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.