Indians, WWW

Evaluating Indians over the Hot Stove: While We’re Waiting

courtesy of USA Today Sports

Last offseason, I responded to a challenge from WFNY Editor-in-chief Scott Sargent to figure out how the Indians could improve by 13.5 games (the amount the finished 2015 behind the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals). The Tribe would only improve by 13 games in 2016, but it was enough to win the AL Central Division. From there, the Terry Francona led team dominated the postseason until the final three games of the World Series left them two runs short of a championship.

The good news is that the Indians do not need to improve by another 13 games coming into the 2017 season. However, if the Tribe is going to continue to compete for a championship with the Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, and the rest of the American League (let alone the Chicago Cubs and the NL), then a careful examination of their roster is in order. Herein is an evaluation of the present state of the roster and where the Tribe might still want to look to improve either through a late free agency addition or trade.

Please note that all statistics in the tables are the actual 2016 numbers are do not portend any projections for 2017 unless stated otherwise.

Positional Player WAR

stats courtesy of fangraphs and baseball-reference

stats courtesy of fangraphs and baseball-reference

For simplicity, I assigned each player to their main position rather than completely cluttering up the table by breaking them down by innings per position. Players in a red box are no longer on the Indians, while players in a blue box are still under contract or entering arbitration with the Indians for 2017.1

The only players on the 2015 Indians with a WAR above 3.0 were Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, and Francisco Lindor. Brantley missed all but 11 games of 2016, but the Tribe added Carlos Santana and Jose Ramirez to those ranks with Kipnis and Lindor repeating (and exceeding) the feat.

All five of those players are expected to return for the upcoming season though there is still concern over the health of Brantley. Rajai Davis and Mike Napoli were the biggest losses of value (2.1 WAR overall are leaving). Edwin Encarnacion obviously is expected to far exceed Napoli’s WAR, but the Tribe might need to get by with internal replacements for Davis. Potentially adding to the mix are minor league stand-outs Greg Allen, Yandy Diaz, and Bradley Zimmer. Diaz is considered the most-ready of the bunch, but each could see time with the big league club.

Starting Pitcher WAR

stats courtesy of fangraphs and baseball-reference

stats courtesy of fangraphs and baseball-reference

It is easy to forget just how dominant the Indians starting pitching was for the vast majority of the 2016 regular season. In the American League, the Indians starters had the best FIP and xFIP, second-best ERA, best K-BB%, and third-highest fWAR. The group is relatively young and inexpensive as well.

The Indians not only return their entire five-man rotation, but also their two most significant other starters (three if you include Ryan Merritt into that discussion). The Indians will need at least seven starters in 2017 (every team does), so each member here is important.

The only issue is health. Danny Salazar battled arm issues from June through the end of the season, and Carlos Carrasco missed the postseason with a broken hand. Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin, and Trevor Bauer each put on additional mileage compared to a regular year due to the extended nature of the Indians postseason push.

Relief Pitcher WAR

stats courtesy of fangraphs and baseball-reference

stats courtesy of fangraphs and baseball-reference

The Indians non-tendered Jeff Manship or they could have returned the Top 7 most-used relief pitchers from 2016. As it is, they are returning the top five relievers in terms of value, and the team will have Andrew Miller for a full year. They are only losing 0.2 in 2016 WAR from the players who are leaving.

While bullpens can vary more wildly year-to-year due to the small sample size component of their role, the Indians bullpen has been quite good each of the last two seasons. In 2016, the Indians bullpen was among the AL leaders in many categories including ERA (2nd), FIP (2nd), xFIP (2nd), K% (5th), K:BB% (6th), GB% (1st), and HR/9 (5th), all with a .288 BABIP — meaning there was not a large element of luck to those numbers.

The bullpen should continue to be a strength for the Tribe in 2017. The main questions will be which youngsters step up to provide the team needed depth between Shawn Armstrong, Perci Garner, Ryan Merritt, and others. The other question is if Bryan Shaw and/or Cody Allen run out of gas after being used extensively by Francona the past several seasons.

WAR per position compared to MLB averages

2016-indians-positional-war-versus-mlb-averages-dark

The chart above gives a better feel for where the Indians might best look to improve upon as it compares the Indians WAR with the MLB average WAR per position. If the difference is in red, then the Indians were at a 2016 deficit. If the difference is in green, then the Indians were better than average there. The difference in black means it was a relative push.

For the Indians to have had league average pitching with the same overall team value, they would have had to add the relative WAR of both Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis to the lineup. That is how impressive the relief and starting pitching was compared to an average MLB team in 2016.

Positions where WAR is most likely to fall

CF: Tyler Naquin rode an impressive June and July stint of power-hitting before league pitchers adjusted to his inability to hit the high fastball, then he imploded. While some hope Abraham Almonte can become an everyday starter, he is far from proven.

