First, what is a miracle team? It is a team that comes out of nowhere (last place) to win a totally unexpected pennant. The 1969 Mets are the prototype, though I consider the 1961 Reds and 2008 Rays to be just as miraculous, and probably some others. Anyway, in my view, these teams tend to share the following characteristics: 1) they play in a compressed division (no dominant team(s)), 2) they have several hitters having career years, and 3) they have young pitching that gels. Look up those three teams, and you’ll immediately see what I mean.

So, are the Indians a potential miracle team? Yes, I think that they are.

1)    Compressed Division – the Twins were the consensus favorite for this division, but there were votes for the Tigers and the White Sox. The Royals are clearly getting better, but NO ONE picked the Indians. So it is clear that the situation is OK for a miracle – a team coming out of nowhere in a compressed division.

 

2)    Career years – way too early to tell, but any team can get surprise career years. When we look at the Indians to date we’ll see which hitters are on the path, but this team IS scoring a lot of runs, so you would expect to see guys playing over their heads, and they are there to be seen.

 

3)    Young pitching – the Indians have had exactly 10 innings pitched this season by a pitcher 30 or over, and only 25 innings by pitchers over 27. This is a YOUNG pitching staff, and it could be gelling into a miracle staff.

 

This, to me, warrants a closer look. Since Cleveland is 20-8 so far this year, best record in baseball, I want to get the look in before 1) they fade or 2) it is obvious that they are going to be great. The time is now.

Report Card

To refresh your memory, the report card for the first month has them as Hitting B+, Starters A++, Bullpen A+. My projection (pre-season) for this team was Hitting D, Starters C, Bullpen D. I guess I “got some ‘splaining” to do.

Hitters

The Indians have scored fewer than 3 runs only 4 times this season, 3-4 runs 10 times, and 5 or more 14 times. Their 150 runs scored is second in the AL (to Kansas City!) though the Yankees are slightly better than both in R/G. This has been a fine offensive team, so far this year. As you look at the numbers, I urge you to remember that hitting is DOWN again this year, lower than in “the year of the pitcher” of 2010.

The preseason projections had the Indians with only 3 legitimate major league hitters: Carlos Santana at catcher, Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstsop, and Shin Soo Choo in right field.  These three were projected at 3.0, 2.7 and 6.8 fWAR respectively, which is 12.5 of the team’s total projection of 17. Plus Grady Sizemore is still young, and only a couple of years back was viewed as a budding superstar.

Well, Sizemore is back with a vengeance (wOBA .448, OPS+ 199) since coming off the DL – a career year is on the horizon. Oddly, though, the big three are NOT carrying this team: Santana is at .202/.327/.383/710/POS+ 106, and Choo is .241/.317/.380/.697/OPS+ 102. Only Cabrera is doing OK, at .284/.356/.481/807/POS+ 132, and he is far from the most productive hitter on the team.

31-year-old third baseman Jack Hanrahan did not play in the majors at all last year, and the last time he had an OPS+ over 77 (!!) was his rookie year of 2007. So, naturally, he has a wOBA of .372 and a triple slash line of .284/.356/.481/837 OPS+ 141.

26-year-old first baseman Matt LaPorta was a rookie last year, and had a good year in part-time play, but guys who debut that old are rarely special, and first base is a hitter’s position. Well, his wOBA so far is .375, and his line reads .274/.351/.512/862/147.

Good-field-no-hit Adam Everett has a wOBA of .388 in part-time play.

And 34-year-old over-the-hill designated hitter Travis Hafner has revived to a remarkable degree: his .412 wOBA would be the best since his heyday (2004-2006) and by a bunch. He has played every day, and compiled a .342/.400/.566/966/177 line.

Can they keep this up? No, of course not. Hafner has a BABIP of .407, Everett .412. But Hanrahan’s is only .328, and Choo and Santana are going to get BETTER. Sizemore could indeed rebound to where he was in 2007-8. Hafner is 34, which is not THAT old. This team isn’t going to score 900 runs, but their offense may well prove to be more potent than we expected, by a bunch. In a league where scoring is down, again, they may well be an above-average offensive team.

