As baseball fans have transitioned from the regular season to the postseason, Cleveland fans can enjoy the MLB playoffs without the added anxiety and tension of watching one’s own team. Pick a team to root for in the postseason (if you must) while WFNY baseball writers, Mssrs Bode, Clayman and Pietro take one last look at the Cleveland Indians 2015 season and begin the process of Waiting for Next Year.
OK, gentlemen, the Cleveland Indians’ season concluded on Sunday, October 4. They finished at 81-80 and in third place in the AL Central. Yes, we know, they were picked by various professional prognosticators to win the World Series or, at least, to make the playoffs. That was back in February and March. It’s taken a good six months, but finally, during the last week of the season, it became official. The Indians did not make the postseason. So that leads us to the first question …
1. Is the MLB season is too long?
Bode: Does baklava have too much honey? Does San Diego have too many perfect days? The MLB postseason is a salve in the wound of the Indians season ending, but baseball is a year-round sport for me. I won’t be following the Arizona Fall League nor the Dominican or Mexican leagues, but Little League baseball will make do until March. Actually, I would love MLB to cut a week or two from Spring Training and spread the 162 games out over a longer stretch to mix in more off-days to ensure we see the best players play each game.
Clayman: Eh, I certainly wouldn’t mind if we went back to 154 games, but that’s never going to happen. Instead, I will echo Bode’s thoughts that Spring Training is actually the “season” that could stand to lose a week. I imagine the good businesses in Goodyear and every other Cactus or Grapefruit town would beg to differ. But by starting the regular season in the last week of March (and mixing in a half dozen scheduled double-headers through the summer), you might actually have a World Series played in appropriate mid October temperatures. …Wait, are we only talking about this because the Indians played 161 games this year? It did go by faster, didn’t it?!
Pietro: On Monday night I saw that it was almost 7:00 P.M. ET, reached instinctively for the remote, aimed, and then thought, oh rats, no more Tribe games. Nevertheless, I think the season is too long because the month of playoffs has extended it beyond reason. In some cities the season begins with snow on the ground and ends with snow on the ground. I would shorten the regular season to 154 games and eliminate that second wildcard team. Play 162 games and get a one-game playoff? That space should be reserved for ties … or for the Tribe making up that one meaningless game with the Tigers.
2. After the season, are you as much a fan of the game as before?
Bode: I write this having watched Dallas Keuchel and Jake Arrieta dominate in their individual Wild Card performances. Baseball is a beautifully complicated game only to become such a simple game when the ball is placed in the hands of a master pitcher. My love for the game continues to grow as my appreciation for the work these players put in to accomplish their feats grows.
Clayman: I think there is an interesting phenomenon that I saw played out with all three of us this year. When defending the Indians against the giant cloud of local apathy, we were also defending the game of baseball in a way. For all the debate over the sport’s actual popularity, whether you talk about TV ratings, attendance, etc., there’s this general prevailing view that it’s “slow, out of touch, too long, too old.” They’ve been saying that for a few decades now, but in the post-steroid era, when the Indians can’t manage a 20 HR hitter, it really has become more of a battle between the lovers of nuance (be it baseball romanticists and/or stat geeks) and those who simply don’t have the patience for a game with minimal fireworks (technically, I suppose baseball actually has MORE literal fireworks than most other sports, but you get what I mean). Fortunately, living in Chicago while the Cubs are in a playoff battle with the Cardinals, it’s easy to remember why the game is still great.
Pietro: As a life-long Clevelander and a big fan of the game, I’ve lived through decades of bad to mediocre baseball but my strongest response to even the worst editions of the Indians has been to just turn it off for awhile. I could never entertain the idea (as some I grew up with in the 60’s did) to become Yankee fans. And I’m with Bode on watching postseason baseball, a very tense and intense sport but not the same kind as the smash-mouth sports.
3. What’s your one-word summary of the 2015 Cleveland Indians?
4. Each time the Indians got tantalizingly close to .500 they slid back. A game of Chutes and Ladders I think I called it at one point in the season. Did the Indians ever get you thinking seriously that they would turn things around during the 2015 season and become contenders?
Bode: We all likely gave up most of our hope after the Chicago White Sox swept them and they continued to lose to the Kansas City Royals just before the trade deadline. Fortunately, the team rebounded and restored much of my hope in the team in August. From the 17 run outburst against the Minnesota Twins on August 8 through the win against the Toronto Blue Jays on August 31, I felt the team was playing well enough to be a postseason force. The Indians went 15-7 during the stretch and made up much of the ground they needed. Sadly, such momentum could not be continued into September as they went a mere 14-13.
