judgment.
We came to a unanimous agreement that This IS Next Year.
A Bold Prediction
Put another way, the Cleveland Indians can win 100 games this season.
One hundred wins. Sounds sweet, doesn’t it? The ballclub that has made their home on the Cleveland lakefront since 1901, has achieved 100 regular season wins on only two occasions… the talented 1995 team being the last to accomplish the elusive century win mark.
To arrive at this rare win total, I used an extremely un-scientific approach based on unconventional wisdom and gut feel. The approach is based on finding areas where the Indians 2014 performance can improve over last year, resulting in an incremental increase in wins over 2013. I have unofficially dubbed this approach the Seb-err-metrics method.
[NOTE: I apologize in advance to the talented writers who regularly publish their incredible baseball insights and analysis on the IBI site. They can likely compute advanced baseball statistics like WAR, WHIP, and BABIP in their heads... I struggle to calculate ERA.]
WARNING: If the Tribe rockets to a fast start, I will declare that Seb-err-metrics is for real and provide regular updates on how the approach is working… If not, well, you will quickly forget about this.
Here are the top 10 metrics that can propel the Cleveland Indians to 100 wins in the 2014 season.
1. Starting Pitching – Fewer Questions
When the Indians broke spring training camp prior to the 2013 season, there were significant unknowns and concerns about the Tribe’s starting rotation. Ubaldo was coming off a horrid season after suffering the most losses in the majors. Scott Kazmir was attempting to stage a comeback from multiple injuries, and most recently pitched for the Sugar Land Skeeters in the Independent League. Brett Myers was counted on to solidify the back end of the rotation.
A lot has changed in one short year. Ubaldo finally found the groove in the second half of the season and Kazmir rebounded with excellent seasons. Both later cashed big free agent checks and are gone. Myers is trying to stage a comeback from shoulder surgery.
The 2013 Indians posted a 36-28 record when these three pitchers started a game. That’s pretty good, but not exactly dominant. The Tribe won’t miss them that much.
This year’s starting pitching looks much, much stronger. Justin Masterson, Corey Kluber, and Zach McAllister are coming off solid seasons in 2013. Masterson is on the verge of becoming a dominant, number one starter. Kluber demonstrates a toughness and unflappable demeanor that is reminiscent of Cliff Lee. McAllister is increasingly learning how to pitch, seems to get great run support when on the hill, and can surely become at least that solid middle of the rotation battler.
With Danny Salazar, we might be watching the next Tribe ace. He will be brought along gradually, but if he can continue the strides he made last season, the sky is the limit for this young man. Carlos Carrasco has tremendous upside, and if he can put it all together, he can be the difference regarding whether the Tribe starting rotation becomes outstanding or just pretty darn good.
Even when the inevitable injury strikes a starting pitcher, there’s no need to panic. The Indians don’t need to call 911. Instead, they can make an in-state call to Columbus or even Akron to summon a competent replacement in Josh Tomlin, Shaun Marcum, Trevor Bauer, or maybe even Cody Anderson.
In 2014, the Indians should be able to add at least one more win from the young and talented starting pitchers replacing those who are gone.
[NOTE: We will assign a Plus/Minus number for each Metric to denote the projected number of additional games the Tribe will win (Plus) or Lose (Minus) compared to 2013]
Win Difference from 2013: Plus 1
2. Return of the Bullpen Mafia
The 2013 Indians Bullpen regressed significantly from the lock-down “Bullpen Mafia” that emerged during the prior season. For example, in 2012, the Bullpen Mafia converted 77% of save situations, suffering only 13 blown saves (or situations where the bullpen surrendered the lead). In 2013, the bullpen’s number of blown saves ballooned to 22, a mediocre 63% save conversion rate.
John Axford, the Tribe’s new closer, is obviously a key to improved bullpen performance. If he can pick up where he left off late last season for the St. Louis Cardinals, we should be celebrating more 9th inning saves than last year. As hard as it is to believe, the talented Cody Allen should get even better. The Spring 2014 edition of Vinnie Pestano looked very much like he is returning to the form he exhibited in 2012, when he was one of the premier setup men in the game. Brian Shaw was a pleasant surprise last year and took on ever-increasing roles, and now he looks to become an even more important go-to reliever. Scott Achison’s experience puts him in a good position to grind out innings when the situation dictates. Fireballer Blake Wood can really bring the heat and it will be interesting to see whether he can pound the strike zone while lighting up the radar gun.
