No disrespect to some of my colleagues, but I have found college football to be somewhat dissatisfying over my adult life. Haters may be quick to suggest that my indifference results directly from my alma mater’s indifference to football or sports in general. It’s true! Part of what makes college football such a rewarding fan experience, presumably, is the feeling of membership. Those in University of Alabama’s community do not tire of lopsided Crimson Tide victories, nor should they. But, to this unbiased observer, college football has become tediously predictable. It’s considered a shocking upset if the No. 10 ranked team in the country defeats Clemson or the Tide. The level of dominance exerted by the top teams unto the bottom ones is what carves games like Michigan’s 2007 loss to Appalachian State into the collective memory. Perhaps eventually there will be a balance of power in college football (spoiler alert: probably not), but, by contrast, it’s inconceivable that such hegemony could even exist in Major League Baseball on the day-to-day level. It’s merely frustrating or eyebrow-raising, certainly not stunning, when a bad team defeats a good team in a single game or series.
Case in point, this past week of Cleveland Indians baseball. Coming into the season, the consensus was that Cleveland was the best team in the AL Central, and the Kansas City Royals were the worst. Coming into the series, Cleveland owned a record of 8-4, and Kansas City had hitherto floundered to a 2-10 mark. Coming into each game, Vegas favored the Indians at -155, -108, and -132, while FanGraphs assessed that the Indians’ chance of victory ranged from 54%-58% during the series. So naturally, the Royals won all three games, and the Tribe dejectedly limped to Seattle, where they’d face the overachieving 13-5 Mariners, who had outscored opponents by over two runs a game. What happened, as you likely know, is that the Indians turned on a dime and won all three games in Seattle. Put it all together, and the Cleveland Indians were swept by the coldest team in MLB, and then they themselves swept the hottest team. That’s baseball for you.
The week was a confounding one for many individuals, too. For instance, the difference in quality between Carlos Carrasco’s two starts this week was so Stark you’d think Winter Is Coming. The results are telling: on April 12, an 8-1 loss, Carrasco survived just two-thirds of an inning while allowing seven* of the nine Royals he faced to reach base and six to score. On 4/17, a 1-0 victory, he dazzled the Mariners over the course of seven scoreless innings, compiling twelve strikeouts against two walks. Accordingly, Carrasco’s underlying performance corroborates those results. In his great outing, the average fastball was 93.4 MPH, and in sum, Mariners whiffed at over 20% of his offerings; in his weak outing, his average fastball was two ticks lower, at 91.5 MPH, and he induced swings and misses on just two of his 28 pitches. It was especially worrisome because steep, sudden declines in velocity are often not mere single game concerns; sometimes, they augur serious injury. It’s reassuring, therefore, to see Carrasco’s velocity bounce back to its normal level, although for what it’s worth Carrasco maintained he felt fine after last Friday’s shellacking.
Kluber’s Kansas City klunker1 considerably clashed with his qualifications. His mean fastball velocity, at 91.5 MPH, was consistent with his prior starts this year, although still diminished from his peak—he sat around 93.5 MPH during his magnificent run of starts to conclude his Award-Winning 2017 campaign. No, the far more wild trend (literally) from Kluber’s Sunday start, which the Tribe would lose, 9-8, concerned his normally-precise command. Just 27 of his 89 pitches (30.3%) were in the strike zone, the second-lowest frequency of any MLB start this year and the lowest of Kluber’s career by 14 percent. This is from the pitcher whose command and poise are so highly regarded around the league that he earned a robot-based nickname. Of course, it’s a fool’s errand to attempt to draw too much information from one performance; even so, Kluber’s meager and erratic start is an oddity, and it’s worth keeping an eye on his command during tonight’s start against Atlanta.
Longball: The Indians’ Offensive Maladies Might Be Behind Them
The Indians are in second from the bottom in offensive production in many important categories.* If you go by wRC+, only the Colorado Rockies have been worse; if you just look at plain-old triple-slash, Cleveland is only marginally ahead of Detroit. They’re hitting the second most infield-flies, behind Colorado, and striking out at the second-highest rate, trailing Toronto. It would be easy to continue, but of course, it’s unnecessary—if you, gracious reader, are reading this article, it is likely you’re aware of the infertility of Cleveland’s bats. Many are anxious about the Indians offense, and rightfully so. Still, last week, I discussed how Roberto Perez’s performance in 2019 and throughout his career hints at offensive upside. In addition, I think two developments, namely Francisco Lindor and regression, will straighten out many of the offense’s woes.