Clayman: The key word in this question is “seriously.” Did I ever seriously think they’d turn it around completely? I certainly spent a lot of time thinking about it. And I wasn’t laughing while doing so. So I guess it’s fair to say there were dozens of times–right up into September–that I let myself consider the possibility. The reason: the pitching. When you have a rotation performing as it did much of the season, it can be a bit easier to convince yourself that the law of averages will soon be shifting your way.
Pietro: I certainly didn’t expect them to transform themselves before they began making trades and bringing up the youngsters. And by the time they became the “New Indians” I figured there were too many teams in front of them. They couldn’t possibly pass up six teams for a wild card slot. But I was happy just to have them be more entertaining. It obviously doesn’t take much to please this Tribe fan.
5. If the Indians had relieved Francona or Antonetti of their duties during the season and hired you, what would you have done differently?
Bode: I have long been a proponent of MLB teams hiring analytical nerds to be their manager, so I am going with Terry Francona being shifted as my bench coach. I would greatly lean on his insight as to what the players might think or feel about different techniques and strategies throughout the season.
However, the great amounts of data available seem to go under-utilized by managers to their own detriment. I would work with the front office in order to sort through the data and develop methodologies to be able to properly utilize things DiamondVision has learned about the game during actual games. For instance, when Francisco Lindor is raking, he is not sacrifice bunting (bunting for a hit is fine). And, if José Ramirez flips his bat in celebration, then I’m defending him to the media and Paul Molitor.
Clayman: Hmm, I suppose I might not have worried so much about “getting guys rest” when the team was still within 3-5 games of a Wild Card spot in September. Also I would have made a waiver claim on Nolan Reimold, because I support my fellow BGSU grads. To the latter point, I’m not really cut out for this job.
Pietro: All those trades that the Indians started making? Swisher, Bourn, Moss … I would have made them earlier, but not that much earlier. Couple weeks maybe? There are a few traditional baseball strategies I don’t much care for. I would almost never sac bunt, unless maybe late in the game to score a single run. On that issue, I’m with the late, great Orioles manager, Earl Weaver. Further, I wouldn’t work the bullpen as rigidly as most managers tend to do either.
And I agree with Bode about issues like the bat flip thing. I would have said, “Some of you ball players just need to be adults. You don’t have the right to throw at a guy because he embarrassed your or hurt your feelings.” Ten days, max, and then I’d have been fired too.
6. Looking back on recent off season moves by the Indians, what do they tell you about their strategy and whether or not they’re on the right track?
Bode: The BIG moves entering the 2015 season were trading for Brandon Moss (Wendle, we hardly knew you. No seriously, hardly at all) and signing Gavin Floyd on the cheap. I do not think the offseason was really indicative of much though. The Indians are always looking for bargains on the market as they sort of have to, given their economic standing in the league. It is not fun, but it is prudent.
The right track though is developing their young talent from within.
Clayman: The overlooked moves last off-season, as usual, were the extensions of Kluber and Carrasco. Keeping the good players you already have is a great way to build a roster, but maybe it’s not so great for marketing. People pay attention when you either bring in a big new name or lose one. But if the next season of Game of Thrones promises “no deaths!” and “no new characters,” I’m not sure it’d excite the fans quite as much–even if Jon Snow signed a surprise 3-year extension.
Pietro: If the Indians can’t compete seriously for free agents, they should avoid the temptation to pay big money to average to slightly above average players. Maybe Swisher and Bourn cured them of that to some extent. Guys like David Dellucci, Jason Michaels, Mark DeRosa, Shelley Duncan, Austin Kearns, Johnny Damon, Mark Reynolds … nothing personal against these guys, they were just band-aid solutions to the problem of acquiring and developing your own. Maybe you get guys like that as bench players, but, otherwise, they’re just blocking the path to the big leagues for younger players. What’s that? You say there weren’t any there to bring up? Oh …
7. With respect to the Indians’ drafting, how is the Tribe’s front office doing lately?
Bode: Is it the drafting or the development? Ah, one of life’s great mysteries. I tend to lean towards the latter, but the talent base of the individual player is always important as well. No matter how hard Zach Walters would want to be Francisco Lindor, it isn’t happening.