The Tribe bullpen finally has two solid southpaw options, with Marc Rzepczynski and Josh Outman available as they will be regularly asked to match-up with some of the best left-handed hitters in the AL and get a timely out.
It should not be difficult for this year’s bullpen to be better protectors of leads, an offer they can’t refuse.
Win Difference from 2013: Plus 2
3. A Goonier Bench
Orioles Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver used to say “It’s great to have that deep depth.”
Tribe manager Terry Francona should be smiling every time he fills out the lineup card, because not only do the 2014 Indians have versatility, they do, indeed, have “deep depth”. The starting lineup is strong at nearly every position. Plus, the many bench options affords Francona the flexibility to exploit lefty-righty matchups, give just about any position player a day off without missing a beat, and more creatively plan for injuries, streaks, and slumps.
No need to suffer through a “scrub lineup” during a Sunday afternoon, travel day game. Tribe bench options are now much more significant and even some starters are able to contribute at multiple positions. With Michael Brantley, Mike Aviles, Elliott Johnson, David Murphy, Ryan Rayburn, and now even Carlos Santana as chess pieces in Francona’s day-to-day strategy, the Tribe skipper will have the versatility he desires.
Win Difference from 2013: Plus 1
4. Tougher Divisional Competition
The Detroit Tigers are considered to be an elite team in Major League Baseball. But the Tigers made a lot of changes that could cause disruptions, on and off the field. New Tigers manager Brad Ausmus replaces crusty veteran Jim Leyland. Ausmus has been around the game a long time and was a catcher in the majors for 18 years. However, his only managerial experience has been leading the Israeli National baseball team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Not exactly the pedigree that will enable him to expertly handle the high-paid, and sometimes indifferent veterans that occupy the Tigers locker room.
Another possible distraction is how Miguel Cabrera handles his new, mega-dollar contract, which by estimation has a higher value than the gross national product of Detroit.
Last season, the Tigers dominated the Indians, winning 15 out of 19 contests. Figure on the Tribe picking up a couple more victories against the Tigers in 2014. Not a dramatic turnaround, but an improvement.
The Kansas City Royals will be better in 2014, yet they still have some question marks within their pitching staff. As always, the Royals will play the Tribe tough, as most games will be highly contested. Expect a virtual split in the season series, as the teams did in 2013, when then Tribe posted a 10-9 record vs. the Royals.
The Twins and White Sox will battle for the honor of cellar dweller in the Central division. The Tribe will win more against these teams than they will lose, but it will be difficult to match their 2013 win total, when the Tribe went 17-2 vs. the ChiSox and 13-6 vs. the Twins.
In the end, the AL Central Division will be stronger, and the Indians’ 2014 record might not be as good as last season, but they will need to hold their own.
Win Difference from 2013: Minus 5
5. The Captain of the Ship
I used to believe that a baseball manager only made a difference in four or five games in a season… unless the manager was Ozzie Guillen, whose teams squandered games on a regular basis. After watching Terry Francona in the dugout and on the practice fields, it is clear that his leadership, his demeanor, and his expert handling of his team’s personalities makes a substantial difference, both on and off the field. The Tito leadership factor makes the Tribe a better team in the following ways:
- It is said that leaders don't create followers, they create more leaders. This is certainly applicable in Francona’s case. A leader isn’t afraid to hire someone who could be his replacement in the future. Francona surrounds himself with great coaches, with a mix of a lifetime of experience in baseball, or young up-and-coming talented coaches. In Brad Mills, Sandy Alomar, Jr., Mickey Calloway, Ty Van Burkleo, and Mike Sarbaugh, the Indians have teachers who can school the young players on the intricacies of the game and advisors who can help get players through the daily grind of a season.
