Why Pushing the Panic Button on the Indians Season is Crazy

With ups and downs, the excitement of Michael Brantley’s return and the torture of Edwin Encarnacion’s first 63 plate appearances, the 2017 Cleveland Indians have gotten off to a middling start over the first 14 games. If this happened in June when the Indians were already comfortably above .500, Tribe fans would not notice. Indeed, we would be taking in the beauty of perhaps the best middle infield duo in baseball with Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. Yet, for many reasons, fans are nervous. There are people on edge regarding one of the three or four most talented teams in Major League Baseball. The purpose herein is to dispel this discomfort as deep down inside, we are a little anxious in the early going.

The simplest angle to note is that the Indians are beloved by projection systems. Teams have yet to play even a meager 10% of their games, so the sample size needed to play into those projections has yet to be present. Indeed, baseball’s massive season exists to strip out as much variance or luck as possible in the sample. Such length makes individual games tougher to analyze. With Twitter, sports radio, and a nation that loves football, it is important to emphasize that baseball is a different animal. You have to become comfortable with waiting a significant amount of time and for a significant sample before drawing conclusions or rethinking preconceived expectations. So, if your theory regarding the 2017 season was that the Indians were loaded and en route to a playoff appearance, there is far too small a sample to be shaken from this assertion. If a major injury or suspension occurs a la Starling Marte, one can shift their expectations, but patience with conclusions in baseball is essential.

In order to provide more context regarding what it means for a sample to even out, or to strip the variance, you can look to a few early season indicators.

One of the easy items is run differential. Over the course of the season, a positive run differential has a strong correlation to a winning record.1 The Indians have a middling early run differential at minus-1, but they have basically played to their run differential and their talent projects for significant uptick in run differential. Whereas the Detroit Tigers, first in the American League Central as of this writing at 8-5, have a run differential of -13. The conclusion which can be drawn is that they have won significantly more games than their performance would dictate, and these things have a way of leveling out with some exceptions such as the 2016 Texas Rangers. Pythagorean win-loss and base runs have the Tigers as 5-8 or 6-7. The Tigers team is still aging and there is no need to panic about their early positive start.

Time to turn to BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play). First, BABIP for individuals players is mostly skill-driven with contact quality and speed inputs. However, early in the season, there can be some fluky outcomes which create BABIP outliers.

The Indians pitching staff has the highest BABIP against with runners in scoring position of .395, .13 points higher than the second-highest team. The highest BABIP against in 2016 with runners in scoring position was .319. The Indians can expect positive normalization and more stranded runners moving forward, which leads to better run prevention.  Similarly, the Indians offense in these situations has a .208 BABIP which is fourth worst in Major League Baseball. In 2016, the lowest BABIP in the RISP context was .265. Therefore, cluster luck has adversely plagued the Indians offense early. When hits start to fall or get through with greater frequency, the Indians runs scoring will undoubtedly improve.

As the statistics normalize, the Indians loaded roster will take off and leave early April fears behind.

  1. run differential is quite simply team runs scored – team runs allowed []

  • RGB

    The Tribe also 7-7 at this exact same point last year.

  • mgbode

    Obviously, that means we will lose Game 7 in extra innings again this year because we are not one game better.

    That is how this works, right?

  • RGB

    Yep. Glad that’s settled.
    Now we can get back to the draft.

  • JM85

    7 days..

  • jpftribe

    Santana, Lindor, Ramirez, Allen can carry a team a long way. SP is in decent form for this time of year, Chis and Almonte might be playing the best ball of their careers right now and we have the best pitcher in AAA right now. Hate losing games but far from worried.

  • Eric G

    I can’t believe people still have to be convinced of this. You understand there are 148 more games to be played? ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-EIGHT! But the sky is falling after 14. I am enjoying the “infield show” we’re on right now and am interested to see how Kip is going to fit back in. Good analysis on the differential

  • Natedawg86

    We have a winning record on the road. You keep that up or at least stay over .500 and hit .600 at home, we win 90 games. One thing that would be hard to get over would be an extended losing streak of 5-6 games.

    It is my belief that in MLB, need to stay healthy, and stay around .500 for first month or two and get hot towards the end. We were there last year but just hit the injury bug late and it killed us in the WS. Also, EE has historically been around .220 in April when it is cold. Nothing to worry about there IMO.

  • Eric G

    Have to get a lot of the bounces, too.

  • mgbode
  • jpftribe

    Algo’s don’t watch baseball games.

  • Steve

    This is not unique among baseball fans. The human mind in general has a real hard time deciphering small samples and randomness. Head down to the casino for a better social study.

  • Brandon

    Teets Francona teams rarely have winning records in April. This isn’t any sort of surprise.

    Yes, we’d hope that he would put more urgency into the team, but that’s just how he is. He’s a great manager, but sometimes he bats Santana 2nd for a month, or brings Bauer out for the 6th having struggled thru 100+ pitches.

  • Harv

    agree. He’s so big picture he might even do something crazy like running Swish out there forever or keep starting Yan 2 years after he lost all confidence at the plate. He just loves his guys … is that so wrong?

  • Steve

    Sometimes, yes. He’s paid to be their boss, not their buddy.

  • Harv

    (that wasn’t serious, was a riff on an old Jon Lovitz routine)

  • jpftribe

    As I was saying……