The Plexiglas Principle and the 2014 Indians

Francisco Lindor

What does 2014 have in store for the Tribe?

Measuring the degree of one’s own homerism is a difficult and never-ending task.  You never quite know whether what you believe about your favorite team is being overly colored by your desire to actually believe it, especially in the midst of never-ending winter.  And yet I feel that, on the whole, I’m a relatively rational and objective person as far as sports fans go—I’m not deluded like those troglodytes who follow those other teams.  I’m a sabermetrician, for goodness sakes!  I CAN ADD THINGS WITH EXCEL!  On the other hand, I’ve talked myself into believing in too many losers to trust my first instinct.  David Huff is quite decidedly not Cliff Lee.  Matt LaPorta will not become Ryan Braun.  All that glitters…

Anyway, there comes a time every spring when we get to calibrate our internal expectations against a somewhat objective barometer: the over-under odds coming out of Las Vegas.  Every year I tell myself not to get over-excited by these things, and every year I end up feeling blindsided by them.

Last season the Indians won 22 games more than they lost. They outscored their opponents by 83 runs.  Their pitching staff had the second highest strikeout-rate in the Majors, and they had ten players hit double-digit home runs.  The only offensive player of note they lost over the winter was Drew Stubbs, who was more than replaced with David Murphy.  They’re looking at a full year from Danny Salazar, a reloaded bullpen, anywhere from seven to ten viable starting pitchers, and likely bounce-back years from their two highest paid players, who arguably underperformed last season.

So why does Las Vegas have them finishing below .500, with an over-under of 80.5 wins?

I’m not exactly sure, but I think at least some of it can be explained by what’s been referred to as the “Plexiglas Principle”.  Here’ s Jonah Keri:

The crux of Plexiglas is this: A team that improves in one season tends to decline the next, and vice versa. It was an easy idea to understand, but a tough one to believe. We human beings are hard-wired to hate randomness. So we look for patterns in everything. Thus a team that wins 75 games one year and 81 the next is perceived to be on the rise, destined for greater things. A team that slips from one season to the next is on its way down, headed for a stretch of lean years. Fans make this mistake, writers and prognosticators make this mistake…even MLB general managers make this mistake.

It’s so simple as to appear obvious: a team that makes a huge improvement is likely to “come back to Earth” or “regress to their own mean” or “normalize” or just “stink again”.  A team that goes from 68 wins to 92 in one year is likely to have experienced some (necessarily unsustainable) good luck, right?  That Plexiglas should knock them back down somewhere in between, shouldn’t it?

Well. We just don’t know, Dude.

As anyone who’s paid any attention at all can attest, the 2013 Indians weren’t remotely similar to the 2012 vintage.  They’d turned over their roster and replaced their manager.  Their young core started to come into their own, while the bench was comprised of real, live, Major League talent.  The 2012 and 2013 teams shared jerseys, but not much else.

On top of all that, it’s March and there’s snow everywhere and I just don’t think I can bear to think that last season’s success was nothing but a Whack-a-Mole waiting to get beat back below ground.  Here are a few more reasons to keep those bullish bets coming.

1.       Danny Salazar Danny Salazar Danny Salazar Danny Salazar Danny Salazar Danny Salazar Danny Salazar. You don’t have to take my word for it.  Here’s Jonah Keri again:

It’s tough to remember another season in which so many incredibly talented pitchers will get their first crack at full big-league seasons with so much at stake. I, for one, am hopping on the bandwagon early for #TeamDannySalazar. The 24-year-old righty has three excellent pitches in his holster, with a 96 mph fastball, a nasty slider, and a backbreaking changeup that all generate lots of swings and misses. He missed more and more bats as he climbed the ladder in the minor leagues, and he dominated in his 10-start major league debut last year, fanning more than four batters for every walk.

2.       The Indians won 92 games despite Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn having decidedly down years. People will tell you that Swisher was just fine, and I’d agree.  I’d just point out that his 2.4 fWAR was the second lowest of his career (min 140 games).  Couple that with Bourn’s (hopefully) anomalous 2.0 WAR season, and you can at least hope for some upside out of both this coming season.

3.       Corey Kluber is better than you think. Fifty-eight pitchers threw at least 130 innings last season. Kluber had the eighth best strikeout-to-walk rate and the sixth best xFIP rate.  His peripherals suggested he was among the ten or so best pitchers in the League.  Only seven pitchers were “less lucky” than he, based on the difference between ERA and their “expected” ERA (FIP), due at least partially to the fact that he had the sixth highest BABiP of that group.  Kluber does everything right: he misses bats, throws hard, and doesn’t walk many.  He averages less than a home run per nine innings pitched.   He is a prototypical No. 2 starter, and he’ll be our No. 3.