- If you were fortunate enough to have a coach, a teacher, or a supervisor at work who became your mentor, you understand. They took you under their wing, helped you learn the ropes, and gained great satisfaction in your success. You would run through a brick wall for them, because they cared about you. From all indications, the Tribe players have a similar feeling about Tito and his coaching staff. The entire team has bought into the team approach and follow their leaders without question.
- Compare Francona with other managers in the AL Central Division. Who would you rather have at the helm? The Twins’ Ron Gardenhire is a good manager, and a fiery personality who gets ejected from games by umpires on a regular basis. He experienced success early in his managerial stint, but is battling for his job as the Twins have produced losing records the last three seasons. As far as the other team managers in the division (Ned Yost, Robin Ventura, and Brad Ausmus)… Let’s say you are out on a big boat in stormy seas… Who do you want guiding your ship? Captain Tito is head and shoulders above the others.
- Francona asks his players to play the game the right way. And they have responded. With another year of experience under their belts and another year of bonding as a team, they should reap even more benefit from the Tribe skipper.
Win Difference from 2013: Plus 3
6. Better Weather on the Lakefront
When asked why he always seemed to pitch better once June rolled around, Indians hurler Luis Tiant would reply “I like-ee HOT”. Judging by their early season records over time, it is very likely that the current Tribe players agree with Tiant. After all, baseball is not meant to be played while wearing hoods, ear flaps, and long underwear.
Once the ice covering Lake Erie melts, to again reveal a vibrant Great Lake (there is a 70% chance of this happening by opening day), we can expect to see that big, bright, yellow ball in the sky again and it will shine its rays down to the corner Carnegie and Ontario.
According to Farmer’s Almanac (the first publication to use statistics as a forecasting tool), April temps in Cleveland will be 4.5 degrees above normal (raising the average up to a balmy 52 degrees), with 3 inches of precipitation, one-half inch below normal.
And if we can keep Mike Hargrove out of the visitor’s dugout, there is only a 10 percent chance of a blizzard blasting through Cleveland in early April.
Let’s hope that the above-normal weather days align with the Indians’ early season home schedule.
Win Difference from 2013: Plus 1
7. A Real Home Field Advantage
Progressive Field can become a huge asset for the Tribe. Instead of whining about the misplaced assumption that ownership does not spend money on players, come out to the ballpark a couple more times and help lift the team.
Last year’s 92-win team actually drew 30,670 FEWER fans than the 2012 team which LOST 94 games. That seems incredible, and pokes a giant hole in the argument that fair-weather fans will flock in droves to the stadium once the Indians produce a winner.
Even with the second-worst attendance in all of Major League Baseball, the Indians 2013 record was 51-30 at home. Just think what is possible if more fans filled those shiny green seats at Progressive Field and the crowds that cheered on the Tribe were bigger and louder.
The atmosphere during the 2013 wild-card playoff game vs. Tampa Bay was absolutely electric. Re-creating that environment on occasion should give the Indians a real home field advantage, lead to more success on the lakefront, and generate some additional wins.
Win Difference from 2013: Plus 1
8. The Intangibles
Intangibles play an important role in team sports and this is obvious by watching the Indians.
- Team Chemistry – The Indians players clearly enjoy playing together. This foundation was established by Francona, and is reinforced on a daily bases by team leaders Nick Swisher, Justin Masterson, and Jason Giambi.
- Confidence – It’s something the Yankees and Red Sox always seem to have. They believe that every time they walk onto the field, they will be victorious. This type of confidence, almost a swagger, is becoming evident on the Indians team. A few years ago, a Tribe promotion used “WHAT IF” as a marketing slogan. It was hopeful, but not exactly re-assuring. The current Indians team appears to have the swagger that has them poised to revise that old slogan to “IT’S GONNA HAPPEN.”
- Momentum – The Tribe’s 10-game winning streak to end the 2013 regular season proves that there is momentum in baseball. While it is not expected that the Indians will repeat this feat this year, expect them to have more mini-streaks, punching out five, six, or seven wins in a row. That will suffice, as long as those win streaks are not followed by pesky losing skids.
These intangibles will increasingly move in a positive direction this season.