With Cody Anderson’s 2015 emergence, the team continues to push out high-end pitchers, but position players are also coming through the pipeline. Recent years have given Jose Ramirez, Giovanny Urshela, and Francisco Lindor, but it appears the floodgates are about to open (2017 likely the big year though).
Bradley Zimmer, Bobby Bradley, and Clint Frazier are the stars of the system, but Tony Meija, Erik Gonzalez, Justus Sheffield, and others have pushed their star prospects higher as well.
Clayman: This is a tricky one. Yes, it’s pretty fair to say the Indians are only rivaled by the Browns when it comes to an amazingly bad track record with high picks in the 21st century. But it’s probably not fair to say they’ve completely turned around because of the success of Lindor and (maybe) Zimmer, Frazier, etc. To Bode’s point, player development is its own animal, and not every pick that doesn’t pan out was necessarily the “wrong” pick at the moment it was made. Still, for obvious reasons, it’s very nice to see a lot more homegrown talent contributing now.
Pietro: It still seems inconceivable to me how little success the Indians have had developing their own position players. But I will assume the reports about their improvement in this area are accurate, including all the good things we’ve heard about those players mentioned above. The glimmer of hope I have is due mainly to Francisco Lindor. Otherwise, I’d have to say ask me this question again in five years.
OK, if you can stand looking at these once more, here are some offensive stats from 2015. The following are the Tribe’s rankings in the 15-team American League:
8. Without any prompting, what’s your take on what these represent and what needs to happen in the off season?
Bode: The top three hitters in the Indians lineup were fantastic. Any team would happily throw Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, and Francisco Lindor into their batting order. However, there was not another player who did not go through severely long droughts (and, Kipnis ended the season on a drought of his own). The issue for much of the year was there were a few hitters hitting, then a whole lot of black holes in the lineup each night, which makes it tough to sustain an inning.
Clayman: Gut reaction… Yan Gomes. Offensively, he was kind of a disaster for the majority of the season, and to go from a Silver Slugger to a rally killing liability–we didn’t even want to focus on it much because we all like him as a core part of the club going forward. A return of 2014 Yan, with a full season of Lindor, makes this a very different offense. Still one piece short, but certainly closer to top half of the AL rather than bottom.
Pietro: I think I have a more simple-minded answer than most. I want more hitters with higher batting averages. Three-run homers? Sure, very nice. I’ll take them. But in my opinion, our inability to hit with runners in scoring position is due to Indians hitters relative inability to hit. The Indians were 11th in the American League in runs scored. I want more runs. Check the playoff teams. They’re not necessarily the ones who hit the most home runs. But they do outscore their opponents: Run differential.
Another set of stats we can cringe at is the split of how each position in the batting order (1-9) fared in comparison to the rest of the AL. The Indians one through three (and as of now, that would be Kipnis, Lindor and Brantley) are generally in the vicinity of the top five in the AL. After that, though, it’s a big drop off. With the exception of a fourth-place finish in on-base-percentage for the Tribe’s four hole (yes, that would be Carlos Santana), everything else looks pretty dismal after the first three.
9. A few questions about the batting order:
A.) If you were to pursue a bat in the off season, which position in the batting order would you most want to upgrade?
B.) Francona used eight hitters in the lead-off role, and after that he used an average of 15 different hitters in each slot. How important is continuity of the batting order?
C.) One of the biggest statistical drop offs on the team is Jason Kipnis hitting lefties (.250), vs. righties (.334). Doesn’t that make him a less than ideal lead-off hitter? Or would you stick with him in that slot?
D.) Given that the switch-hitting Lindor is, so far, hitting both lefties (.321) and righties (.308), would you consider him a candidate to hit lead-off next year? (Are these leading questions too leading?)
(A) The Indians are not in an economic position to worry about where they upgrade. If they can find a deal they believe will help upgrade a position, then they need to make that deal.
(B) Personally, I am not a believer in continuity of the batting order. As manager (from above), I would stress not worrying about your place in the batting order. Everyone’s job is the same. The lead-off role versus the cleanup role is not something players should even think about. The manager will attempt to organize the order to maximize runs scored. Nothing more.
(C) Again, I do not care for continuity. Whoever is best for each role on a given night is given that role on that night. Earn your role. I would explain to Kipnis he struggles against lefties and I need Carlos Santana’s .382 OBP versus left-handed pitching in the lead-off role.
(D) If Lindor keeps up his line drive power, then I would keep him hitting either in the second or third spot. Carlos Santana against lefties and Jason Kipnis against righties would have been my 2015 standard based on results, but I would be open to making adjustments as they became necessary.
