Warm-Up Tosses: Tomorrow night, Tuesday March 12, at 7:00 pm, for those who still live near my hometown of West Chester, PA, I’ll be appearing at Barnes and Noble in Exton, PA for a reading/book signing. http://store-locator.barnesandnoble.com/event/79541
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What They Did: 68-94, 4th Place AL Central.
Actual Runs: Scored 667 runs, Allowed 845.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 63.7 (4.3 below actual)
Restated: Scored 682 runs, Allowed 793.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 69.9 (1.9 above actual)
(Glossary: Expected wins, based on a modification of Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem, are the amount of wins a team should win in any season based on the amount of runs it actually scored and allowed. Deviations will be explained in the appropriate team capsules.
Restated Runs Scored and Runs Allowed are the amount of runs a team should have tallied based on its actual components of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging achieved/allowed. In the case of the Indians, if they posted exactly the same stats in 2013 as 2012, they should expect to win 70 games.)
In the previews of a pair of AL East teams, I mentioned that observer expectations for improvement in 2013 were highest for the Boston Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays. The Red Sox, who had the third-worst record in the AL League last year were ravaged with injuries and had a horrendous closer, have addressed those issues with new personnel. Big improvement is thus expected. The Toronto Blue Jays, who won 73 games in 2012 (four more than Boston) also acquired new personnel but did it in a much flashier manner than the Red Sox and as a result, expectations for improvement are even higher in Toronto than Boston. Vegas established an opening market for Boston’s and Toronto’s total wins 13 ½ and 14 ½ wins higher for 2013 than their 2012 totals respectively. Those levels represent, by far, the highest expectations for improvement in the American League. In the National League, only the Cubs are expected to have a double-digit win improvement.
Despite the expectations reflected in those markets, I think Cleveland will have the biggest improvement in wins in all of baseball in 2013.
While Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem (as modified by others over the years) has a lot of value as an evaluation tool, it can be misleading and Cleveland’s 2012 performance is a perfect example of why that can be. It is true, that if you look at Cleveland’s actual runs scored and runs allowed, the Indians were lucky in how those figures converted into actual wins (to the tune of an extra 4 wins – see above.) However, I also examined how unlucky Cleveland was at converting its actual offensive and pitching performance into runs scored and runs allowed. Once you look at the first derivative, if you will, and then apply the Pythagorean Theorem, we see that Cleveland was actually a 70-win team in 68-win clothes last year, not a 64-win team as some analysts believe. That’s important because the Indians, like the Blue Jays made some notable changes to its roster, and not only do I think they are of a bigger marginal magnitude, I think Cleveland was starting from a higher baseline. That, in a nutshell, is why you’ll see a higher prediction for Cleveland’s wins at the bottom of this piece than was posted at the end of Toronto’s essay.
In the Tigers’ preview yesterday I noted that Detroit had replaced two of the six worst-performing everyday players in baseball from 2012. Well, the very worst player was Cleveland’s Casey Kotchman who hit .229/.280/.333 over 500 plate appearances. That would be borderline terrible for an American League shortstop (averages of .255/.306/.368 in 2012) but Kotchman played first base, home of the best hitting players in the majors. When you realize the average AL first baseman hit .258/.336/.442 you see how big a hole Kotchman’s performance put the Indians’ offense in. This year, first base will be manned by recently signed free-agent Nick Swisher. That is a massive upgrade, worth at least 50 runs based on the consistent offense Swisher has produced over the last seven years.
While there are essentially three other lineup changes, even the one that looks bad on paper (Mark Reynolds for Travis Hafner at DH) is actually going to be additive in 2013. As I mentioned in previous articles, don’t be fooled by the names. Travis Hafner is a better hitter than Mark Reynolds and I’d much rather take my chances with Hafner than Reynolds in 2013. But Hafner was barely healthy in 2012 and the combination of he and all the other DH’s Cleveland used combined for a hitting line of .226/.317/.385. Mark Reynolds is going to strike out a lot more than the 120 times the aggregate DHs for Cleveland did last year, and some of those predictable at bats will drive fans crazy. But if you cherry pick his worst years as a pro, Reynolds has never had an on-base percentage less than .320 nor a slugging percentage less than .429 both of which will produce materially more runs for the Indians than its DHs did last year.