Win Difference from 2013: Plus 1
9. The Clutch Factor
It’s difficult to quantify, but I believe that there is a “Clutch Factor” in baseball. In each game, there are a couple of key situations that impact the outcome, and often, even determines the winner. Being clutch could come in the early innings to set the tone, or it could fuel a late inning comeback. It cannot be identified in advance. What is clutch unfolds before you throughout the game.
A metric that attempts to address “clutch” is a player’s batting average with runners in scoring position (referred to as RISP). In most cases it serves as a good measurement of clutch batting, but does not take into consideration the game situation. Some players seem to do well in the clutch, others do not deliver in pressure situations.
For example: Shelley Duncan comes up to bat with the bases loaded, in the third inning of a scoreless game, and strikes out. Then, in the ninth inning, with his team trailing 8-1, Duncan smacks an RBI double. His RISP percentage for that game is .500, a pretty good number. But if he were able to switch the resultant at-bats, the game would have a much different outcome. The first at-bat was a key situation and would score high on the Clutch Factor. The last at-bat was rather meaningless, since it had no impact on the outcome.
Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley seem to thrive in clutch situations, and would score high Clutch Factors. They might not always get an RBI hit, but it seems that they always put up a quality at-bat and hit the ball hard with men on base. Yan Gomes shows promising signs of becoming a clutch hitter, and we look forward to watching him get increasingly more comfortable at the plate and deliver even more clutch hits.
A walk off win is a good example of the Clutch Factor. The Indians produced 11 walk off wins in 2013. Look for a higher Clutch Factor for the Indians to push this up to a few last at bat wins this season.
Win Difference from 2013: Plus 1
10. A Little Luck
Herb Score liked to say that baseball is “a game of inches.” This would be uttered right after Buddy Bell ripped a line drive that just missed hitting the chalk down the left field line, on the foul side, literally missing a bases-clearing triple by, of course, two inches. With a little luck, that line drive would have stayed fair.
Pessimism seems to be built into the DNA of Cleveland sports fans, often for good reason. But to beat the odds and achieve the century win mark, Cleveland needs a little luck. OK, maybe a lot of luck.
The most important area where luck is prevalent is the health of Tribe players. Injuries won’t completely disappear, but need to be kept to a minimum. Hopefully, the only time we hear the phrase “Tommy John”, it is preceded by “fully recovered from”. In addition, there must be few references of phrases like rotator cuff, tendinitis, oblique strains, and hamstring pulls on the IBI web pages this season.
For Indians fans who have been waiting a long time for that magical season, grab that horseshoe, cross those fingers, and help us get a little luck.
Win Difference from 2013: Plus 2
To recap, the following table summarizes the path to a 100 win season for the Cleveland Indians.
|2013 Actual Win Total||92|
|Starting Pitching – More Answers||1|
|Return of the Bullpen Mafia||2|
|A Goonier Bench||1|
|Tougher Divisional Competition||-5|
|The Captain of the Ship||3|
|Better Weather on the Lakefront||1|
|A Real Home Field Advantage||1|
|The Clutch Factor||1|
|A Little Luck||2|
|2014 Projected Win Total||100|
On April 4, when the Indians stage their home opener at Progressive Field, I don’t have to skip school, but I would love to see another sign displayed in the top row of the bleachers, right next to drummer John Adams that reads:
“THIS IS NEXT YEAR”.
Start printing the tee-shirts.
As for the starting pitching, I will be surprised if Carrasco and Salazar match the 2013 performances of Ubaldo and Kazmir.
One thing that definitely will improve is the Tribe's 4-15 record against the Tigers. But I doubt they will dominate the White Sox like they did last year.
I expect a better year from Swisher now that he won't have to play right field. I'm optimistic Santana will have a career year at the plate now that he's been relieved of the catching duties. I'm hoping for a bounce-back season from Asdrubal in his contract year.
If Axford can nail down the closing job it will be huge, and if the old Vinnie Pestano shows up this bullpen could be extremely good.
It's hard to say because we don't know what we'll get from Carrasco and Salazar. The Santana experiment will also be critical. I also question whether Gomes and Raburn can relicate their exceptional seasons, and whether Brantley can continue to hit .350 with RISP and two out.