Indians

The Cleveland Indians Have a PR Problem (and They’re Cool With It)

Phil Long/AP

My iPhone wouldn’t power on this past weekend, to my extreme annoyance. When I rolled into at the Apple Store at 5:55 on Saturday, five minutes before my scheduled Genius Bar appointment, several employees, equipped with the cold and empty smiles they’re known for, turned me away. They decided to close early for the weather, but failed to alert scheduled customers. I braved the storm for a coveted sport at the Genius Bar, only to turn right back into the storm, empty-handed. I was enraged at the moment, but in hindsight, caveat emptor; I should have known better. Apple products were once known to be both cutting-edge and stylish, and their customer service was considered top-notch. However, even as their advantage in quality has diminished over the years, their marketing has remained extremely successful. Most Apple stores I’ve been to are packed, often to the detriment of my goals and productivity that day. Apple has a fantastic reputation, and it’s allowed them to continue to attract customers and prosper.

Sports teams don’t have to do nearly as much to attract fans. I’m a Clevelander, so by default, I’ve always been a fan, and importantly to them, a customer of the local teams. When I got into football, the Browns were lousy. When I got into baseball, the Indians were lousy. Nonetheless, a dedicated customer I became, and they’re lucky to have me and those like me (presumably you, the reader).

If I founded a hotel in Portland, it would be out of business in weeks, not months, because there are hundreds of hotels in Portland with established customer bases and with CEOs that presumably know what they’re doing, and I don’t have the first clue. On the contrary, if I founded a Major League Baseball team in Portland, I’m confident that it would thrive financially, simply because a baseball team did not exist in that large pocket of people, and then it would.1 My point is this: compared to normal businesses, sports teams have a huge advantage in attracting customers because of tribalistic sports fan tendencies and a controlled amount of teams that exist.

I know that it’s easier said than done, but starting from this point of advantage means that the PR necessary for most companies to attract people is not necessary for, say, the Cleveland Indians. Good PR may help bring people to the stadium, attract non-baseball fans, or broaden their base into Tigers, Pirates, or Reds territories, but for the most part, all they need to do is exist and meet expectations. And yet, morale among Indians fans is, by my completely unscientific estimation, at a ten year low, this despite six consecutive winning seasons, three AL Central titles, and an AL Pennant three seasons ago.

Clearly, the Indians are not meeting fan expectations, so I thought it may be worth going through what those expectations are, and how the Indians have fared.

Winning

This is obvious, but it isn’t trivial. Winning is obviously the goal that fans hold in the highest regard—flags fly forever! Winning can take several forms (winning the division, going above .500, etc), and it’s not linear. It doesn’t matter how many times a team wins so much as it does matter how much they win relative to outside expectations.

Let’s do a case study:

The Braves and the Indians finished a game apart in the standings. Both teams won their division, and both teams were promptly trounced in the divisional series. Each team is stocked with exciting, dynamic young players who will hopefully dominate the game for the next decade. And yet, the Braves were heralded as an unmitigated success, and the Indians bordered on catastrophe.

Some of the smartest national baseball writers are employed by The Appleman over at Fangraphs. Those very writers selected the Braves to come in fourth place, with nary a vote to make the playoffs. And they weren’t alone: oddsshark.com put the over/under for the 2018 Braves at 74.5 wins. ESPN didn’t even mention the Braves in their 2018 predictions. Even MLB.com’s picks for the 2018 “Cinderella Team”2 had the Braves or Phillies only winning a wild card. No one would have predicted that Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna would play so well, or Johan Camargo would come out of nowhere, or Nick Markakis would have a career year3, but all of those things did happen, making the Braves not only playoff contenders, but also one of the feel-good stories of the MLB season.

Meanwhile, pretty much every source had the Indians winning 90+ games and breezing into the postseason as AL Central champions, partially because the Indians are really good, and partially because the rest of the AL Central is essentially a Major League Baseball cover band.4 This foregone conclusion meant that the Indians would play zero meaningful games during the regular season. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, necessarily, if the team dominated as it should have. But, 91 wins against the worst division in MLB history, coming from a supposed superteam is not a good look.5 And, when the team finally had its fanbase’s full attention, the Indians got embarrassed. This is coming after a season in which Cleveland was arguably the best team in baseball, and two seasons after an AL Pennant and near-triumph in the World Series. Not only was the 2018 season a disappointment in every conceivable way, but it continued a downward trajectory which is no doubt troubling to fans.