(A) I am thinking less of terms of batting order (though a classic power-hitting clean-up hitter in this line-up would certainly be appealing) and more about actual positions on the field. Where are upgrades even possible? Third base. First base. Right Field. Center Field. Would replacing a Gio Urshela with some veteran like a David Freese actually improve the club? Sure, the Yoenis Cespedes thoughts are fun. But ending the “Lonnie Baseball In Right Field” fairy tale would just destroy Bode.
(B) Couldn’t care less about lineup continuity. Everything Michael said. I’d be fine putting out 162 different lineups if they made logical sense against the pitcher going that day.
(C) Kip can lead off. I’ll allow it.
(D) I prefer Lindor hitting second so he can SAC bunt. That’s not even sarcasm. After watching Joe Maddon embarrass the Cardinals in Game 2 of the NLDS on back-to-back safety squeezes, my belief in the power of small ball is only growing stronger. Here’s to American Manufacturing!
(A) I guess my top priority would be a player who has shown he is capable of hitting .300 or somewhere near it (.280 to .300). Career averages in the .230 to .250 range would have me thinking again we should be able to get that out of one of our prospects (who would probably never be accused of playing out the string of his career). Also, I would hope to get a hitter who is capable of transcending the level of platoon player (hits both righties and lefties).
(B) Lots of attention is paid to where players are in the batting order but I think it’s overrated. I agree with Rick Manning. Once through the order in any given game, etc etc etc.
(C and D) Interesting. Put someone in the leadoff position who puts up quality at-bats against both righties or lefties? Or change it around depending on who’s pitching? Bobby Bonds (Barry’s dad), who was a legit 30-30 guy, hit leadoff for the Indians for awhile … my weak-kneed position is: Once Lindor solidifies his credentials, I’d like to see him batting 1st. That’s assuming Brantley is still doing what he does batting third.
10. Doubtless, every Indians fan would like to see a big bopper added to the everyday lineup. Should the Indians pursue a free agent? Should the Indians trade a starting pitcher for somebody to try to fill that role? Should they clone Albert Belle?
Bode: Is there an Albert Belle Jr. yet? I am still angry MLB allowed the Toronto Blue Jays to “Reggie Bush” Vlad Gurrero Jr.
Chris Davis would be great, but I highly doubt the Indians can compete with the offers he will receive. Same with Yoenis Cespedes. Those are the only big bopping free agent talents available this offseason. MLB is going through a power dry spell and teams are locking up their own talent.
I would always be willing to listen to offers, but it would take quite the offer to part with Kluber, Carrasco, or Salazar.
Clayman: I do wonder if the front office eventually reaches a point where it feels pressure to bow to public pressure (and Jason Kipnis’ challenges) to make some “big” moves. It would be against everything Shaponetti stood for historically, but at some point, the business element has to creep into the equation. The Indians are a competitive team with a dwindling, disillusioned fan base. Would bringing in a Davis or Cespedes spark some new enthusiasm? Probably. But then again, another slow April start and you may have shot yourself in the foot financially. More likely that they’ll wait and hope on the Zimmers and Fraziers to emerge than ever ink a top level free agent. And trading any of the starting pitchers, even with a possible mini-surplus at the moment, feels like a Peter/Paul sort of swap that won’t produce the results we’re hoping for.
Pietro: This one makes me nervous. I remember some caller asking Pete Franklin (the father of sports talk radio) if he was starting a team from scratch who, or what kind of player, would be his first choice. Franklin’s answer was a solid-year-after-year, RBI guy, someone who could bat fourth for 8-10 years. He mentioned a guy like Boston’s Jim Rice. Pitchers, Franklin said, were too risky to use your first choice on. Never forgot that. So I think I’m willing to part with a starting pitcher … HOWEVER, it would have to be a significant player who could hit fourth for several years. You want this outstanding young starting pitcher? You gotta pay.
11. In their efforts to add a potent bat in the offseason should the Indians avoid signing another left-handed bat?
Bode: Considering I mentioned Chris Davis above, no. The Indians cannot afford to be too picky. They need to improve wherever they can and they can stand to improve against right-handed pitching anyway.
Clayman: Nolan Reimold is right-handed and clearly makes the most sense. But if he learns to hit lefty over the winter, I wouldn’t consider that a deal breaker.
Pietro: Left-handed hitter or right-handed I want a guy who hits both righties and lefties. But not if he looks like another platoon player. No thanks. Got enough of those.