LF: Who is the Indians Opening Day starting left fielder? With Michael Brantley only reportedly taking non-contact swings,2 there are a ton of candidates, but no one is obvious. The best case scenario might be Yandy Diaz proving he is ready to help.

2B / 3B: As much as I love Kipnis and J-Ram, they achieved such high value in 2016, they might take a small step back in 2017. Anytime on the injury list, for instance, could make it difficult to match their numbers from last season.

SP: The Indians were so dominant last year and have enough question marks on health that they cannot assume they will achieve the same overall value.

Positions where WAR is most likely to rise

RP: Andrew Miller for a full season and all those youthful pitchers gaining more experience. Even a Shaw drop-off might be able to be absorbed (depending on how stubborn Francona would cling to him).

C: Whether Roberto Perez or Yan Gomes grabs onto the full-time catching position, a healthier season should portend to a rise in value. And, if neither player can find an offensive groove, then the front office might have better success completely a trade for a backstop this time around.

1B: Even assuming that Edwin Encarnacion is the primary DH and Carlos Santana is the primary first baseman, Santana should be a big value upgrade over Napoli at first base. Yes, take a moment to remember that the Indians swapped out Napoli for Encarnacion this offseason.

Positions where WAR is needing outside assistance the most

CF/LF: It is possible that the positions will resolve themselves as third base did last year when Jose Ramirez took over. But, despite a bunch of possibilities, they are all large question marks at this point. The free agent market is pretty dry when it comes to center field options and the odds are low that the Indians would do what is needed to sign Jose Bautista for left field. So, if the Tribe is to make an upgrade for 2017, then a trade would be in order. Expect the team to first give a chance to the youngsters.

RP: OK, not really. But, the group is quite right-handed dominant and southpaw Andrew Miller is desired to be used in leverage goals instead of specific matchups. If the Tribe can go and get Boone Logan on a cheap one-year deal, then they should consider it.

Accounting for WAR

Summing the WAR up from the above charts yields a 24.05 WAR for position players, 15.75 WAR for starters, and 6.85 WAR for relievers. Overall, the 46.65 WAR is a good number, as the basic premise is to add it to 48 wins (replacement level wins) meaning the Indians should have won 94.65 games in 2016. Of course, the Indians actually won 94 wins, meaning they matched their value. The WAR from those players is not guaranteed to repeat, so the safest route is to continue improving by as many wins as possible in order to set the team up for another World Series run in 2017.

The table below shows a conservative accounting of expected changes for 2017. It is possible to merely create best-case predictions for all of the players on the team to demonstrate an upper-end goal. But it is more interesting to give conservative predictions because if the players do exceed expectations, then their numbers can cover up deficiencies elsewhere that might not be accounted for in the simple table. For example, the table assumes Edwin Encarnacion only matches Carlos Santana’s 3.3 WAR from 2016, while Santana only improves upon Napoli’s number by 1. Both could be expected to exceed those values, but, if they do, then they can cover up for other unexpected dropoffs elsewhere.

war-accounting

Do I think the Indians are really a worse team entering 2017? No, not really. The above chart still indicates a 93 win team, which should be enough to win the AL Central. It is also quite conservative as the starting pitching could match what they did in 2016, which changes the math immediately. But, it is also instructive to remind us how much went well for the Indians. Yes, there were many injury concerns throughout the campaign, but each seemed matched or exceeded by a positive move (either a returning player shining or a front office move that worked out well).

Last Word

There are no guarantees in baseball. Every single team is playing with a house of cards they hope they can solidify with enough support to sustain the inevitable twists and turns a 162 season will give them. The Indians have an incredible foundation. They have starting pitching, relief pitching, defense, and hitting throughout the 25-man roster. They added a big-time hitter in Edwin Encarnacion this offseason. The Tribe has a solid minor league system who has several players that can supplement the MLB roster.

Due to their division and that foundation, they might even have the best odds of a return trip to the MLB postseason of any team in baseball. Sure, there are lingering questions to answer and the house of cards could topple, but there is great reason for optimism right now in The Land.

  1. jWAR = (bWAR + fWAR) / 2 []
  2. I like to refer to non-contact swings as Jason Giambis. []

  • RGB

    So, I’ve been reading this new push on QBs for the draft.
    Supposedly, SF (#2) and the Bears (#3) really want one.
    Any chance the HBT can okey-doke one of those guys into overpaying for our #1 and still land MYLES?

  • mgbode

    A certain someone from #TeamConspiracy is now a multi-article contributor as well.

  • mgbode

    what if the okie-doke is on us so they can get Myles?

  • RGB

    That’s the chance you take, but I think SF and da Bears are worse off at QB than us.