4.       Terry Francona will have a versatile bullpen. The ‘pen last  year was a bit of mess.  Chris Perez was doing Chris Perez-y things for most of the year. Vinnie Pestano was lost and ineffective.   Ryan Raburn, by throwing a single scoreless inning, provided more value than eleven other pitchers, all of whom performed below replacement level.  The Tribe Bullpen was the second worst relief corps in the League, but there’s plenty of reason to believe they’ll be vastly improved this season.  John Axford looks to have solved some pitch-tipping problems and will slot in at the end of a Bryan Shaw, Cody Allen, Vinnie Pestano, Marc Rzepcynski mix.  Throw in the possibility of Austin Adams and C.C. Lee and a bullpen that looked lost a year ago could be a point of strength in 2014.

There’s more, of course.  Yan Gomes is likely better than Lonnie Chisenhall.  David Murphy is likely better than Drew Stubbs.  Asdrubal can’t be as bad as he was last year. And why shouldn’t Jason Kipnis finally put two good halves together?

But if I go listing all those, I’ll be rightly accused of wearing my Tribe-colored glasses.  I’ll have to let all that objectivity to creep back in.  I’ll have to remind myself that Justin Masterson doesn’t pitch well in even years. Or that Swisher and Bourn are on the wrong side of 30, and guys like that don’t typically get better.  Or that exactly one player on our 40-man roster has pitched more than 170 Big League innings in a season.  Before you know it, I’ll be on a ledge, considering 80.5 wins and biting my fingernails all over again.

So I won’t mention those other things.

I’ll do my annual over-under post sometime soon, and we’ll see how many contortions of self-doubt I can turn myself in when the time comes.  But in this particular rearview, 2013 doesn’t feel a thing like Plexiglas.  The more I think about it, in fact, the more feels more like shattered glass.

  • Ed Carroll

    If I recall correctly, Ramirez has been hobbled a bit this spring/offseason, and I think Francona wants to start the season with another infielder (which, if true, doesn’t bode well for guys like Francouer, Morgan, LaHair). It’s a depth move, for sure.

  • Steve

    Treadmill mishap.

  • Steve

    No man is an island.

  • Ed Carroll

    Kahrl is fantastic, agreed.

  • Ed Carroll

    Well, true, I’m sure Andy and his mother agree with me. So I guess I’m a peninsula? 🙂

  • nj0

    Good to know. I hadn’t heard that.

  • nj0

    I still think there’s too much this-year upside with Asdrubal to move him from this team. That said, I think anyone would get traded if the deal is right. It’s an intriguing package and all, but it seems like a pretty high price to pay.

  • Ed Carroll

    Completely agree team shouldn’t just dump Cabrera, though I feel this package would be pretty fair. Not sure how interested the Mets would be, though, they seem pretty content to just float by with warm bodies at short.

  • Steve

    I generally agree with you. Wedge’s infatuation with Blake playing 3B will never be understood by this corner. My guess is Marte would have struggled either way, but I think you have to put your confidence in a top prospect and give him the opportunity to blossom. Wedge seemed to take the complete opposite approach.

  • Ed Carroll

    Yeah, I’ve kinda taken an undefeatable position on Marte, which is sleazy, but hey 🙂 Yes, there’s still a good chance he fizzles out or simply isn’t that great. But you traded for the guy, he was pretty much your main plan at 3B, and then you just abandon it. Marte got hurt early in 2007 and was pretty much never seen again.

    Related: totally in the market for an Andy Marte Indians jersey/shirsey. This isn’t sarcasm.

  • nj0

    I’m not that familiar with the players mentioned in the article, but it seems like a good package. It’d also open up $10M in payroll. Sure, we couldn’t do anything with that money now, but it could be used to pick up some one-year rental when fire sale time rolls around. Or it could be used towards keeping Masterson here.

    edit: I guess more like $8M since we’d be adding Duda’s $1M+ salary

  • nj0

    Same thing could be said about Brandon Phillips.

    Casey Blake was still awesome and criminally underrated.

  • Ed Carroll

    Casey Blake is the devil 🙂

    And Phillips is somewhat similar, but a whole other bag. There was no reason to trade him other than Wedge didn’t like him. But yeah, didn’t get the playing time, when he did, finally blossomed.