12. The Indians pitching staff finished second in the AL to the Houston Astros with a team ERA of 3.67. Their starters were fourth with a 3.94 ERA and their relievers were second to the Royals, at 3.12. What kind of changes would you be looking to make in the Indians’ pitching staff in the off season?
Bode: The big question is how the organization views Trevor Bauer. Is Bauer the potential ace he has displayed for several starts in a row? Or, is he a hard-headed kid who gets in his own way (as having 80-pitch bullpens when he was in the actual bullpen that night suggests)? Likely, he is both. But, the Indians need to determine if they trust him to keep developing and treat the Indians as a partner in that development.
On a similar tack, Cody Anderson did not have the best peripheral numbers, so the team will have to assess how much it trusts the raw statistics he contributed.
Clayman: Unlike the offense, would you really have any complaints with the club standing completely pat on the mound? I wouldn’t. Let the six current starters come to camp and see where the chips fall. Someone will likely be hurt before May, so it’s hardly a “problem” to have a little overcrowding. Let Manship see if his magic survives a Cleveland winter. Give Cody Allen his deserved vote of confidence. Will one of this year’s solid bullpen surprises become the Scott Atchison of next season–unreliable and cut by June? Probably. That’s standard operating procedures for bullpens. But for the time being, there is a lot to like. Let it ride.
Pietro: I like what Francona said about Bauer in his final press conference — that Bauer is still a very young guy with an amazingly insightful, analytical mind about pitching and that he was asked to play at a level it took other pitchers, like Kluber, several more years to grow into. It’s hard for me to criticize the Indians’ current approach to their pitching staff, except for their own insecurity about what they’re doing. Every year, it seems, they get a guy like Gavin Floyd who, let’s be honest, was only vying for that 5th starter spot in the rotation. As with position players, I would hope the Indians could use their minor league prospects to fill such of role.
13. Assuming you’re already studying the 2016 free agent class, what do you see there that looks (realistically) enticing?
Bode: Bring back Tony Sipp.
Unrealistically, I have always been an absolutely huge fan of Jason Heyward. He is only 26 years old.
Clayman: Obviously Nolan Reimold is the big name that jumps out at you. There are also several Chris Youngs to be had. More serious options, particularly for the CF gig, could be Gerardo Parra, Austin Jackson, and Denard Span. Matt Joyce is coming off a garbage fire season and he feels like a prototypical Indians spring invitee. Cespedes is the dream you wish you could even manage in your sleep.
Pietro: Yoenis Cespedes, right-handed bat with solid average and power against both righties and lefties. And he’s only 29. Spend your money on him! (Oh, did I say realistically?)
14. At the beginning of the season, some of us lobbied for the use of technology for calling balls and strikes. A.) For those watching on TV, what do you think of ESPN’s routine use of the strike zone graphic? B.) What’s your current take on the advisability of MLB using the technology in games?
Bode: Completely agree. If tennis can use it, then why not MLB? It’s a bit trickier given the strike zone changes for each batter based on height. But, it is a simple calibration. No more lobbying, no more worrying the catcher shaked his glove too much, and just more calls being correct.
Clayman: I’m not necessarily against robot umpires, but I do hate the graphic on ESPN, anyway. It’s solely because it’s distracting when I’m trying to see the catcher’s glove and the plane of the swing. Show me that the call was terrible AFTER the fact, please.
Pietro: I read some very angry, negative comments on the ESPN website, criticizing ESPN’s use of the strike zone during their televised games. Couldn’t understand it at all. What it shows is how often the calls are missed by the umps. Yes, I think it should be used by MLB.
15. And before you go huntin’ and fishin’ this off season, any final thoughts?
Bode: Enjoyed everyone’s work here this season. It was fun reading and discussing the team and hope it continues throughout the offseason. I plan on having a few Indians features from time to time, and hope you all plan some out as well. Have a good off-season fellas (or Fellers).
Clayman: Can’t wait til next spring when the annual return of the Chief Wahoo debate ushers in another baseball season. ‘Til then, it’s been swell.
Pietro: One final thought about Major League Baseball. Imagine if, in the NFL, in games hosted by AFC cities, teams can go for a two-point conversion, but in the NFC, kicking the extra point is the only option. Absurd thought isn’t it? Such is the absurdity of the decades-long status quo with the DH/no DH in the Major Leagues.
Well, as former Indians announcer Jimmy Dudley used to say after every game, “So long, and lotsa good luck, ya heah?