  • Garry_Owen
  • JNeids

    I got SO confused at first. I’ve come to know the regulars’ avatars fairly well that I rarely read names anymore, so I thought you were having a conversation with yourself.

  • Hopwin

    I thought that was Santanaing?

  • Hopwin

    If you subscribe to the latest quantum theories, there is no matter. The entirety of creation is a hologram.

  • Harv

    Or, we can simply take the most dominating players at the spots we paid in blood and precious fan good will to obtain. And finally avoid Smartest Man Syndrome that’s led to averaging 5 wins over 19 years.

    Um … nah, that’s boring. And we are nothing if not smart. Smart smart smart. Not like everybody says, Michael.

    Gentlemen, start your Acme Draft Slot Val-U-A-Shon Machines. Don your beenies and propellers, and we are OPEN FOR BUSINESS.

  • CBiscuit

    Don’t worry…there are a lot of billable days in January!

    That was meant as a positive statement although now I read it as a bit depressing.

  • Garry_Owen

    I currently subscribe to Popular Mechanics, Backpacker, and National Geographic, as well as a number of podcasts, but I’m always open to, and love, science fiction.

  • Hopwin
  • Hopwin

    Maybe he/I was.

  • Garry_Owen

    Is there anything wrong with that?

  • Garry_Owen

    No, Precious, there’s nothing wrong with that.

  • Garry_Owen

    I have! Had a subscription once upon a time.

  • JNeids
  • RGB

    Traders gonna trade.

  • JNeids

    I’d ask myself and give you an answer, but myself is ignoring myself.

  • Hopwin
  • JNeids
  • Harv

    gonna trade

  • Harv

    all man bun all the time

  • Harv

    ok, stop guys, I’ve sprained by uptick finger.

  • scripty

    People don’t want to hear this but if you have equal grades on Garrett and Allen, you can drop to 3 and get more picks, go for it.

  • Harv

    um, they don’t subsidize your salary? (pffft)

  • scripty

    Yeah. A neighbor of mine had a pirahna tank, and a feeder fish survived due to growth. He threw it in my koi pond and it lived for several years and got quite large.

  • Garry_Owen

    I like to imagine that Bode sports the full “Ben Franklin.” Not out of necessity, but by choice.

  • Chris

    Hey y’all. I’d like to refer you to WNFY’s Patreon page. They apparently aren’t subsidizing my salary yet, so we all need to help them out a bit so we can change that.

  • Garry_Owen

    Insider protip: Get something published on WFNY, and they DOUBLE what they normally pay a commenter. Get a second article published, and that compensation TRIPLES.

  • Chris

    “Equal grades” is such a cop out for not being able to decipher who has more talent/upside/scheme-fit/etc.

  • Chris
  • CBiscuit

    The HBT is made up of a bunch of literal readers, and I’m just worried the real Tabor is belly floating in a tank in Berea right now. Someone should really check on this.

  • Harv

    ladies and gents, all this idle brainstorming finally made it rain. Who needs to work.

  • Harv

    no offense, Sashi, but this site is strictly for dilettantes. Paul or Hue have to be around somewhere.

  • scripty

    I would take the Bama guy but didnt feel like being shouted down by people today.

  • Chris

    Remember when the Browns couldn’t decide if they wanted Ngata or Wimbley, so they traded down a spot with Baltimore and took their leftovers? I’m sure they had “equal grades” on both.

    And don’t worry, we’re so far down the message boards at this point that only a handful of die-hards and degenerates will read it… the mob shouldn’t be too bad.

  • mgbode

    I don’t know what that is but if you are talking about his wonderful attire (including spectacles), then sadly I am not anywhere near sophisticated enough for it.

  • mgbode

    to tie in from elsewhere on this thread, two buns – one above each ear

  • mgbode

    Reuben Foster?

  • mgbode

    The best part of that trade in hindsight is knowing that Baltimore has such a good draft evaluation team (they use analytics dawg) that they had good odds of taking the better player. Which means we purposefully gave ourselves the worse player.

  • Harv

    ha

  • Garry_Owen
  • mgbode

    Naw, I wish I didn’t have to cut the hair atop my head but it just keeps growing.

  • Garry_Owen

    Sure. Rub it in, you hair-blessed jerk.

  • mgbode

    Yes, that is the other issue. So much rubbing in of the shampoo into the thick hair atop my head. If only I did not have it, then I could spend those moments doing more productive things.

  • Garry_Owen
  • RGB

    WE DON’T SHOUT AT PEOPLE AROUND HERE.

  • RGB

    Hey now, we also got Babatunde Oshinowo out of that trade.

  • RGB

    Having Ozzie Newsome doesn’t hurt.