No team in baseball has gotten less production out of a single position than the Cleveland Indians have gotten out of their shortstops, and it isn’t particularly close. The Tribe’s replacements for Francisco Lindor have combined to put up a -38 wRC+ (i.e. 138% below average batting); the next worst position group is the Boston Red Sox’s second basemen at -14 wRC+. Lest any individual player is disparaged too harshly, those anonymous numbers will have to suffice. Needless to say, the Tribe overestimated the offensive capabilities of young Eric Stamets, and the powers that be were either unprepared for that possibility or simply willing to endure it. One can quibble with the Indians’ decision-making and shallow pockets, but those topics are outside my scope. Should you be interested in reading more about that topic, peruse through the countless Indians offseason articles on WFNY and elsewhere.
Regardless, Stamets has been such an outlier at the Major League level that his 48 plate appearances have significantly lugged down the Indians’ offensive numbers as a whole. And what do lazy statisticians do with outliers? Eliminate them, of course! Without considering Stamets, the Indians offense still doesn’t look top-notch, but it certainly paints a less hideous picture. The strikeout rate improves by 2 percentage points, wRC+ goes from 63 to 75, on-base percentage improves by 18 points, and on and on. Honestly, it’s astounding that removing a mere 48 plate appearances can improve the season totals that drastically. To make matters better, the Indians have a real-world method for replacing Eric Stamets that is going to work a hell of a lot better than ignoring him, a solution who goes by Mr. Smile and should be playing shortstop by the time the next weekly recap rolls around…
Francisco Lindor’s red supergiant replacing Stamets’s black hole is going to help mitigate Cleveland’s extreme offensive troubles, but perhaps equally beneficial will be simple regression to the mean. Regardless of one’s belief in the airball revolution, most would agree that hard-hit fly balls are the batted ball type that most leads to power output. (Whether or not it’s best for the game or the most productive strategy for hitters is a separate issue entirely.) The Indians have hit fly balls with an average exit velocity of 94.0 MPH, which is good for fourth in the Major Leagues, just .4 MPH behind the league-leading St. Louis Cardinals. That’s really great! Or it would be, except the Indians have been in the bottom quartile in slugging percentage on those same fly balls. In other words, despite hitting their fly balls harder than most teams, Cleveland hitters have been producing fewer than runs average runs on them. They’ve run into some tough luck.
xStats aid in further illuminating luck. For instance, based on launch angle and exit velocity, xSLG attempts to measure a “deserved” SLG with no luck. Thus, the teams with wider gaps between SLG and xSLG have had more extreme luck. As you’d expect, the Indians have been the third most unlucky team by this measure, which is quickly becoming an April trend. Last season, the Indians had the least luck in the season’s first month. In 2017, they were in the bottom third.2 It’s this author’s opinion that, based on these stats as well as my own keen observation, the poor luck is weather related, that the brisk Cleveland spring that keeps the ball from traveling and dampens the Indians’ power output. The Indians’ offense has been a snore, but a two-headed beast of Francisco Lindor and regression should do wonders for the remainder of the year, helping it climb out of the cellar at least toward the middle of the MLB pack.
Minor Leaguer(s) of the Week
Batting: This was looking like Steven Kwan’s award to lose until Will Benson* made history on Thursday. The Lake County outfielder became the first minor league player to hit four home runs in a game since the 2014 season when Mike Ford accomplished the feat. Lest any Benson haters jump to conclusions about Ford’s ultimate stagnation as a professional baseball player, other recent minor leaguers to accomplish the feat include J.D. Martinez, Javy Baez, and George Springer.
Runner up: Steven Kwan*
Pitching: I know Minor League numbers don’t necessarily indicate future big-league success, and that it’s still way too early to be looking at individual statistics, and it’s especially way too early to be giving half a hoot about minor-league relief pitching statistics. We both know this and yet I cannot bring myself to ignore these feelings any longer. I think I’m in love with Akron RubberDuck’s relief pitcher James Karinchak*, or at least his performance. Karinchak, 23 years of age, whose delivery has been characterized by FanGraphs prospect analysts Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen as both “unique” and “over-the-top,” and whose fastball velocity lent its speed to a Jonah Hill film, has achieved a level of supremacy over these few weeks that it can no longer be overlooked. This past week, he faced seven batters; five of them he struck out. The week before that, he faced 11 batters. Nine of them quietly sat back down after seeing or swinging at strike three. Put it all together and James Karinchak has struck out 78% of the batters he has faced! On one hand, 18 plate appearances is not many, not many at all. But on the other hand, one cannot imagine someone without extraordinary stuff being able to strike out such a high percentage of batters in the upper minors. James, if you ever read this, don’t let this get in your head— I could never forgive myself for over-hyping you and derailing such a promising career.
Runner up: Eli Morgan*
The Look Ahead
After yesterday’s travel day, the Indians will defend their home ballpark against the Atlanta Braves for a three-game weekend set, followed by a two-game set with the lowly Miami Marlins. Finally, the Tribe will host an epic four-game series against their daddies, the Houston Astros.
Have a great weekend, everyone!