  • nj0

    I don’t know how highly BP was considered at the time, but when you have a 23-year-old 2B slashing .303/.363/.430 in a full-season at AAA, how do you not bite the bullet and see what you have? That said, Ronnie Belliard was a pretty good baller and was an amazing find in his own right.

    I just don’t get why you trade for a guy and then after he does everything you want of him in AAA, you don’t give him a shot.

  • Steve

    Phillips was given almost 400 PAs starting from Opening Day 2003, his first full season in the majors, despite putting up a 48 OPS+. Marte topped out at 257 PAs. I was hoping the Indians would give the same opportunity to Marte that they give to Phillips.

  • Ed Carroll

    BP was the top prospect in that Colon deal (Lee was considered mid-rotation SP and Grady was almost unknown). And yeah, Belliard was a suprising find, worth approx. 8 wins in 2004 and 2005 for the Tribe. But Phillips was forced out cause Wedge didn’t like his attitude, and didn’t think he’d take well to a utility role. (The guy kept in favour of BP, Ramon Vazquez, actually had an option left at the time BP was DFA’ed, adding to the insanity).

    Phillips was worth almost 4 wins in 2007, though. He woulda been real nice to have in those playoffs. Alas.

    Kinda the story of those years. Team kept shooting itself in the foot, trusting/keeping the wrong guys.

  • nj0

    True. An important distinction. I should add though – giving up on a 22-year-old prospect after one bad year seems pretty foolish in its own right.

  • Steve

    And I’ll still buy the Blake being criminally underrated, but he should have stayed in RF while Marte got his 400 PAs to sink or swim.

  • Steve

    Absolutely, but that was about the clubhouse at that point as much as the play on the field. I’m not sure Phillips would ever have succeeded here.

  • nj0

    I had to look at Marte’s stats to refresh my memory. I didn’t realize how little consistent time he got in the majors.

  • Kildawg

    I think that Cabrera isn’t going anywhere and likely won’t get a QO since the Indians wouldn’t want to pay him north of $15M. I think Lindor will spend the season at AAA and maybe get a cup of coffee if the Clippers don’t make playoffs or get eliminated early. Preserve him to be 2015 Rookie of the Year.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Very much disagree.

    Re: MLB – I’ve charted out the wins/payroll correlation previously, and even those who lately are arguing against merely argue that it’s been minimized somewhat, not close to eliminated. Ultimately spending = wins, period. The reason there’s more movement in playoff teams I’ve also documented previously, but it doesn’t mean that MLB has more parity. About 12 teams in MLB have a shot at 7-8 of the playoff spots, while the other 18 try to squeeze into the other 2-3.

    Ubaldo was beyond sick for 4+ months last season. Corey Kluber? This is typical Indians’ fandom – we’re talking about an average pitcher. Salazar the jury is out on. I didn’t mean lucky in that they got lucky based on R diff, but lucky in overperformance.

    I wasn’t ignoring; the Dolans spent pre-season last year to keep fans from being apathetic. That was only really enough to make a slightly above average team, but that team went on a ridiculous September tear (no thanks to the people signed, for the most part, besides one Giambi HR) and squeaked into a play-in game. Yay. They weren’t a great team and there’s no reason to think that losing their best P somehow means they are going to be near that.

  • Steve

    Ubaldo pitched well, but the gap between him and Kluber is minimal, and Salazar was, without a doubt, better than both. The typical Indians fandom here is overrating the guy who left.

    92 wins is not slightly above average, and luckily for the Indians, the other guys who weren’t signed last offseason still contributed, and can still contribute next year. I don’t see the point in singling out the FA signings.

  • Jason Hurley

    How about they finished 1 game back of the beloved Detroit Tigers (the team expected to run away with the division)? If the Tribe has a better record against them (I don’t want to look it up, but I think it was around 3-45) they win the division. I’m taking last year in the “good” category..

  • Jason Hurley

    The QO will likely depend on this years’ performance (and accordingly if he’s still on the roster at the end of th year). They would make the QO (like Ubaldo) knowing he won’t take it if he has a good year and will hit the FA market looking for a big contract.

  • Seed

    What if Salazar doesn’t get better. What if Kluber was a flash in the pan. Swisher and Bourn are on the wrong side of 30. Someone could get hurt. What if Axford is somehow WORSE than Perez and turns into Kerry Wood 2.0. This is Cleveland, we don’t get nice things.