Taken together the other two changes are a big net win for Cleveland as well. Michael Bourn replaces the 2012 replacement level performances of Shelly Duncan and Johnny Damon in the outfield while Drew Stubbs will take over for Shin-Soo Choo in right field. Choo bounced back from an injury-plagued 2011 season to have a very productive year at the plate. Stubbs can’t match that offensive output, but Stubbs is a far better fielder perhaps evening out the loss of offense. With Bourn in center and Stubbs in right, the Indians are hoping to aid its low strike-out staff with stellar defense.
Cleveland has replaced some of its weakest 2012 performers and the best part is that the core that they didn’t touch – Carlos Santana at catcher, Michael Brantley in left field, and the double play combination of Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera – are all going to be 26 or 27 this year and primed at all play at an All-Star level. New manager Terry Francona has inherited a great situation.
As good as the improvements on offense look on paper, there will also be material improvements on the other side of the ledger. The Indians allowed the most runs in the American League because their starting pitching was terrible, the relievers pitched their worst in the most important situations, and the defense was awful. The defense has been addressed and improved but how about the pitching staff? Cleveland’s starters were 29th (2nd to last) in the majors striking batters out but also walked batters at the 3rd highest rate. That is simply a deadly combination.
The biggest contributors to that problems are gone. Derek Lowe and Jeanmar Gomez started 38 games and walked more batters than they struck out. In this day and age, you cannot survive as a major league pitcher if you have a K/BB ratio anywhere close to 1, let alone below it. Also out of the rotation are Corey Kluber (5.14 ERA in 12 starts) and Josh Tomlin (5.72 ERA in 16 starts). In replacing all of those innings, the Indians can expect virtually guaranteed improvement from free-agent signee Brett Myers while merely hoping for good health and a league-average performance from Daisuke Matsuzaka. It’s harder to see but with the other three starters (Jimenez, Masterson, and McAllister) still in their 20s, it’s reasonable to think that at the worst their 2013 ERAs will match their skill sets and fall, on average, about half-a-run every nine innings. Over 600 innings that extremely modest outlook would result in a 35-run drop in total runs allowed. The bullpen has essentially been remade with only the top three performers from last season returning. It’s wholesale personnel changes like that that explain why bullpens are always more likely to perform at a league-average level a year after outlying performance in either direction. Just an average bullpen performance for the Indians would save another 30 runs compared to 2012.
The changes the Toronto Blue Jays made to their lineup seem to have captured the imagination of baseball fans and commentators to a greater degree than Cleveland’s. However, a close inspection of the marginal changes leads me to believe the Indians’ changes will lead to a larger increase in year-over-year runs scored. They’re in an easier division than the Blue Jays and while I’d rather have the Jays’ staff, improved defense is going to lead to stealth improvement in the runs allowed department as well.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: Saying Cleveland is going to be better this year surprises no one. Oddsmakers confirm this having set the opening total wins market at 76 ½, 8 ½ games higher than the amount they won last year. However, it’s the magnitude of improvement that is going to come as a surprise to everyone. Given that the Indians played to a 70-win performance last year, swapping Nick Swisher’s expected production for Casey Kotchman’s team-crushing ineptitude at the plate in 2012, nearly puts the 76 ½ total into play. But with many other improvements, this looks like an easy play to the upside. The Detroit Tigers are too good to consider challenging for the division and the Wild Card race is crowded with a number of teams with better pitching. Still, there is no reason Cleveland shouldn’t be a threat to stay above .500 and remain in the Wild Card race for the majority of the season. I enthusiastically support the over.
85-77 – Second in AL Central
738 Runs Scored 699 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) publication currently available wherever books are sold. Here are three on-line booksellers you can currently choose from:
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