Trying to Win

After the Indians lost the 2016 World Series, they did something out of character for them: they made a free agent splash, signing Edwin Encarnacion to a 3 year/$60 million contract, which many considered to be under his true value.6 They didn’t need to improve to continue their success, but they found EE to be a bargain that they simply could not pass up. This was not a PR move, but rather, a savvy roster construction move that helped PR. The reason I can say this with such certainty is that their activity, or should I say inactivity this offseason has made it clear that the front office does not care about PR. Should it have to?

In a vacuum, the Indians roster inarguably has holes, and that’s what the fans see. Each outfield spot projects to be well below average, with left field and right field each rating as bottom three in the MLB. The bullpen, meanwhile, was a major problem last year, and despite some interesting additions to the 2019 relief corps, none of them are close to a sure thing, and fans seem to be taking a “wait and see” approach to them. Meanwhile, they see teams like the Yankees and Brewers signing players that would look awfully nice in red. The big picture is that people see a stunning lack of effort to improve a roster with extremely disappointing 2018 results.

However, we don’t exist in a vacuum.

From the Indians’ front office perspective, the Indians’ peaks are as high as their valleys are low. Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez are each projected to be the best in the MLB at their positions, as is the Indians starting rotation. The AL Central appears to have gotten collectively dosed with a horse tranquilizer. And, oh by the way, the bullpen is quietly projected to be middle of the road, not nearly as terrible as some people think it will be. That’s not even considering the fact that Stars n’ Scrubs rosters (which the Indians officially have) are far easier to improve upon than deeper rosters with fewer stars.

Consider the following hypothetical: there are two teams with the exact same record and position player WAR totals on July 31. Team A has an amazing infield and a terrible outfield, while Team B is solid everywhere but has no true strengths or weaknesses. If Team A wants to improve its roster through a trade, all it needs to do is target an average outfielder, and voila! The roster is significantly improved. If Team B wants to improve, they have to trade for a star, which would be much more costly. By the same token, it’s easier to imagine a replacement-level player achieving a luck- or skill-fueled breakout into “average player” territory than it is to an average player turn into a star. 

All in all, the Indians are projected to win more games than last year and maintain their status as the clear favorite in the AL Central, so from a roster construction standpoint, the front office is undoubtedly satisfied with its position. It’s that very satisfaction, that lack of urgency to improve the roster, that has disheartened fans this offseason, but I urge you to look at the big picture and think about things from the perspective of the front office. Despite its flaws, this is a great team, and with no challengers in the AL Central, it figures to remain a great team for a long time.

PR doesn’t matter as much in sports as it does for other businesses. As it stands, the Indians have a quality product, and the only marketing they need is success. If that happens, the seats of Progressive Field should be as crowded as an Apple Store. Here’s hoping they will be.

  1. I also like to think I would be good at running a baseball team, but I’m sure it’s harder than I’d expect []
  2. Ugh, stop trying to appeal to fans of other sports, MLB! []
  3. and ruined his chance to be the answer to a great trivia question: he had the most career WAR without ever getting an all-star nod or MVP vote []
  4. Keep your eyes peeled for a later series in which I try to turn AL Central teams into contenders. I do not anticipate that it will be easy. []
  5. To be fair, Fangraphs’s BaseRuns metric, which attempts to strip away sequencing and uses just the underlying performances, said the Indians “should” have won 94 games []
  6. Embarrassing Indians Fact: Edwin Encarnacion’s contract is the largest contract ever signed by the Cleveland Indians. Of all of the largest contracts in each franchise’s history, Encarnacion’s remains tied for the smallest with Pittsburgh’s Jason Kendall. Oakland, Kansas City, and Tampa Bay have signed larger contracts than Cleveland. You should be angry about this. []