  • 3-45 sounds about right, give or take a couple. In seriousness, though, that issue does help the point I’m making: the Tribe made hay against the scrubs of the league, but routinely flinched in the face of superior competition. Winning the games you should win is a major step in the right direction. But coming up small against the real contenders is cause for concern. Last year was good in that it would seem to indicate an improving squad. And this year they might take the next step to legit contender status. But nothing about last year has me EXPECTING playoffs as we sit here in March. The great 90s squads proved worthy of big expectations–by ’97 it was reasonable to count us among Championship contenders. We aren’t there yet for any Cleveland team in my estimation, though the Tribe is closer than the rest.

  • Jason Hurley

    Yeah, I made a comment a week or so ago that expecting playoffs this year seems like a fool’s errand. Last year was a good year, with some strange things happening (losing a lot to good teams, destroying weaker teams). I would still expect to finish above .500, and playoffs would be fun…but, you never know with this team (city).

  • Ed Carroll

    How does spending = winning? Do you have evidence to support this?

    Your point about the MLB playoffs is invalid, particularly compared to the other two major sports, where more teams make the playoffs (yet still, only the same teams do).

    What’s your basis for saying Corey Kluber was an average pitcher?

    They made the playoffs, not a play-in game.

  • Ed Carroll

    Lol, 1997 they were championship contenders? That team won 87 games, and should have won 85.

    Clevelanders just have such a loser mentality. It gets old.

  • Ed Carroll

    All teams have these concerns, Dude. It’s not unique to the Indians.

  • Yes, a team that made the World Series in ’95 and then won 99 games in ’96 could have reasonably been thought of as a championship contender going into the ’97 season–you know, the year they fell an out short of winning the championship? They had shown they were elite, and therefore worth the hype. The 2013 squad has yet to show the legitimate ability to contend.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Yes; I’ve posted the charts here previously, but can’t spend the time to dig them up now. There are many articles online which show this data, however. That doesn’t mean wise efficient spending can’t help bridge the gap, but ultimately the best players in baseball are inevitably on teams which can afford them and that’s a limited set.

    I’m not sure what about the MLB playoffs point is invalid; again, the playoff teams in large markets who consistently spend have a legitimate shot at the playoffs just about each season. The other teams have a shot once every five-six years, occasionally if very lucky for an “extended” 2-3 year period.

    Kluber on second look at FanGraphs was above average, though it’s hard to project him as some type of stud.

    I call that game a play-in game. Brilliant move by MLB, but let’s be real – it’s the equivalent of a divisional tie play-in game.

  • Ed Carroll

    Lol, so you need past success to be considered legit? And that 1997 team beat up on an awful AL Central, particularly after the White Flag trade by Chicago.

    I fail to see how the 2013 squad can show any abilities, let alone an ability to contend, in 2014. BTW, they did contend in 2013 – they made the playoffs.

  • Ed Carroll

    Lol, Ok. If you say so, must be true.

  • Steve

    If you’re looking at Fangraphs, then you’d be hard-pressed to not see him as a stud. They love Kluber over there.

  • Steve

    The 1997 team was not “elite” the way the 95 and 96 teams were. They played in a crappy division and caught some breaks in the crapshoot that is known as the playoffs.

  • They started the Society.

  • Agreed Steve. But their performances the previous seasons made expectations prior to the ’97 season reasonable

  • To justify expectations beyond blind faith then yes, you need past performance in the equation. This year’s team could win the division, and then I could be convinced to put playoff expectations on them in 2015. You give them credit as a playoff team for making the one game play-in, while I think it’s not even if baseball wants to market it that way. Agree to disagree I suppose–this argument just seems to have no end.

  • If you’re using past performance, then you probably shouldn’t dismiss last season as a flash-in-the pan. Past performance seems to suggest 2013 as the outlier seasons for Swisher and Bourn.

    MLB does consider the Wild Card game as part of the playoffs – and they do market it that way. Game 163 between the Rays and Rangers, however, was not considered part of the playoffs, and was not marketed that way.

  • I am well aware of what the league considers the play in game to be–a legit series. That’s good marketing. But I’m going to look back on ’13 as close but not quite. And whether you call it a playoff appearance or not, it was the first season since, what, 2007?, that they looked competent. I’m saying let’s do it again, let’s be in the mix, and then maybe i spend March of ’15 expecting something bigger from the team.

  • So you’re completely ignoring what MLB has explicitly said and how the stats and record books will remember those Wild Card games? That seems sensible.

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