Rotation

The names don’t scare you, but then the pitching on miracle teams doesn’t, BEFORE the miracle. Carmona, Masterson, Gomez, Carrasco, Tomlin – that was the projected rotation, a league-average bunch at best. Carrasco projected the best (1.5 WAR) and they lost Jake Westbrook, their highest-paid pitcher in 2010.

Justin Masterson is 26 years old. After a great rookie season in 2008 (2.7 bWAR) for Boston he was ordinary in 2009 (3-3 4.50) he was sent to Cleveland as a part of the Victor Martinez trade, and was awful for the Indians (1-7, -0.1 WAR). Last year he was worse, recording -0.7 bWAR, in results, though his peripherals were much better (FanGraphs actually had him at 2.7 fWAR, one of the widest discrepancies I have ever seen). It looks like they had it right, because he has been lights out in 2011: 5-0 2.25.

Josh Tomlin is also 26. In 12 starts as a 2010 rookie, he was 6-4 4.56, which B-R rates as 0.1 WAR. His minor league numbers don’t suggest that he is anything special. FanGraphs again was slightly more optimistic, rating his season at 0.6 fWAR, which would be about 1.5 over a full season. So far this year he is 4-0 2.45, and deserves, by my metric, a record of 4.25-0.75.

Carrasco and Carmona have both been bad by traditional measures (ERAs of 4.97 and 5.15 respectively) but they have had mostly good starts, and my metric has them at 2.5-2.5 and 3.75-2.25. The other 5 starts have been by Gomez (2), Talbot (2) and White (1) and they have combined for a deserved record of 2.25-2.75, with Gomez pitching badly but the other two pitching well.

Could the young pitching gel? Absolutely. Carrasco is only 23, has shown flashes in the past and this year, and could be great. Masterson and/or Tomlin could be for real – both are looking really good so far. Could it all come apart? Of course. Will it? Who knows?

Bullpen

I saw no signs of a quality bullpen in my preseason analysis, and one month is not enough to change my mind. But, again, they ARE young, and young pitchers can gel (they can also break your heart). All of the miracle teams had young, inexperienced, unheralded, and effective bullpens. So far this young season, with very small sample sizes (the largest is 13 IP), Sipp, C Perez, R Perez, Pestano and Germano have ALL rated at A+. The first four have 10 effective outings each, out of 12 or 13.

Summary

Oddly, the Indians HAVE to be the team to beat in the AL Central this season, at this point. They are 20-8, with 134 to play. If they win half of them, which is hardly a given but is not an optimistic suggestion, either, they will win 87 games, which should be enough to take the division. To win 88 games, here is the winning percentage required by each competitor:

Kansas City .541  Detroit .568  Minnesota .582  Chicago .588

All of these are beyond what those teams expected to do during 2011, so to catch Cleveland it is necessary that they play BETTER than they were projected to play, even though they are now playing WORSE, AND the Indians must become a .500 team. While this could well happen, I would not say the odds FAVOR it to happen, so I would have to say that the Indians are the favorites to take the division, and may already be odds-on (better than 50-50) to make the postseason (Cool Standings has them at 75%).

 

2 Responses to “Is Cleveland a Miracle Team in the Making?”

  1. GREAT article. The Indians were a great team in 2007, and then the wheels fell off. That division has been bizarre so far. I understand why the Twins are not good. They have been plagued wit injuries. I do not get why the White Sox have been as bad as they have. That team, looking at their roster, should be taking this division. Then again, the Red Sox have me singing a similar tune.

    • The Red Sox, at least, show signs of turning things around. The White Sox and Twins can’t score at all, and their pitching has been spotty. I think Liriano’s no-hitter was as much about the White Sox inability to hit as about his dominance.

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